Thursday, 25 June 2009

Russian court orders retrial in Anna Politkovskaya murder case

By Colin Freeman - Telegraph - 25 June 2009 - Russia's Supreme Court has ordered a retrial of three men acquitted of involvement in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the campaigning journalist and Kremlin critic.

The defendants, who were cleared in February after a four-month trial, will face a new jury before the same Moscow district military court, officials said.

The reasons for the retrial were not immediately given. However, the failure so far to put any of Ms Politkovskaya's killers behind bars so far has been a diplomatic embarrassment for the Kremlin, which itself was accused by human rights groups of having a hand in the assassination.

"The supreme court has annulled the innocent verdict on the case of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya," said supreme court spokesman Pavel Odintsov. "The case will be examined again with new jurors."

Ms Politkovskaya was gunned down in the entrance to her central Moscow apartment block on October 7, 2006, in a killing which drew worldwide attention.

She had written widely about human rights abuses in Chechnya, and had been highly critical of Vladimir Putin, who was president at the time and is now prime minister.

During the trial, Chechen brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov were accused of driving the gunman to the crime scene, while Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police investigator, was charged with providing logistical back-up. Pavel Ryaguzov, a former agent of the FSB security service, was accused of attempting to extort money in a related aspect of the case, and was likewise acquitted in a separate trial.

Prosecutors alleged that Politkovskaya's assassin was a third Makhmudov brother, Rustam, who they claim has now escaped abroad. The original trial shed little new light on the circumstances of the killing.

A lawyer for the Politkovskaya family, Anna Stavitskaya, said the family did not support the annulment of the verdicts.

"They were completely in agreement with the acquittal verdicts, we did not regret this and we think there is no foundation for their annulment," she said.

Politkovskaya, who worked for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, penned a book called "Putin's Russia," accusing Mr Putin of presiding over serious rights abuses in Chechnya, and using the conflict there as a justification for his own authoritarian style.

Her killing took place shortly before the murder in London of former FSB spy Alexander Litvinenko, and added to escalating diplomatic tensions between Moscow and the West. It was cited by human rights campaigners as a sign that the Kremlin was no longer prepared either tolerate or protect dissident voices. Kremlin officials have denied suggestions that they wished to see her silenced.

After her murder, Mr Putin called for Ms Politkovskaya's killers to be punished, but also described as "extremely insignificant" her ability to influence political life in Russia.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A Reply to Svante Cornell’s Daily Telegraph Article (16 June 2009)

by George Hewitt
(17 June 2009)

In my review of Svante Cornell’s Small Nations and Great Powers. A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus (Curzon Press, 2001) I included the following: ‘[T]his volume's value is greatly reduced by an absolute travesty of reality in the treatment afforded to Abkhazia. I have had to say this so often over more than a decade that I am seriously tempted to suggest that any Westerner who feels the urge to comment on this particular issue should first learn Georgian so that what Georgians say about their relationship with the Abkhazians in their own language can be properly assessed... Only then perhaps will there be better appreciation that, just as the meddling hand of Moscow is unnecessary in Daghestan because “the Dag[h]estani leadership and its policies are by themselves [sic — GH] sufficient to fuel widespread opposition” (p.281), so in the case of the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute one needs to look no further than Georgian attitudes and behaviour towards this particular minority to understand the reasons for Abkhazian suspicions. And the conflict did not start brewing (p.347) after the troubles in South Ossetia had quietened down (July 1992) but had its proximate cause in the events of 1989 (see Viktor Popkov's article in another Curzon volume The Abkhazians, which I edited in 1998); these fatal clashes, moreover, arose as a direct result of the rampant Georgian chauvinism that exploded during perestrojka under the leadership of the late Mingrelians Merab K’ost’ava and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, no friends to the Abkhazians.’ Sadly, to judge by the same author’s article (Russia Shuts Out the International Community) in The Daily Telegraph (16 June 2009), he is no better informed today about Abkhazian affairs than he was in 2001.

South Ossetia was effectively lost to Georgian control when the war begun in the region by Georgia’s first post-communist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was ended with the Dagomys Agreement in June 1992, according to which Russia was assigned a role in ensuring that the parties to the confict adhered to the Agreement. Though mired in civil war in Gamsakhurdia’s home-province of Mingrelia, after a military junta had ousted him from the presidency, the leader of the then so-called State Council, Eduard Shevardnadze, secured recognition for Georgia along with membership of the IMF, World Bank and the UN for Georgia, membership of which august body Shevardnadze celebrated by initiating his own war against the Abkhazians on 14 August 1992. His adventurism ended in humiliating failure, and Abkhazia too was lost to Tbilisi’s control from 30 September 1993. Again, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was charged with patrolling the demilitarised zone along the River Ingur according to the terms of the 1994 Moscow Agreement, which effectively meant that Russian troops would take on these duties. The international community did not object to this arrangement, nor did it object to the presence of Russian forces inside Georgia proper, as they helped to quell the Zviadist threats to march on the Georgian capital and thus secured Shevardnadze in office.

