One thing I find especially charming about certain Russians, often academics, who have lived for decades in “straunge strondes” (чужбина), is their conviction, now that the current “vegan” times have permitted them to make occasional and even annual junkets back to the Motherland, that life here is now nearly the same in every respect as back in the straunge strondes.
I’ll leave to one side the political aspects of this queer conviction, focusing instead on a single aspect of everyday life. I’ve heard it said a million times by many a Russian not resident in God’s Heavenly Kingdom on Earth full time or even part time (really) that wi-fi and internet connections here are the top of the pops, so much better than wherever they live, surrounded by black people and Mexicans and uncultured rednecks.
I have to admit that, outside of Russia, my only experience of wi-fi and internet connections over the last ten years or so has been places in the States and elsewhere where I’ve stayed for short stretches, including my parents’ farm, my sister’s house in the Cities, and the apartments of friends in other cities and countries, as well as my own secret hideout in Free Finland.
In all these places, I enjoyed shockingly fast, nearly outage-free internet and wi-fi connections. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times there were full-fledged outages in Free Finland, and all of them were sorted out in a matter of an hour or two, if not in a few minutes, with the sincerest of apologies by my Finnish providers.
As for the Cradle of Three Revolutions, everything was cool and seemingly getting cooler until sometime in the past year when, I suspect, the FSB placed so many demands, both physical and financial, on internet providers, that they are now no longer capable of doing routine maintenance on their networks and upgrading their hardware and software, despite the growing demand for their services on the part of the taxpaying and fee-paying populace.
But the ISPs serve a higher power—the siloviki—who are so out of their minds right now as to imagine you can organize a revolution on VKontakte by reposting pictures of Nazis and Navalny or something of the sort. They thus have to have ever-increasing capacities for surveilling the peons they rule over like medieval liege lords (or so they imagine), and they have tasked the country’s internet providers with giving them lots of electronic windows into the souls of these traitorous worms.
At least, I hope this is the case, because otherwise the sheer misery and torment visited on us since approximately last spring by our once faithful internet provider, long ago swallowed up by another company from Moscow and bereft of all the charms and virtues it had back in the days when I was one of its first customers, are inexplicable.
One look at the junction box in our attic will tell you tell that, in fact, is where the problem lies, and yet every time our internet goes under, which can be several times a day, the mumblers who man the phones at our provider’s tech support service run us through the same routines, all meant to persuade us morons that the problem is with our computers or even with our ignorant selves, not with the woeful state of the junction box in the attic or farther down the line.
Things turn from irritating to tragicomic when our provider sends an actual person to fix the mess. Nearly all of them (at this point, a dozen or so have darkened our door since spring) start out by ringing the changes on our wi-fi router, which supposedly has to be replaced, or the plastic snap connector on the end of the broadband cable or the cable itself.
If we can induce them to go up into the attic and open the junction box or just look at the junction box, which has wires poking out from in in all directions, like a Dalek gone south, they break down and admit the problem is on their end. If they’re kind and competent, they might apply a temporary fix by switching out a couple of cables in the box.
Then we have the joy of living humanity’s shared electronic life for an hour or two, or day or three, or, god forbid, a whole week. Sooner or later, though, the plug will be pulled on our meager joy, and our provider, unable or unwilling to give us the real explanation for the problem (our junction box? their servers back at the head office? SORM?), will plunge us back into their rehearsed routine of selling snake oil to their loyal customers, whose nerves shattered and hearts broken, their ability to do their own work suspended indefinitely.
I think all of us who actually live in the real Russia full time could make a long list of the country’s practical shortcomings, without once touching on politics per se, and the list would be long and sobering and, occasionally, incredibly frightening.
But the crypto-Putinists who teach at places like Berkeley and don’t actually live here and never or hardly ever deal with this failed state, don’t want to have the hard talk about how nearly all of these eminently practical failures are caused, ultimately, by wildly bad governance.
And what is the point of having that talk with them? They’ll only get testy and resort to whataboutism, the last refuge of scoundrels. ||| TRR, 19 September 2018. Photo of the beautiful clear blue sky in downtown Petersburg by the Russian Reader
The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), or in Russian, the Gulag, is designed so that an inmate cannot save his own life other than by directly endangering his own life.
Alexey Navalny’s hunger strike has the simplest, most natural demand: to be seen by a doctor. It’s not about politics, or even about justice, but about seeing a doctor.
When scoundrels from different “media” and “public monitoring commissions” say that a doctor is an unnecessary luxury for an inmate, they dig a hole for themselves. Because Arashukov and Spiegel are the two latest prime examples.
“The witnesses in my case were electrocuted!” former Senator Arashukov shouts.
“I’m a goner,” former Senator Spiegel whispers.
But their words will not change anything, because they were silent when they were free.
And also because we are silent. Navalny’s hunger strike, even with its media presence, is a desperate step. In response, there has been a resounding silence. But Alexander Shestun has been on hunger strike for a week. Have you heard about it?
Did you want to hear about it?
The sadism of the upper classes and the indifference of the lower classes.
Silence on both sides in response to the demand to “free everyone.”
They will, in fact, come for everyone. No one is an exception.
The Putin regime’s cooperation with the most vicious and inhumane regimes on earth is usually explained either by its desire to gain allies among those the West because of its principles have made outcasts or by its interest in selling weapons to those who can’t get them easily elsewhere, Anatoly Nesmiyan says.
Those interests can’t be ignored, of course, the Russian commentator who blogs under the screen name El Murid says, but tragically, there are some additional reasons that are even more fateful and disturbing, all of which involve Moscow’s interest in studying the repressive techniques others use for adoption in Russia.
The Putin regime’s proclivity for cooperating with the worst regimes on earth has just been highlighted by its decision to send a deputy defense minister to attend a parade in Myanmar on the occasion of the anniversary of that country’s military, a parade all other countries chose to boycott because of the Myanmar military’s repression.
These other countries acted on principle, Nesmiyan says; but “the Russian regime doesn’t have principles and in support of its interests, it will cooperate with any cannibal.” And despite what many think, these interests are not just military sales or geopolitical competition. They involve learning from others the most effective means of repression.
Having increasingly turned to the use of force against its own people, the Putin regime “with deep interest studies the advanced experience of its partners in such questions.” Putin himself admitted as much about Syria which he describes as “a testing ground;” one that is first and foremost about the destruction of the civilian population.
The army of Myanmar has shown again and again that it is ready, willing and able to kill that country’s population in the name of keeping the generals in power, and that alone makes it particularly interesting for the Russian defense ministry and its bosses in the Kremlin, Nesmiyan says.
In addition, and adding to its attractiveness as an object lesson for Moscow, the commentator continues, the Myanmar military has been involved in the brutal suppression of ethnic and religious minorities, a challenge that the Russian siloviki also faces; and it has had to come up with a way to field a force in an ethnically diverse country, another Russian challenge.
