Dmitry Medvedev’s Government got a new ministry last week. The former Federal Agency for Construction and Housing and Utilities was elevated to the Ministry of Construction and Housing and Utilities by President Vladimir Putin.
Utilities and housing have been a problem in Russia throughout Putin’s rule, and something that people feel strongly about since it effects their daily lives and routines. A rate freeze on domestic utilities has been proposed for next year due to concerns about inflation [http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/sechin-backs-tariff-freeze-and-boasts-40-increase-in-capitalization/486573.html]. By elevating construction, housing and utilities to a ministerial position, Putin seems to be indicating that he understands that this subject is important. This was emphasized during his first meeting with the new Minister, Mikhail Men [http://www.kremlin.ru/news/19529].
So Putin has just placed the problem of construction, housing, utilities directly in Prime Minister Medvedev’s lap. So when the newly formed ministry fails to enact real reform (and it will fail), the blame will fall on Medvedev and his government.
Newly appointed Minister Mikhail Men’s career is filled with holes, but his main claim to fame seems to be his father, the famous Soviet priest Alexander Men, who was assassinated in 1990 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Men]. Mikhail Men was a deputy mayor in Moscow, and then Governor of the Ivanovno region (I am still trying to track down dates on those). In addition to his political activity, Men [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Men_Project] is also a professional musician who released a hard-rock album in 2004. Like Dmitry Medvedev, he is also a fan of Deep Purple. So the Putin team’s bench is a little longer than we thought, but if all they’re looking for is someone to play seat warmer, they could pick any fan of Deep Purple on the streets of Moscow or any city in Russia.
With a little more than 100 days to go until the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Sochi, security has become a central focus. Any security system has its weak spots, but as two incidents this week have shown, there are too many holes in Russia’s system.
The first incident was a bus bombing in Volgograd on Monday afternoon [http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/10/a_suspected_black_wi.php]. A female suicide bomber boarded a bus and blew it up. As I wrote over in my Global Voices column [http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/10/23/in-wake-of-suicide-bombing-russians-question-their-security/], some in the Russian blogosphere were quick to point out that after 14 years of Putin, Russia’s security apparatus still cannot protect its citizens.
The second incident actually took place last month, but came to light only yesterday. RIA Novosti [http://en.ria.ru/crime/20131023/184311460/Passenger-Skips-Russian-Airport-Checks-for-Bribe-Worth-47.html] reported that a man in Yakutsk bought a domestic plane ticket on a discount, using a false passport. When he arrived at the airport, he bribed a security officer to let him through “pre-flight inspection” with a bottle of cognac and a box of chocolates worth approximately $47. The police arrested the culprit before boarding the plane, but the fact that he got as far as the departure lounge is worrying.
Two stories, two different outcomes, but both reveal the single greatest threat to security surrounding the Winter Olympics in Sochi. There has been a lot of outrage about the security system put in place by the Russian security services for Sochi 2014. A report [http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/06/sochi-olympic-venues-kremlin-surveillance] by security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan “found that phone and Internet networks in Sochi have been retrofitted with a surveillance system, known by its Russian acronym Sorm, which allows the FSB to eavesdrop on phone and data communications in the city [Sochi]” [http://www.themoscowtimes.com/olympic_coverage/article/all-communications-traffic-to-be-monitored-at-sochi-olympics-report-says/487352.html].
But what good is a state of the art security system if a man can bribe his way onto a plane for under $50?
Izvestia released an interview [http://izvestia.ru/news/557580] with Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Wednesday. It is unclear exactly when the interview itself took place, though it was clearly given in the aftermath of this past weekend’s Putin marriage rumors because Peskov does address that issue. As a follow-up to my article in Global Voices [http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/09/25/rumors-fly-that-putin-has-remarried/], I thought I would parse portions of Peskov’s interview.
Peskov, of course, brings up the marriage rumors again, and denies them, saying Putin does not have time for a personal life.
“I do not know where this information came from. I really received a lot of phone calls on Sunday. I was sincerely glad to get those calls, and I replied: ‘The only problem is that Putin is in Sochi. I cannot tell you what is cordoned off at the Iversky Monastery.’”
Peskov’s complaint about the phone calls was amusing since it was Peskov himself who had stirred up the media frenzy even more by going on television on Saturday evening to deny the initial rumors that had appeared on Twitter.