Contrary to various misinformed reports, Abkhazia did not declare independence from Georgia either before, during, or upon its victory in, the war. Throughout years of negotiations, Abkhazia was willing to contemplate making a concession and to enter confederal relations with Georgia. And let it not be forgotten that for most of the 1990s, especially when Shevardnadze-protegé Andrej Kozyrev served as Boris Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister, Russia’s policy was by no means pro-Abkhazian, a CIS-blockade being imposed along Abkhazia’s River Psou border with Russia. But let us see what I had to say on this matter in my earlier review: ‘Abkhazia did not formally declare independence until 12 October 1999. And this was in large measure the result of frustration at continuing bad faith on the part of Tbilisi in post-war negotiations. Pace Cornell (p.192), it has not been the Abkhazians who have refused to compromise — one might say that after their military victory, they were fully entitled to declare independence at once (September 1993), and yet they continued to pursue federative possibilities, whilst all that Georgia has offered is a return to the status quo ante bellum (some compromise from Georgia!). After protracted talks and constant last-minute revisions by Georgia a Protocol was ready for presidential signing in summer 1997, and yet at the last minute Tbilisi (not Sukhum) refused (Abkhazian Foreign Ministry Document 325, 25 Dec 1997). Such petty obstructionism continues, for in February 2001 Georgia's UN Ambassador, P’et’re Chkheidze, refused to sign two draft-documents, claiming them “unacceptable for the government of Georgia” — as the respected commentator, Liz Fuller, noted in her Radio Liberty report (4.5, 2 Feb 2001): “Chkheidze's criticism is surprising as the versions of both drafts currently under discussion were proposed by the Georgian side”.’

In 1998 Georgia undertook a further military adventure to win back Abkhazia, but it was successfully repelled; again, this met with no condemnation from the international community. When Mikheil Saak’ashvili ousted his former patron in November 2003, the support that Shevardnadze had enjoyed from his Western friends was immediately transferred to his usurper, who promised that during his first presidential term, secured in a ballot in spring 2004, he would return both S. Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control. Though he illegally introduced troops into the one part of Abkhazia never taken back into Abkhazian control in 1993, the Upper K’odor Valley, and then relocated the so-called Abkhazian Government-in-Exile there, he failed to achieve his goal. But, after NATO’s questionable decision at Bucharest in April 2008 to consider a Membership Action Plan for Georgia (and The Ukraine) at its December meeting, it was always likely that something would happen with regard to the two disputed territories before that meeting, and it was rumoured that an attack on Abkhazia was envisaged in May, but nothing transpired. It was, however, Saak’ashvili, and, of course, there is no doubt about this, who did eventually resort to military action when he sent his forces into action in S. Ossetia late on 7th August. The results are well known. Russia responded to put an end to Georgian action inside S. Ossetia and to rule out a further round of hostilities by destroying military equipment at the nearby-base in Gori. In Abkhazia, the opportunity was taken to remove the troops from the K’odor Valley, where the huge store of (US, Ukrainian and Israeli) munitions that Saak’ashvili had secreted there (for what purpose has never been explained) was discovered, and the potential threat to Abkhazia was neutralised by the sacking of the military base in Senak’i and the sinking of naval vessels in the Mingrelian port of Poti. In the wake of all this activity, which brought a wealth of international condemnation of Russia but hardly a whisper against Saak’ashvili’s aggression that had occasioned the response, Russia’s President Medvedev recognised both Abkhazia and S. Ossetia as independent states at 3pm Moscow time on 26 August.

Within days of this decision, a member of the Abkhazian government held a meeting with the head of the UN Mission based at Aitar in Sukhum. He asked when the UN would be changing their title, for it was absolutely out of the question for the Mission to remain on Abkhazian soil, if it insisted on being styled the United Nations’ Observer Mission IN GEORGIA (UNOMIG). The ending on 16 June 2009 of the Mission’s 16-year mandate with the exercise of Russia’s veto at the UN in New York was the logical outcome of the international community’s obstinate refusal to recognise the new political realities and to insist on no change of name. Abkhazia has no objection to the UN base remaining at Aitar but NOT under the rubric of a UN Mission IN GEORGIA. Because of its ill-considered recognition of Georgia within its Soviet borders in 1992, the international community bears a huge responsibility for the bloodshed that subsequently took place in Abkhazia from 14 August 1992 and sporadically at various moments in S. Ossetia too. By lamely supporting Georgian territorial integrity, refusing to condemn Georgian actions in the two regions, and pursuing a policy of political and economic isolation for almost two decades in seeking to ‘persuade’ the Abkhazians and the S. Ossetians that it is in their interests to re-accept Georgian domination, the international community has achieved precisely the opposite, namely deep suspicion of, and resentment towards, the West and ever closer ties with Russia, hardly a glorious triumph for Western diplomacy.

Russia’s policy towards Abkhazia eventually changed under Vladimir Putin, who allowed citizens of both regions to acquire Russian passports, a move which inter alia restored the right of local residents to travel outside their home-territories (after the expiry of their Soviet documents and their adamant refusal to consider applying for Georgian passports), and eventually lifted the CIS blockade. But what is one to make of the following allegation from Cornell? ‘Moscow may have recognized them as independent states, but effectively treats them as its own provinces, appointing and removing government ministers at will.’ Readers should be reminded that the last time Moscow tried to exercise influence in this regard in Abkhazia, namely in the 2004 presidential elections, when Moscow clearly favoured the then acting-president, Raoul Khadzhimba, the electorate responded by voting the present incumbent, Sergei Bagapsh, into power.

