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The Kremlin and Chechnya: A Cruel Irony

Of all the historical ironies, the one surrounding the Kremlin’s relationship with Chechnya must surely be one of the cruelest. 

When Chechens fell victim to Moscow’s heavy-handed campaign of force to reestablish control over the restive region, it was Russian democrats who protested the loudest against large-scale human rights abuses that accompanied the “counterterrorist operation.” Yegor Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leaders of the rival liberal parties in Russia’s parliament, who agreed on little else, stood side by side in their opposition to the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In January 1996, Boris Nemtsov, the newly reelected governor of Nizhny Novgorod, collected 1 million signatures (in a region of 3 million) under a petition against the war in Chechnya and brought them to President Yeltsin’s desk in the Kremlin. “Are these signatures for or against me?” an irritated Yeltsin asked Nemtsov. “That depends on what you do, Mr. President,” the governor replied audaciously. “If you continue the war, they are against you. If you end it, they are for you.

Putin ‘Outlaws’ European Justice in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law that effectively banishes international legal norms from Russian territory and denies Russian citizens access to European justice. The measure, overwhelmingly passed in both houses of Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament, gives the Constitutional Court—whose chairman, Valery Zorkin, recently called for “transforming the legal system in the direction of military harshness”—the right to ignore rulings by the European Court of Human Rights by declaring them “non-executable.”

Putin, Opposition Leaders Open Yeltsin Presidential Center

MOSCOW — Seldom is such duplicity found in today’s Russia as in the official attitude to the country’s brief period of democracy in the 1990s and the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. As far as lip service goes, Vladimir Putin is careful to emphasize his respect for his predecessor’s “forceful, direct, courageous character… thanks to which our country did not turn away from the democratic path.” In practice, in the first few years of his (now nearly 16-year) rule he has steadily dismantled all the major hallmarks of Yeltsin’s Russia, including freedom of the media, political pluralism, and genuine competitive elections.

The Kremlin's Continued Attack on Dissent

The upper house of Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament will shortly consider a request to extend the list of so-called “undesirable foreign organizations” that supposedly threaten state security and constitutional order and are prohibited from operating in the country. The list, adopted unanimously by the Federation Council in July, currently includes 12 foreign and international NGOs, among them the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.

Kremlin's Dubious Opinion Polls

If one is to believe VTsIOM, Russia’s state-run polling agency, public support for Vladimir Putin has reached “a new record height” and currently stands at 89.9 percent—a figure obligingly trumpeted by official television channels.

Outspoken Russian Lawmaker Expelled for Truth

In the tightly controlled and airproof “vertical of power” that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even a handful of dissenting voices in legislative institutions—especially when they are loud and persistent—can present a serious threat to the system. Such was the voice of the late Boris Nemtsov, who, during his short time in the Yaroslavl Regional Duma, successfully challenged official corruption and put the authorities on the defensive. Such is the voice of Lev Shlosberg, a regional lawmaker in Pskov, who has been a constant thorn in the side of the regime with his refusal to stay silent over its power abuses.

World Affairs Welcomes Vladimir Kara-Murza's Return

Undeterred and Defiant, Vladimir Kara-Murza Returns

We at World Affairs are very pleased to announce that our friend and colleague, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has returned to his weekly blog after prevailing through the enormous challenges of recent months. We are most grateful that he is safe, healthy, among loved ones, and ready to resume his important work to help bring freedom and justice to Russia and expose those preventing it.


— James S. Denton, Publisher and Editor
 

World Affairs Statement on Vladimir Kara-Murza's Hospitalization

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a leading opposition figure in Russia. On Tuesday, May 26, 2015, he collapsed suddenly and lost consciousness in his office at Open Russia in Moscow. He was rushed to Pervaya Gradskaya (First City Clinical) hospital where he remains on life support, unconscious with an undiagnosed illness of undetermined origins.

Given the sudden, mysterious, and incapacitating nature of the illness, and the Putin regime’s appalling record with respect to the murders and mistreatment of prominent dissidents, there is widespread concern that Vladimir has been poisoned. His doctors have not ruled it out though one can imagine the pressure they are under. 

Vladimir’s wife, Evgenia, has attempted to have him evacuated for treatment outside the country. However, it has been determined that his condition is too fragile for him to be moved. 

Russia’s Democrats Unite, in Memory of Boris Nemtsov

MOSCOW — It seems to always take a tragedy for Russia’s pro-democracy forces to unite.

In November 1998, at the funeral of the murdered liberal lawmaker Galina Starovoitova, the leaders of the country’s fragmented democratic parties made a pledge to get their act together. The resulting coalition (initially known as Just Cause, later as the Union of Rightist Forces) won six million votes and three-dozen seats in Parliament in the 1999 election and, under the leadership of Boris Nemtsov, was the principal opposition voice in the Russian Duma for the next four years.

In the last months of his life—until he was murdered a hundred yards away form the Kremlin on February 27th—Nemtsov worked to put together a pro-democracy coalition that would contest the 2016 parliamentary election as a unified force. He did not live to see it. But his goal came to life.