Peskov perhaps revealed more than he intended to when he addressed media speculation that Putin is fed false stories in order to make him look bad in public.
“Putin receives information from a variety of sources: from the ministries and agencies, the media, sociological services, information services and so on. In addition, he receives information from friends, acquaintances and colleagues. This is the widest range of sources.”
I got involved in a discussion on Twitter about this last week:
The fact that Peskov felt the need to stick up for whomever is dispensing the poor PR advice seemed odd to say the least. Why mention it at all unless you were worried about the public’s perception of Putin? Also, is Putin really taking advice from acquaintances? And if he has no time for friends, how are they dispensing advice?
Anyone in a leadership position is isolated. It is just a scale of how much. Putin has always been isolated but it has been assumed that he was isolated by choice. In 2005 a story surfaced that Putin had a close circle of advisors that met 2 times a week, and only numbered nine in total. None of those nine people were named. One of them was thought to be Sergei Prikhodko, who was the President’s point man on foreign policy. Prikhodko has since moved on to take a place in Dmitry Medvedev’s Government, and it is unclear if he is still running the show in the area of foreign policy.
And Putin himself has stated that he doesn’t utilize the internet. So any information he is getting is fed to him by his advisors. But who exactly are those advisors?
Peskov claimed more than once in the Izvestia interview that everything Putin says in public is fact-checked. On more than one occasion recently, Putin has claimed that a “party of pedophiles” operates in Europe. At Valdai last week, Putin was quoted as saying:
“Excesses of political correctness have reached the point that serious consideration is being given to the registration of parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia.”
The Wall Street Journal suggested that [http://blogs.wsj.com/emergingeurope/2013/09/19/berlusconi-features-in-putins-defense-of-antigay-policy/]:
“Mr. Putin was referring to a court in the Netherlands that earlier this year overturned a ban on a pro-pedophilia association there.”
Nevertheless, Izvestia said that there was no evidence of any such party in Europe, and when they asked Peskov about it, he defended Putin’s assertion, saying:
“As for the party of pedophiles – this information has been checked very carefully, including by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and believe me, this is not unsubstantiated information.”
The mark of a good spokesman is plausible deniability, something that Peskov has never managed to achieve. Or in simpler terms, Peskov is a bad liar. And every time Peskov gives an interview, rather than setting the record straight, the stories he seeks to clarify only gain more traction.
“I have an acquaintance who has a firm reputation as a playboy. And even if he were now living in a monastery, people would still say: He’s the playboy who… and would recall legends and fables from his turbulent life as a playboy. Basically, legends outlive people, as is well known.
–Nataliya Gevorkyan discussing Surkov in Kommersant July 2005
Over the years many legends have been given to us about Vladislav Surkov. We were told he was “publicity shy”. This was proven to be untrue when Surkov went on a media blitz in both the domestic and foreign markets in the middle of 2005. At the time his actions sparked speculation that Surkov was putting himself forward as a contender in the race for “Operation Successor” to replace Vladimir Putin as President of Russia in 2008. If Surkov did put his name in the ring, he did it with such skill that it appears he was never considered a serious threat. At least he never appeared to fall victim to the schemes and intrigues that befell so many others in the pre-2008 in-fighting.
Then Surkov revealed that he was half-Chechen, and that myth was born. That of the man who could solve Chechnya’s problems.
Other narratives have emerged over time: Surkov the liberal. Surkov the novelist. Surkov the lyricist (it is rumored he writes lyrics for the Russian band, Agata Kristi). Surkov the hipster.
Slava Surkov’s persona of 1980s hipster has inspired a portfolio of memes on the internet. He has achieved a cult status on Tumblr where a cursory search of the Surkov tag has the potential to end hours later, bleary-eyed and wondering where the time went.
When he left the Government this past May, you could almost hear the collective groans of disappointment across the Internet. But enthusiasts need not have worried. Slava was still posting photos on Instagram, still making trips down to Chechnya to go fishing with Kadyrov, and making sure we did not forget him.
He even managed to introduce us to his father in Ufa. An interview in Russkiy Pioneer (a youth magazine) less than a month later revealed few new facts, but served to heighten the aura of mysteriousness that Surkov cultivates.
