Archive for August, 2011

She’s Number 3!

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — About halfway through last week’s controversial elections in two St. Petersburg municipalities, the state television channel Rossiya showed up to election precinct No. 1348 to film the proceedings. The young TV reporter buttonholed a tall young man with a dim face and a pink shirt — an election observer sent by the ruling party, United Russia.

“So,” said the reporter. “We just need you to stand here and say everything is going well.”

“Everything is going well,” said the election observer. “We are very pleased with the high turnout.”

In fact, everything was going swimmingly, both for the observer and his candidate, the former governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko. As the other United Russia observers chastised reporters for talking and tried to keep photographers away from the voting booth, Matviyenko was just a few hours away from winning representation to the municipal council in a landslide.

Why would the governor of Russia’s second city, one of the most recognizable politicians in the country, demote herself to the municipal level? Simple, really: The election is the first move in a Kremlin-orchestrated backdoor promotion for Matviyenko. Now that she’s won the seat, she’s eligible to replace Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the Federation Council (the Russian senate, whose members are chosen from among elected regional officials only — that is, not governors). This will make her the No. 3 politician in Russia, the person with access to the nuclear buttons should Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin become incapacitated.

In the upside-down world of Russian politics, Matviyenko’s upcoming promotion, expected to be finalized by September, will be richly deserved. Over eight years of controversial, bullheaded rule, Matviyenko polarized this exceptionally educated, cosmopolitan city. In 2003, she was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Three years ago, her approval rating was 35 percent; this July, it had nearly halved, to 18 percent — and this during a time when St. Petersburg was being resuscitated by rising oil revenues.

Matviyenko largely spent her time antagonizing her subjects. At the end of 2006, she signed the city onto a joint project with Gazprom to build the Okhta Center, a glass stalagmite that was to reach over 1,300 feet into the city’s firmament. Unfortunately for Gazprom and Matviyenko, the proposed plan was taller than the city’s limit on vertical construction (a la Washington, D.C.) — by 1,150 feet. St. Petersburgers proved surprisingly tied to the historical architecture of their city. Opposition to the project brought thousands into the streets, in one of the most organized and powerful — and one of the very, very rare — lasting Russian civil society movements of the past decade. Last fall, Matviyenko had to give in and agreed to move the project to a new location where the tower wouldn’t violate the city’s neo-classical skyline.

Since then, she has been involved in other controversial construction projects, including a posh $100 million judo center for the Yawara-Neva Judo Club, of which Putin happens to be the honorary president. There was the Sea Façade, a public-private venture to build an expensive complex of ports for which the city government — rather than the private investors — bears much of the risk. Then there was the project to renovate the famous Kirov Stadium, the costs of which mysteriously balloon every year. Add to that the utter inability of the city to deal with heavier-than-expected snowfalls last winter — and the more-deadly-than-usual icicles, which dropped into strollers. Meanwhile, Matviyenko’s son Sergey grew so fabulously wealthy in such a short period of time that many suspect him of cashing in on his mother’s connections.

So why is this woman about to become the speaker of the senate? In fact, this is the Kremlin’s way of putting her out to pasture. It’s hard to recall a time when the Federation Council has ever voted against any legislation; it’s also hard to name a single person in the council, but easy to recall why they land there: Many regional elites, given their storied, shady pasts, can hardly do without the immunity this post offers them.

Matviyenko is perfect for a Federation Council spot, and the untouchability it confers, because she has become an albatross around United Russia’s neck. Her publicly available poll numbers may be low, but according to two people familiar with the much more thorough secret internal polls commissioned by the Kremlin, the real figures are even lower.

“The people in the mayor’s office are walking around with eyes like dinner plates,” said a St. Petersburg source with access to the polls. “United Russia is panicking.” Why? Because her polls mirror United Russia’s fall from public favor across the country. Kremlin polls are said to put the party’s average nationwide approval ratings at below 50 percent. In St. Petersburg and other urban areas, it’s even lower, around 30 percent.

This is bad. United Russia has big parliamentary elections coming up in December. Three months later, either Putin or Medvedev (probably the former) have to be swept convincingly into power, without too much outcry about election fraud. Matviyenko has the real potential to fumble the parliamentary elections in the second-most-important Russian city, and she is inexorably tied to her mentor, Putin. She simply had to go.

