Archive for December 2008
Thank you for reading this blog. I wish all of you a Happy New Year! I hope, it will make the dreams of so many Russians about freedom come true.
For one man, freedom has already come. Vasily Aleksanyan, mortally ill YUKOS’ lawyer, who had been held in custody for years and who the democratic opposition had been campaigning for, was released yesterday. Unfortunately, his HIV and cancer are already at a stage hardly curable. But at least he can now see his family and friends without restrictions. He chose to sacrifice his health (and, it appears, his life) rather than to betray Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev and to sign false statement against them. This is the example many of us should take.
Oborona with several other youth organizations held a protest action yesterday. Before it begun, an OMON (riot police) policeman tried to confiscate Oborona’s leaflets from our activist Alexey Kazakov. Eyewitnesses quote their remarkable dialogue:
Cop: You are going to tell with these leaflets that you don’t like the government of Russian Federation.
Alexey: Yes, I don’t like the government of Russian Federation.
Cop: This is a direct anticonstitutional act!
Alexey: You mean, I’m obliged to like the government?!
Music by Rannee Slaboumie, video by myself
Yesterday citizens of Vladivostok organized an action against Putin’s decision to raise customs duty for used imported cars as well as against the government’s social policy in general. The action was peaceful to say the least: participants formed a ring around the Christmas tree at the central square, danced and chanted “Happy New Year!” Suddenly, they were attacked by several OMON units. Policemen beat people randomly, dragged them into autozaks and “cleansed” the square. When the cleansing was over and everybody was either arrested or escaped, the policemen didn’t stop and captured the remaining journalists including those who worked for the state propaganda media.
This is how it was happening:
By the way, it’s been said that Vladivostok police refused to disperse the action. So they had to bring OMON all the way from Moscow, which is 9300 km far from Vladivostok.
International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY), the largest umbrella coalition for youth liberal organizations, declared support for creation of Solidarity movement in Russia.
At their inaugural congress just outside of Moscow on Saturday the 13th of December, liberals and democrats from all over Russia convened to set the course for Solidarity, a newly established organization that brings together representatives from various parties and NGOs. Its aim is to unite the country’s liberal forces in a political environment that has been monopolized by Russia’s executive under the leadership of Vlamidir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. IFLRY Secretary General Bart Woord attended the congress on invitation of IFLRY observer member Yabloko Youth and the Russian youth opposition movement Oborona.
Bart Woord commented: “This deep cooperation between Russia’s liberal forces is possibly the best news that has come out of Russia in years. Russia’s long-term stability can only be secured in an open political system in which people agree to disagree and where sound market-oriented economic policies bring sustained prosperity throughout the country. It is up to today’s liberals to convince the Russian population that the current government’s autocratic direction is a dead-end road and liberal democracy is the only alternative.”
Ilya Yashin, co-chairman of the youth of the Yabloko party and one of the initiators of Solidarity, stated: “The congress of Solidarity democratic movement became an important landmark in Russia’s political life. For the first time in many years Russian democrats have managed to unite. All currently existing democratic organizations of Russia are represented in Solidarity, among them – the disbanded Union of Right Forces (SPS), Yabloko, United Civil Front and the People’s Democratic Union. This is especially crucial today in the environment of the economic crisis. The knee-jerk reaction of the Russian authoritarian regime to the event only speaks for the strength of Solidarity.”
Oleg Kozlovsky, coordinator of Oborona and also heavily involved in the creation of Solidary, declared: “Solidarity’s goal is more than just to win votes or implement a certain reform. This movement aims to change the whole political landscape in the country, stop its sliding deeper into authoritarianism, and reanimate liberal ideals among Russian people. Such an ambitious task is to be achieved by use of methods of non-violent resistance and it needs the highest degree of motivation, self-discipline, and honesty.”
IFLRY confirms its ongoing commitment to supporting young liberals in Russia and wants to extend the same support to Solidarity.
Sorry, I’ve been quite busy last week and had little time to blog. Some interesting things are happening these days in Russia. They may (or may not, who knows) have a serious effect on the political situation in Russia.
1. Solidarity is finally here and the Poles have nothing to do with it. At last, Russian democratic opposition managed to unite in its struggle against the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. The new organization, whose 13 strong Bureau includes people like Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, Ivan Starikov, Ilya Yashin, and myself, unites nearly all democratic forces in the country.