Meanwhile, it appeared that Surkov was in talks with the Kremlin about his future place in the ranks. Rumors would surface periodically over the summer about his imminent return. But these were all quickly quashed. When the most recent gossip surfaced, it was treated with some skepticism, but they turned out to be true, and Surkov is once again safely ensconsed in the Kremlin. He has replaced Tatiana Golikova as Presidential Envoy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2 breakaway regions in Georgia). However, the speculation has already started up again about Surkov’s future. Because surely Surkov’s ambitions must be greater than mere Presidential Aide and Envoy.
The latest gossip, by the way, is that Surkov will replace Kadyrov as chief of Chechnya. However, this rumor seems unlikely due to a number of factors.
First, Surkov is only half Chechen. This makes him something of an outsider in Chechen society. Added to this is the fact that he is not a practicing Muslim, and is, allegedly, a baptized Orthodox. And he was not raised in Chechnya or even in a Chechen community. In fact, Surkov is so much the outsider that I would argue that it would be impossible for him to maintain a firm grasp on power for very long.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that Surkov probably would not want the job if it were offered to him. Not that he would not welcome the challenge if it were offered him, but that he is already running Chechnya by virtue of the fact that he has Kadyrov’s ear.
Further, Surkov was the alleged author of Chechenization (or Kadyrovization, as I have taken to calling it) where power in the ethnic republics is concentrated on one person who rules with an iron fist.
Given all of that, why would Surkov want to take on a more public role when he cearly does not need one? No, for better or for worse, Kadyrov will remain chief of Chechnya. And Surkov will keep stringing us along, which is his real hobby.
We now have less than 150 days until the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. As the event gets closer, security fears are rising not just in Russia, but in neighboring countries as well. This past April, Georgia’s defense minister Irakli Alasania stated that the Georgian government was concerned that the Russian Government could accuse Georgia of being complicit should a terrorist attack take place. As a result, the Georgians said that they were doing everything possible to enhance security in their country [apsny.ge/2013/mil/1364934484.php].
In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he “was prepared to give Georgia a role in security at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, which borders the Caucasus country’s breakaway region of Abkhazia” [en.rian.ru/sports/20130611/181618922/Putin-Ready-to-Give-Georgians-Olympic-Security-Role.html].
The following day, Georgia’s Foreign Minister said that Georgia was prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to take a role in security at the Winter Olympics [http://en.ria.ru/world/20130612/181633162/Georgia-Accepts-Putins-Offer-for-Olympic-Security-Role.html].
However, I have neither seen nor read that this gesture of cooperation has gone beyond the statements made over the summer. In a short brief written in July, Tom De Waal wrote [http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=52424&lang=en] that he believed the two countries were both concerned about the security situation, and but were working separately.
The Russians are alleged to have posted a list of names of people who they believed to be security threats to the Sochi Games. I have seen no evidence of this list, though I would appreciate any help if any of you know where I can get a copy.
At the same time, the Georgian authorities seem to have a list of their own. Two men are part of Georgia’s Greco-Roman wrestling junior team say they are on a list of alleged “Wahhabi extremists” kept by the Georgian security services. In August, wrestler Piruz Tsulukidze claimed that he was prevented from leaving Georgia to participate an event in Bulgaria due to his association with “Wahhabists”. In an interview given last week, Tsulukidze’s coach, Temur Bakhuntaradze, says he was detained twice by police in Batumi for proselytizing [http://www.ick.ge/articles/15781-i.html].
On Friday evening, the two men were detained along with a young man with a Russian passport [http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26455]. The 3rd detainee, Yusuf Lakaev, is alleged to have entered Georgia illegally. The authorities claim they were informed of his presence in Batumi on Friday, September 13. During a routine document check, Mr Lakaev began shooting wildly. Before the police shot him, Lakaev managed to injure one policeman, and a bystander. None of the three people were seriously injured, but were taken to the hospital for observation.
When they raided the Georgians’ homes, police found one grenade, a home-made gun with a wooden grip, six different knives and two backpacks in military print colors [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0B2OZPR2zA]. This would seem to verify the police allegation that the two Georgian men were helping Mr Lakaev to cross into Turkey, where presumably he would have joined a group heading to Syria.