The military in Myanmar “in fact is a military corporation of the ethnic majority,” something that has led ethnic minorities to form their own force structures, a prospect Moscow fears but, in the future, may not be able to prevent. And thus, the way the dominant army manages is of no small interest to Myanmar’s Moscow backers.
What happened today in Minsk looks like a confident victory for the people. Warned that they could be shot and killed, two hundred and fifty thousand people joyfully and freely walked through their city. A few stun grenades couldn’t dampen the mood.
The hobbit,* in his capacity as Grandpa Mazai, navigated the streets adjacent to Partizansky Prospekt, hoping to catch a few hares. But people left the march inspired and in no need of rescue. The tikhari [KGB agents disguised in civilian clothing] were not on the prowl as usual, they did not kettle people by the side of the road. Apparently, the command to stand down had been issued. It wasn’t the protest that fizzled out, it was the regime that fizzled out. The slaboviki[literally, “weaklings,” a play on the word siloviki, referring to the security forces in Belarus, Russian, and other post-Soviet states] saw that further escalation of violence only brings them closer to a tribunal. Long live Belarus!
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sasha Razor for explaining the hobbit reference, to wit:
* “Our people’s character is strange and hard to grasp. Our national archetype is the partisan — a clandestine person who hides in the forest and fights his oppressors. Have you ever seen truly clandestine characters raise their voices to represent themselves? As a partisan, you can foil the entire operation by exposing your identity. This is why nobody hears or knows much about the Belarusians these days. My people simply do not like to be looked at. They are hobbits in their essence, akin to the hard-working hobbits from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, who prefer to stay out of sight. And one can understand why. When you have had Mordor to the East for 500 years, when there are hordes of orcs racing back and forth through Middle Earth, all you want to do is put on a magic invisible hat. Of course, at the moment, there is a lot of fear among Belarusians regarding a possible Russian invasion.” (Artur Klinau, quoted in Sasha Razor, “From the Sun City of Dreams to the City of Angels: A Conversation with Belarusian Artist and Author Artur Klinau,” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 15, 2017)
Everything happening now around Navalny (and what is happening is a special op), including not letting his doctor see him, not letting his wife see him, the huge number of security forces [at the hospital in Omsk], the refusal to transport him [to another country for treatment] is aimed at one goal and one goal alone. And it’s not treating the patient, of course.
The goal is concealing traces of the crime, making it impossible to detect the toxin, making sure no one gets access to the biomaterials, so that there is no convincing evidence of what substance was used to poison him and how it was used. So what if this is wreaks havoc with choosing the optimal medical treatment.
But it will allow the Kremlin to play their favorite game, like with the Boeing [shot down over Ukraine by Russian forces in July 2014]: to put forward 300 different hypotheses of any degree of absurdity (except the obvious and true explanation), and to shout “What is your evidence?” in response to the obvious explanation. In fact, they have already started doing it.
Translated by the Russian Reader
NKVD Captain Yermolai Remizov fights ruthlessly against the Motherland’s enemies. His task force has cracked dozens of cases, eliminating the remnants of the White Guard, and capturing foreign spies and Trotskyist henchmen. From reliable sources, Remizov gets a signal about an upcoming act of sabotage at the Proletarian Diesel plant. The plant is the flagship of its industry, and any accident there would be a serious political statement. Remizov needs to identify the saboteurs urgently. But how? Suddenly, among the plant’s staff, the captain notices a new engineer, who bears a striking resemblance to an acquaintance from the Civil War…
This novel, Chekists, was published yesterday (August 19, 2020) by the major Russian publisher Eksmo, a fact made known to me byLitRes, Russia’s leading e-book service. The burgeoning genre of neo-Stalinist revisionist pulp fiction and the equally flourishing genre of neo-Stalinist revisionist “historiography” that nourishes it are two big parts of the relentless culture war waged by the “Chekists” in the Kremlin to make their flagrant, brutal misrule of the world’s largest country seem natural, inevitable, and historically predetermined. As part of their overall campaign to hold on to power in perpetuity, while bleeding the country dry, it only makes sense that they would turn governance into an endless, gigantic “special op,” in which poisoning “the Motherland’s enemies,” like Alexei Navalny, is all in a day’s work. // TRR
Doctors ‘fighting for life’ of Russia’s opposition leader Navalny after alleged poisoning Yuliya Talmazan NBC News August 20, 2020
Fierce Krmlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny is inh a coma as doctors fight for his life after he was poisoned Thursday mo rning, his spokespersoin said.
The 44-year-old foe of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin felt unwell on a flight back to Moscow from tTomsk, a city in Siberia, Kira Yarmysh said on iTwitter.
“The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk. Alexei has a toxic poisoning,” Yarmysh tweeted.
Navalny is said to be unconscious and was placed on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. Yarmysh did not say who she believed may have poisoned Navalny, but said police had been called to the hospital.
The politician is in a grave but stable condition, hospital representative Anatoly Kalinichenko, deputy chief physician at the Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1., said in a video shared by Yarmysh on Twitter.
Kalinichenko said all possible reasons for Navalny’s sudden illness were being looked at, including poisoning. “Doctors are really dealing with saving his life right now,” Kalinichenko added at a later briefing with reporters.
The spokeswoman said that doctors were preventing Navalny’s wife, Yulia, from seeing her husband. Yarmysh quoted the doctors as saying her passport was insufficient evidence of her identity, instead asking for their marriage certificate which she wasn’t carrying.
Yarmysh told Russian radio station Echo of Moscow there are tests being conducted to determine the nature of the toxin used. She said Navalny only had a black tea at an airport coffee shop before getting on the plane in the morning, and they believe that’s how he could have been poisoned.
She said she was sure it was “an intentional poisoning.”
“A year ago, he was poisoned in a prison, and I am sure the same thing happened here,” she told the station. “It’s different symptoms, obviously a different toxin, but obviously this was done to him intentionally.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said an investigation would be launched if it turned out Navalny was indeed poisoned. Asked if this was a special case because of Navalny’s outspoken criticism of the Russian government, Peskov added, “the current government has many critics,” according to the state-run TASS news agency.
Meanwhile, elements of Russia’s tightly-controlled state media have been exploring the narrative that Navalny may have had a lot to drink the previous night and took some kind of hangover pill today.
An anonymous law enforcement source told TASS that authorities are not yet considering this a poisoning.
“For the moment this version is not being considered,” the official said. “It is possible that he drank or took something himself yesterday.”
Last year, Navalny was rushed to a hospital from prison where he was serving a sentence following an administrative arrest, with what his team said was suspected poisoning.
Doctors then said he had a severe allergic attack and discharged him back to prison the following day.