But how? The very reason she needed to be moved — her unpopularity — would make it hard for her to get elected virtually anywhere. Matviyenko and her Kremlin backers, however, proved up for the challenge.

First, there need to be an election for her to win, so a few local deputies in four municipalities were encouraged to resign, automatically triggering new elections to replace them. Through a sneaky set of misdirections, Matviyenko then forced all potential opponents out of the race by not allowing anyone to figure out where she was actually planning to run until the 30-day period for registering candidacy had expired. United Russia officials told reporters that Matviyenko would run in the Lomonosov municipality, and the opposition began registering candidates there. Then, on July 31, Matviyenko announced she was running in two other precincts: Petrovsky and Krasnenkaya Rechka. By that point, the registration for other candidates was already closed. The candidates who did end up listed on the ballot against her appeared to be United Russia plants; one was a retired coat check worker who had been away from St. Petersburg for months at her dacha.

“You can’t call this an election,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a local reporter for Novaya Gazeta and a member of the national council of the liberal Yabloko party. “That would be like saying, OK, we’re going to have the World Cup but we’re not going to announce when it is or who’s participating in it. When we do, the only game will be between the national team of England and some unheard of country where no one even knows what soccer is. You call that a World Cup?”

There were other bizarre happenings, too. Former prime minister and opposition heartthrob Boris Nemtsov decided to go to St. Petersburg to campaign in the municipalities where Matviyenko was running. He canvassed apartment buildings and handed out fliers telling people to spoil their ballots (in a Russian election, if 40 percent of ballots can’t be read, the vote is moot). He was quickly arrested; apparently, it had been made illegal to campaign against — rather than for — candidates.

When he was released a few hours later, he was attacked by activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who pelted him with rocks and eggs. Nemtsov and his colleagues jumped into a car and sped away, at which point they were stopped by two cop cars. According to Nemtsov, the police waited to approach Nemtsov until Nashi had caught up. That’s when the police asked Nemtsov to get out of the car — and into the line of egg-fire. When Nemtsov refused, he was arrested again — the second time within 24 hours. As the police lead him away, a crowd of old women materialized by the side of the road, rained down abuse on Nemtsov, and praised the poor, defenseless Matviyenko. Local bloggers later identified one of them as the same babushka who had tearfully thanked the departing governor at a recent public appearance. Coincidence? Probably not.

“After we were arrested, the police flooded the building we had been canvassing,” Nemtsov told me later, safely ensconsed in a Moscow café. “It was a 15-floor building, and they put a cop on each floor. They weren’t letting people back into the building and started questioning everyone about the flyers.” He took a sip of his fresh-squeezed celery juice and added, “All the people in the building probably didn’t care about the elections before, but I’m pretty sure that now they’ll go out and vote against Matviyenko!”

Whether they did or not, we likely won’t ever know, since there were no independent election observers allowed into the election precincts this past Sunday. Nor was anyone allowed into the office of the municipal election committee. In election precinct No. 1348, in the Petrovsky municipality, local United Russia boss Vyacheslav Makarov stormed into the office and blared commands at the United Russia observers. “Look at what you have going on here!” he bellowed. “Look at all these — these — journalists!” He said the last word as if it were quite a dirty one. “Get them out of here!”

Makarov, a former colonel in the Russian military, probably got used to hollering commands back when he was an instructor at a nearby military academy. And all day, the trickle of voters into this precinct all looked strangely alike: perfect posture, buzzed hair, a martial step. Despite their civilian clothing, it was clear who they were: cadets from the same academy, which has a storied history of marching out its students to participate in elections, always for United Russia. It wasn’t surprising when the Petrovsky municipality delivered 95.6 percent for Matviyenko.

In Krasnenkaya Rechka, the other municipality, the voting was accompanied by music, as well as free souvenir snapshots and medical exams for people who voted. Most of them voted for Matviyenko, either because they didn’t know the other candidates or because they felt her victory was inevitable. “It doesn’t really matter,” said Tatyana Sedova after she cast her ballot. “You can’t do anything against the state. We’re just regular people; they’ve already decided everything for us.”