Russia, certainly with its own interests in mind, has wisely chosen to correct the mistake it made in recognising Georgia within its Soviet borders when the USSR disintegrated. The international community, which has largely backed Georgia’s unremittingly belligerent posture (and actions) since 1992, should realise the futility of its present stance, follow Russia, and recognise Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, which is the only way that Georgia too will be forced to stop fantasising about regaining lost territories and accommodate itself to the facts on the ground. Only then will it be possible to start building a prosperous future for the region. Whilst S. Ossetia might eventually merge with N. Ossetia (inside the Russian Federation), which is the logical conclusion for such a small, land-locked piece of land, Abkhazia has no desire for anything other than independence. With full recognition, the economy in this republic, which is so blessed by Nature, will quickly take off — it possesses the airport with the longest runway (with no adjacent mountains) in the entire Caucasus and offers potentially the best deep-water port (at Ochamchira) on the Black Sea’s eastern coast. Furthermore, it is only under such conditions of successful independence that more of the Kartvelian (Mingrelian, Svan and Georgian) refugees, who fled into Georgia in the final days of the war, are ever likely again to step foot there.

This is the message that should be fed into policy-making in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, not the stale, Cold War-centred, opinions flowing from the pen of Cornell (and many others).

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

A SHATTERED DREAM IN GEORGIA - EU Probe Creates Burden for Saakashvili

By Uwe Klussmann - Spiegel Online - 15 June 2009

Unpublished documents produced by the European Union commission that investigated the conflict between Georgia and Moscow assign much of the blame to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. But the Kremlin and Ossetian militias are also partly responsible.

From her office on Avenue de la Paix, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, 58, looks out onto the botanical gardens in peaceful Geneva. The view offers a welcome respite from the stacks of documents on her desk, which deal exclusively with war and war blame. They contain the responses, from the conflicting parties in the Caucasus region -- Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- to a European Union investigative commission conducting a probe of the cause of the five-day war last August. The documents also include reports on the EU commission's trips to Moscow, the Georgian capital Tbilisi and the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, dossiers assembled by experts and the transcripts of interviews of diplomats, military officials and civilian victims of the war.

The Caucasus expert, nicknamed "Madame Courage" by the Zurich-based Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, is considered a specialist on sensitive diplomatic matters. The Caucasus issue is the most difficult challenge she has faced to date. The final report by the commission she heads must be submitted to the EU Council of Ministers by late July. In the report, Tagliavini is expected to explain how, in August 2008, a long-smoldering regional conflict over the breakaway Georgia province of South Ossetia could suddenly have escalated into a war between Georgia and its much more powerful neighbor, Russia. Who is to blame for the most serious confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War?

In addition to having a budget of €1.6 million ($2.2 million) at her disposal, Tagliavini can draw on the expertise of two deputies, 10 specialists, military officials, political scientists, historians and international law experts.

Much hinges on the conclusions her commission will reach. Is Georgia, a former Soviet republic, a serious candidate for membership in NATO, or is the country in the hands of a reckless gambler? Did the Russian leadership simply defend South Ossetia, an ally seeking independence from Georgia, against a Georgian attack? Or did Russia spark a global crisis when its troops occupied parts of Georgia for a short period of time?

The confidential investigative commission documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show that the task of assigning blame for the conflict has been as much of a challenge for the commission members as it has for the international community. However, a majority of members tend to arrive at the assessment that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili started the war by attacking South Ossetia on August 7, 2008. The facts assembled on Tagliavini's desk refute Saakashvili's claim that his country became the innocent victim of "Russian aggression" on that day.

In summarizing the military fiasco, commission member Christopher Langton, a retired British Army colonel, claims: "Georgia's dream is shattered, but the country can only blame itself for that."

Another commission member, Bruno Coppieter, a political scientist from Brussels, even speculates whether the Georgian government may have had outside help in its endeavor. "The support of Saakashvili by the West, especially military support," Coppieter writes, "inadvertently promoted Georgia's collision course."

Berlin journalist Jörg Himmelreich, who is also a member of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, disagrees. He advocates Georgia's acceptance into NATO and condones the "brief Georgian occupation of the South Ossetia capital Tskhinvali" with the argument that Georgian President Saakashvili faced "great pressure from within his own population to produce results," and to deliver on a promise he had made several times to achieve "reunification" with the separatist republic.


Himmelreich sharply condemns Russia's actions as "aggression" and a "violation of international law." Commission member Otto Luchterhandt, a Hamburg international law expert, reaches a more differentiated assessment. He argues that because the Georgians attacked a base used by Russian peacekeeping forces in the South Ossetian provincial capital Tskhinvali, Russia can invoke the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

The Russian troops were stationed in South Ossetia as a result of a 1992 agreement, binding under international law, between Russia and Georgia. Georgia's attack, Luchterhandt argues, constitutes a breach of this agreement, thereby giving Russia the right to intervene. Nevertheless, he writes, the Kremlin, with its overwhelming intervention in western Georgia, can be accused of "violating the principle of proportionality."

