Friday, June 28, 2013

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah – review | Books

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah – review | Books

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Vladimir Putin riding a horse
A relentless traveller … Vladimir Putin rides a horse in southern Siberia's Tuva region. Photograph: Ria Novosti/Reuters
These are gloomy days for Russia's liberals. Over the past year, since becoming president for a third timeVladimir Putin has launched a wave of repression. He has forced western-funded NGOs to register as "foreign agents"; arrested anti-government demonstrators; and put on trial the charismatic blogger Alexei Navalny, the closest thing Russia's protest movement has to a leader. A long stretch in jail for Navalny beckons.
In late 2011 and 2012, as protests gripped Moscow, it was dreamily possible to imagine that Putin might be forced out. These days, few think this. The opposition is demoralised and the talented are leaving. (In recent months chess champion Garry Kasparov has scarpered to New York; the progressive economist Sergei Guriev has upped sticks to France. Both cite reasonable fears of imminent arrest.) Putin is still unbudgeably there, dropping into Britain last week for the G8 summit and to berate David Cameron for his support for Syria's rebels.
Why did this revolution fail? In his lucid study of the never-ending Putin era, Ben Judah argues that the middle-class hipsters who gathered again in the capital last month are themselves, in part, to blame. Moscow, he points out, isn't Russia: it is an affluent mega‑city disconnected from the impoverished small towns where most Russians live. He also detects a whiff of condescension. The well-off activists who took to the streets in the wake of rigged 2011 elections show little interest in the regions, or in their less fortunate co-citizens.
So big is the gap between Moscow and the rest of the country it resembles the historical gulf between Russia's French-speaking aristocracy and its serfs. There has been a revival of the "19th-century dialectic between the intelligentsia and the masses", Judah suggests. (He updates Chekhov: since anyone with cash already lives in Moscow these days, Chekhov's three aristocratic sisters would probably cry: "To London, to London" rather than "To Moscow, to Moscow".)
Putin, by contrast, is a relentless domestic traveller. He has the "most punishing travel schedule of any leader in Russian history", as Judah puts it. Admittedly, his visits are to a Potemkin-village Russia from which dissent has been carefully edited out. But the trips form an essential part of Putin's "videocracy", his TV-mediated autocracy, with federal channels under state control. There is censorship for the masses, but freedom for the web-savvy elite. This postmodern model of control worked, at least until internet use took off.
Indeed, the president's recent fight‑back might serve as an example to other authoritarians (such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan) who find themselves in a tricky corner. In the face of public protests Putin launched a "culture war", pitting his conservative base – pensioners, state employees, veterans – against Moscow's beautiful people. He has also splashed around a load of cash: doubling salaries for riot police; bumping up funding for the regions; hiking pensions. The state budget has ballooned.
Last year the radical feminist outfit Pussy Riot staged an anti-Putin "prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral. This was the protest movement's biggest stunt yet. And, Judah convincingly suggests, an own goal. It allowed the Kremlin to mobilise the Orthodox church in its anti-bourgeois cultural battle, and to portray the government's enemies as elitists and sexual deviants. (Pussy Riot had previously staged a public orgy in a botanical museum. Two of the three women protesters are still in jail, with Putin remarking "they got what they asked for".)
For now, Putin has snuffed out this not-quite revolution. In his travels to Russia's ignored corners, Judah discovers little support for the liberal opposition but almost universal discontent. He flies to Tuva in southern Siberia, takes the railway to the Far East, and visits the Urals tank factory town of Nizhny Tagil. Here the air "tastes metallic, thick, like toast". The roads are cracked; rotten wooden cottages sink beneath mud. Instead of too much state, Judah finds virtually no state, with Russia a "fragmented and feudalised society".
Judah's lively account of his remote adventures forms the most enjoyable part of Fragile Empire, and puts me in mind of Chekhov's famous 1890 journey to Sakhalin Island. In Nizhny Tagil he discovers that "workers" who told Putin by video they would beat up liberal activists were in fact a PR man and several managers. Here, as elsewhere, the local representatives of Putin's United Russia party are corrupt. Nothing works. A group of enterprising vigilante nationalists have slipped into this vacuum. The town's biggest scourge is heroin; the vigilantes kidnap addicts and chain them to their beds.
One of the Kremlin's recurrent nightmares, meanwhile, is that it might lose its Pacific territories. InBirobidzhan, close to the Chinese border, Judah finds the Chinese are already farming Russian land. The Slavic locals live in squalor. He meets two women selling mushrooms by the side of the road, one with a face "so riven by wrinkles it looks like cracked mud on the bottom of a dry lake". A local teenage girl tells him: "Who gives a fuck about the motherland. There is no fucking motherland."
Judah is an intrepid reporter and classy political scientist. I first met him in 2008 during the Russian-Georgian war: we found ourselves together on a Russian military truck. The Russian army had crushed an attempt by Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili to seize back the province of South Ossetia; Valery Gergiev, a notable Putin fan, was conducting a victory concert in its capital Tskhinvali. Judah identifies this moment as the high point of Putinism. Putin enjoyed rock-star popularity and had humiliated Saakashvili's patron George W Bush.
The mass consent Putin enjoyed during his first two presidential terms has now gone forever. Paradoxically, it is the middle-class beneficiaries of Russia's economic boom who ripped it up. Judah likens Russia's president not to Leonid Brezhnev – another Russian leader who hung on to power too long – but to Nicholas II. (The tsar, of course, survived the 1905 revolution only to be swept away in 1917.) Russians have fallen out of love with Putin but are thus far unpersuaded that the opposition can deliver anything better. Judah concludes that sooner or later an earthquake may bring down the fragile Kremlin. But then again, it might not happen at all.
• Luke Harding's Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia is published by Guardian Books
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Snowden fuels US-Ecuador tensions - YouTube

