Tag Archives: navalny

Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.



The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow


Throughout the Putin era, it hasn’t been uncommon to see political opponents harassed or even killed.Russia Flag Icon

Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 in the elevator of her building in central Moscow after writing several highly praised books detailing the dark side of life in Russia under president Vladimir Putin.

Officials in the United Kingdom protested furiously when, as if out of a Cold War thriller novel, former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litivinenko was apparently poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210 a month later.

Alexei Navalny, who rose to prominence more recently as a critic of Putin and the corruption of Russian government, has been harassed and imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

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RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Business leaders like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were exiled and imprisoned after Putin’s government decided that they amassed too much wealth in the fire sale of the 1990s when Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, sold many of the former Soviet Union’s public assets.

But the assassination of opposition figure and former Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov is the most brazen attack yet. I’m sure no one will ever be able to tie Nemtsov’s murder to the Kremlin, which is already officially condemning the murder. The attack — an audacious murder on the streets of Moscow when Nemtsov was otherwise on a Friday night stroll — sends a chilling message to everyone in Russia who opposes Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule (not to say that Putin’s rule was even incredibly liberal or democratic).

Nemtsov’s assassination seems certain to subdue a planned opposition march scheduled for Sunday.

Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t exactly the gruesome image the Kremlin wants its critics to see — a dissident gunned down in the back just footsteps away from the Kremlin walls: Continue reading Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow

Pre-Sochi required reading list: McFaul’s foibles and Putin’s Olympics


If you read nothing else before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, you could do much worse than these two brilliant pieces in Foreign Policy and Politico Magazine that explain in majestic scale the state of Russia today and the nature of US-Russian relations in the 2010s, even as journalists started arriving in Sochi earlier this week and reporting the (sometimes humorous) problems with infrastructure. USflagRussia Flag Icon

The first is a profile of Michael McFaul (pictured below), the US ambassador to Russia, who announced earlier this week that he will step down following the Winter Games in Sochi, after just two years as the US envoy to Moscow.  Just the second non-career diplomat in US history to hold the post, Michael Weiss writes in Foreign Policy about both McFaul’s successes and failures, but especially McFaul’s failures, evident from the first sentence:

The Kremlin, for instance, will be sad to see the nicest, most eager-to-please man to ever inhabit Spaso House quit the joint after only two years of floundering and squirming under the Kremlin’s systematic, Vienna Convention-violating sadism.


McFaul (pictured above with Obama), a  professor of political science at Stanford University, previously served as US president Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs.  The ‘reset’ concept with Russia at the beginning of the Obama administration was McFaul’s brainchild — though the US secretary of state at the time Hillary Clinton, memorably presented her Russian counterpart with a reset button inscribed with the word peregruzka (‘overload’) instead of perezagruzka (‘reset’).  But it’s important to remember that McFaul was also instrumental in the successful negotiations to enact deeper nuclear non-proliferation through the New START treaty with Russia enacted in May 2010.

Weiss’s piece makes clear just how difficult it was for McFaul to adjust between ‘advocate’ mode and ‘diplomat’ mode, and most of the major ‘gaffes’ of McFaul’s tenure relate to the gap between advocate and diplomat — over-reliance on social media; meeting with a wide group of the Kremlin’s political opponents for his first official meeting; dissembling over the Magnitsky Act (which ties US-Russian trade to human rights abuses) and encouraging Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization; or even the time he tweeted about ‘Yoburg’ (which translates to ‘Fuckville’ in Russian) instead of ‘Yeakaterinburg.’

McFaul had a style that was hard to account for or justify, as when he admitted, by way of an apology, that he was “not a professional diplomat.” This, too, had the merit of being true; but what, it prompted many to wonder, was he doing in the most difficult diplomatic posting on the planet advertising as much?

Though John Beyrle, the career diplomat who served as ambassador between 2008 and 2011, would not have made those same mistakes, he also wouldn’t have tweeted a message of support (‘I’m watching.’) to opposition figure Alexei Navalny last summer during a politically-motivated trial on trumped-up charges.  Part of the charge against McFaul is that he didn’t follow the rulebook of international diplomacy, but that runs both ways — one man’s diplomatic faux pas is another man’s bravery.  If, a decade from now, we look back at the August 2013 confrontation with Syria as the start of a successful model for US-Russian cooperation, the Obama-McFaul reputation on Russian relations will look drastically better  (of course, that depends mostly on the cooperation of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in dismounting his chemical weapons program and the ability of the OPCW and UN personnel to evacuate them from a country in the midst of a civil war).