The experts found no evidence to support claims by the Georgian president, which he also mentioned in an interview with SPIEGEL, that a Russian column of 150 tanks had advanced into South Ossetia on the evening of Aug. 7. According to the commission's findings, the Russian army didn't enter South Ossetia until August 8.

Commission members note, on the other hand, that Saakashvili had already amassed 12,000 troops and 75 tanks on the border with South Ossetia on the morning of Aug. 7. In their research, they uncovered remarks by the Georgian president that demonstrate that he had long flirted with a military solution to the South Ossetian problem. "If you ask any Georgian soldier why he is serving in the armed forces, each of them will respond: 'To reestablish Georgia's territorial integrity,'" Saakashvili said in a television address on May 25, 2004.

Senior officials at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin know that then German Ambassador Uwe Schramm warned in his reports of Saakashvili's penchant towards war. Schramm is now Tagliavini's deputy on the investigative commission.

When the five-day war began, Georgian General Mamuka Kurashvili said on television that his country would "reestablish constitutional order in the entire region." He may have been quoting from Georgian order No. 2, dated August 7. To date, the Georgians have not submitted a copy of this key document to the commission as requested, nor have they turned over copies of other official orders. The commission interprets these omissions as a sort of admission of guilt.

The commission members generally agree, however, that the Georgians and Russians alike violated the provision in the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Both armies, for example, used cluster bombs, which distribute explosives over a wide area, killing several civilians and wounding many more. Georgia admits to having used the weapons, while Russia denies the charges.

"War Crimes"

The commission also cited many serious attacks on Georgian civilians by South Ossetia militias. According to a report for the commission by Swiss legal expert Théo Boutruche, militia members, most of them young men, looted and burned down several villages inhabited by Georgians, beat civilians and murdered more than a dozen Georgians. According to the Hague Convention on Land Warfare, the Russian occupying force was obligated to reestablish public order. But it did almost nothing to prevent the atrocities, which a commission dossier classifies as "war crimes."

It is now up to the Swiss head of the commission to prepare the final version of the report, and there are no plans to include dissenting opinions. However, Tagliavini has a reputation for avoiding harsh judgments against any party to a conflict. Commission members predict that she will likely integrate Himmelreich's position into the final report, keeping the door open for Georgia to join the Western defense alliance, despite its hot-headed president. In early June, Saakashvili boasted that his country was still at war with its Russian "enemy."

Another question will likely remain unanswered: What role did the United States, the sole remaining superpower, play in the Georgian conflict? For years, the government of former President George W. Bush provided Georgia with extensive military aid, which included sending about 150 military trainers to the country.

Nevertheless, a number of commission members are curious to know what John Tefft, the US ambassador in Tbilisi and a former advisor at the National War College in Washington, knew about Saakashvili's marching orders. One question they would like to ask is why no one at the US State Department took a call from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin when the war broke out in the early morning hours of August 8 -- when it was afternoon in Washington.

Other commission members would be interested in talking to Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state responsible for Georgia at the time. Fried recently told a German foreign policy expert privately that Saakashvili "went out of control" in August.

But Tagliavini's team won't be questioning any Americans. According to one member of the commission, "our director and the EU apparently lack the courage" to take that step.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Has Russia Lost Control of the North Caucasus?

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev takes aim as he visits the Federal Security Service Special Task Center in Russia's southern region of Dagestan. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

By Marina Kamenev / Moscow - Friday, Jun. 12, 2009 -

On June 5, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, the interior minister of Dagestan, in Russia's North Caucasus, attended a wedding at a restaurant in the center of the republic's capital Makhachkala. When he stepped outside to talk to his brother and a co-worker, they were met with a spray of bullets shot from a nearby building. Magomedtagirov, who was also Dagestan's top police official, died almost instantly; three others, including the bride's father, were wounded, one fatally.

The shooting raised few eyebrows in Dagestan, where blood feuds and gang wars punctuate daily life. Magomedtagirov's assassination was one of a handful in the volatile North Caucasus region in a week, and it was the second murder of a high-ranking police officer in Dagestan within a month. But in Moscow, the news of Magomedtagirov's death was enough to give President Dmitri Medvedev a jolt. Although murders of civilians and police have become common in the North Caucasus, the killing of a prominent state worker is a sign that the region is slipping out of the Kremlin's control.

(See pictures as Russia Revels in Victory Day.)

The North Caucasus region, located between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, consists of a cluster of semiautonomous republics, many of them Islamic, arranged around the Caucasus Mountains. It's one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world, with over 40 distinct ethnic groups. Much of the violence is carried out by Muslim militants who have declared war on police and state officials, calling them anti-Islamic for their allegiance to Russia. Other clashes are interethnic, with a century of conflict behind them. Based on the escalating levels of violence over the past 20 years, including two wars in Chechnya, an ethnic conflict between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, and a war in Dagestan, observers say the most dangerous republics in the region are Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia.

"All kinds of freaks are coming here to do harm on our territory," Medvedev said to reporters when he visited Makhachkala on Tuesday. "This is a gauntlet thrown down to authority, to the state." But those "freaks" are actually most likely locals, brought up within the North Caucasus' clan system in which violence and corruption are the law of the land. "The problems for every territory are different," Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the think tank Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, tells TIME. "The one thing they all have in common is a culture of clans. This stops the economy from developing and also absorbs the young people. You end up with regular violence and high unemployment. If the Kremlin really wanted to, they could squash this clan system. The problem is, they have absolutely nothing to replace it with."