Another voter, who didn’t give her name, said she voted for Matviyenko because the governor had the elevator in her building painted gray. “And gray is my favorite color.”

Observers weren’t given much access at this municipality either, and I was kicked out of the precinct along with a Russian reporter because he had the temerity to sit on the floor, something that was not on the short list of what journalists are explicitly allowed to do during elections.

“It’s not very nice,” one police officer told him. Another added that they were kicking him out for his own good: “What if you sit on the floor and catch a cold and get prostatitis?”

In the end, the unexpected didn’t happen there either. Matviyenko swept Krasnenkaya Rechka with 94.5 percent of the vote, and announced the next day that she was taking off for Moscow to join the political retirement home known as the Federation Council.

Her replacement in Petersburg for now — and likely for the future — is a man named Georgy Poltavchenko, a top-ranking bureaucrat known for his faceless, diplomatic efficiency in dealing with unruly colleagues. In this, Matviyenko’s departure resembles that of another celebrity Russian mayor with inexplicably rich relatives: Yury Luzhkov. Luzhkov, who was unceremoniously booted from office last September, was also replaced by a quietly loyal, anonymous bureaucrat. There was no chance that his replacement, Sergey Sobyanin, would ever upstage Putin — and there’s no chance that Poltavchenko will either. And now that the last of the outsized mayors has made her departure, that stage is increasingly Putin’s for the taking.

As for Matviyenko, she had one matter to see to before leaving office: For her highly characteristic final act as governor, she handed over a big chunk of city land to Alla Pugacheva, Russia’s original diva and the country’s answer to Cher, Barbara Streisand, and Elizabeth Taylor. Pugacheva, who looks not unlike like Matviyenko, has plans to build a theater named after herself. Matviyenko, known for cutting generous development deals at the city’s expense, sold the land to Pugacheva’s consortium for 39 million rubles. Experts say its value is at least 10 times that. Rumored to be connected to the project? Matviyenko’s son, Sergey.

She’s Number 3! [FP]

Russia’s Cruellest Month

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Every August, Russians wait for history, and they are rarely disappointed. On August 31, 1996, Russia wrapped up its disastrous first war against the breakaway Chechen Republic. The ceasefire wouldn’t last long, because exactly three years later, on August 31, 1999, a bomb ripped through a Moscow shopping mall, killing one and injuring forty. It would be the first of five bombings—and hundreds of casualties—and it would trigger the second, still somewhat unfinished war in the region. On August 17, 1998, the Russian government devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debt, ushering in a long and painful economic crisis. On August 12, 2000, the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea. While Moscow tried to cover up the disaster, everyone on board died. (“It sank,” Vladimir Putin said when Larry King asked him what happened.) On August 8, 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, an unthinkable scenario given the twentieth-century love affair between the two Soviet republics. Last August, much of Russia’s forests caught fire, and a thick blanket of pungent smoke covered Moscow for days, which, along with the anomalous heat, killed off many of the city’s elderly. Something catastrophic happens almost every year. It’s no wonder that Wikipedia has an entry for Russia’s August Curse. October and February, the months of the Revolutions, were once the notorious months, but, in post-Soviet Russia, August has trumped them all.

So far this year, August has been mercifully disaster-free. Instead, Russians are left to ponder the biggest August event of them all, the very event that launched the Curse twenty years ago: the attempted coup d’etat by hardliner Communists on August 19, 1991. On that day, a gang led by the head of the K.G.B., the Soviet defense minister, and the Russian Vice-President Gennady Yanaev formed an Emergency Committee and trapped Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union, at his residence in the Crimea. (August is also the time when Russians, perhaps not coincidentally, go on vacation.) Fearing that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse (it was) and that Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian President, was pushing the process along (he was), the K.G.B. cut off all communication to the dacha, ordered two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of handcuffs to deal with the mounting protests in Moscow, and sent tanks and special forces into the city. The attempted coup failed peacefully, and that was the first nail in the coffin of the U.S.S.R. Four months later, on Christmas Day, the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor went up in its place.