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Snowden fuels US-Ecuador tensions

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Published on Jun 28, 2013
The case of fugitive Edward Snowden is adding fuel to the fire in a trade row between the United...

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The case of fugitive Edward Snowden is adding fuel to the fire in a trade row between the United States and Ecuador.

The US urged Ecuador not to accept Snowden's application for political asylum in the South American country.

It threatened Ecuador with the removal of favourable trade agreements between the two countries, if it does not comply.

Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa, did not take well to the threats:
"In the face of this blackmail, we tell the US: do not threaten us with removing the preferential tariffs. We unilaterally and irrevocably waive them, you can keep them," he said.

The snub to the decades-old trade agreement is a dramatic, though largely symbolic, gesture, as the benefits were due to expire in coming weeks anyway.

Though political foes, the US and Ecuador are closely linked economically.

Ecuador's economy is heavily dependent on the United States, which is it's largest export market.

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Snowden's Moscow Stay Souring US-Russia Relations - YouTube

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Snowden's Moscow Stay Souring US-Russia Relations

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Published on Jun 28, 2013
Edward Snowden, the fugitive American intelligence employee, arrived in Moscow Sunday from Hong Kong for what supposed to be an overnight stay. But as his time in Russia stretches toward one week, VOA's James Brooke reports from Moscow on his stay's effect on Russia's relations with the United States.
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Chasing Snowden: NSA Leaker Raises US Tensions with China, Russia (VOA On Assignment June 28) - YouTube

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Chasing Snowden: NSA Leaker Raises US Tensions with China, Russia (VOA On Assignment June 28)

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On Assignment's Imran Siddiqui and Alex Villarreal talk to VOA White House Correspondent Kent Klein about the hunt for Edward Snowden -- the former U.S. intelligence contractor wanted for leaking classified information about government surveillance programs. Snowden's escape to Hong Kong and Moscow has complicated U.S. efforts to get him extradited. The international debacle has also exacerbated U.S. tensions with China and Russia.
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Stuck in Moscow, Snowden Poses Mounting Challenge for Kremlin

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MOSCOW—When National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden touched down here from Hong Kong, Russia appeared to be handed an easy opportunity to taunt the U.S. without causing a massive diplomatic rupture. Instead, Moscow may have a bigger problem on its hands.
"Why did he have to fly here?" Vladimir Lukin, the Kremlin's human-rights envoy, told the Interfax news agency Friday. "In effect, China's problem became our problem. Someone has created a situation that means we are the ones who have to deal with this…. Here I see a serious problem."