The creation of Solidarity was taken very seiously by the authorities judging by the scale of counteraction. On the first day of the movement’s convention about 50 of its organizers and leaders had their phones overwhelmed with endless robocalls (this technology has already been used against some SPS officers on the election day last year). Several fake buses were used to confuse the delegates and bring them to different locations. The real buses with the delegates were stopped by the police on their way to the venue. Right after they arrived at the Olimpiyskiy hotel in sub-Moscow Himki, a disgusting provocation was organized, allegedly, by Youth Guard, United Russia’s youth branch:
There were more provocations on the day two. More Kremlin-sponsored activists tried to disrupt the convention: they dressed like monkeys, shouted, threw leaflets etc. When the event already finished and its participants went to Moscow (some had train or airplane tickets to go home), their bus was blocked by several trucks and police cars. Armed riot police surrounded the bus and forbade to proceed. No legal reasons were provided, of course.
So, the government appears more than worried by appearence of the new movement. The question is whether we’ll be able to fulfill Putin’s fears and people’s hopes. I’m sure we’ll do our best.
2. On Sunday, the very next day after Solidarity was created, many of its members participated in Dissenters’ Marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Moscow march had been illegally banned by the authorities. They said that somebody else had applied for the same place and time before we did. It was lies since our people brought the application to the mayor’s office on the first day and first minute when it was possible by the law. We had the official stamp and video of how it was done. But as usually, the government didn’t give a damn. They’ve got the police, so why worry about the laws?
Yes, they’ve got lots of police. Riot police vans, army trucks, special prisoner transports (“autozaks”), heavy vehicles lined up for hundreds of meters through the city’s main shopping street, Tverskaya, more of them hid in sidestreets. 2500 riot police from 11 regions were brought to stop the March, not to count thousands of regular police officers and the army. Hundreds of secret service operatives had to recognize activists and organizers even before they arrive at the scene or do anything. Phones were tapped, leaders tailed from their homes, some were seiged in their flats from the very morning. Sadly, there was no possibility to hold an action.
But it was held. Many people went there knowing that they’d be arrested and beaten. Dozens of retired high officers, from colonels to generals, wering uniform with medals gathered to protest awful government’s attitude to the veterans and degradation of the Russian army. They were all arrested by the riot police, dragged violently into autozaks and held in the custody for hours where the police humiliated them.
Some 90 people were arrested at Triumfalnaya Square, where the March was officially planned. Some of them, like Sergey Aksenov, went fearlessly before the police lines holding Constitution above their heads. Others shouted slogans like “Freedom to politcal prisoners!” or argued with the police. Some were arrested just because they were in the secret lists of opposition activists. Two young protesters already after being arrested, managed to escape from an autozak through a ceil manhole and shouted slogans from the car’s roof. They were immediately assaulted by the riot police, one young man was pushed out of the roof, fell on the ground and broke his leg. The police didn’t even care to call the doctor, they just put the men back into the autozak.
About 30 protesters organized another action right near Kremlin. They brought the Constitution with them and wanted to get inside to present it to Dmitry Medvedev. However, Federal Guard Service met them instead of the president. 18 were arrested, several were severely beaten. More people were arrested at different spots of Moscow. Three Oborona activists got to the police right from a McDonald’s restaurant together with three passersby for “holding an illegal demonstration” (right in McDonald’s?!). An Oborona activist Maksim Kirsanov was arrested for standing in the street and holding a placard demanding that the government obey the Constitution.
Another group of protesters, which I joined, managed to fool the police. As the government’s forces were waiting for the March at North-West of the Moscow center, 100 to 150 people gathered in South-East and marched freely through the city. People shouted “We need other Russia!”, “This is our city!”, “Russia without Putin!”, “Freedom to political prisoners!”, cars beeped in support. We didn’t meet a single policeman on our way, they were all waiting for us in a different place. The march lasted for some 20 minutes, its participants immediately dispersed. Riot police arrived there 10 minutes late. Nobody was arrested.
Moscow authorities appear to be outraged by the Sunday’s events. Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov has already ordered that the police “zero” the protests. He expects more social unrest as the economical crisis deepens in Russia.
3. By the way, the crisis is already beginning to affect the people. Andrei Illarionov (a prominent Russian economist, former Putin’s advisor on economics) publishes the official figures of industrial recession that he calls “disastrous”. Industrial output fell by 6.7% in November alone, which makes 13% in last five months. This is the worst monthly decrease since the beginning of the devastating World War II. It is even worse than in early 1990s (that are considered to be a synonym for nightmare in modern Russia) or during the 1998 crisis.
The gold rivers are dry for the first time since Vladimir Putin came to power and his government doesn’t seem to be prepared. Salaries and pensions are not paid in time anymore. In some regions elderly people only got half of their pension two weeks later and they don’t know when they receive the rest. The government tries to get more money from the people and raises tariffs, taxes and duties. This begins to cause discontent among the citizens. In Vladivostok, several thousands car drivers blocked all the main roads protesting a significant increase of customs duty for foreign cars. They demanded cancellation of the proposed reform and resignation of Vladimir Putin. Their next protest is scheduled for this Sunday.
