Archive for April, 2013

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Shortly after Barack Obama finished his press conference after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dramatic apprehension last night, a Russian newspaper reported that the president did not mention the “Russian footprint” in his address. There was almost a note of relief in the report, which came after a day spent by Russian and Chechen officials (though Chechen officials are also Russian officials) batting that footprint away from their doorstep, or denying that one even exists. “We don’t know the Tsarnaevs,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, said. “They never lived in Chechnya, they lived and studied in America.” In this, Kadyrov found himself in strange company, with people among the liberal opposition who also wondered what Russian footprint anyone was even talking about. “Chechnya?” one Russian journalist told me. “They’re Americans, they’ve been in America since childhood!”

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that the Russian president had been appraised of the situation as it unfolded, struck a slightly different note, however, and it was one of “we told you so.” “Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others. They all deserve the same approach, the same rejection.” This was a reference to America’s vocal defense of the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, as well as to the rebels in Libya and Syria—where fighters from the North Caucasus often turn up. To Putin, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists, the Salafis and Wahabis, Hamas and the Free Syrian Army are all one. It is why he can be friendly both with Bibi Netanyahu and with Bashar al-Assad: He feels their pain, he fights their fight at home. In fact, his presidency was baptized by the fire of domestic terrorism and war against an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. His subjects and his capital have been attacked many times, most recently in March 2010, when two young women from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour.

Putin has spoken gruffly and scatalogically about terrorists, and he has no patience for them. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said back in 1999, when he was just a pale and unassuming former KGB officer beginning the Second Chechen War. “If they’re in the airport, we’ll get them in the airport. That means, you’ll have to excuse me, if we find them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.” One Russian political analyst said, “Russia has long warned the Americans that flirting with various separatist and terrorist organizations of the North Caucasus would not lead to anything good.”

The we-told-you-so resonated with Russians, albeit in different ways. A graphic that went viral on the Russian-language internet showed that now infamous black-and-white photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the following text, printed in big block letters: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.” Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics next year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is perilously close to the still smoldering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. (The decision to have the Olympics there was, at the time, criticized for this lack of foresight.) Others, among them the nationalist guerilla new-media entity known as Sputnik & Pogrom sent out this graphic into the Internet ether. “Enjoy the freedom fighters, America,” it says. “Chechens are no rebels, Chechens are terrorists.” (Sputnik & Pogrom later released a more helpful graphic, to set Chechens—“Mostly Muslim, gave the world [terrorist Shamil] Basaev and Tsarnaev”—apart from Russians—“Mostly Christian or atheist, gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” “Know the difference,” it declares.)

There has, however, been a lot of interest both in the suspect’s family—the Russian press was the first to track down Antsor Tsarnaev, the father—and in the Hollywood-style chase, even on the state-controlled channels. The crowds in Boston cheering their police force made for an especially odd piece of theater. Russians look with suspicion on their law enforcement agencies—deservedly so—and they usually deal with Chechens in a way that doesn’t resemble a classic action flick. The Russians usually storm the place in a take-no-prisoners way, intentionally and unintentionally kill a bunch of people, and retire back to their mysterious caverns, leaving the public to ponder what the hell just happened.

But as much as Russians have distanced themselves from the attack, or have scolded the politically correct Americans for dealing with the bad guys with kid gloves, this has been an odd moment of bonding for the two countries at a time when Russian-American relations are at yet another low point. I never thought I’d agree with Alexei Pushkov on something—he is the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-American head of the Duma’s foreign policy committee and a frequent and virulent commenter on state TV—but I do now. In a statement, he said that he sees no reason for the Russians and Americans to fight over the Tsarnaev brothers. “American citizens are members of Al Qaeda, they fight in Pakistan, they fight in Afghanistan against NATO and against other Americans,” he said. “And therefore, if some citizens of Russia—and we still have to clear up if they’re citizens of Russia, or not—participate in some kind of global terrorist activity, I don’t see any reason for this to cause a crisis of [Russian-American] political ties.”

What he means is, Russians don’t see terrorists as having national identities, really. Their only identity is terrorist, their only allegiance—terror. “The U.S. actively supported Al Qaeda in the struggle against the USSR, and then bin Laden began to kill Americans; it supported terrorists in Libya, and then they killed the American ambassador; it supported Chechen separatism, and now these terrorists are beginning to blow up Americans,” Sergei Markov, another loyalist hawk, pointed out. “I will not be surprised if these terrorists arrived in the U.S. on the basis of some program of assistance to Chechen political refugees ‘from Russian repression.’” The Russians feel that they know this like no one else in the world, and terrorism is a real and smarting wound in Putin’s worldview. This is why Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9/11, and why he offered, in the wake of the Boston bombing on Monday, to aid Obama in the investigation. It’s also probably why the two got on the phone last night, and why Putin’s spokesman said the countries’ intelligence services will be in touch. Putin understands the terror of terrorism, he feels Obama’s pain. After all, his own presidency was born of it.