Ultimately, though, the McFaul tenure coincides with what seems today like a stark deterioration in bilateral relations, even from the headier days of 2009 and 2010.  Here’s the devastating kicker:

Unfortunately, he’s leaving with the Russian media portraying America as a country that tortures orphans to death, brainwashes children into becoming homosexuals, supports al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East, eggs on neo-Nazis to overthrow the government of Ukraine, and otherwise behaves as both a bumbling colossus and a serially defrauded and discombobulated mug in world affairs.

The second piece you should read is Leon Aron’s piece in Politico Magazine explaining how the Winter Games initially came to Sochi (partly a rare English-language speech from Putin to the International Olympic Committee in 2007):

But it mostly explains why, at a price tag of between $50 billion and $55 billion, they’re the most staggeringly expensive Olympics ever (more than even Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games and more than all previous Winter Games in Olympic history):  Continue reading Pre-Sochi required reading list: McFaul’s foibles and Putin’s Olympics

What to make of Khodorkovsky’s prison release


In connection with a wide-ranging amnesty bill that also freed the anti-Putin members of the punk band Pussy Riot, former Yukos president Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison earlier this week.Russia Flag Icon

Though Russian media are hailing the move as an act of grace by Russian president Vladimir Putin, it’s  lot less magnanimous than it looks — after ten years in prison, Khodorkovsky was due to be released in 2014 anyway.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two members of Pussy Riot, who were also due to be released in 2014 after their own political imprisonment, called the amnesty a ploy meant to whitewash Putin’s human rights record just two months before the Winter Olympic Games are set to begin in the Russian Black Sea port city of Sochi.  Tolokonnikova called Russia an ‘authoritarian’ state, and Alyokhina dismissed their release in equally emphatic terms.

“I don’t think the amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it’s a PR stunt,” she said by telephone to Dozhd internet television channel. “If I had had a choice to refuse the amnesty, I would have, without a doubt.”

Khodorkosvky’s release, however, was even more unexpected, and in Khodorkosvky’s own words, featured the ‘best traditions of the 1970s.’  Brokered by former German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Gensher and former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a social democrat who often found common cause with Putin, the deal was more than two years in the making.  Though Khodorkosvky refused to admit guilt, he agreed to refrain from intervening in Russian politics in a letter to Putin asking for clemency to visit his ailing mother in Germany.  Upon his release, Khodorkovsky immediately flew to Germany in what amounts to his expulsion from Russia, and he may ultimately live in Switzerland, where he’s applied for a visa.

Nevertheless, his sudden emergence earlier this week in Berlin had the feel of something analogous to when Nelson Mandela left nearly three decades of imprisonment on Robben Island in South Africa.  Like Mandela, Khodorkovsky emerged from prison as a man transformed by his experience.  Khodorkovsky entered prison a decade ago as one of the most successful of several robber-baron oligarchs who were lucky enough to purchase the state assets that former Russian president Boris Yeltsin sold off at fire-sale prices in the 1990s.  Khodorkovsky bought Yukos, a top Russian oil producer, and the wealth from Khodorkovsky’s business empire made him the richest man in Russia in the early 2000s.  His wealth increasingly fueled political activism in the early years of the Putin era, and Khodorkovsky began openly criticizing the Russian political model and began funding opposition political parties.

That came to an end in October 2003, when Russian authorities arrested Khodorkovsky on a Siberian tarmac and imprisoned him after a show trial found him guilty of tax evasion and fraud charges.  After a surge of political activism from within his Moscow prison, including a plan to run for parliament, Khodorkovsky was transferred to the notorious Krasnokamensk labor camp near the Chinese and Mongolian borders in Russia’s far east, located next to the country’s largest uranium mine.  A subsequent trial in 2009 led to further convictions, this time for embezzlement and money laundering.

