Saturday, December 29, 2007


You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse -
But all may be described in verse.

T.S. Eliot

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Christmas Poem


Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy (1915)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Future of Ingushetia - Video Available

The Jamestown Foundation has made available a 2-part video recording of the "Future of Ingushetia" conference it held late last month. Participants who can be watched and listened to as they deliver their papers and analyses include human rights worker Fatima Tlisova, Dr. Mairbek Vatchagaev, journalist Valery Dzutsev and Dr. Paul Goble. There are also screenings of some documentary film footage, including the very moving Memorial/Witness co-production on disappearances in the North Caucasus, "Missing Lives".

The streaming videos of the conference proceedings and accompanying film material can be watched here and here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Escape from Russia

The BBC writes about the case of Andrei Sidelnikov, a Russian dissident and opposition activist who recently managed to escape from Russia, and has applied for political asylum in Britain:
Andrei Sidelnikov is the leader of "Pora", an opposition youth movement which advocates an Orange-style revolution to overthrow the government of Vladimir Putin. He said he feared for his life if he remained in Moscow.

"I am very afraid about my life in Russia. When I saw the letter from the FSB, I thought that it was the end of my story in Russia."

The Russian embassy in London told the BBC they were aware of Mr Sidelnikov's arrival in the UK, but had no specific information about his case.

A spokesman said his decision to apply for political asylum was a matter for the British authorities. The Home Office said they do not discuss the details of individual applications.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Behind the Scenes

The BBC, in a slightly disingenuous report on the latest deterioration in Russo-British relations:
The exhibition [now under threat from the Russian government], which includes works from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and Moscow's Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, is currently in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Some of the art was taken from private collections after the 1917 revolution, leading to fears of seizure.

Gordon Brown and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to attend the show's opening.

'Academy nervous'

Former shadow arts minister Hugo Swire, who used to work for the National Gallery, told the BBC it was difficult to see what was behind the situation.

The Conservative MP, who organised an exhibition of Russian art in London during the Gorbachev era, said issues such as the Litvinenko row or the closure of British Council offices in Russia could be to blame.

"I think this is a situation that certainly the Royal Academy were nervous might happen," he said.

"I had a discussion with the then director about this very situation, and the government I don't think have been very quick to come forward to address the potential of something like this happening."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Kosovo Dreams

George Friedman takes a look at the issue of Russia and Kosovo's independence, and suggests a few - mostly scary - scenarios, such as a "light military" option:

...Putin would send a battalion or two of troops by air to Belgrade, load them onto trucks and send them toward Pristina, claiming this as Russia’s right under agreements made in 1999. Assume a squadron of Russian aircraft would be sent to Belgrade as well. A Russian naval squadron, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, already is headed to the Mediterranean. Obviously, this is not a force that could impose anything on NATO. But would the Germans, for example, be prepared to open fire on these troops?
However, as Valery Dzutsev points out in the comments, for several well-founded reasons these projected scenarios are the least likely ones to arise, and Friedman ignores a much more possible outcome, though even it can't yet really be tagged as "probable".

Monday, December 17, 2007

European Cultural Institutes Support Britain Against Moscow

Reuters notes that

European cultural institutes have sent a letter to the Russian government expressing deep concern over moves against the British government's cultural arm, which is caught up in a diplomatic row between London and Moscow.

Signed by bodies such as the Goethe and Cervantes institutes, the letter said an order to the British Council to halt operations in two cities outside Moscow from
January 1 amounted to "discriminatory action".

Les Chats

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s'endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d'étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d'or, ainsi qu'un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.

Charles Baudelaire

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Angel

What I really like about Dr. Stefanie Schwartz's approach to the feline world is its reflective, spiritual and meditative quality. In a few brief sentences she is able to express what it is almost impossible to say:
Words are not always necessary; in fact, they frequently get in the way. Your cat speaks volumes when s/he finds just the right moment to rub against your cheek and curl up next to you... Despite an arduous day, when your cat gazes at you and purrs, it is the gesture of an angel reminding you that, today and every day, you are worthy of being loved.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dr. Cookie's Guide

This is by far the best book on the nature and rearing of cats that I've found. It's written by a real doctor, who genuinely understands the often strange yet tender world of the cat, and the ways in which it intersects with the world of human beings. I've learned a great deal from this wonderful book.