In 2017, he was attacked by several men who threw antiseptic in his face, damaging one eye.
Pavel Lebedev was on the same plane as Navalny and posted an image of the politician drinking something out of a cup before the flight on his Instagram Stories. NBC News could not confirm that the photo shows the beverage that his spokeswoman believes may have poisoned him.
In a series of videos uploaded to his Instagram, Lebedev said he saw Navalny go to the bathroom after lift-off, and he did not return for a while.
“I heard a commotion and took my headphones off,” he added. “It turned out that there was an emergency landing in Omsk, so I thought someone was feeling ill. Then I turned my head and I saw Alexei lying down.”
Navalny rose to prominence in 2009 with investigations into official corruption and became a protest leader when hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Russia in 2011 to protest electoral fraud.
A few years later, and after several short-term spells in jail, Navalny faced two separate sets of fraud charges, which were viewed as political retribution aimed at stopping him from running for office.
In his only official campaign before his first conviction took effect, Navalny garnered 30 percent of the vote in the race for Moscow mayor in 2013.
Navalny also campaigned to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, but was barred from running.
Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation has conducted in-depth investigations into the highest ranks of Russian political elite, including his most famous investigation into former prime minister and president Dmitry Medvedev.
Last month, he had to shut down the foundation after a financially devastating lawsuit from Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.
Russia holds regional elections next month and Navalny and his allies have been preparing for them, trying to increase support for candidates which they back.
The Foreign Agent in the Kremlin
Vladislav Inozemtsev The Insider
December 31, 2019
One of the crucial events of the past year was passage of the law on labeling Russian nationals as “foreign agents.” Although the law emphasizes that such “agents” should disseminate information from foreign media outlets and receive financial remuneration from abroad, the notion of “foreign agent” has a quite definite meaning for most Russians: someone who works on behalf of a foreign government to the detriment of their own country.
However, if you think hard about the new law and its implementation (the Justice Ministry has been charged with designating individuals foreign agents, but citizens and NGOs will probably also be able to take the initiative), the first thing that comes to mind is the man who signed it so showily into law on December 2—Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, who took office exactly twenty years ago today, albeit as acting president.
When Putin moved into the Kremlin, Russia was successfully emerging from an economic crisis triggered by a sharp drop in oil prices in the late 1990s and the ruble crisis of 1998. These two events largely brought to a close the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the transition from a planned economy to a market economy. Welcoming the new president, people believed him when he said, “The country’s future, the quality of the Russian economy in the twenty-first century, depends primarily on progress in those industries based on high technology and hi-tech products,” while the world took him at face value when he claimed, “Today we must declare once and for all that the Cold War is over. We abandon our stereotypes and ambitions, and henceforth we will jointly ensure the safety of the European population and the world as a whole.” It seemed that the coming decades should be extremely successful ones for Russia, and the country would inevitably takes its rightful place in the world economy and politics. However, events unfolded following a different scenario, and nearly all the trends that we can now ascertain as well-established suggest that if a CIA officer had taken charge of his country’s recently defeated enemy he would have done less damage to it than Putin has done.
First, Russia in the early noughties had very low labor costs: according to Rosstat, the average salary was $78 a month in 2000. Given that energy prices in Russia were then seven to ten times lower than in Europe, it was self-evident the country should decide to undertake large-scale industrialization by attracting foreign investors. The Central European countries, which in the late nineties and early noughties became successful industrial powers by attracting European capital (we can recall what happened with Škoda’s factories) were an example of the strategy’s wisdom.
However, despite what Russian authorities said at the time, preventing foreign capital from entering strategic industrial sectors became policy. Almost immediately after Putin came to power, the government began renationalizing assets that had been privatized in the nineties: instead of raising taxes on companies owned by Russian oligarchs, the regime commenced buying them out, constantly ratcheting up the price, culminating with Rosneft’s purchase of TNK-BP for $61 billion in 2013. In fact, taxes raised from the competitive sectors of the economy and redistributed through the budget went to buy assets in the extractive sector and were invested in rather dubious projects. Consequently, by the early teens, the share of raw materials (mineral products, ore, and metals) in Russian exports had reached 79–80%, as opposed to 50.4% of Soviet exports in 1989. Finally, in recent years, Russia has begun “diversifying” its raw materials exports by reaching out to China, effectively becoming an “energy appendage” not only of Europe but also of the whole world.
Second, as the economy became ever more dependent on extractive industries, Russia under Putin began to deindustrialize rapidly, resulting in a sharp decline in the demand for skilled workers, who could have been employed to develop the country on new foundations. According to various estimates, 16,000 to 30,000 industrial enterprises, which had employed over 13 million people in the late-Soviet period, were closed between 2000 and 2018. As of 2017, 9.9 million people were employed in Russian processing industries, as opposed to 21.7 million people in the RSFSR in 1989, although there was no significant increase in labor productivity. We can concede, of course, that a good many of these enterprises were not competitive, but most of them were never put up for auctions in which foreign investors were allowed to bid, the Russian government did not provide potential investors guarantees on investments in technically modernizing enterprises, and so on. Essentially, the government adopted a consistent policy of simplifying the industrial infrastructure, increasing dependency on imports, and most significantly, downgrading whole cities that had previously been important industrial centers. It would be no exaggeration to say that the bulk of Soviet industrial enterprises was destroyed not in the “accursed nineties,” but in the noughties and the early teens.
Third, the process went hand in glove with a demonstrative lack of attention to infrastructural problems and managing Russia’s vast expanses. About 700 airports were closed between 2000 and 2010, domestic passenger traffic dropped below international passenger traffic, and so many roads fell into disrepair and collapse that since 2012 city streets have been counted as roads in order to buff up the statistics. Infrastructure projects have been concentrated either in Moscow (e.g., the Moscow Ring Road, the Central Ring Road, expansion of the Moscow subway) or on the country’s borders as a kind of exercise in “flag waving” (e.g., Petersburg and environs, Sochi, Chechnya, the Crimean Bridge, the reconstruction of Vladivostok and Russky Island).
Consequently, rural settlements have begun dying out massively in most regions of the country: since 2000, around 30,000 villages in Russia have disappeared, and nearly 10,000 of them have eight or fewer residents. The number of residents in cities with populations ranging from 50,000 of 200,000 people has decreased: population reductions have been recorded in 70% of these cities, while the population has dropped by a quarter in more than 200 such cities. There has been a massive exodus of people from the Russian Far East. Even the solution of longstanding problems that were handled for better or worse in the nineties has been abandoned, including disposing solid wastes, minimizing harmful emissions, and storing hazardous industrial waste. Russian infrastructure is close to collapse: depreciation of the power grids exceeds 70%, while 75% of the heating network is obsolete. Only 52.8% of local roads meet Russia’s poor standards. All attempts to remedy the situation are propaganda tricks more than anything, and yet budget funds for infrastructure are allocated regularly, just as taxes are collected from the populace.