Snowden on the Run

U.S. authorities sought to catch Edward Snowden before he reached his next goal: political asylum in Ecuador.
Mr. Lukin's comments came amid an increasingly pitched discussion in Russia over what to do with Mr. Snowden, the American whose high-stakes Moscow layover entered a sixth day Friday with no end in sight.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied a U.S. request to expel the 30-year-old fugitive from Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport this week, calling him a free man and saying the sooner he chose a final destination, "the better it will be for us and him."
The comments made clear the Kremlin's approach: Russia wouldn't stop Mr. Snowden from escaping U.S. authorities but didn't want him to stay. The U.S., however, curtailed Mr. Snowden's options after he left Hong Kong, revoking his passport and pressuring intermediary countries on his path to Ecuador, the Andean nation that is considering his application for political asylum.
Both Mr. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have emphasized that Mr. Snowden technically hasn't crossed the Russian border because he remains in the airport's transit zone. Otherwise, Russia would need to issue him a visa, raising the level of its cooperation in the affair.
Ecuador's Foreign Minister confirmed Friday that his government has held discussions with Russia about how Mr. Snowden could leave the airport. "There are some conversations that we've had in the last few days" with Russia about how Mr. Snowden could leave the country, said Ricardo Patiño , declining to give further details about Mr. Snowden's situation.
Also Friday, the former security contractor's father acknowledged that his son broke the law, NBC News reported Friday. "If folks want to classify him as a traitor, in fact, he has betrayed his government. But I don't believe that he's betrayed the people of the United States," Lonnie Snowden told NBC.
The father also said he believes his son would consider returning to the U.S. under certain conditions, including if the Justice Department promises not to hold him before trial and not subject him to a gag order, according to NBC.
Such a prospect would give the Kremlin a measure of hope that its "hands-off" approach could still succeed.
"We shouldn't hinder Snowden from doing what he wants," even going to the U.S., Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma Alexei Pushkov said. He noted that the large part of Russians view Mr. Snowden sympathetically.
Mr. Pushkov attributed Mr. Snowden's ideas to the "liberal Hollywood culture" seen in movies such as "Enemy of the State" and "Three Days of the Condor," where "a hero is the person who overcomes the challenges of secret, anti-democratic powers."
"For Snowden, it could end badly," Mr. Pushkov said. "Because all these films have a happy ending. In life, I don't think a happy ending will come to pass."
Both Russia and the U.S. have said they don't want to let Mr. Snowden sabotage joint efforts to improve diplomatic relations after a year and a half of mutual hostility. With President Barack Obamaruling out any swap—the long-standing U.S.-Russian solution to such cases—and suggesting he won't be calling Mr. Putin to address the situation, Mr. Snowden may remain in Russia for a long time.
Some Russian public figures allied with the Kremlin have started building a case for granting asylum to Mr. Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. authorities for exposing domestic surveillance operations. Some such campaigns by loyalists have in the past been used to test the waters for later Kremlin initiatives.
Russia's main state-owned TV channel devoted an hour-long talk show to Mr. Snowden late Thursday in which nationalist commentator Alexander Prokhanov praised him as a soldier on the side of Russia and a "weapon of the counter-strike." One guest compared Mr. Snowden to Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident. Another said he was a symbol of the beginning of the end for the U.S.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political scientist and grandson of Stalinist foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, told viewers it would be a double standard to expel Mr. Snowden. "There's never been a single case where people who betrayed Russia were handed over by the United States or any other Western country," he said.
It isn't clear whether Mr. Snowden would want to request asylum from Russia. A spokesman for WikiLeaks, which has said it is assisting Mr. Snowden in his asylum bid, said this week that Mr. Snowden is focused on Ecuador.
Any request for asylum here "will be a big problem for Russia," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, a foreign-relations journal. "To not give it to him, in this situation, would be indecent, and to give it to him would once again create a constant problem in relations with the U.S."
The Kremlin may be left with little option, though. Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said it would play poorly domestically if Mr. Putin were to forsake Mr. Snowden at this point. He said: "The more nationalist constituencies in Russia would not welcome Putin changing his mind on this guy."
—Mercedes Alvaro in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this article.
Write to Paul Sonne at
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