Fortunately, Friday’s shootout ended with only minor injuries. But without real cross-border cooperation, we may see more incidents like it in both Georgia and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed that was published in the New York Times this morning has been met with both much praise and much derision. My own Twitter feed has been filled with comments, jokes, and links to responses. However, what caught my eye early on was this comment from Steve Lee Myers, the acting Bureau Chief for the New York Times in Moscow:
As Prime Minister in 1999, Putin oversaw the Russian incursion into Chechnya in the name of state security. Many in the world community saw this as a cause for concern, and President Bill Clinton raised the issue when the two men met in Oslo in November of that year.
The emotional tone of the 1999 article [http://nyti.ms/1d6Z7LL%5D is the very first thing that jumped out at me. Putin begins by saying: “Because we value our relations with the United States and care about Americans’ perception of us, I want to explain our actions in clear terms.”
He then goes straight into a hypothetical scenario of a terrorist attack on New York City (something that is very odd to read 12 years after 9/11), and urges his readers to imagine renegade militias out of Montana running rampant across middle America and striking fear into the hearts of citizens. He compares this imaginary scenario to what Shamil Basayev was doing in Chechnya.
The whole essay is very artfully done. Putin appeals to Americans’ experiences in the post-Cold War reality. He cites incidents of terrorist violence on American targets around the world, and says, “Terrorism today knows no boundaries.”
He insists: “The antiterrorist campaign was forced upon us. Sadly, decisive armed intervention was the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists….”
And his ending paragraph reads in an odd mixture of defensiveness, and meekness:
“But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond. That is our purpose in Chechnya, and we are determined to see it through. The understanding of our friends abroad would be helpful.”
Contrast this with today’s article written in response to President Obama’s recent speech about Syria . Again Putin appeals to the American public as a whole, and not just their leadership, saying: “It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.”
The following sentence was especially noteworthy when compared to the 1999 article in defense of the Russian incursion into Chechnya: “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country.” Sound familiar at all?
Or compare the following two sentences. Putin in 1999 defending his actions in Chechnya: “Yet in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that.” And Putin in 2013 warning against targeted strikes in Syria: “No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”
As Presidents do not write their own speeches, neither do they write their own articles. Whatever the differences between these two articles, the authors of each one know their audience and worked hard to appeal to it.
The world has changed a lot in the last 14 years, and the reality today is much different than it was in 1999. President Putin has now been in power in one form or another for almost 14 years. Chechnya was destroyed and then rebuilt, but Russia is not really much safer than it was 14 years ago.
America meanwhile has had boots on the ground in Iraq for a decade, and Afghanistan for 12 years. Most Americans are not enthusiastic about becoming entrenched in another conflict overseas no matter how noble the arguments for involvement are. In that kind of environment, who could object to the following sentiment? “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
Putin’s appeal to the American public is not falling on fallow ground, as just skimming the 600 plus comments in his New York Times’ article will attest. And the article has spawned a “Putin For Peace” trend on Twitter, with rumors of a possible Nobel Peace Prize nomination in the offing. Mr Putin knows his audience, but does his audience know Mr Putin?
Vladimir Putin’s fishing expedition in Tyva lit up the Russian blogosphere over the weekend. There were lots of bromance jokes about Putin and Medvedev, and debates about the size of the fish Putin caught (conclusion: much smaller than the claimed 21kg).
But there was also an interesting post by Andrei Malgin on his LJ blog with the conspiracy theory that the fishing trip did not take place at all. And that the photos released were actually from a previous trip to Tyva in 2007. He notes that the Kremlin never noted Putin’s visit to Tyva on the dates he was allegedly there. Furthermore, the Kremlin press pool was not informed of the trip, nor were they present. Finally, the cutter Shoigu and Putin are in has an MChS (Emergencies Ministry) tag on it. This is important because Shoigu was the long-time Minister of the Emergencies Ministry until last year.
The evidence does not look good, but… here is the thing: we know Peskov lies. It is an open secret in Moscow. Someone once joked, “When Peskov lies, you know he is lying, and he knows that you know he is lying.” Frankly, I don’t think he can help himself. But there is a difference between lying in an interview about how much Putin’s pike weighed (and who really cares anyway?), and posting photos that are 6 years old and trying to pass them off as being only a week old. Why would you lie about something like that? What does it get you?
One commenter joked: “Maybe Putin has already died, and we don’t know it.”
Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov denied on Sunday that the photos were from the 2007 trip.