I start writing for The Huffington Post, one of the leading American political blogs. Here is my first column for their recently launched World News section, on the case of Anna Politkovskaya.
Murder of Anna Politkovskaya: The Trial Begins
December 5, 2008
Four men, two of them are officers of Russian special services and two others are Chechens, are being tried in the Moscow District Military Court now. They are accused of organizing the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of the most outrageous crimes in Russia’s recent history.
Who was Anna Politkovskaya?
Anna Politkovskaya was a prominent Russian journalist who worked for Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Most of her work was dedicated to the Northern Caucasus and in particular to Chechnya, devastated by two wars, poverty, terrorism and unbelievable lawlessness. She went where misery was too great for people to bear. She investigated police and army brutality; she helped Russian prisoners of war; she supported victims of terrorism.
She was respected and trusted by both the Chechen separatists and the victims of Chechen terrorist groups. She was the one who brought drinking water to 800 hostages in the Moscow theatre Nord-Ost in 2002. When terrorists seized a school in Beslan in 2004, she immediately went there to negotiate a peaceful solution of the crisis. However, she didn’t make it to Beslan. She was poisoned on the airplane, as her colleagues believe, by Russian secret services who didn’t want her to interfere into their own plan. She survived but while she was in the hospital, the Russian army stormed the school. 331 hostages were killed as a result, most of them children.
Anna wrote a highly critical book Putin’s Russia in 2004 and participated in a founding conference of the Other Russia opposition coalition in July 2006. Russian authorities as well as the pro-Kremlin Chechen leadership despised Anna for her activities and didn’t even try to hide it. When she was killed, then-president Vladimir Putin tried to defend himself against suspicion in a very cynical way by saying that “her death caused more harm than her work”.
Who killed her?
She was assassinated at the doorstep of her home in Moscow on October 7, 2006, on Putin’s birthday. Many people believe that such a bloody gift was given to the Russian president by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (he was appointed president of Chechnya by Putin a few months later). Russian authorities, on the contrary, declared immediately that it was Boris Berezovsky’s provocation against Kremlin. Such claims weren’t unexpected as this ex-oligarch serves as a scapegoat for probably every second bad thing happening in Russia. No proofs of that were found afterwards, however. It is still unknown who was the initiator of this crime but, according to the defendant’s attorneys, the file has clues that it was “a political figure inside Russia.”
The hitman was also not found. Detectives say that the man who shot five bullets at Anna is Chechen Rustam Makhmudov and is now hiding abroad. Two his brothers are under trial for organizing the murder of Politkovskaya. Two others defendants are a former officer of UBOP (police unit responsible for fighting organized crime but also used against political opposition), Sergey Khadzhikurbanov, and acting FSB Lieutenant-Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov. Novaya Gazeta staff organized their own investigation and said that these defendants were most probably involved in the crime but they played more a supportive role.
The very beginning of the trial was marked by a serious scandal that raised new questions. The process was initially open to the public but at the second hearing the judge, Evgeny Zubov, decided that no journalists will be allowed in the court room. The reason was the jury’s request to close the process: the jurors were reportedly afraid of the media.
However, the next day juror Evgeny Kolesov gave an interview and claimed that there had been no such request and nobody asked to get journalists out. He said that a court clerk entered the jury’s room before the hearings and asked them to sign a written statement that they want the process to be closed. All the jurors refused to sign it. But still, the judge didn’t care. Nineteen out of 20 jurors signed a petition to the judge saying that they don’t have any objections to the open process. Evgeny Kolesov sent the judge a letter in which he said that he didn’t want to participate in an “unfair trial” and refused to stay in the jury.
The judge had to reopen the process after these events. However, it is still unknown what he wanted to hide so badly. Is it some links to the murder that go high into the ruling elite? Or is it related to the FSB’s reported surveillance of Politkovskaya? We will hopefully know soon.
Update: Rustam Makmugov, the suspected killer, made a statement that he was ready to surrender himself to the police if fair trial is guaranteed for him. Unfortunately, such a condition is very hard to meet in Russia.
These days I took part in OSCE Civil Society Forum. It was held in Helsinki in connection to the ministerial meeting that’s planned for Thursday and Friday. Representatives of dozens of NGOs as well as OSCE officers participated in the event. I addressed them at the opening plenary yesterday:
…I recall what I did at this very day a year ago. It was an election day but for me it was marked by another arbitrary arrest. Just seconds after I commented the elections to an foreign TV channel in the heart of Moscow, I was literally dragged into a police van, threatened and beaten by several anonymous officers. Then they brought me to a police station, held there for a few hours and released without any charges.