Fourth, despite formal achievements, such as increasing life expectancy and reducing per capita alcohol consumption, the nation’s physical and mental health is verging on the disastrous. From 2000 to 2016, the number of HIV-infected Russians increased almost twelve times, reaching 1.06 million people, meaning that the threshold for an epidemic has been crossed. Spending on health care has remained extremely low. It is usually measured as a percentage of GDP, but a comparison of absolute figures is much more telling: in 2019, the government and insurance companies allocated only 23,200 rubles or €330 for every Russian, which was 14.2 times less than in Germany, and 29 times less than in the US, not counting out-of-pocket expenses.
Despite the huge influx of immigrants and migrant workers during Putin’s rule, the population of Russia (without Crimea) decreased by 2.7 million people from 2000 to 2019. Drug addiction has been spreading rapidly, becoming one of the leading causes of death among relatively young people in small towns. And yet the authorities see none of these things as a problem, limiting access to high-quality foreign medicines and accessible medical care (the number of hospitals has been halved since 2000, while the number of clinics has decreased by 40%), all the while believing the HIV crisis can be solved by promoting moral lifestyles. There is little doubt that Russia’s population should began dying off at a furious pace now that the reserves of economic growth have been exhausted.
Fifth, the formation of a bureaucratic oligarchy, able to appropriate at will what the authorities see less as “public property” and more as “budget flows,” has generated enormous corruption and blatantly inefficient public spending. A sizeable increase in spending on the space program—from 9.4 billion rubles in 2000 to 260 billion rubles in 2019—producced a drop in the number of successful launches from 34 to 22. Despite promises in 2006 to build almost 60 new nuclear power units, only 12 units have been brought online over the last twenty years. Programs for growing the military-industrial complex have not been consistently implemented: production of new weapons has been minuscule, amounting to only ten to twenty percent of Soviet-era production. The country’s only aircraft carrier has for the second time suffered combat-like damage during an “upgrade,” while its only 4.5-generation fighter has just crashed during a test flight.
The latest challenges posed to Russia by the development of information technology around the world have elicited no response whatsoever from the regime. On the contrary, the bureaucrats and siloviki have consistently acted to discourage researchers and innovators. The dominance of the siloviki in most government decision-making, their utter lack of oversight, and unprecedented incompetence have meant that much of the money that could be used effectively in the military sector and open up new frontiers for Russia has been simply been embezzled.
Sixth, Putin’s rule has been marked by the impressive “gifts” he has made to countries which the Kremlin has often identified as potential enemies. Around $780 billion was spirited from Russia between 2009 and 2019, whereas less than $120 billion was taken out of the country during the entirety of the nineties. The most important cause of this outflow was a law, passed in 2001, establishing a nine-percent tax on dividends paid to “foreign investors” or, rather, the offshore companies registered as owners of Russian assets. (The subsequent abolition of this measure in 2015 has changed little.) Much of this money was invested in passive sources of income in the west or spent on the luxurious lifestyles of Russian billionaires, thus supporting local economies in other countries.
Even more “generous,” however, was Putin’s gift to west in the form of the four million Russian citizens who have left Russia during his presidency: mainly young and middle-aged, well-educated, willing to take risks and engage in business, they now control assets outside the country that are comparable to the Russian Federation’s GDP. This wealth has been generated from scratch by talented people the Russian regime regarded as dead weight. The destruction of human capital is the biggest blow Putin has dealt to Russia, and it is no wonder western analysts argue Russia will need a hundred years at best to bridge the emerging gap.
Seventh, we cannot ignore the holy of holies: national security. We have already touched on the military sector in passing. It is a realm in which technological progress has largely boiled down to showing cartoons to members of the Russian Federal Assembly: space launches are still carried out using Soviet Proton rockets, designed in the sixties; the last of the Tu-22M strategic bombers rolled off the line in 1993; the Su-57 is based on groundwork done while designing the Su-47 during the late eighties; and the advanced Angara (S-200) missile was developed as part of the Soviet Albatross program from 1987 to 1991. Things are no better in the secret services: agents sent on secret missions set off Geiger counters, like Lugovoy and Kovtun, blow their cover wherever they can, like Mishkin and Chepiga, or get caught in the act, as was the case with Krasikov.
The elementary inability to carry out their work in secret is the height of unprofessionalism: a handful of journalists can dig up nearly all the dirt on Russian agents, using information freely available on the internet. The same applies, among many other things, to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Donbass and the regime’s use of unprofessional, incompetent mercenaries from various private military companies.
Finally, eighth, President Putin’s foreign policy deserves special attention. Over the past ten years or so, the Kremlin’s own efforts have led to the creation of a buffer zone of neighboring countries that fear or hate Russia. If something like this could be expected from the Baltic states, which sought for decades to restore the independence they lost in 1940, no one could have imagined twenty years ago that Russia would make Georgia and Ukraine its worst enemies. However, our country’s principal “patriot”—whose daily bedtime reading seemingly consists of the works of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who once argued that Russia’s “imperial backbone” would be broken only when it lost Ukraine once and for all—has consistently sought to make Kiev recognize Moscow as its principal existential threat.
Similar sentiments have emerged in Minsk, where the authorities and populace of the country that suffered the greatest losses in the Great Patriotic War for the sake of the Soviet Union’s common victory have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to further rapprochement with Russia. We won’t even mention Russia’s damaged relations with the US and the EU: at the behest of Moscow, which is immeasurably weaker than the collective west, a new cold war has been launched that the Kremlin has no chance of winning but that could lead Russia to the same collapse suffered by the Soviet Union during the previous cold war. Meanwhile, Moscow’s hollow propaganda and its theatrical micro-militarism have been a genuine godsend to western military chiefs, who have been securing nearly unlimited defense budgets, just like the designers of advanced technology, who have been developing new weapons and gadgets in leaps and bounds.
I will not catalogue the current president’s other achievements—from destroying the Russian education system and nourishing a cult of power in society, thus generating a crisis of the family, to undermining Russian federalism and nurturing an unchecked power center in Chechnya. I will only emphasize once again that not just any foreign agent, after spending decades infiltrating the highest echelons of power in an enemy country, would be able to inflict such damage. I don’t consider Putin a foreign agent in the literal sense of the word, of course, but if it is now comme il faut in Russia to identify those who are working, allegedly, for hostile powers and thus inflicting damage on their own country, it is impossible to ignore what Putin has done over the past twenty years.