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings [TNR]

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Friday morning, America woke up to Chechnya. Two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had become suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, gunned down an MIT cop, and, in the ensuing chase, turned Boston into an eerily quiet war zone. Suddenly, everyone needed a primer on Chechnya, on the wars there, on its connections to Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army—despite the fact that we don’t know whether their alleged acts were motivated by ideology. “Now everyone, they play with the word Chechen,” their uncle Ruslan Tsarni fumed at the press scrum outside his Maryland home. “They put a shame on the entire ethnicity.”

But the Tsarnaev story—at least as I see it now—is not about Chechnya. Or, rather, it is only about Chechnya insofar as it is a story about the wanderings of the Chechen people writ very, very small.

The Chechens are an ethnic group from the mountains of the North Caucasus, a small neck of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. When the Imperial Russian army invaded at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia’s writers began to romanticize the place, a land of severe mountains, full of quiet, dark-eyed maidens and proud, ruthless warriors against Russian conquest. Tolstoy, who was once stationed in the region, wrote about their eternal struggle against the Russians in Hadji Murat, as did Pushkin, who went there in exile, in Prisoner of the Caucasus. They describe a society that fetishizes masculine honor and violence, skill with one’s horse and one’s sword. The fact that the region now produces international wrestling and martial arts stars is not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was as devout a boxer as he was Muslim and that Dzhokhar, 19, was an all-star wrestler in high school. Nor is it a coincidence that they faced off against the authorities, and that Tamerlan died in a hail of bullets.

Russian orientalism ended, however, when a guy from Chechnya’s next-door neighbor, Georgia, came to power in 1928: Joseph Djugashvili, or, as we know him, Stalin, knew how to end the aspirations for independence among the Caucasian Muslims like the Chechens and the Ingush. As elsewhere, he drew the boundaries of the local republics in a way that would make separation along ethnic lines a nightmare, and he imported a lot of ethnic Russians. When Nazi Germany invaded, local nationalists sensed an opportunity to wrest their independence from the Soviets. After the Germans retreated and Stalin crushed the insurrection, in 1944, he shipped the entire Chechen population to the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, where as many as half of them died. (The European parliament recently labeled this a genocide.)

The fact that Dzhokhar was born in Central Asia, in nearby Kyrgyzstan, is ironic and deeply significant, as is the fact that he shares a name with Dzhokhar Dudayev, who unilaterally declared Chechnya’s independence in 1991, and, when the First Chechen War broke out with Russia, in 1994, declared jihad against the Russian Federation. That war ended in a truce in 1996, and Chechnya, now de facto independent, became a wild and violent place. Ethnic Russians fled or were pushed out, and many Chechens escaped north, to neighboring Dagestan, which is where Dzhokhar is said to have attended the first grade, in 1999-2000. Around that time, in 1999, Chechnya invaded Dagestan, plunging the region back into war, and it is shortly thereafter that the Tsarnaevs moved to Boston, in either 2002 or 2004. It is why their uncle Ruslan told a local reporter this morning that “they got their start as refugees, as refugees from war.”

In the U.S., they seemed to have lived a hard life. Their father was a mechanic who struggled to make ends meet, doing repair work here and there for $10 an hour. Then he is said to have been diagnosed with brain cancer and had to go to Germany for treatment, though he is now, apparently, in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, where he is besieged with television cameras.

If Dzhokhar seems to have been a relatively well-adjusted kid, the elder, Tamerlan—who is named for a Muslim Mongol warrior—clearly had more trouble. Their uncle, incensed at his “loser” nephews, was outraged that they were ungrateful to this country “that gave everyone a chance,” and speculated that they were driven by “hatred of those who were able to settle themselves.” In the now infamous and currently blocked photo essay on Tamerlan, he speaks of his Chechen background and flaunts shoes that any person who’s ever been to Russia will tell you are kavkaz shoes: They are the trademark footwear of men from the North Caucasus who are trying to be posh. And so, Tamerlan tells the photographer, “I’m dressed European style.”

Tellingly, Tamerlan also says he has no American friends. It is a statement that the media jumped on, but the second half of that statement is the more illuminating one: “I don’t understand them.” This is not surprising. I moved to America from Russia when I was 7, spent my entire conscious life and education here, am fully assimilated and consider myself American, and I often don’t understand Americans. It’s no wonder that Tamerlan couldn’t make sense of them either. Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnaevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition an uneasy one cannot be irrelevant.

If the YouTube channel that is said to be Tamerlan’s really is his, you can see him fervently clinging to this torn identity: It is full of Islam and Russian rap, which makes sense given the Soviet policy of Russifying Chechnya. In fact, Chechnya is still part of Russia and Russian, as well as Chechen, is its official language. Dzhokhar, who was either 9 or 11 when the family moved, may have been more assimilated than Tamerlan, but if that VKontakte page is his, it too is telling: VKontakte is the homegrown Russian rip-off of Facebook. The mere fact that he had a page on an exclusively Russian social network shows that the assimilation was not a complete one. Because emigrating at 11, or even 9, is hard, too. (The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent. In front of them is a dish plov, a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing.)