It was a momentous day, a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism, of peaceful protest over tanks and guns, of American values over the latent evil of the Soviet system. Yeltsin was the hero, the knight who mounted a tank and called on his people to resist the reactionary forces of Communism. In the coup’s aftermath, Yeltsin scored a nearly sixty-per-cent approval rating, a number registered by the new science of polling Russians’ opinions. And the victory, people felt, belonged to them: fifty-seven per cent of respondents said that “the people’s resistance” was the primary reason for the failure of the coup.

It’s been downhill from there. Poor Yeltsin’s approval rating never got above a third, and he ended his presidency, in December, 1999, with ninety per cent of his countrymen disapproving of him. By 1994, only seven per cent would see the events of August, 1991, as the victory of democracy, while fifty-three per cent would see it as “just another struggle for power among the higher echelons of the state”—which is how Russians have viewed any goings on behind the walls of the Kremlin. Just three years after the failed coup delivered the mortal wound to the Soviet behemoth, twenty-seven per cent of Russians would see it as “a tragic event, which had fatal consequences for the country and the people.” Today, that number stands at thirty-nine per cent. Half of today’s Russians think that, starting on that day, the country began its inexorable course in the wrong direction.

Hard to blame them, really: since that fateful day, Russia has spent twenty years trying to chart a course out of a past that didn’t bode too well for its future. It hasn’t helped, of course, that the country decided not to deal with its past at all, thereby allowing certain abuses and mistakes to repeat themselves in ever more absurd reincarnations. It has gone through several severe economic crises—the last of which hit about two weeks too late, on September 15, 2008. These have repeatedly wiped out the savings of millions, a phenomenon from which Russians have learned one lesson: spend, spend, spend. Living conditions deteriorated, birth rates plummeted, able-bodied men dropped like flies. Russia went through a period of the rapacious capitalism of pyramid schemes and robber-baron oligarchy, and it went through a wildly corrupt process of privatizing Soviet property. This cleaved society into a Bolshevik caricature of capitalism: extreme Porsches and extreme poverty.

Politically, the country zigged and zagged—from too many parties, in the early nineties, to one meaningless party today—but the vector has generally steered Russia toward the centralization of power in the hands of one strong leader: Vladimir Putin. How did this happen? Despite the myriad mistakes of the first post-Soviet decade, that period did see the beginnings of a free and vibrant media, and some real, contentious politicking. To eliminate this, Putin surgically marginalized any opposition and created his own nomenklatura. For the rest, he wove a useful myth of “stability,” that special brand of happiness that only he—and stratospheric oil prices—could provide. Not surprisingly, the dark image of the nineties came from Putin’s spinmeisters, who have produced a catchy, oft-repeated meme: “likhie devyanostye.” It’s a phrase that means “the carefree nineties,” but to a Russian it evokes chaos, violence, self-destruction, and lawlessness. It is, in other words, the total opposite of Putin.

And that’s where the psychological part of the history comes in. Putin, who had his K.G.B. career broken off in full bloom by the events of August, 1991, still has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being one of the soldiers who lost the Cold War, and his eleven-year reign has had a strong element of Soviet kitsch: he restored the Soviet national anthem, promoted Stalin as “an effective manager,” and repeatedly bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Increasingly, his party, United Russia, has come to resemble the party he served as a young man and the party that tried to take back the reins in August, 1991: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

If you are a Russian under twenty years old, Putin has been your leader for over half of your life. When a man like that rules your country and its media and its textbooks for most of the time you’ve been alive, you’re bound not to know much about the event that was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to him.

And so it is. According to a state-owned pollster, if you are a Russian between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, fifty-five per cent of you will draw an utter blank when asked to evaluate the significance of August 19, 1991. Seven per cent of you will say that Gorbachev was one of those who defended Russia from the putsch, which isn’t quite true, but it doesn’t really matter since sixty-eight per cent won’t be able to name a single name, which makes saying “Gorbachev” not half bad.

And if you’re an older Russian, say, thirty-five and up, you’ll be pretty evenly split among three camps: the ones who see August, 1991, as a tragedy; the ones who see it as “just another struggle for power among the higher echelons of the state”; and the ones who can say nothing at all. Which, if you’ve lived through twenty Augusts in the new Russia, is not half bad either.