Medvedev told the security council of Dagestan that since the beginning of the year, a total of 235 people — 48 civilians, 112 bandits and 75 law enforcement officers — have been killed in the North Caucasus. Observers believe the real number to be much higher. Following Medvedev's visit, two policemen in Dagestan were killed by gunmen on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, the deputy chief judge of the Supreme Court of Ingushetia was murdered by unidentified gunmen outside a kindergarten.

"The Kremlin is absolutely powerless," says Alexei Malashenko, a scholar-in-residence at Moscow's Carnegie Institute. "They brought this situation on themselves by letting the local élite rule." After the fall of communism, Moscow, knowing that a secular or Orthodox Christian government would have little influence over the region's Muslim population, struck an informal deal with the republics: Moscow would appoint a governor who would be loyal to the Kremlin and, in return, that governor would remain in power provided no large-scale conflicts erupted.

But it's clear that system is breaking down and now leaders in Moscow are at a loss for a solution. Sending Russian troops into these areas would not be effective, as keeping track of insurgents is an almost impossible task. Blocking funds to the republics is also not an option. "It would just result in a massive social upheaval and that's the last thing the Kremlin wants," says Malashenko.

For Moscow, it's important that the violence in the North Caucasus stays simmering well below boiling point. But if the Kremlin cannot protect its own governors, such as Magomedtagirov, then Russia's leaders are faced with the fact that the tight grip they have on the rest of the country just doesn't apply to the North Caucasus. And the consequences are felt well beyond the region. With unemployment reaching as high as 50% according to some estimates, many people move to other Russian cities looking for work, while holding onto their clan alliances — and the conflicts that follow them.

Moscow has tried to put out fires in the region before, but with little success. In August 2008, Magomed Yevloyev, an opposition journalist in Ingushetia, was shot dead while in police custody. Many blamed Ingushetia President Murat Zyazikov for allowing the murder to happen, so the Kremlin replaced him in October with Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a highly decorated career soldier. While Yevkurov struggles to cope with corruption among local authorities and attacks on officials by Muslim radicals, he seemed to have calmed the violence in the area — until the killing of the deputy chief judge on Wednesday.

But despite Medvedev proclaiming it time for Moscow to step up to the challenge of stopping the violence in the North Caucasus, many observers think the Kremlin is keen to maintain the status quo. "This is the stability that the Kremlin wants," says the Carnegie Institute's Malashenko. "In Europe or anywhere else, the regular deaths of government workers in one region would not be classified as stability. The North Caucasus are not stable; they are just in a constant state of 'not war.'" And as long as they stay that way, the Kremlin seems happy to turn its back and pretend all is well.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

PRESS FREEDOM IN RUSSIA: The Newspaper Loved in the West, Hated at Home

By Matthias Schepp in Moscow - Der Spiegel

Reporters at Novaya Gazeta need strong nerves -- four of the Moscow-based newspaper's journalists have already been murdered. But the paper has powerful friends, including Mikhail Gorbachev and oligarch Alexander Lebedev.

Olga seemed simultaneously awestruck and wary as she ran her fingers across the envelope. The sender seemed to be important: the "Presidential Administration." Was it mail from the Kremlin? "But the envelope felt strange," says Olga, who is secretary to the editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

When she finally opened the envelope, she felt something cold and leathery inside: the severed ears of a donkey. "One needs strong nerves here," she says. Four of the newspaper's journalists have already been murdered, and one of its attorneys was shot dead in broad daylight.

The donkey ears were followed a few days later by a bloody piece of meat. This time there was no return address on the envelope. And then a peculiar man offered the editor-in-chief a bribe.

When the paper investigated the matter, it discovered that an activist with a group called Nashi was behind the mysterious acts. Nashi, a Kremlin-controlled youth organization, had previously staged protests in front of the paper's editorial offices and launched a campaign against Novaya Gazeta. A short time later, President Dmitry Medvedev made a point of giving the paper an interview.

The situation is unclear. On the one hand, the newspaper, which is published three times a week and has a respectable circulation of 270,000, is the object of the wrath of Moscow's powerful elite, which finds itself repeatedly criticized in its pages. On the other hand, Novaya Gazeta is suddenly enjoying protection from officials at the highest levels of government.

What exactly is the role of Novaya Gazeta, which is now Russia's best-known newspaper abroad? Is Novaya, as its readers call it, a bastion of democratic free speech? German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the center-left Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate in Germany's September elections, has announced plans to visit the editorial offices this week. And there is even a chance that US President Barack Obama could look in on the paper in early July.

Swimming with the Sharks

It is shortly before noon when Sergei Sokolov, sounding like a drill sergeant at a military barracks, yells "editorial conference" into the hallway. Once, while on vacation, he sent a postcard to his colleagues with the words "I'm swimming with sharks" written on it. The postcard was pinned up on the bulletin board in the editorial offices. Next to it, someone wrote: "The poor sharks."

Sokolov is the ideal second-in-command. He channels the flow of ideas coming from editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov without challenging his authority. When Muratov distributes story ideas to his 60-member editorial staff, it can sound like a conspiracy to bring down the government -- or at least a few cabinet ministers.