The current head of the Russian state should have a place of honor on the list of “foreign agents,” just as “Party card number one” was always reserved for Lenin in bygone days. And the west should be advised not to seek to undermine Putin’s regime but, on the contrary, do its utmost to extend his term in the Kremlin, simply because as long as Russia is so inefficient, backward, and profligate it poses no threat to the rest of the world, however much the strategists at the Pentagon try and convince the top brass otherwise.
“Seven Years in Prison for Two Pages”: An Open Letter by Journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva Republic
October 1, 2019
Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva faces up to seven years in prison for her published comments. In November of last year—first, in a broadcast on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov, then on the website Pskov Newswire—she discussed the reasons why a 17-year-old man blew himself up at the FSB office in Arkhangelsk. She has now been charged with publicly “condoning” terrorism, as punishable under Article 205.2.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.
On October 1, Echo Moscow, Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, Takie Dela, Snob, MBKh Media, 7×7, Pskovskaya Guberniya, MOKH, Wonderzine, and Meduza published an open letter by Prokopieva. We have joined them in this act of solidarity.
My name (our name?) is Svetlana Prokopyeva. I am a journalist, and I could be sent to prison for seven years for “condoning” terrorism.
Nearly a year ago, there was a bomb blast in Arkhangelsk. It was unexpected and stunning: 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky blew himself up in the entrance to the FSB office there. Before he did this, he wrote he was blowing himself up because the FSB had become “brazen,” framing and torturing people.
The suicide bombing was the subject of my regular commentary on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov. “Acting intentionally,” I wrote a text entitled “Crackdowns for the State.” My commentary was aired on November 7 and then was published on the website Pskov Newswire.
Nearly a month passed before Pskov Newswire and Echo of Moscow received warnings from Roskomnadzor: Russia’s quasi-censor saw evidence I had “condoned” terrorism in my comments. In early December, administrative charges were filed against the two media outlets, costing them 350,000 rubles in fines when a justice of the peace found them guilty of the charges. Simultaneously, the Pskov office of the Russian Investigative Committee launched an inquiry into whether I had personally violated Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Criminal prosecution loomed as a distinct possibility, but we laughed, thinking they must be crazy. What could they mean by “condoning” terrorism? In its warnings, Roskomnadzor failed to point to a single phrase or even word that would qualify as evidence that I had condoned terrorism. Nor could it point them out because they were not there. As it soon transpired, however, that did not matter.
On February 6, my doorbell rang. When I opened it, a dozen armed, helmeted men rushed in, pinning me to the wall in the far room with their shields. This was how I found out the authorities had, in fact, decided to file charges against me.
A police search is a disgusting, humiliating procedure. One group of strangers roots through your things while another group of strangers looks on indifferently. Old notes, receipts, and letters sent from other countries take on a suspicious, criminal tinge, demanding an explanation. The things you need the most, including your laptop and telephone, are turned into “physical evidence.” Your colleagues and family members are now liable to becoming “accomplices” without even trying.
I was robbed that day: the authorities confiscated three laptops, two telephones, a dictaphone, and flash drives. When they blocked my bank accounts six months later, they robbed me again: I was only a “suspect” when I was placed on Rosfinmonitoring’s list of “extremists” and “terrorists.” I am now unable to get a bank card in my own name, open a savings account or apply for a mortgage. The Russian state has made it impossible for me to exist financially.
All that remained for the authorities was to rob me of the last thing I had: my freedom. On September 20, I was officially charged with violating Article 205.2.2 of the criminal code: condoning terrorism via the mass media. If convicted, I could be fined up to one million rubles or sent to prison for up to seven years.
I deny any wrongdoing. I consider the charges against me petty revenge on the part of security services officers offended by my remarks. I claimed they were responsible for the blast in Arkhangelsk. I wrote that the state’s crackdowns had generated a backlash: brutal law enforcement policies had embittered people. Since legal means of protesting had been blocked, the desire to protest had been pushed into such socially dangerous channels.
Publish this quotation from my text if you are not afraid.
“A strong state. A strong president, a strong governor. A country in which power belongs to strongmen.
“The Arkhangelsk suicide bomber’s generation has grown up in this atmosphere. They know it is forbidden to attend protest rallies: police can break up rallies or, worse, they can beat up protesters and then convict them of crimes. This generation knows that solo pickets are a punishable offense. They see that you can belong only to certain political parties without suffering for it and that you can voice only a certain range of opinions without fearing for your safety. This generation has been taught that you cannot find justice in court: judges will return the verdicts the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors want them to return.
“The long-term restriction of political and civic freedoms has given rise in Russia to a state that is not only devoid of liberty but oppressive, a state with which it is unsafe and scary to deal.”
This is what I still think. Moreover, in my opinion, the Russian state has only confirmed my arguments by charging me with a crime.
“Their only task is to punish, to prove someone’s guilt and convict them. The merest formal excuse is enough to drag someone into the grindstone of the legal system,” I wrote.
I did not condone terrorism. I analyzed the causes of the attack. I tried to understand why a young man who had his whole life ahead of him decided to commit a crime and kill himself. Perhaps my reconstruction of his motives was mistaken. I would be glad to be mistaken, but no one has proven I was. It is rather primitive and crude to charge someone with a crime rather than engaging in a discussion. It is like punching someone in the face for something theyon said.
It is a punch in the face of every journalist in our country.
It is impossible to know in advance what words in what order will tick off the strongmen. They have labeled the opinion I voiced a crime. They have turned someone who was just doing her job into a criminal.
Using the same rationale, you can cook up a criminal case based on any more or less critical text. You merely need to find so-called experts who will sign an “expert opinion” for police investigators. If you know this can happen, will you tackle thorny subjects as a journalist? Will you ask questions that are certain to irritate the authorities? Will you accuse high-ranking officials of crimes?
The criminal case against me is an attempt to murder free speech. Remembering how the authorities made an example of me, dozens and hundreds of other journalists will not dare tell the truth when it needs to be told.
Post updated on July 3, 2020.; Translated by the Russian Reader
Svetlana Prokopyeva outside the Pskov Regional Court in July 2020 by Ludmila Savitskaya (RFE/RL)
Opposition shaman Alexander Gabyshev was detained while walking to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of yakutia.info
Pavel Aptekar Vedomosti
September 20, 2019
The arrest and possible criminal prosecution of self-declared shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who was en route to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin, whom the shaman had dubbed a demon, is less a consequence of Gabyshev’s involvement in protest rallies and more the outcome of a serious attitude toward superstitions and occult practices on the part of high government officials and the security forces.
On Thursday, Gabyshev’s traveling companions reported that security services officers, armed with machine guns and billy clubs, had raided their tent camp on the border between Buryatia and Irkutsk region, where the shaman was spending the night. The siloviki detained Gabyshev and spirited him away on a police bus that took off towards Ulan-Ude.