Kremlin Election Fraud Revealed. Again.

NOVOYE DEVYATKINO, Russia — The most popular political myths of Vladimir Putin’s regime, too often uncritically repeated by Western commentators—that Putin and his United Russia party are “supported by the vast majority of Russians” and that the opposition is “weak” and “unpopular”—are rarely tested, since most of the time Kremlin opponents are barred from the ballot. Last Sunday offered a rare glimpse into the actual opinions of Russian voters.

On March 22nd, Novoye Devyatkino, a municipality north of St. Petersburg that has been referred to as “Russia’s New Hampshire” because its voting trends usually match the national ones, held a special legislative election. Uncharacteristically, a wide spectrum of candidates were allowed on the ballot, including Sergei Kuzin, the St. Petersburg coordinator of Open Russia, the pro-democracy movement established by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and member of the People’s Freedom Party, founded by the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Boris Nemtsov, 1959–2015

MOSCOW — This is probably the most difficult piece in my life.

Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was a rarity in politics. Having raced up the political power ladder—member of Parliament at 30, regional governor at 32, senator at 34, first deputy prime minister at 38, leader of the parliamentary opposition at 40—he always maintained his honesty, his character, and his principles, never betraying his ideals or his friends.

He was the face of a different, freer, more hopeful, and more European Russia. A committed democrat and modernizer, who propelled his Nizhny Novgorod region to one of the leading economic positions in the country, helped to end the first war in Chechnya, and won election after election, Boris Nemtsov was the best president Russia never had. The most popular politician in the country, he was appointed deputy prime minister in 1997 and was openly talked about—including by the then president himself—as Boris Yeltsin’s likely successor in the Kremlin.

History decided otherwise.

Mr. Putin’s Word is Void of Value

MOSCOW — “Mr. Putin does not want to annex eastern Ukraine. I am sure of it. He told me so,” French President François Hollande affirmed in a recent radio interview. Whether this was an unfortunate turn of phrase or genuine naïveté, Western leaders should be reminded of what Russian citizens have long known—that Vladimir Putin’s promises are rarely worth the paper they are written on.

Here is but a short selection of prominent “he-told-me-so’s” from the Kremlin leader.

“To take away the people’s right to elect their regional leaders would be wrong… and would constitute an element of disrespect for the voters.” (May 6, 2000)

“I believed and continue to believe that the leaders of the regions of the [Russian] Federation should be elected by the people. This order has become established and has become a part of our democratic state system.” (May 17, 2000)

US Investigation Topples Kremlin Propaganda Chief

MOSCOW — On December 19th, Gazprom Media, the Kremlin-controlled information empire, unexpectedly announced the resignation of its chairman, Mikhail Lesin, “for family reasons.” Lesin himself declined to comment.

Vladimir Putin’s former press minister, who oversaw the destruction of three independent nationwide television networks in the early 2000s, was brought back to run a key component in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in late 2013, just before the Ukrainian revolution and Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Over the past year, media outlets under Lesin’s control—including NTV television—intensified the information war against Ukraine, the West, and against leaders and supporters of the Russian opposition, whom the pro-regime media routinely label as “traitors” and “foreign agents.” Lesin has also launched an attack on Ekho Moskvy radio, which, though majority-owned by Gazprom Media, continues to maintain an independent editorial policy and allows alternative viewpoints on the air.

Party Crashers: Kremlin SWAT Teams Attack Opposition Meetings

CHELYABINSK, Russia — When, about an hour into the roundtable discussion on elections hosted by the Open Russia movement in this city in the Southern Urals on December 17th, SWAT teams and officers of the Emergencies Ministry stormed the room and ordered a forced evacuation, the speakers could not hide their smiles. Ten days earlier, exactly the same scenario—forced evacuation after an anonymous “bomb threat”—was used by the authorities in St. Petersburg in an attempt to sabotage the Open Russia conference there. That forum was also centered on the topic of Russia’s parliamentary elections, now less than two years away. “The regime is genuinely afraid of a serious and honest conversation about elections, because elections are becoming a problem for this regime,” said Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, who participated in the Chelyabinsk roundtable and was also shepherded outside by the police.

Europe: Deny the Vote to Putin’s Outlaw Regime

Earlier this month, the leaders of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)—the oldest and largest pan-European organization that brings together national lawmakers from across the continent—visited Moscow for talks with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin. The principal topic of discussion was the restoration of voting rights for Russian delegates, which were suspended in April following the annexation of Crimea.

The talks brought good news for the Kremlin. According to Andreas Gross, a Swiss lawmaker and the Assembly’s rapporteur on Russia, most leaders of the European parliamentary body want to see “a full restoration of the rights of the Russian delegation” at the PACE’s upcoming session in January. The next round of negotiations will be held in December in Vienna.

If this agreement takes shape, it will represent one of the biggest acts of hypocrisy in the history of the Council of Europe.

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