Disbelieving the NIE

Daniel Pipes considers that the recent publication of a declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) makes war against Iran more likely, and that "thus have short-sighted, small-minded, blatantly partisan intelligence bureaucrats, trying to hide unpleasant realities, helped engineer their own nightmare."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Russia joins Burma and Iran

Russia is joining Burma and Iran as one of the very few countries in the world where the British Council is not allowed to operate - now on the surrealistic pretext that the Council is a "for-profit" organization, AP reports.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


On the spectacularly pro-Putin (via United Russia) North Caucasus results in the recent Russian parliamentary elections, Paul Goble writes in his blog that
While no one disputes that there was falsification there and often on an enormous scale, polls taken in the region before the vote suggest that more of it involved boosting total turnout numbers rather than increasing the share of votes going to United Russia, although that certainly happened in many places there as well.

But over the last few days, specialists on polling data and elections as well as on ethnic and political traditions in the North Caucasus have come forward to argue that the results reported across this region, however obviously absurd they were at the margins, nonetheless reflected certain underlying realities in that region ( data.php?idar=174570).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vilayat Nokhchichö

It appears that the takeover of the Chechen independence movement by Islamist forces is now more or less complete. At chechnya-sl, Norbert Strade has posted links to recent decrees by Islamist leader Dokku Umarov:

If there is still anybody out there who doesn't believe Mr. Umarov's words from his original video message, it should now be absolutely clear that he meant what he said. Through the last two days he has issued a number of decrees (now called "omra") in his function as "Amir of the North Caucasus", in which he once again declares the establishment of a "North Caucasian Emirate" and the abolition of the ChRI and its structures.The first two decrees (establishment of the North Caucasian Emirate;introduction of "sharia" law on its territory) have been translated into English, cf. htp:// The following decrees are only published in Russian at this point, cf. They include in detail:
No. 3: The establishment of "vilayat" as an administrative unit.
No. 4: The conversion of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria into "Vilayat Nohchichö".
No. 5: The integration of the other North Caucasian republics-turned vilayat into the N.C. Emirate.
No. 6: The creation of the institute of "Wali" (governor of a vilayat).
No. 7: The abolition of the institute of President of the ChRI.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Russia - A Universal Danger

Dan Rather reports on the increasing danger posed to the rest of the world by the Russian state (about 14 minutes into the show, in a segment lasting some 40 minutes). From the truly sickening scenes of violence and intimidation of civilians in a modern European capital city perpetrated by young Russian Nazis - scenes which recall historical archive footage of Kristallnacht - to the massive cyberattacks on the infrastructure and institutions of a neighbour, orchestrated by the Russian government itself, this televised report goes to the centre of a real and growing threat to global peace and security.

Estonia's Second Life - II

Inside the Virtual Embassy.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Russian Jihadis

In Chechnya Weekly, Andrei Smirnov asks: Is the Caucasian Emirate Threat a Threat to the Western World? Excerpt:
The rebels in the Caucasus do not hide in woods or in the mountains all the time, rather, they are as other residents in Russia, they watch Russian television and read Russian newspapers. They also watch the TV program of Mikhail Leontyev, the well-known political observer who likes to repeat that the Americans sponsor terrorists in the North Caucasus. In 2003, in Chechnya, while the author of this article was talking to a Chechen field commander from the radical wing of the resistance, he admitted receiving money from international Muslim international foundations. He speculated that some Western countries were also contributing with the aim of causing more trouble for Russia. The Kremlin exploits anti-American propaganda in order to inspire xenophobia among the Russian population, and this situation affects—in turn—the feelings in the North Caucasus. The worse that Russian-American relations become, the greater are the illusions of the militants that the United States is really helping them discreetly, or at least that it might start doing so one day.

The absurdity of the rebels’ declarations lies in the fact that they declare war against the West, and at the same time beg for aid in their anti-Russian struggle. When Dokka Umarov’s video declaration of the establishment of the Caucasian Emirate was posted on the Kavkaz-Center website, the names of the countries he had called “enemies of Allah"—America, England and Israel—had been removed and replaced by the abstract phrase “enemies of Islam.”

Whatever the Caucasian rebels say, it is clear that they do not have much in common with the interests of the international Jihadi movement. For the Taliban and the Sunni militants in Iraq, the main enemy is the United Sates, while for Hamas and Islamic Jihad the main enemy is Israel. For all of them, Russia is not an enemy, while for Islamists in Russia, the main and, in fact, the only enemy is the Russian government. With the establishment of the Caucasian Emirate, one could speak of the appearance of a new phenomenon that could be described as a Russian Jihadi movement. This movement has no smaller plans than the Jihadi movement worldwide, but it nonetheless limits itself to activities inside Russia’s borders and has no ambitions to grow into an international problem.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Estonia's Second Life

Estonia has opened a Virtual Embassy on Second Life:
According to Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, more and more of communication takes place on the Internet, and Estonia must keep up with the trend. “Second Life’s popularity as an alternative environment for interaction has grown rapidly, which is why we decided to establish an embassy there,” Paet added.