In the afternoon, the Buryatia Interior Ministry reported, without naming a name [sic], that Gabyshev had been detained by order of a police investigator on suspicion of his having committed a crime in Yakutia, and he would be extradited to Yakutsk. According to sources cited by news agencies and TV Rain, Gabyshev could be charged with extremism.
Gabyshev’s trek to Moscow had already been marred by the arrest of his traveling companions, which partly sparked the unrest in Ulan-Ude that led to a protest rally at which protesters demanded a recount of the recent mayoral election in the city and generated a tactical alliance between shamanists and the Communists.
In our age of smartphones and supercomputers, the attempt to exorcise demons from the Kremlin seems like a joke, just like the possible charge of extremism against Gabyshev: it transpires that occult rituals are regarded as real threats to the Russian state.
We should not be surprised by this, however. Many of our fellow Russians have lost faith in the rational foundations of the world order and the state system. The paucity of scientific explanations in Russian society has been compensated by superstitions and conspiracy theories, which are broadcast by national TV channels, among others.
But that is only half the problem. Such explanations of reality and occult methods are widespread among the highest ranks of the security services, that is, among people who have the ear of the country’s leaders. Cheka officers were intensely interested in occultism in the 1920s and 1930s, an interest shared, later, by the NKVD and the Nazi secret services.
In post-Soviet Russia, arcane practices were promoted by the late General Georgy Rogozin, who served as deputy chief of the president’s security service.
“There are powerful techniques that reveal psychotronics. This is the science of controlling the brain. […] In order to see the trajectory of a person’s life, their ups and downs, it is enough to know when they were born,” Rogozin told Komsomolskaya Pravda in an interview.
In December 2006, General Boris Ratnikov of the Federal Protective Service (FSO) told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the secret services had tapped into the subconscious of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and detected a “pathological hatred of Slavs” and dreams of controlling Russia. In 2015, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev reproduced this as Albright’s “statement” that Siberia and the Far East did not belong to Russia.
We can only guess what threats the current security forces were able to “scan” (concoct, that is) in Gabyshev’s subconscious.
Our Common Cause
The criminal investigation of the “riot” on July 27, 2019, in Moscow is absurd. The frame-up has been concocted by Russian law enforcement authorities in plain view. All of the people charged in the case are innocent.
We demand that the authorities drop the case.
What Is the Article 212 Case?
On July 27, 2019, thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow to protest the invalidation by the Moscow City Elections Commission of the signatures of thousands of Muscovites in support of independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, who were consequently barred from standing in the September 8 elections. The peaceful protest was marred when police and other security forces detained 1,373 protesters, an unprecedented number, and injured 77 protesters.
On July 30, 2019, the Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation of the events of July 27, 2019, under Article 212 of the Russian Criminal Code, which means the authorities want everyone to believe the peaceful protest was a “riot.”
At present, 13 people have been arrested in the case. All of them have been remanded in custody and faced three to eight years in prison if they are convicted as charged.
Arrested: August 3, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2 (“involvement in rioting”). According to investigators, Abanichev threw a tin can at a police officer on July 27.
22, grassroots activist from Nizhny Novgorod
Arrested: August 3, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2. Barabanov is accused of “directing” protesters on Petrovsky Boulevard on July 27.
Arrested: August 9, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2
Remanded in custody until October 9, 2019.
25, graduate of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Arrested: August 9, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2
21, student, Higher School of Economics
Arrested: August 2, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2. Zhukov is accused of directing the crowd on August 27 by “pointing to the right.”
Moscow’s Presna District Court remanded Zhukov in custody until September 27. Currently jailed in Matrosskaya Tishina Remand Prison.
28, studied physics, engineering, and psychology at university
Arrested: August 4, 2019
Currently jailed in Remand Prison No. 4.
22, student, Bauman School
Arrested: August 3, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2
Currently jailed in Matrosskaya Tishina Remand Prison.
48, railroad security guard
Arrested: August 2, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2 and Article 318
On August 5, the court remanded Kovalenko in custody for two months. He and his legal counsel will appeal the ruling at a hearing scheduled to take place at Moscow City Court, Room 327, at 11:10 a.m. on August 22.
34, entrepreneur, volunteer
Arrested: August 2, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2
Currently jailed in Matrosskaya Tishina Remand Prison.
Arrested: August 2, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212
Currently jailed in Matrosskaya Tishina Remand Prison.
Arrested: August 8, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2
20, student, Moscow State University of Design and Technology
Arrested: August 12, 2019
Charges: Russian Criminal Code Article 212.2. Kostenok is accused of tossing two empty plastic bottles towards the police on July 27.
Currently jailed in Remand Prison No. 5 (Vodnik).
Our job is protecting innocent people from the lawlessness of Russia’s law enforcement agencies.
We are a pressure group, established by activists, and friends and relatives of people who were detained by police in the aftermath of grassroots protests during July and August 2019 in order to coordinate assistance to protesters charged with felonies.
Our goal is to help the people arrested in the Article 212 Case and their families and friends, publicize the criminal prosecution of the protesters, and encourage other forms of solidarity and support.
We want to make everyone recognize there was no “riot” on the streets of Moscow on July 27, 2019.
We seek the release of everyone wrongfully prosecuted by law enforcement and the courts.
We want to see human rights honored and observed.
Armen Aramyan, graduate student at the Higher School of Economics, editor of the independent student magazine DOXA
Sign the petition on the Article 212 Case, as launched by Novaya Gazeta on Change.org.
People in jail are cut off from the outside world. Letters are nearly their only connection to life, so you can write letters to the prisoners. If you don’t want to write and send a paper letter, you can send an electronic letter via FSIN-Pismo and RosUznik.
We are recruiting volunteers and organizing the systematic delivery of care packages to each prisoner in our chat room on Telegram.
Attend court hearings in the case: this is a really good way to support the prisoners. We will be publishing the schedule on Facebook, VK, and Telegram, as well as on this website.
If you want to join the campaign and you have ideas and the energy to support the prisoners and their loved ones, write to us on our chatbot.
What About Money?
Prisoners of the Article 212 Case is a volunteer project. We realize, however, that the people jailed in remand prisons need care packages, and their families need assistance. This costs money, sometimes at short notice, and that is why we are launching a campaign fundraiser in the coming days.
Sign up for our mailing list and we will send you an email when the fundraiser is launched.
I have to reiterate my fundamental disagreement with mainstream liberal political analysts. Stated briefly, their big idea is that the Russian political elite consists of two parties, so-called civic liberals, who support bourgeois modernization, and the security forces, who support the restoration of the Soviet Union in both its manifestations—as a totalitarian political regime and as an economy totally subordinated to the state. All recent events are thus interpreted in the light of the alleged struggle between the two parties, i.e., the party of the security forces has gone on a decisive offensive.
