FADING FREEDOMS- long
by Michael Hammerschlag
Something amazing happened in St. Petersburg March 3rd, where the Putinist Mayor has simply banned the (only) liberal Yablocko Party - there was an old fashioned protest rally over the assault on freedoms. The police attacked and beat some of the 3000 people, but the amazing thing was that there was a protest at all. Another Dissenter March was crushed in Moscow on April 14, organized by The Other Russia, headed by chess master Garry Kasparov (who was arrested) and former Prime Minister Kasyanov. Outnumbered 5 to 1 by riot police, the 2000 protesters were banned from the central Pushkin Sq. and again attacked when they tried to march to their approved Turgenev Sq. location. The government had granted rally permits that day to ultra nationalist, anti-immigrant, and creepy Putin Youth groups - the Young Guard, who like Nashi, protest and harass anyone with the temerity to not support Putin’s every proposal. The next day in Petersburg, the police did it again, beating pensioners and protesters when they were just returning to the Metro.
Returning here after 13 years has been a shock- at the incredible prices in the omnipresent luxury stores and malls; at the 3 million cars and 6 hour traffic jams, at the 160 million cell phones, at the continual artillery barrage on democracy, and the utter complaisance of the people, 80% of whom approve of Putin. Day by day over the last 7 years, power has been consolidated in the Kremlin: regional governors are now appointed, not elected; the entire Duma and Senate are dominated by Putin's United Russia, other parties are banned or harassed; opponents prosecuted; almost every media outlet has been crushed, or taken over by the Kremlin and their allies.
When I first arrived in Nov 91, a month Metro pass on the best system in the world or a Big Mac were 12¢, tickets to the Hermitage or Pushkin Museums or Bolshoi Ballet were 4¢, a new 27” color TV or 6000 mile airplane ticket was $3, the people made $8/month (because of the insane exchange rate); and Americans were feted as wealthy foreign princes. Now a baseball cap in one of these luxury malls runs $20-90, a meal in an average restaurant is $30-40; and brainless goons at the door of every club and restaurant arbitrarily deny entrance to anyone not rich, beautiful, or elite enough (the Mafiya had a cure for this in the old days). Then it was messy, wild, violent; but free, with a vibrant and dynamic media, surging with hope and enthusiasm at the prospects. It is physically painful to me, having seen the horrendous price Russians paid for the authoritarian brutality and promulgation of lies by the Communists, to see it reenacted, step by step in the new Russia. The Russian penchant for abuse remains undaunted: the first rule is “Everyone with power abuses it”, and Russians can flip from insufferable superiority to craven supplication with breathless aplomb, depending on the perceived status of their interlocutor. Every week there are more moves to hamper, restrict, and cripple the press, NGO’s, and any foreign groups.
The respected liberal Moscow News, whom I most wrote for, just was swallowed by the government news agency RIA/Novesti, and an executive there said, "You will not find stories that can be classified as political". Do what? They had 2 editors executed by Stalin- is Vlad the Impaler really worse than Uncle Joe? 35% now would vote for Stalin, informed by a 40 part TV series dramatizing his "good side". In March 11th regional elections, the 2 pro-Kremlin parties overwhelmingly won all 14 provinces. Surprise. The Kremlin recently concocted their 2nd party- A Just Russia, as a more liberal clone, but is already alarmed at its popularity. The only allowed parties who reach the arbitrary 7% level for “legality” are 2 Kremlin parties, the Communists, and the neo-right wing Liberal Democrats (Zhironovsky’s)- the last 2 being helpful as a designated protest vote to provide the veneer of democracy, though even they prostrate themselves regularly for the Kremlin. The banned National Bolsheviks are to be dissolved- even mentioning their name in the newspaper will be a crime, prosecutors warned, and they raided a radio station- Echo Moscva, and confiscated radio tapes of an interview with their leader. Non-parties, non-persons; haven’t we been here before?
Both Putin and Moscow Mayor for Life Luzhkov are supposedly quitting next year, Putin because the Constitution says so (if they don't change it, which the Senate Speaker just suggested; and Luzhkov just met with Don Putina to get his blessing to stay Mayor- his wife is a property manager billionaire in a place where he has the last word on property). Since there is no real opposition or opposition press, news has the flavor of Czarist court gossip about who's the most slavishly devoted; as the country waits with bated breathe which Deputy Prime Minister Putin will throw his support behind- probably fellow KGB traveler and neo-hardliner ex-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was just promoted. But this one party state has shredded the foundations of democracy, which require a free press and informed citizenry, and corrupted every institution of a civil society. Passageway by MacDonalds- Puskinskaya 4/14
The new head of elections, another Petersburg Putin underling, believes “rule no. 1 is that Putin is always right.” Russians, as always, subject to maybe 70 million violent deaths last century, value stability above freedom. One of the last truly free papers- the english Moscow Times, has been running hard-hitting commentaries. "As long as people get 80% of their news from TV, the government doesn't care what we do," says editorial editor Tom Rymer.