One of the newspaper's articles revealed that an executive with the state-owned bank, as well as influential ministers, had allegedly built luxury villas along the Moskva River -- in a nature reserve where there was in fact a ban on construction. In a recent issue of the paper, Roman Shleinov, one of the stars in the paper's collection of exceptionally talented and daring journalists, exposed a network of companies that he claimed represented a connection between a mafia group and relatives of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Shleinov has also sharply criticized the machinations of energy giant Gazprom, and he has even described the kidnappings and blackmail of business leaders by officers of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency. The revelations were remarkable, but the reactions? Practically nonexistent.

"We could print a photo that shows Putin accepting a suitcase of cash. No one would be interested," he says. Shleinov is a Sisyphus of investigative journalism -- a Sisyphus under pressure.

Gaining access to the news is not a problem in Russia the way it is in China, for example. Although television is largely state-controlled, the range of opinions in newspapers and on the Internet is broader than, say, in Germany. The country suffers from a completely different sort of affliction: Even the biggest, most scandalous exposés lead to no consequences whatsoever.

Free and influential media ought to be an important tool in fighting excessive corruption. But in Russia the media lack the necessary powers. Boris Yeltsin, as Russia's first president, compelled the attorney general's office to respond within 10 days to corruption charges brought by the media. His successor Putin promptly revoked Yeltsin's order shortly after taking office.

'Find Out Who's Involved'

Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Muratov is looking at one of his senior editors, who has just received word of a spectacular accident on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a street that leads to the Kremlin. A 20-year-old has crashed his new Ferrari while traveling at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph). The father of the young man is apparently a member of the executive board of a group of banks.

For Muratov, the story is yet another example of the excesses of what he calls "an elite that places itself above the law." "Find out who's involved!" he tells his editors. "And I'll ask Lebedev."

For a moment, it appears that Alexander Lebedev, a former member of the Soviet foreign intelligence service and a 30-percent owner of the national airline Aeroflot, is just another of Muratov's many sources within the establishment. In truth, however, the banking magnate is something of a cash machine for Novaya Gazeta.

He has supported the paper since the 1990s. In June 2006, he and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acquired a 49-percent stake in Novaya Gazeta, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. The employees owned the rest.

Lebedev bought the employees' shares for about €1.5 million ($2.1 million). Since then, he has injected millions into the money-losing paper every year. No one buys advertising; everyone is fearful of incurring the Kremlin's wrath. "As long as I have money, I will help," says Lebedev, in the opulent reception room of his luxurious mansion near the Foreign Ministry. He is wearing jeans, a designer vest and stylish black sneakers.

The magnate praises his "team of fantastic, courageous journalists," says that his goal is to make the paper the "opinion leader in Russia," and quotes the poet and Stalin critic Osip Mandelstam. He likes to see his editors as part of this tradition of resistance to the throne, and himself as a shining light of press freedom.

But politicians, media executives and journalists in Moscow often have other things to say about Lebedev. For one, they say that the entrepreneur, who lost bids to become the mayor of Moscow and Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, keeps the paper to promote his political ambitions. They also claim that, in the Moscow game of power politics, he has been chosen to keep the inconvenient newspaper under control on Putin's behalf.

Lebedev and Gorbachev reject such claims as "absurd." "Just take a look at the stories in Novaya," says Lebedev. For example, he says, Putin's press czar, Alexei Gromov, was furious when the paper disclosed his alleged business interests in digital television.

Part 2: 'No Story Is Worth another Life'

"Lebedev became interested in Novaya when he went into politics," says one of the magnate's colleagues from his days working for the foreign intelligence agency. When he took over the National Reserve Bank in the mid-1990s, Lebedev recruited some of his top managers from the intelligence community. The head of the bank's administrative board, an old friend of Lebedev, is married to the sister of Anna Politkovskaya, a star reporter for Novaya Gazeta who was shot dead in October 2006. Lebedev offered a reward of more than €700,000 ($980,000) for information leading to the arrest of the murderers.

One of his former colleagues from his days in intelligence, who insists on remaining anonymous, remembers working with Lebedev at the Soviet Embassy in London in the late 1980s. In those days, most Soviet diplomats wore baggy suits and horn-rimmed glasses. Lebedev, however, treated himself to a pair of Cartier glasses for his birthday, and then proceeded to explain to the others why appearance matters. "He was far ahead of the rest of us, and he was constantly coming up with ideas," says his former KGB comrade. Lebedev still has a soft spot for London, where he acquired another newspaper, the Evening Standard, in January.

His real rivals are at home, especially his archenemy Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow. Lebedev once published a pamphlet in which he listed all of Luzhkov's broken promises.

But there are few overly critical words written about Luzhkov in Novaya. The building that houses the paper's editorial offices, for which it pays a low rent, belongs to the city. It appears that even Novaya has its limits when it comes to exposing the foibles of the powerful.

Seeking to Change Reality

Nevertheless, no other Russian newspaper makes life quite as uncomfortable for the country's power elite. And no one symbolizes this David-and-Goliath struggle more effectively than Elena Milashina. She is 31, a diminutive 1.59 meters (5'2") in height -- and she has already caught the Russian government in a lie. She has also boldly confronted a US president.