In the end, this is not a story about Chechnya or radical Islam or the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov, the usually insane president of Chechnya, says that the Boston bombing was not a Chechen act of terror, that these boys were reared and forged in America. He was probably right. But that’s not to say the men—whatever their alleged motive—had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were reared by both Chechnya and America, forged in the joining of the two through the painful, disorienting process of emigration, of accepting and being accepted by a new society, or not.

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America [TNR]

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

Monday, April 15th, 2013

On Friday, the State Department, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, published a list of 18 people who are believed, “based on credible information,” to be in some way responsible for the gruesome death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. (Over the weekend, Moscow responded with its own list, which includes David Addington, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration lawyer John Yoo.) Why the U.S. government cares enough about the death of a Russian corporate lawyer to publicly forbid these people from entering the U.S., and from owning any real estate or holding any bank accounts here, boils down to the lobbying efforts of one man, Bill Browder.

Browder, whose grandfather Earl was the head of Communist Party USA, rescinded his American citizenship, moved to Britain and then to Moscow, where, in the gangland economy of the 1990s, he made a fortune. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Browder became his vocal champion, cheering when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003. (The move killed all political aspirations in the business community.) In 2005, Browder was shut out of Russia for reasons that still remain unclear, though some observers speculate that it was because he violated the core economic principle of Putin’s Russia and refused to share his profits with Putin.

Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Magnitsky, began to uncover where Browder’s wealth was going. With the cooperation of the Russian Interior Ministry, tax inspectors, and courts, an organized crime ring was able to reappropriate $230 million dollars. Soon, people like Interior Ministry officials Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov were living outsize lives, driving luxury vehicles and buying upscale real estate in Moscow, despite their meager official salaries of about $2,000 a month. So were the judges, like Olga Stepanova, who had approved a complex set of transfers of money to various shell companies.

Now, all those inspectors and interior ministry officials and judges find themselves on the list, as do the heads of prisons where Magnitsky spent the last year of his life—after Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, Interior Ministry inspectors had him thrown him in jail. There, screaming with pain, he died, at 37, of untreated pancreatitis. Dmitry Komnov, the head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky died handcuffed to a bed, battered, and in a pool of his own urine, is said to have ignored nearly 100 complaints from the prisoner. The judges who prolonged his arrest, as well as the prosecutors who pushed to prolong it, are also on the list.

Almost as soon as Magnitsky died, Browder launched an intensive PR campaign knowing that, despite their officious outrage, the Russian authorities would do nothing. Browder compiled a slick series of videos in English called “The Untouchables,” which detailed how Kuznetsov and Stepanova and Karpov stole his money and killed his lawyer.

Karpov, of course, sued Browder for libel. And here’s where it gets complicated: We don’t know for sure whether Karpov or Kuznetsov or Stepanova did any of the things outlined in “The Untouchables.” The Russian government is made up of many, many vicious men, but Browder is not the most trustworthy—or disinterested—person on the planet. None of his accusations have been proven in a court of a law, and these people, who probably own nothing in the U.S.—Russians prefer to keep their assets in Europe or Cyprus—have become international pariahs. That said, even if they did steal the money and kill Magnitsky, which is highly likely, there is no court in all of Russia which would consider the case, let alone find them guilty. The only person to be tried in all of this, tellingly, is Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky list raises all kinds of questions. Is it America’s place to dispense justice for crimes—alleged crimes—committed elsewhere? Can we publicly shame people who have not been convicted of anything and have no right to appeal the decision? Are these people scapegoats for a Congress that wanted to show itself a defender of human rights? Moreover, why are Congress and the State and Treasury departments all doing such heavy lifting—and further angering Moscow, whose cooperation we need on North Korea, Syria, and Iran—to avenge Browder, who pointedly rescinded his American citizenship and has no plans to ever get it back?

On a purely intellectual level, I think that we should not be wrapped up in this—which has been Obama’s position. But on a gut level, having spent three years in Russia and observing how brutal and cynical and just gut-wrenchingly awful the Russian police and courts are, the list feels like a form of justice. These 18 people, though unconvicted, have become scapegoats for all the evil that the Russian government does to its people. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is it dubious and is it strange that the U.S. is getting involved? Oh, yes.

But, on a purely visceral level, it feels good to say this: The Russian system feels perfectly fine making scapegoats out of dozens of people caught up in the violence of the May 6 protests, violence that the government itself orchestrated in order to sacrifice some scapegoats, terrify the others, and stamp out burgeoning opposition to Putin. (A Russian journalist told me the prosecutors involved in these cases speak openly of the cases’ fabricated, political nature.) The system also feels fine committing all kinds of more minute but equally horrible, demeaning, violent acts on its citizens, day in, day out. So why should America open its banks and its borders to the system’s enforcers?

The problem is, we’re playing by Russia’s rules. And we, thank god, have different rules. May it be ever so.

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List [TNR]