In Berlin earlier this week, Khodorkovsky calmly disclaimed his interest in politics or business, but hoped to help free other Russian prisoners: Continue reading What to make of Khodorkovsky’s prison release

Nobel by elimination: OPCW was the only worthy recipient


The committee awarding the Nobel Peace Prize historically doesn’t shy away from making political statements through its award — and this year was no different.nobel-peace-prize

In retrospect, despite the Western media swoon over 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban and recovered in the United Kingdom to become a living symbol of the fight for women’s rights in the Muslim world, it makes a lot of sense that the Nobel committee would want to highlight the fight against chemical weapons, given that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August earlier this year was the worst chemical weapons attack since their use in the 1980s by Iraq.

Upholding the international ban on chemical weapons drew a very reluctant US president Barack Obama to the brink of military engagement in the Middle East.  In terms of war and peace over the past 12 months, there’s no denying that chemical weapons have playing a tragic starring role:

“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in announcing the award. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”

(Honorable mention should go to Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who’s risked his life to fight rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Even if the Nobel committee’s goal should have been clear in retrospect, it was always going to be a challenge to identify an individual worthy of receiving the award.

Maybe Russian president Vladimir Putin, who took up an offhand comment from US secretary of state John Kerry to broker a United Nations Security Council deal whereby Syria would identify and begin eliminating its chemical weapons stockpiles.  But it may have been the US threat of force that pushed Putin to make the offer more than Putin’s natural instinct for peace.

Moreover, Putin presides over an awfully authoritarian state, and his record on press freedom, LGBT rights, civil rights for minorities and the Chechnya conflict hardly screams out ‘Nobel laureate.’  It was always more likely that Alexei Navalny, the crusading opposition figure, would win the prize.  Or Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Or Lilia Shianova, the director of Golos, Russia’s independent voting rights organization. Or Svetlana Gannushkina, who’s been a leading figure in providing humanitarian and legal aid in Chechnya.

It certainly couldn’t be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who’s leading one side of an increasingly intractable civil war and whose regime was responsible for the August sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Despite Assad’s apparent and swift cooperation with chemical weapons inspectors, he’s still engaged in a bloody fight against a mixed force of Sunni rebels and other opponents who want to end his family’s Alawite regime, which has governed Syria with an iron fist since 1971.  It also couldn’t be any of Syria’s rebel forces, some of whom are aligned with the most radical Islamist terror networks in the world.

Nor could it be US president Barack Obama, who already won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and his administration’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria was bumbling at best.  That may be the nature of realpolitik, and the end result is probably beyond what Obama and Kerry ever expected would be possible.  But it was hardly a shining moment for US foreign policy.

Moreover, both the United States and Russia have so far failed to destroy their own chemical weapons stockpiles, a fact that the Nobel committee acidly noted in awarding the prize.

So who was left? The chemical weapons inspectors themselves.

Through the process of elimination, the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to the entity whose very job is the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and throughout the world.

That’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director-general pictured above), a 16-year-old organization based in The Hague in the Netherlands and the watchdog tasked with keeping the world’s countries in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention — and which is now playing the crucial role of effecting a deal that should eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability by mid-2014, if all goes according to plan.  The challenge in Syria represents the most high-profile challenge for the OPCW since its creation but, so far, the OPCW is rising to the task.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization sometimes falls like a wet blanket, even though it’s happened 24 times since 1901.  This year’s award follows the decision last year to award the prize to the European Union for its role in becalming the European continent over the past seven decades.

Giving the award to the OPCW instead of Malala (or even Putin or another individual) didn’t necessarily provide a picture-perfect, feel-good catharsis.  But it rightly shines a spotlight on an unheralded protagonist at a time when the OPCW’s work is far from complete — even if it succeeds in Syria, the world won’t be rid of chemical weapons.

Photo credit to AFP / Bas Czerwinski.

Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny


In case you missed it (and there’s much more important news coming from Russia this week), Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin has won reelection heartily in what will be the biggest election this year in Russia.MoscowRussia Flag Icon

But don’t get your hopes up — Sobyanin’s reelection has long been certain since announcing what amounts to snap election earlier this summer.

Sobyanin, Moscow’s acting mayor since 2010 and formerly Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, easily defeated opposition activist Alexei Navalny by a margin of 51.37% to 27.24%, just enough to avoid a runoff between the two candidates.