Russia’s Cruellest Month [TNY]

Surreal Politik

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

It’s been a busy summer in Russia, electorally speaking. The malaise and tea-leaf reading of the spring have started to dissipate as the December parliamentary elections and the March presidential elections draw near. Powerful constituencies have emerged, and they’ve been lobbying hard for their interests and their candidates. Best of all? They are really, really hot.

First came Putin’s Army. It was led by Diana, a self-proclaimed college student in vertiginous heels and cleavage to match, a girl who claimed to have “lost my mind for a person who has changed the life of our country. He’s a good politician and a fabulous man.” That man, shockingly, was Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, and decider of the question of the year: Will he change his status from “basically in charge” back to “officially in charge”? While Putin spends his time deciding whether he or current President Dmitry Medvedev will become president (for six years) in 2012, Putin’s Army has not shied from making its feelings very clear. Last month, Diana and the girls of Putin’s Army announced a contest to “Tear it up for Putin!” — “it” being, say, your shirt — a contest in which you can win an iPad, even if you can’t win Putin’s election for him. Putin’s Army even had an official draft day in the center of Moscow, where two dozen young ladies, wearing teensy undershirts printed with Putin’s face in pop-art pink, gathered to parade on a makeshift catwalk and draft other soldiers to their cause.

Medvedev’s supporters, however, were not to be left behind. They formed an army, too — an army of three — called it Medvedev’s Girls, and came out to another square in central Moscow with a different gimmick. In support of Medvedev’s anti-beer initiative, they asked the strollers-by: “Choose beer or us!” What this meant in practice was that people could dump their beers into waiting buckets, and, for each beer dumped, Medvedev’s Girls would dump an article of clothing.

Then there’s “I Really Do Like Putin,” which staged a bikini car wash in Moscow to support the premier. If that didn’t convince undecided Russian voters, the group’s next event definitely didn’t. On Monday, it held a Tandem Ride with Medvedev’s Girls. They paired off on tandem bikes and cycled around Moscow. (This, mind you, was not in order to express support for the two-man tandem presidency of Putin and Medvedev, but because Putin promised Nashi, the Kremlin-made youth group, that he would lose a pound and learn how to ride a tandem bike with Medvedev.)

And then there’s my personal favorite, a music video by the group Girls for Putin. The video ends with a bang — the smashing of a watermelon with a baseball bat — but it’s more a pastiche of black panties, Jack Daniels, and tears of heartbreak, fitting for a raging rock ballad called “I Want to be Your Koni.”

“I want to be your Koni / on the table and on the balcony,” the girls sing. Koni, in case you’re wondering, is Putin’s beloved black Labrador.

It’s funny, this stuff, and yet it betrays something deeper even than the predominance of sex in Russian public life or in Russian youth politics. That part is obvious: Sex sells. More important is what this says about the current incarnation of the Russian political system.

When the Kremlin created Nashi, the first of its youth groups, in 2005, Russia — rightly or wrongly — felt under attack. The so-called Color Revolutions had swept through one former Soviet republic after another, bringing — in Russia’s perception — American influence right into its backyard. George W. Bush had started a war with Iraq, Russia’s long-time, lucrative ally, and lectured Moscow on democracy and human rights.

Russia itself, although no longer the hobbled post-Soviet country of just a few years before, was still in transition. The power vertical — the political system in which all power flows to and from Vladimir Putin — was still under construction, a relatively easy task given Russians’ bewilderment at the version of democracy they experienced in the 1990s. Any real opposition in parliament had been routed in the previous two election cycles, and yet there were still burblings of discontent.

Hence, Nashi. Formed to engage an otherwise apathetic youth luxuriating in new oil profits, the group protested and agitated, it spoke of “sovereign democracy” and Russia’s territorial integrity, it terrorized opposition journalists. Its members were brainwashed, yes, and they certainly weren’t going to do anything — the Kremlin guards the levers of power closely — but they were well-trained and they were keenly political. Even though the Kremlin was just gesturing at issues politics, in other words, at least they were gesturing.

Six years later, the country has far more on its plate than a sanctimonious U.S. president: monumental corruption, creeping stagnation, mounting ethnic tensions, a breakdown of safety oversight for civilian transportation systems, a stumbling reform of the rapidly decaying military, continued insurgency in the North Caucasus, continued dependence on resource extraction, an atrophied industrial sector, moribund and corrupt education and health systems. There is a lot of work to be done, and therefore, a lot to talk about.