After an awards ceremony to commemorate the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the young journalist took advantage of a reception given by former US President George W. Bush to explain to the president why she considers Vladimir Putin to be "a criminal." She had done some research on the Beslan hostage crisis.

In September 2004, the Kremlin had its forces storm a school in Beslan that was occupied by Chechen terrorists. But Milashina found information suggesting that the terrorists did not set off the bomb they had installed. Rather, ricochets coming from the guns of the Russian special forces apparently triggered the catastrophe. In addition to 31 terrorists, 334 schoolchildren, parents, teachers and soldiers died in the Beslan incident.

After the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000, Milashina spoke with 53 officers and experts, including 27 admirals and rear admirals with the Russian fleet, until, as she says, she "could have led a tour through that nuclear submarine with my eyes closed." In the end, she was able to prove that a few of the 118 sailors trapped in the submarine 108 meters (354 feet) below sea level were alive for three to four days -- not just a few hours, as the government had insisted in an effort to justify its claim that a rescue mission was impossible.

Milashina was 22 at the time. "Novaya is the only place where I can truly practice journalism," she says today. "We help people in very specific ways." The paper's editors seek to change reality, instead of merely describing it. For that reason, some of the journalists occasionally abandon the role of observer and make themselves into part of their stories. This was one of the criticisms of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, both in Russia and in the West. She evacuated retirees from the embattled city of Grozny and placed them in Russian retirement homes.

Politkovskaya was no isolated case. Her colleague Vyacheslav Izmailov, a veteran of the Chechen war and an expert on the Caucasus region, helped liberate more than 170 hostages from the Chechens. He uncovered evidence linking despotic Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to torture, and he is convinced that the trail in Politkovskaya's murder leads to Kadyrov and his cohorts.

But Izmailov's story hasn't been printed yet, perhaps because the supporting evidence is not yet conclusive enough. Of perhaps, as Muratov says, "no story is worth another life."

Muratov, Lebedev and Gorbachev make up the triumvirate that protected Novaya in bad times, when the newspaper almost went out of business, or when inaccurate reporting shook the credibility of its editorial team. In a famous blunder, the paper ran a story on the head of the Russian nuclear program, who had apparently been accused of embezzling international aid money and seeking US citizenship. The only problem was that the story wasn't true, having been concocted by a Moscow-based English-language satirical publication.

Such fiascos are all the more painful to the trio because the three men have known each other for the past two decades. Twenty years ago, Gorbachev was still president and the general secretary of the Communist Party. One evening, during a visit to London to attend a summit of industrialized nations, where he was fighting for a loan worth billions, he was unwinding at the embassy. Everyone praised Gorbachev who, in his typical manner, asked the guests for their criticism. A slim embassy secretary stood up and explained that the loan would lead the country into a debt trap and was more beneficial to the lenders than to Moscow. The man was Lebedev.

"The rest of us held our breath. A young diplomat was contradicting the leader of the Soviet Union," says Lebedev's former KGB colleague.

Novaya Gazeta represents a continuation of that encounter. Gorbachev uses it to fight for his life's work, and to ensure that at least some vestige of glasnost, openness and democracy is retained in the Putin era. Gorbachev, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, once donated $300,000 (€215,000) from his book royalties to the Novaya editors so that they could buy computers. He sits in his office today, a portrait of his late wife Raisa on the wall behind him. She too had a special relationship with the paper: In the 1990s, she gave the editorial staff its first mobile phone.

And Lebedev? He is still capable of playing the impudent anarchist today, just as he once did at the Soviet Embassy in London.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Sunday, 7 June 2009

What Obama Should Learn From the Past?

The Heritage Foundation asks this question on its blog-page dated June 4th: Where is Obama on Georgia? In answer to the question, unsurprisingly, we see an example of the now familiar unlimited credit given to Georgia. Responding to this answer from the Heritage Foundation, CW [Circassian World] considers the question and responds by providing a question and answer of its own, namely: What should Obama learn from the past?

With the help of German troops, Georgian forces occupied and subsequently annexed Abkhazia. Punishment-squads dealt harshly with those who did not support Tbilisi's position.

Uprisings occurred amongst the Ossetians of South Ossetia in 1919 and 1920, both being bloodily suppressed; the action of 1920 reportedly caused 5,000 deaths and the flight to Russia of 20,000 Ossetians.

An English traveller to Menshevik Georgia, Carl Eric Bechhofer, summarised his general impressions of Indpendent Georgia (1917-21) thus: '"The Free and Independent Social-Democratic State of Georgia" will always remain in my memory as a classic example of an imperialist "small nation". Both in territory-snatching outside and bureaucratic tyranny inside, its chauvinism was beyond all bounds' ('In Denikin's Russia', 1921, p.14).

1957, 1964, 1967, 1978
Mass-protests occur in Abkhazia against the region's subordination to Georgia, effected by Georgia's most (in)famous son, Joseph Stalin (Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili), in 1931.