Sobyanin, who is Siberian (so not a native Muscovite), replaced longtime Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was fired by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in October 2010.  Sobyanin has demonstrated more energy as Moscow’s new mayor, and many Muscovites compare him to Luzhkov in his first years as mayor in the early 1990s — Sobyanin has worked to install bike lanes, develop parks and reduce traffic congestion within Moscow.

So even while Navalny demands a recount of the vote (and it’s suspicious that Sobyanin won 1.37% more than he needed to avoid a direct runoff with Navalny), there’s a credible basis to the notion that Sobyanin commands the support of a majority of Muscovite voters.  Though there’s not much evidence of fraud in an election that had elements of competitiveness, Sobyanin’s campaign controlled the state media and used other advantages to enhance benefits of incumbency.

That hasn’t stopped Navalny, who is already demanding a runoff on the basis of alternative surveys of Sunday’s vote:

Exit polls conducted by the opposition leader’s campaign office suggest that Navalny has claimed 35.6 per cent of the vote, with Sobyanin receiving 46 percent. The opposition candidate announced that there will be a second round of voting in the mayoral election. He vowed to call on his supporters “to take to the streets” if it does not take place.

What’s most striking is that Navalny did so well — the 37-year-old blogger and anti-corruption crusader started off the race as an asterisk.  When the race began in June, Navalny was polling less than 10% in surveys, but that was before the Russian government harassed Navalny in myriad ways, most notably through a conviction of embezzlement on charges that Navalny stole around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov.  As a popular uproar against Putin surged in protest of what many Russian believe was a politically motivated trial, the government provisionally released Navalny, allowing him to continue his campaign.  But Navalny faces imprisonment if his conviction isn’t overturned, which could sideline him in Russia’s next legislative elections for the State Duma (Госуда́рственная ду́ма) in 2016 or even the next presidential race in early 2018.  Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny

Why Dan Savage’s campaign against Russian vodka is naive and counterproductive


Dan Savage, when he’s not answering the love and sex queries from anguished writers to his column, has now taken it upon himself to become the arbiter of outrage about Russian treatment of LGBT rights.Russia Flag Icon  Savage, taking on the burden of activist-in-chief for the U.S. LGBT community, has started a campaign demanding that bars throughout the United States start boycotting all Russian vodkas:

If you drink a Russian Vodka like Stoli, Russian Standard, or any of the other brands listed above, switch to another brand from another country, or even a local brand from a local distillery. Stoli is the iconic Russian Vodka and it’s returning to Russian ownership in 2014. Other brands like Russian Standard should also be boycotted. Do not drink Russian vodka. Do not buy Russian vodka. Ask your bartender at your favorite bar—gay or otherwise—to DUMP STOLI and DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.

The SPI Group, which owns Stolichnaya*, responded with a defensive letter to The Advocate and other sources earlier today, outlining its ongoing outreach to the LGBT community and noting that, at least as of today, their vodka is produced from Russian ingredients in Latvia, which is of course a NATO and European Union member, and earlier this month secured its entry early next year to the eurozone single currency:

Stoli’s production process involves both Russia and Latvia. Stoli is made from Russian ingredients (wheat, rye and raw alcohol) blended with pure artesian well water at our historic distillery and bottling facility Latvijas Balzams in Riga… We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia. In the past decade, SPI has been actively advocating in favor of freedom, tolerance and openness in society, standing very passionately on the side of the LGBT community and will continue to support any effective initiative in that direction.

There’s some debate over whether the brand will revert to Russian ownership in 2014, but that really doesn’t matter — neither Stoli, the SPI Group or any other major Russian vodka company is owned by the Russian government.  It should miss no one’s attention that much of public-owned industry from the Soviet era was privatized for fire-sale prices in the first years of Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s administration.  Whether you think that the oligarchs that benefitted from those poor Yeltsin-era decisions are culpable for their own economic sins, they are not the ones setting anti-gay policy today in Russia.  Many oligarchs, such as Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets (now Brooklyn Nets) basketball team, who made his fortune chiefly in nickel mining in the 1990s, actively supports the opposition and ran himself as a candidate against Putin for president last year.  Earlier today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that aspects of the trial against Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky were unfair (though the court avoided the legal finding that the trial is politically motivated, as been widely alleged for a decade).