Elsewhere the risks of imperial displeasure are manifest- another reporter- a former Colonel- who was reporting on military scandals, was thrown to his death from his apartment bldg March 2nd, or committed suicide wearing his coat and hat and carrying a bag of oranges- say police. And hanging over everyone is the pathetic picture of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sitting in a Siberian cage with a rueful "why didn't I get out" smile... for the next 20 years. The richest of the so called oligarchs, his terrible mistake was to meddle in politics, for which they just jimmied up another 15 year sentence for money laundering, a statue so ridiculously drawn that it would include every banker in the world. The other media-magnates: Gusinsky and Berezhovsky, got out by the skin of their teeth, as their media holdings were stolen and carved up, which is now happening to Khodorkovsky's Yukos Oil Co.
Almost no one is prosecuted in Russia without some ulterior motive; the question is never: “what did they do”, or “are they guilty”- that’s hardly relevant; but who powerful wants to hurt them and why. Dozens of Mayors have been arrested because this pathological administration sees any other authority in the country as a threat that must be crushed. The hero Central Bank manager murdered because he was “cleaning out corrupt banks”, was probably carelessly and arbitrary crushing clean bizneesmeni to loot their assets. The story of Russia is the corruption of power: as all control and oxygen in the country is sucked into the Kremlin, they become increasingly terrified of dissent, and dare not relinquish an iota lest they pay for their manoga transgressions.
Though the Mafiya is overtly gone in Moscow and one can run around with expensive laptops in safety; the government is acting the part with foreign businesses; bullying them to sell strategic assets- oil, gas, electricity, pipelines. Prosecutors are threatening to shut down TNK-BP because they failed to pump enough gas, but metastasizing monopoly Gazprom has refused to allow them much access to their pipelines. This is after they blackmailed Shell and Japanese partners into selling 51% of Sakhalin Is.-2 Project to Gazprom over "environmental objections". [Note: This country disappeared the world's 4th largest lake.] After heavy-handed gas price rises in Ukraine and Byelorus, Putin has caused shudders across Europe with a possible alliance with Algeria's gas company and talk of a gas OPEC.
Over 75% of the country's GDP is created by the companies of the billionaires' "oligarchs' union". Most things are imported- paid for with their vast stores of raw materials; the manufacturing base eradicated in the 1992-3 hyperinflation never was really rebuilt. Meanwhile, business people tout Russia as an "almost normal" place to conduct business as they poured in $120 billion of foreign investments last year. But it just took me 6 hours and 7 banks to cash travelers checks.
America's foolish decision to base our useless interceptor missiles in Czechia and Poland provoked an antediluvian Cold Warrish response from a Russian general, but this is after we treacherously ringed Russia by NATO, against all promises. If NATO ever actually brings in Ukraine, Russia’s birthplace, it will provoke a final break with the newly rich Russia and a completely unnecessary new Cold War. Iran is a threat, especially since Bush empowered them squandering America's force and honor on his Oedipal obsession with Iraq, but these missiles evoke specters of Russia’s collapse that enrage virtually everyone here. And a dollop of security against the extremists in Tehran won’t be worth much compared with reactivating the thousands of bombs and missiles of the only nation that can destroy us.
The country is in the grips of another virulent crackdown on "foreigners", and maybe 2 million southern Moslems, Chinese, Koreans, etc. have fled or been driven out and the large food markets at the fringes have been depopulated. Racist attacks are not rare events. Every Metro station has a dozen militsia who prowl around like hungry jackals, looking to yank a confused or solitary wildebeest out of the crowd and terrorize them with document demands. Americanness or legality is no defense, I was hassled for 20 minutes in the Metro; and car cops stopped and forced me to page slowly through the money section of my billfold- even a US rep of Bush I’s Barracks Gold Co. came into a hostel quaking with fear. A friend who lives outside the city gets funneled driving through a checkpoint every day, where he is often forced to pay a bribe. Putin endorses it all with his blanket celebration of the security agencies.
"You don't understand Michael, there are millions of people beyond the outer ring like wild animals, who all want to come in, and our job is to keep them out," says translator friend Pavel Panov. And he's the liberal.
Michael Hammerschlag spent 2 years in Russia 1991-1994 witnessing the collapse of the Empire and writing for every English language paper. He reported on Putin's media crackdown for MediaChannel in 2001 and currently has a long global warming article on the latest scientific findings. Hammernews.com.