This is a liberal myth. The Russian liberal crowd, who are mainly right-wing liberals, concocted the story that increasing crackdowns and the Putin mafia state’s transition from a soft-core authoritarian imitation democracy to a hard-core authoritarian regime has been opposed by a party of court (systemic) liberals, a party informally led by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.
Can anyone produce even a single bit of evidence corroborating the so-called Kudrin party’s opposition to the policy of increasing crackdowns? Right-wing liberals would tell me the Kudrinistas are forced to act out of the public eye and play by the rules governing infighting among courtiers (apparatchiks). The fact this infighting has no outward manifestations is no proof that there is no showdown between the two parties, they would argue.
Let’s assume this is true. Where, however, did Russia liberals get the idea there is even one cause for such a showdown? Kudrin and other systemic right-wing liberals have always advocated an authoritarian modernization in which a “progressive” elite imposes unpopular social and economic reforms on the unwashed masses with an iron hand. By and large, their ideal is shared by the so-called Russian fascists, i.e., the “patriots” and statists. The occupation regime running mainland China carried out the very same economic reforms after crushing dissenters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Has Mr. Kudrin ever said publicly that he is a principled opponent of such methods of strangling the opposition? He has not. Then why have Russian liberals decided he opposes the mass detention of peaceful citizens for protesting in public at certain times?
Liberals should stop imagining they have intercessors in the top ranks of the Putin organized crime group. There are no such intercessors.
It’s funny the things you find in your email inbox in the morning. This morning, as usual, I found mailers from many of the Russian and English-language online newspapers I read, including Petersburg’s humble but always revealing business daily Delovoi Peterburg.
Today’s big news was that police had searched the head office of Bukvoyed, one of Russia’s largest bookstore chains.
Founded in 2000, Bukvoyed (“Bookworm”) has 140 stores around the country.
A source at Bukvoyed told Delovoi Peterburg the search had nothing to do with the company per se but with one of its business partners.
If you have been monitoring the fortunes of Russian business under the Putinist tyranny, a crony state-capitalist regime, run by “former” KGB officers as if it was the Soprano mob, only a million times nastier, you would know it has not been easy to do business of any kind in Russia during the last twenty years. The country’s current prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, once famously said the regime’s vast police and security apparatus, known collectively as the siloviki, needed to stop “nightmaring” (koshmarit) business.
He also famously said, when he was president, that his country was plagued by “legal nihilism.”
Although he was right on both counts, Medvedev did nothing about it. Since the brief, supposedly more “liberal” period when he was freer to speak his mind because, technically, he was the most powerful man in Russia, the nightmaring of business (and nearly everyone else who makes themselves a target by doing anything more ambitious than hiding their light in a bushel) has only got worse, and legal nihilism, along with anti-Americanism, homophobia, xenophobia, and neo-imperialism, has become even more entrenched as part of the Kremlin’s unwritten ideology and, thus, a guidepost for how Russia’s police, security agencies, prosecutors, and judges deal with “criminals.”
As Denis Sokolov recently argued in Republic, the siloviki have established a system of “police feudalism” in Russia under which the FSB, the Russian Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, the Russian National Guard, the tax police, and other state security agencies have divided the country into fiefs, bits of “turf” where they are almost entirely free to shake down, rob, nightmare, and legally nihilize whomever and whatever they want under a set of unwritten rules outsiders can only guess at.
After reading about Bukvoyed’s legal-nihilistic woes, then, I was startled by the banner ad I found at the bottom of the page.
“Synergy Global Forum, October 4–5, 2019, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Grant Cardone. Michael Porter. Randi Zuckerberg. Ichak Adize.” Ad courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg
Referred to, hilariously, as “spikery” (“speakers”) on the Russian version of the Synergy Global Forum’s website, these five greater and lesser lights of global capitalism have been, no doubt, promised or paid extraordinarily hefty fees to keynote this hootenanny in the belly of the crony state-capitalist beast.
Formerly known as the Zenit Arena (after the city’s Russian premier league football team, FC Zenit, owned by state-controlled Gazprom), even the venue itself, the Gazprom Arena, is a monument to the mammoth crookedness, thuggery, violence, and corruption replicated all over the world’s biggest country every day for the last twenty years by the Kremlin’s minions.
But you would never know that by reading the cheery boilerplate on the Synergy Global Forum’s website.
Gazprom Arena is the most visited indoor stadium in Eastern Europe, second only to the famous Wembley in London. The main feature of the project — a sliding roof, which allows you to carry out activities in a comfortable environment at any time of the year and in all weather conditions. Large capacity, modern technical equipment, and two-tier parking make Gazprom Arena one of the best venues for major festivals, exhibitions, and business conferences.
More important, however, is the ostensible point of all this spikery, other than making lots of money for everyone involved.
Synergy Global Forum has been held since 2015. The first Forum gathered 6,000 participants and became the largest business event in the country. Two years later, we broke this record and entered Guinness World Records — 25,000 entrepreneurs and top managers participated at SGF in Olympiyskiy in 2017. This year we set a new big goal — to gather 50,000 participants from all over the world at SGF 2019 in St. Petersburg. Synergy Global Forum not only gives you an applied knowledge, but also motivates and inspires to global achievements, gives the belief that any ambitious goal is achievable. What goals do you set for yourself?
Aside from being one big [sic], this sampling of spikery reveals that the apocryphal gospel of Dale Carnegie and other “good capitalist” snake oil salesmen is alive and well and making waves in a place like Russia, where it could not be more out of place.
I don’t mean that Russia and Russians are “culturally” or “civilizationally” incompatible with self-improvement, the power of positive thinking, and other tenets of American capitalist self-hypnosis. If you had spent most of your adult life in Russia, as I have, you would know the opposite is the case.
Unfortunately. Because what Russia needs more than anything right now is not more navel-gazing and better business practices, but regime change and the rule of law. Since I’m a democratic socialist, not a Marxist-Leninist, and, I hope, a realist, these things cannot come about other than through a revolution in which Russia’s aspiring middle classes, at whom snake-oil festivals like the Synergy Global Forum are targeted, join forces with the grassroots, who have been nightmared and legally nihilized in their own way under Putin.
One of the first things a new bourgeois-proletariat Russian coalition government would have to do, aside from prosecuting and imprisoning tens of thousands of siloviki and banning them from politics and the civil service for life, would be to disentangle the country from its current incredibly destructive armed and unarmed interventions in conflicts in other countries, starting with Ukraine and Syria.
What does the Synergy Global Forum and its sponsor, Synergy Business School have to do with such seemingly distant and terribly messy international politics? Well, this:
You can say I’m a dreamer but I am nearly sure SBS’s core values are completely at odds with the neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, militarism, hostility to civil and human rights, and fascism of the current regimes in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
I write this not because I believe in building a “better” capitalism (I don’t), but because I am nearly sure one party to this mass chicanery, including the invited spikery, does believe it is possible to do just that and thus “peacefully” transform these countries into slightly quirky versions of Australia and Canada. (For the record, I don’t for a minute believe these supposedly democratic countries have no problems of their own with human rights, etc.)