After the explosion of nationalism amongst the Georgians, accompanied by such slogans as 'Georgia for the Georgians!', which threatened the minorities resident within Soviet Georgia's borders, fatal clashes took place in the Azerbaijani-populated regions of Dmanisi and Marneuli and in Abkhazia in July. Russian Nobel Peace-Prize Winner and human rights’ activist Andrej Sakharov described Georgia as like a ‘mini-empire’ because of its treatment of ethnic minorities.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, leading opposition-figure, demagogue, and later 1st post-Soviet president of Georgia, started the 2-year war against the Ossetians of S. Ossetia. Major fighting ended with the ceasefire in June 1992, since when Georgian writ has not run in the region.

Eduard Shevardnadze, invited home to Georgia to head the junta (State Council) which had overthrown Gamsakhurdia in January but, until October, without any democratic mandate, sent troops into Abkhazia on 14 August, beginning a 13-month war that was to cost the lives of 4% of the Abkhazian population (let alone thousands of deaths on the Georgian side). The war ended with the rout of the Georgian fighters and the 'de facto' independence of Abkhazia.

Georgia again attacks Abkhazia's south-eastern province of Gal but is once more rebuffed.

Having ousted Shevardnadze from the Georgian presidency in 2003, President Mikheil Saak’ashvili, illegally sent troops (under the guise of law-enforcement officers) into the one part of Abkhazia that was not brought under Abkhazian control in 1993, the Upper K’odor Valley. The so-called 'Abkhazian Government-in-exile' was then installed there, and large amounts of weaponry (American, Israeli, Ukrainian) were stashed in the Valley (for what purpose?); a 'NATO Information Centre' [sic] was also opened there, even though Georgia was/is not a NATO member.

Saak’ashvili launches an assault on the S. Ossetian capital Tskhinval late on 7 August, giving rise to a massive Russian response. It had been mooted that Tbilisi had planned action military against Abkhazia in May, and, when Georgian troops abandoned the K’odor Valley before the arrival of Abkhazian ground-forces on 12 August, maps confirming these suspicions were found there by the Abkhazian troops. Just as Russian forces (correctly) neutralised the danger to S. Ossetia presented by the military base in Gori, so Abkhazian and Russian forces (correctly) neutralised the parallel threat to Abkhazia by seizing equipment from the base in Senak’i in Mingrelia; the boats which could have attacked the Abkhazian coast were also unceremoniously sunk in the Mingrelian port of Poti. On 26 August Abkhazia and S. Ossetia were recognised by Russia in a move to help pre-empt further military aggression by Tbilisi.

Are the lessons not clear from this brief review of recent history? Repeated aggression by Georgia towards the South Ossetians and Abkhazians during the country's brief period of Menshevik independence and again since Moscow's restraining hand started to relax (in 1989) and was then removed altogether (1991) indicate that Tbilisi has lost any moral claim it might ever have possessed to dominate these regions and peoples. In terms of the usual array of economic indicators, Georgia over recent years comes top in only one: increase in military spending. It was utter folly on the part of the Bush administration (and other Western supporters of this fancifully styled 'beacon of democracy') to supply military equipment to Georgia. President Obama (with or without the support of Congress) must not make the same mistake. The more sober minds in the NATO leadership should also be questioning the wisdom of ever having entertained the idea of offering membership to Georgia (especially in light of the Georgian military performance in August 2008). What Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Abkhazia, S. Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabagh really need is not Western armaments but disarmament so that they can concentrate on building a prosperous future for themselves based on mutual respect amongst themselves and for all the ethnic groups whose ancestral homes lie in this troubled territory.

Special thanks to Prof. George Hewitt for his contribution.


Related issues

Saturday, 6 June 2009

HOME - We have 10 years to change the way we live!‏

To Watch The Movie:

We are living in exceptional times. Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth's climate.

The stakes are high for us and our children. Everyone should take part in the effort, and HOME has been conceived to take a message of mobilization out to every human being.

For this purpose, HOME needs to be free. A patron, the PPR Group, made this possible. EuropaCorp, the distributor, also pledged not to make any profit because Home is a non-profit film.

HOME has been made for you : share it! And act for the planet.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand


Being aware of this responsibility Circassian World is sharing this information with you.

PPR is proud to support HOME

HOME is a carbon offset movie

More information about the Planet


Friday, 5 June 2009

AI: situation in Northern Caucasus remains instable

The section named "Russia" in this year's report on human rights worldwide of the Amnesty International (AI), the largest international independent human rights organization, dealt mainly with the situation in Northern Caucasus. This was reported by Frederica Behr, an AI's researcher.

According to the report, the information arriving to the AI evidences that the situation in Northern Caucasus remains instable, and violence was incessant especially in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Armed oppositional groupings were responsible for deaths of dozens militiamen and local power officials in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, as stated in the report.

Messages arrived about voluntary detention and torture of people, cruel treatment and extrajudicial executions committed by law enforcers in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Experts of the Amnesty International were anxious about low efficiency of investigations into such facts, which gave rise to general impunity.

The authorities kept prosecuting independent journalists, mass media and NGOs for disseminating information about violations of human rights; therefore last June the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe made a decision to continue monitoring the situation in Northern Caucasus.

Ms Behr said to the "Caucasian Knot" correspondent that attempts to retrieve information about Northern Caucasus are associated with permanent difficulties and unwillingness of local authorities to cooperate in these issues.

Therefore, the AI has to actively cooperate with local human rights organizations.