And yet, somehow, with only four months to go until the Duma elections, and seven months until Russians elect a president, we are not hearing anything about it. All we get from the two supposed candidates for president is how and when they will make the decision to even run. Since they haven’t announced even that, speculating on the issue is the only issue this election season. Even at this year’s Nashi youth retreat — not perhaps a bastion of substance, but at least, in past years, a chance to bang on about solving the country’s problems — the emphasis was on things accomplished, not on future tasks. And youth politics more generally have devolved into a parody of a latter-day Britney Spears video. One would be a fool to even suggest a comparison between Russia and the United States, but shouldn’t even a simulacrum campaign season have at least simulacrum campaign issues?

We don’t even have those. Instead it’s a fake party here, a staged election stunt there, and all around the ceaseless chatter of anonymous sources “tipping off” journalists that Putin has finally made up his mind one way or the other.

Until Putin announces his historic decision and some level of reality on this very unreal question enters the campaign, we can either spend our time tearing our hair out guessing and twisting — or we can relax, forget about the mess that is the Russian economy and political system, and enjoy the fluff that has come to replace even the mirage of an election campaign. Because there is lots to be done. We can, for example, ogle the nubile young loyalists, we can watch in amazement as Putin, on his third scuba dive ever, magically pulls up a sixth-century Greek urn (and happens to have an archaeological expert right there to identify it), and we can marvel at the refreshing honesty, the release in acknowledging that, much to the relief of Russians rattled by their brief, post-Soviet taste of democracy, that finally, there are no more politics in Russia.

Surreal Politik FP]

Russia and Georgia, Three Years Later

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Monday marked the anniversary of the day that Russia and Georgia went to war, distracting the world from the Beijing Olympics for five spectacularly confusing days. And yet, three years later, little is clear about how the war got started, how it played out, what legacy it left behind, or even what to call it. And so the two sides spent the third anniversary clawing for control of the conflict’s narrative.

Russian state television offered a characteristically unsubtle take, showing a memorial service in the South Ossetian city of Tskhinval. Weeping Ossetians sent white balloons to the heavens and lit candles spelling out “we remember” on the pavement, as the reporter’s voice explained that this was the mourning of “the victims of Georgian aggression.” “They were killed simply because the President of Georgia said so,” the correspondent said. He wondered when these “criminals would get their just desserts.”

But things, of course, were not that simple. Tskhinval is the Russified, post-war version of the city’s original name, Tskhinvali. It was in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, a disputed region in north-central Georgia where the Ossetian minority lived among ethnic Georgians, that the war began. Georgians started shelling the city close to midnight on August 7, 2008, according to an E.U. report issued a year later. The city came under heavy fire, from both Georgian and Russian forces, and much of it was levelled. In that first spat of combat, two Russian peacekeepers were killed. As Tskhinvali passed from Russian to Georgian to Russian control, the body count fluctuated: the Russians cried genocide, saying that some two thousand South Ossetians had been killed by the retreating Georgians; the Georgians said it was more like two hundred, and that it was Georgians who were chased out of the region by Ossetian militiamen; the Europeans said it was something closer to eight hundred. (The European report also dismissed Russian allegations of genocide, and Human Rights Watch said the death toll had been greatly exaggerated.)

At the time, a chorus of American voices—led by George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, and Joe Biden—condemned Moscow for its aggression. “My friends, we have reached a crisis, the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War,” McCain said at a campaign stop in Aspen that August. “This is an act of aggression.” But whose aggression, exactly? Georgia had been provoked—Russia had long been stoking the fires in the region, nursing the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and, in the run-up to the war, was handing out Russian passports to residents there. But Georgia, perhaps expecting support from Washington, did shoot first.

The war wrapped up with a ceasefire agreement on August 12, 2008, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia became independent states. Georgia had lost about a quarter of its territory and suffered a humiliating military defeat: Russian tanks were bearing down on the capital, Tbilisi, when France was finally able to separate the two brawlers.