Savage’s campaign would be like Russian bars boycotting Coca-Cola in 1996 in retribution for the U.S. Congress’s decision to pass the Defense of Marriage Act.  If Coca-Cola happened to be a Canadian company.  And that doesn’t make an incredible amount of sense.

The latest kerfuffle reached a roar in the United States following an op-ed by Harvey Fierstein in The New York Times last Sunday accusing Russian president Vladimir Putin of scapegoating gays and lesbians following the passage of high-profile legislation that bans the adoption of Russian children by gay parents and that allows the harassment and detention of gay and lesbian foreign nationals in Russia:

Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain taken straight from the Nazi playbook. Can we allow this war against human rights to go unanswered? Although Mr. Putin may think he can control his creation, history proves he cannot: his condemnations are permission to commit violence against gays and lesbians. In May a young gay man was murdered in the city of Volgograd. He was beaten, his body violated with beer bottles, his clothing set on fire, his head crushed with a rock. This is most likely just the beginning.

Nevertheless, the rest of the world remains almost completely ignorant of Mr. Putin’s agenda. His adoption restrictions have received some attention, but it has been largely limited to people involved in international adoptions.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Russian policy — and representative Russian views — on homosexuality is troubling, and that’s something we should all be concerned about, and many of us have been concerned about it for years.  Former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov initiated a tradition of using police violence to shut down Moscow’s annual pride parade that’s now seven years running (attacks on the 2011 parade pictured above).

It’s fair to say that Russia is one of the least LGBT-friendly countries in the world, let alone in Europe.

But it’s also one of the least friendly countries in the world to be a journalist, to serve in the armed forces, to have too dark a skin tone, to speak out against the government, to be relatively poor, to be too rich for your own good (in the eyes of the government, at least), or to be unfortunate enough to serve time in prison.

And it’s been that way — for gays and for everyone else — long before the decision that Sochi would host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

That the latest LGBT protests in the United States follow the promulgation of two laws that are particularly geared toward discrimination against gays and lesbians outside Russia leads to the uncomfortable possibility that the Johnny-come-lately crusade against Russia’s laws is motivated by a mostly self-serving, nazel-gaving campaign that’s based less on protecting Russian gays and lesbians and indignation about the treatment of U.S. gays and lesbians — and it’s not clear that kind of effort won’t be even more harmful in the long run by giving Putin a new reasons (anti-American nationalism) to persecute Russian gays and lesbians further. Continue reading Why Dan Savage’s campaign against Russian vodka is naive and counterproductive

Opposition critic Navalny’s conviction, in Putin’s Russia, is a badge of authenticity


So right on time, the Russian government has engineered a conviction of Alexei Navalny, the outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin.Russia Flag Icon

His conviction stems from a truly bizarre accusation that he embezzled around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov, an industrial town hundred of miles northeast of Moscow, and all signs indicate that the conviction is politically motivated to remove Navalny as a Putin critic whose following is growing — and his conviction is likely to only enhance his attraction.

Navalny now faces five years in Russian prison far away from Moscow, where Navalny was running to contest the mayoral election on September 8, an election that’s now even more likely to be won by incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally who took power after former mayor Yuri Luzhkov was pushed out of office by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.  The election’s sudden timing effectively prohibited prominent billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov from arranging his complex international finances in order to contest the race, leaving Navalny as the leading prominent challenger.

Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets, and who waged a presidential campaign in March 2012, has shown that his opposition is a much more delicate dance with the Kremlin than Navalny, who led full-throated protests in Moscow protesting the presidential vote and credible allegations of fraud in the December 2011 elections to the ду́ма (Duma), Russia’s lower legislative chamber.  In contrast to Navalny’s sledgehammer opposition, Prokhorov has been more hesitant to cross Putin and Putin’s allies, and it was even speculated last year that Prokhorov’s opposition was entirely manufactured by Putin’s allies.  That’s probably not true — after all, Prokhorov, as a good businessman, has much more to lose from a full-throated attack on the Kremlin than Navalny — and he’s forged links with other credible opposition figures like former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Navalny had become such a radioactive political figure in recent days that Prokhorov even refused to back Navalny in the Moscow mayoral race, instead endorsing Sergey Troitsky, the lead singer of a Russian heavy metal band, ‘Corrossive Metal,’ and who is most well-known by his stage name, Pauk, which means ‘spider’ in Russian.