Art exhibits, concerts, lectures and other events will be organised in the embassy. The first lecture, entitled “Back to the future,” will be given in January by Estonian Ambassador to Great Britain Margus Laidre.

According to Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry Matti Maasikas, several other countries are planning to open virtual embassies in Second Life, which means that the prominence of Second Life is growing in diplomatic circles. “We expect people interested in Estonia, as well as people interested in foreign relations and foreign policy, to participate in events at the embassy,” said Maasikas.

The virtual embassy has a conference room, exhibition room, reception hall and a technology room, where Estonia as an e-nation is introduced. Visitors to the Estonian embassy will hear current news read by an Estonian hound.

In honour of the 90th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, the embassy will display the exhibit “Blue-black-white in Estonian painting”. There will also be other materials dedicated to the anniversary on display.
The embassy can be visited here (you need to have the SL client installed on your computer).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fighting Back

After Time magazine published an article about The Death of French Culture, France's artistic elite fought back in no uncertain terms, the Telegraph writes, adding:
Indeed, France boasts such world-renowned figures as Pierre Boulez, the composer and conductor, as well as the diva Natalie Dessay who took centre stage at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's season.

And in how many other countries would a philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, be frequently seen holding forth on prime-time television shows?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Putin: Disassembling the Myths

At RFE/RL, Robert Coalson examines Five Myths About Russia's Elections. The article should probably be compulsory reading for those news correspondents (on BBC, Sky, CNN, etc.), who blithely refer to President Putin's "popularity", as though it were an established fact.

December 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There is an "election" going on in Russia. Not an election, but an "election." This is not an election that falls short of international standards. It is not a democratic, a flawed-democratic, or even a pseudo-democratic process. According to a recent RFE/RL poll, nearly two-thirds of voting age Russians don't believe the elections will be conducted honestly. Nearly half say if they do vote, it will be out of a sense of "duty."

The Kremlin, regardless, is expending considerable effort to create the illusion of a democratic process, with the Kremlin-controlled election agencies, the Kremlin-controlled legislature, and the Kremlin-controlled media, which constantly intones the mantra that Russia is following its own democratic path, that the country has a reliable democratic system. "We don't need helpers in organizing elections like in Africa or Kosovo," a Central Election Commission member said in October. "We have an established democratic system."

Here are five myths the Kremlin's political spin machine has been working non-stop to promote.

1) President Vladimir Putin is popular. Polls consistently show Putin with a popularity rating of 60 to 70 percent. But these polls are part of an antidemocratic system, one where conformist political messages are drummed into the populace constantly while high-profile examples of the consequences of dissent -- from dispossession to exile to murder -- are frequently reinforced. No other political figures in Russia have even minimal name recognition, and even people who regularly appear on state television to sycophantically praise the leader are not known to the public by name. In Pictures: Russians Go To The Polls.

"Popularity" in Russia is something the Kremlin gives and takes away. Six days after the largely unknown Viktor Zubkov was named prime minister in September, a poll found that 40 percent of Russians thought he'd be the next president of Russia. Because Putin is the only political figure with any significant stature in Russia, he attracts personal credit for everything that happens in the country, all of which is positively spun in the state-controlled media. However, the presidential administration understands how quickly setbacks can erode even Putin's support, as it learned in 2001 when Putin was lambasted for failing to show sympathy for the trapped crew of the Kursk nuclear submarine and in 2005 when pensioners took to the streets in the thousands calling for Putin's resignation because of a controversial social-benefits reform.

Putin's popularity ratings are a bubble that exist within a political vacuum, a bubble that nonetheless needs to be continuously pumped up with injections of hot air from state television.

2) Parties matter. Putin and his team have worked hard over the last seven years to bring the political party system under control, and they have succeeded. Although there was some evidence the plan was to create a system based on two Kremlin-friendly parties, the Kremlin's commitment to that idea was never solid. Now it appears Soviet-era political impulses have taken over and the efficiency of a single-party monolith has proven too attractive.

There are 11 parties participating in the current campaign, but only one counts. Propped up by Putin and more than two-thirds of Russia's regional leaders, plus thousands of mayors and other apparatchiks, the Unified Russia party has -- as it did in 2003 -- ignored the other parties and focused entirely on using its vast financial and administrative resources to persuade a cynical public that since there is no beating them, you'd best join them.