That is not going to happen if only because, at another level, carefully hidden from the incurious eyes of the people who go to such events, their real purpose is to whitewash these regimes, make them more attractive to foreign investors, and expand their international networks of shills and useful idiots.
I learned this valuable lesson about Putinist Russia by carefully following the amazing career of Vladimir Yakunin, another “former” KGB officer and fellow Ozero Dacha Co-op member who could write a textbook about how to co-opt distinguished foreign academics, decision-makers, and journalists into, mostly unwittingly, toeing the Putinist line.
It comes down to this. Why are Arnold Schwarznegger, Randi Zuckerberg, and their fellow 2019 Synergy Global Forum spikery so willing to help whitewash a gang of fascist war criminals who are also at warwith their own people?
Since there is no good answer to this question, they should be arrested upon their return from the forum and charged with colluding with hostile foreign powers.
If you don’t understand what I mean by “fascist war criminals,” please read the article below. // TRR
Russia and Assad are butchering Syrian civilians again. No one seems to mind
Terry Glavin National Post
July 24, 2019
Maybe it’s because of the guilty anti-interventionist conscience of the world’s comfortable liberal democracies, or because it’s now an article of respectable faith in the NATO capitals that Syrian lives simply aren’t worth the bother. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all become so accustomed to reports of slaughter and barbarism in Syria that it barely warrants public attention at all.
Whatever the reason, or excuse, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is finally having his way in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, and the world barely notices.
It’s been nearly a year since Lavrov expressed his desire that the “abscess” of Syrian resistance in Idlib, a sprawling province that borders Turkey in Syria’s northwest, be “liquidated.” It’s been nearly a month since 11 humanitarian organizations came together with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs to warn that “Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare unlike anything we have seen this century.”
We’ve reached that brink now. Just this week, 66 civilians have been killed and more than 100 non-combatants wounded, the UN reports, in a series of bombing runs carried out across Idlib. The worst massacre was an airstrike Monday on a public market in the village of Maarat al-Numan. At least 39 people were killed, among them eight women and five children.
Since the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s barrel bombers and Russia’s fighter-bombers began their recent offensive in Idlib on April 29, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has tallied 2,641 casualties. The UN counts 400 civilian deaths, but there is no accurate count of the dead and injured in Syria anymore. The wounded lie dying in the rubble of bombed buildings. At least 25 hospitals and clinics in Idlib have been destroyed since April 29, bringing the number of health centers deliberately targeted since 2011 to about 570. More than 800 health workers have been killed.
Three years ago, when the UN and monitoring agencies stopped counting, the Syrian dead were numbered at 500,000. In the face of these most recent war crimes and atrocities, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office has been reduced to begging Assad and Lavrov to ease up to allow humanitarian aid into Idlib’s besieged districts, and pleading with Russia and Turkey to uphold the terms of a year-old memorandum of understanding that was supposed to demilitarize Idlib. Fat chance of that.
The Kremlin-Ankara pact arose from negotiations that began in the months following the 2016 fall of Aleppo, where thousands of Syrian civilians were slaughtered by Vladimir Putin’s air force in the course of the Kremlin’s commitment to Assad to help bomb the Syrian resistance into submission. Joining with Russia and Iran, Turkish strongman Recip Erdoğan entered into a series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that eventually led to an agreement to establish Idlib as a jointly-patrolled “deconfliction zone.”
A series of these de-escalation agreements have each in their turn become death traps. In Homs, in Ghouta, in Quneitra, the pattern has repeated itself. Weakened by starvation sieges, and bloodied by Russian fighter jets, Assad’s barrel bombs, ground assaults by Iran’s Hezbollah units and multiple chemical attacks — sarin, chlorine, napalm — Syria’s various and fractious resistance outfits have surrendered several cities and towns on the promise of safe passage with their families to one or another de-escalation area. Convoys of buses carry them across the countryside. They settle in, and then they come under attack again.
Until April 29, Idlib was the last of these demilitarized zones, and by then the population had doubled to three million people. Among Idlib’s recent arrivals were civilians fleeing the Syrian carnage who had not been able to join the six million Syrians who have managed to escape the country altogether. But the newcomers also include members of various armed opposition groups, and the Assad regime has deftly manipulated its “de-escalation” and safe-passage arrangements to pit those groups against one another.
More than a dozen safe-passage agreements struck prior to the Kremlin-Ankara arrangement amount to what democratic opposition leaders have called ethnic cleansing and “compulsory deportation.” Most of the opposition groups that submitted to them have ended up in Idlib. Among them: Islamic State fighters from Yarmouk, and the jihadist fronts Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah from districts around Aleppo and Damascus.
What this has meant for Idlib is that the mainline opposition in the Turkish-backed and formerly American-supported Syrian Interim Government has been losing its hold on the governorate, and its democratically elected local councils have come under increasing pressure from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist coalition. And now that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has been moving in from the south, and Russian and regime bombs are falling from the skies, tens of thousands of civilians are on the move again.
More than 300,000 people are on the roads, most of them headed towards Turkey, but Turkey has already taken in half of Syria’s six million refugees and the Turkish border is now closed to them. More than 1,000 Turkish troops are patrolling Idlib’s northern countryside as part of the Astana accord, and they won’t let the Syrian civilians pass. Humanitarian groups report that hundreds of Syrian refugees have been picked up in Istanbul in recent weeks and deported back to Syria.
“Yet again innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law — to protect all civilians,” is the way UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock puts it. “Our worst fears are materializing.”
No help is coming from Europe. The European Union has made its peace with Ankara — Erdoğan prevents Syrian refugees from sneaking into Greece or Bulgaria or setting out in leaky rafts into the Mediterranean, and Europe looks the other way while Erdoğan deports Syrian refugees back to the slaughterhouse of Idlib.
Neither is any help coming from the United States, where the Kremlin-friendly Trump administration is balking at the idea of imposing sanctions on Turkey for buying into Russia’s S-400 missile system, and is otherwise continuing the Obama administration’s policy of thinking about mass murderer Assad as somebody else’s problem.
And then there’s Canada, where we’re all supposed to congratulate ourselves for having high-graded the best and brightest Syrians from the UN’s refugee camps, and we expect the Syrian refugees we’ve taken in to be grateful and to forgive us all for standing around and gawping while their country was turned into blood, fire, and rubble.
Whatever our reasons, or excuses, Idlib is being liquidated, a humanitarian nightmare is unfolding in Syria again, and hardly anybody notices.