But Navalny’s conviction today means that he’s likely to leapfrog the tentative Prokhorov and other anti-Putin activists as the central figure of the Russian opposition.  Russian prisons are notoriously brutal places, rife with violence and diseases, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, and Navalny faces some amount of peril in the years ahead.  Navalny’s conviction is already drawing international condemnation, and Putin will now have succeeded in elevating a one-time gadfly into a political figure empowered with the authenticity of someone who’s willing to face down Russia’s horrible prisons as the price of speaking out against Putin.

Navalny tweeted and blogged to his supporters, encouraging them to keep up his fight against Putin’s dominant Еди́ная Росси́я (United Russia) party, which he famously referred to as a ‘party of crooks and thieves.’

After the verdict, Navalny tweeted: “So that’s it. Don’t get bored without me. Most importantly, don’t sit around doing nothing. The toad won’t get off the oil pipe by itself.”

In his LiveJournal blog on Wednesday Navalny said: “The current authorities are not a big, healthy fish, but rather a bloated fish or Latin American toad, which puffs itself up when it sees danger, with the help of television.”

Utlimately, Navalny’s trial and conviction are another indication that the Putin administration intends on being as fully authoritarian as it needs to be to hold onto power, in the same way that prominent opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko remained — and still remains — in prison over politically motivated charges in neighboring Ukraine during last October’s parliamentary elections.

But Putin, in attempting to silence a 21st century critic with ham-fisted 20th century methods, risks that his strategy will backfire by bringing Navalny even more notoriety and credibility.  Just witness the international attention that the politically motivated trials against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky commanded, the sudden 2006 murder of prominent anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskayaor even the suspicions of foul play in the apparent suicide earlier this year of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky in London.

Continue reading Opposition critic Navalny’s conviction, in Putin’s Russia, is a badge of authenticity

Putin ally Sobyanin maneuvers to hold onto power in Moscow in snap September election


Though it’s sometimes easy to forget in the post-Cold War era, Moscow is still the most populous city in Europe and one of the five most populous cities in the world — it not only Russia’s capital, but Russia’s central city for power, politics and finance. Russia Flag IconMoscow

That makes the city’s mayor one of the most powerful official in the entire Russian federation and, with snap elections due for Moscow’s mayor in September, it gives some of the most unpredictable voters in Russia the opportunity to make a rare popular statement with five years to go until another presidential election, despite fears that the vote may be titled in favor of the incumbent mayor, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Earlier in June, Moscow’s current mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced his resignation, despite the fact that his term runs through 2014, setting up snap elections for September 8 that seem increasingly likely to be an easy victory for Sobyanin as his most viable rivals have either stepped aside or face an uphill challenge even making it to the ballot.  Critics immediately called Sobyanin’s resignation and the early elections a ruse to avoid real competition, thereby cementing control over Russia’s largest city within Putin’s grasp.

Elections for Moscow’s mayor are themselves a new phenomenon, given that then-president Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Duma only reintroduced direct elections for governors and other positions last year, after president Vladimir Putin suspended gubernatorial elections in 2004 on the somewhat dubious rationale of national security and anti-terror efforts.  Under the new direct elections law, however, new hurdles have been introduced that require candidates to have the support of other lawmakers in the region.  Given that Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) is by far the dominant political party in Russia, that means Putin will continue to have at least some influence on gubernatorial and local elections.

Moreover, earlier this year, Putin pushed through another law allowing regions to avoid direct elections through an alternative process whereby each party in a regional legislature submits three candidates to the Russian president, the Russian president chooses three finalists, and the regional legislature elects a governor from among the three finalists. (You can’t make this up!)

The man who was most widely anticipated to challenge Sobyanin — former presidential candidate and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — opted out of the mayoral race in mid-June when it was clear that he would not be able to meet the legal requirements in time for the snap race.  Prokhorov, who formed Civic Platform (Гражданская Платформа), a liberal political party in June 2012 in the wake of his relatively successful presidential race.  But Prokhorov, who is the owner of the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team in the United States, would have run afoul of requirements that require his assets to be repatriated prior to serving as Moscow’s mayor. Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin maneuvers to hold onto power in Moscow in snap September election