But when Nicolas Sarkozy brokered an end to the fighting, it was exactly that: a cessation of armed conflict. Three years after the guns-down order, little has been resolved, and the area has returned to its familiar state of frozen conflict. South Ossetia and Abkhazia may be formally independent, but so far they have only been recognized Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and, apparently, the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. They are also full of Russian troops, and yesterday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev introduced legislation allowing “unified” military bases in the region—that is, Russian-run.

Russia and Georgia, meanwhile, are still not on speaking terms. Georgian wine, once a great delicacy here, is still banned in Russia; refugee camps still stretch to the horizon in patches of Georgian countryside; and though direct flights between the two capitals have recently been restored, it is still difficult—procedurally and psychologically—to get a visa from one to the other. (If the hefty price tag won’t get you, the harassment on arriving from such a flight in Moscow might.) Russia refuses to acknowledge Saakashvili’s existences and has repeatedly and openly stated that it will not have anything to do with a Georgia run by him. For his part, Saakashvili—mercurial, charismatic, Western-educated—has used Georgia’s underdog status to his fullest advantage, making sure that Russia’s reputation abroad remains that of a villain and doing everything in his power to slow Russia’s long-overdue accession to the W.T.O. He also continues to stoke fear of Russia at home. Last spring, a Georgian television station aired a twenty-minute breaking-news broadcast: Russia, it said, was invading again. Russia had not invaded, however. The footage was from 2008, and Joe Biden had to get on the phone and box Saakashvili’s ears for the stunt.

It is not surprising, then, that the two countries, once culturally enamored of one another, are still fighting over who started it, and why. In a post commemorating the war’s anniversary, the blogger Sukhumi, named for the capital of the now independent Abkhazia, published a long post rebutting eight myths of the war. “Myth No. 3,” he writes, “Russia started the war in order to defend its peacekeepers.” (Other myths he disproves: “Russia started the war to end the genocide of Ossetians”; “Russia started the war to defend its citizens”; “Georgian troops fled shamefully.”)

The mainstream Russian media is happy to let bloggers on both sides pore over the details. It’s focussed on broader messages: Georgian aggression, Ossetian genocide, Russia as the only moral force in the region. On Monday, Russian television showed Medvedev awarding Russia’s highest military honor to the special forces that beat back the Georgians, and Russian papers wrote about the war’s military heroes and Russia “drawing a red line” in defense of its citizens.

Hoping to rile up a population whose doubts about the official line seem to be increasing, the Kremlin has been dishing out some of its finest quotes since Putin talked of stringing Saakashvili up by his nether-regions. Late last week, President Dmitry Medvedev gave an interview to three Russian news outlets to mark the war’s anniversary. While talking about “diplomatic efforts, negotiations, and the willingness to listen to one another,” Medvedev made sure to speculate as to what was going through Saakashvili’s “inflamed brain” in the summer of 2008, and to suggest that it was time to get the man “tried in front of an international tribunal for unleashing the war in Tskhinvali.” Medvedev continued: “Hundreds of our citizens were killed on his orders, including Russian peacekeepers. I will never forgive him for that, and I will not speak to him.” He added that Saakashvili “winks” at him in the couloirs of world power. Medvedev, true to his word, said he ignores these advances.

Medvedev spoke also of the “elderly” U.S. senators who, on July 29th, unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Russian troops to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to give those regions back to Georgia. Capitol Hill tends to get its information on the region from Georgia, and, perhaps in recognition of this, Medvedev said, of Congress, “This is a foreign parliament. I don’t care about it.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also used the anniversary of the war as an occasion for name-calling, declaring Saakashvili “a pathological case, an anomaly among the Georgian people.” (Anomaly or not, the majority of them support him.) He went on to call the Georgian President ill-mannered. Saakashvili’s press service said such comments “cynically justify the ethnic cleansing that the Russian Federation carried out against the Georgian Nation.” And Saakashvili, more politician than diplomat, said, in an interview on Moscow’s Ekho Moskvy radio station, that the war between Russia and Georgia “is not over from the Russian side because I can practically say that Russia doesn’t recognize the peace agreement and officially wants to overthrow our government.”

Well, there’s always next year.

Russia and Georgia, Three Years Later [TNY]