Since its creation, it has followed the direction of the presidential administration, which in turn has not even bothered to create the impression that it takes the party's opinions into consideration. Party leaders were stunned when Putin announced unexpectedly on October 1 that he would head Unified Russia’s list of candidates for the Duma elections.

As for the other parties, some -- the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, A Just Russia, and Civic Force -- are Kremlin-controlled pseudo-opposition groups designed to muddle the situation and siphon votes away from independent organizations. The real opposition parties are financially starved groups that must spend all their resources merely in order to comply with the strict laws on forming and registering parties; that are shut out of the national media; and that are harassed, ridiculed, and parodied by Kremlin-inspired pseudo-NGOs.

3) Issues matter. The platform of Unified Russia's campaign is a collection of Putin speeches nebulously called "Putin's Plan," and it is not discussing any issues more sophisticated than the slogan "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory."

As it did in 2003, Unified Russia has refused to participate in campaign debates with opposition parties. Nonetheless, because of the party's domination of state-television news coverage, 8 percent of Russians in a recent poll said they remembered seeing Unified Russia members in televised debates and 69 percent of Russians who said they watched the debates thought that Unified Russia performed well in them.

Although Unified Russia has turned the elections into a referendum on Putin and his course, observers know that "Putin's course" is whatever Putin and his inner circle deem expedient at the moment.

Policy pronouncements by the minor also-rans are ridiculed at best, and as a rule ignored. In addition, because the violations of election standards by the authorities, by Unified Russia, and by bespoke “nongovernmental” outfits like the militant Nashi youth group have been so frequent and so outrageous, opposition parties spend the lion's share of their time and effort cataloging and complaining about them. There is literally no time to discuss matters such as the creeping renationalization of the economy or the systematic dismantling of civil society.

4) Election rules matter. Any party advertisement that does not include a direct, literal appeal to vote is not considered part of the campaign and is not covered by campaign or campaign-finance laws, the Central Election Commission has ruled in connection with complaints about Unified Russia flooding the country with t-shirts, notebooks, backpacks, and bottles of vodka.

On the other hand, the Federal Security Service, the KGB successor organization charged primarily with preventing terrorism, is investigating a Communist Party leaflet that contains jokes about Unified Russia and Putin. Police in cities around the country have confiscated campaign materials of the Union of Rightist Forces on pretexts ranging from the need to test them for narcotics to the need to analyze their content for signs of extremism or hidden advertising.

Opposition activists have been questioned by police in their homes and detained without cause on the streets. Garry Kasparov, head of the opposition Other Russia coalition -- which can't even participate in the elections because the Kremlin refused to register it -- spent five days in detention for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, while six more Other Russia activists were sentenced this week to six days in jail for allegedly resisting arrest. Ivan Bolshakov, a leading Yabloko youth activist and Duma candidate from Nizhny Novgorod, was arrested on November 20 in Moscow hours after filing a complaint against Putin with the Central Election Commission on charges stemming from a demonstration he attended in May. Yabloko activist Farid Babayev was shot dead in Daghestan following his criticism of the republican administration's manipulation of the election campaign.

Unified Russia has filed 11 cases against newspapers in the city of Saratov alone, having recently won a hefty decision against one cash-strapped paper. Neither Putin nor the vast majority of the nearly 70 Category A officials (federal ministers and regional heads) running for the Duma on the Unified Russia ticket is taking administrative leave during the campaign. The governor of Novosibirsk region told journalists he can't leave his post because of upcoming events like " the celebration of the harvest, the 70th anniversary of the oblast, and the coming of winter."

5) Election results will reflect the public will. This myth is perhaps the most important from the Kremlin's point of view. Analysts in Russia and the West have argued Putin is seeking a landslide in the elections so he can -- under the cover of an apparent popular mandate -- affect some unspecified major overhaul to the state structure and/or the constitution. Those changes will likely institutionalize Putin's increasingly totalitarian political system by introducing further antidemocratic measures such as the elimination of the direct election of the president.

No one knows what those changes -- "Putin's Plan" -- will be. So no one can vote for them. But even if Russians did know what that plan is, a political system without alternatives cannot produce an endorsement of that plan. Fewer than one in five respondents in the RFE/RL poll believe the results of the vote will reflect the true will of the electorate.

The Russian legislative elections will produce a "landslide," but it will be no more meaningful than similar landslides that are produced in other controlled political systems, such as those in most Central Asian countries. Unified Russia's victory will be a victory for Putin and his circle. But it won't be anything more than that.