Obama in Russia

Things are getting very hot in Vladimir Putin's kitchenski.  Visiting Russia July 6-8, Barack Obama should make sure the precious energy being created doesn't go to waste.

A few weeks ago, a massive protest by unpaid aluminum industry workers in the town of Pikalyovo, outside of St. Petersburg, snarled traffic for more than a hundred miles on a major interstate roadway.  Putin was forced to make an emergency visit to the town and put up significant government funds to assure payment of wages.  Nearly a quarter of Russia's population lives in "monotowns" like Pikalyovo, which depend entirely on a single industry for subsistence.  Russia can't afford this kind of largesse everywhere, and economists were
openly worrying whether the gesture in Pikalyovo could place the country on the road to ruin.

In November of last year, Russian economist Yevgeny Gontmakher published an op-ed item in the Russian newspaper Vedemosti in which he warned of, as the Carnegie Center's Nikolai Petrov wrote recently in the Moscow Times "unrest if factories in one-industry towns shut down as a result of the crisis."  Petrov remembers:  "At the time, the government accused both Gontmakher and Vedomosti of inciting social unrest. But government leaders did nothing to prevent such a scenario from playing out or to at least develop an effective contingency plan in case it did."  In fact, the Putin regime did more than just "accuse" Gontmakher, it tried to silence him, threatening the paper with closure and Gontmakher with prosecution.  Now, Gontmackher has been utterly vindicated, the Kremlin exposed and humiliated.

Events of this kind are quite common in Putin's Russia these days.  Just days ago, the editors of the Chernovik weekly published in the Caucasus region received a warning from the Kremlin that it was moving forward with legal action to shut down the paper because it showed too much sympathy for the cause of separatist rebels in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, all of whom have become much more active in response to Russia's seeming approval of separatism by Abkhazia and Ossetia against Georgia.  In fact, the paper's main offense has been to repeatedly document the use of torture by Russian authorities against Caucasian prisoners.  Recently too, Yelena Maglevanaya, a reporter working for another local newspaper, was forced into exile after being sued by the Kremlin for similar reporting on the use of torture.

Speaking of persecuting the press, Russia's last remaining fully independent national newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, thrust itself into the international headlines right next to the Pikalyovo protesters, creating an another huge headache for Russia's KGB strongman-in-chief.  It's up to Obama to keep the ball rolling.  Many on both sides of the new iron curtain fervently hope he will not let them down.

A recent report by the International Federation of Journalists reveals that Russian journalists interested in telling the truth risk their lives every day they go to work. The IFJ says that in the past ten years as many as 38 Russian journalists have been murdered because of their reporting.  Of these killings, only 10 prosecutions resulted, and of those only five killers were convicted.  Of those five, only two were actually sent to prison.  The IFJ states:  "Crucially, the report confirms that the masterminds of attacks on journalists are getting away with murder. Over the past 15 years those who ordered the killings and arranged for the hire of assassins and their payment have hardly ever been charged, let alone prosecuted."  Nearly 100 other Russian journalists lost their while lives on the job during this period, and almost 200 additional journalists perished in unnatural circumstances. The IFJ investigators found vast deficiencies in the basic police work employed by the Kremlin in response to these killings, and ends up giving the Kremlin advice on how to perform essential functions related to law and order.

The journalists from Novaya Gazeta have taken the brunt of the Kremlin onslaught, and the International Press Institute recognized the papers struggles at its annual congress in Helsinki by bestowing upon Dmitri Muratov, the paper's editor, its Free Media Pioneer award a few weeks ago. Igor Domnikov.  Yuri Shchekochikhin.  Anna Politkovskaya.  Anastasia Baburova.  All Novaya Gazeta reporters cut down by assassins in response to their reporting. No trigger man, much less any mastermind, has been brought to justice.   

Shchekochikhin's case is perhaps the most disturbing; he was poisoned while reporting on efforts by opposition politicians to carry out a shadow investigation of the bombing of two Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999 after the Kremlin quickly razed the sites and stonewalled an official review, giving rise to suspicion that the KGB had planted the bombs in order to blame Chechen separatists and justify an invasion of that war-torn region, an invasion which in fact did occur weeks later.  Three months earlier Sergei Yushenkov, who chaired the shadow commission, had been shot and killed; three months after Shchekochikhin was struck down the attorney for the commission, Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested on charges many consider bogus.  Neither Shchekochikhin's killer nor Yushenkov's has ever been found.  KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, who had been publicizing the issue in the West, was also infamously murdered and his accused killer is under Kremlin protection.

Muratov made the most of his moment in the sun. His acceptance speech and remarks to reporters were a stunningly direct denunciation of the Kremlin, repeatedly invoking the specter of Stalin. When asked his dream, he answered:  "To see no more of my reporters killed." When asked why he continues to risk his own life, he replied:

Because we think that a newspaper is a service provided to a fair people. Because I don't want the world to think that my country is a country where the gene of Stalin will live forever. There is a question why today in official text books in Russia - on a number of official sites, including the ministry of defense - Mr. Stalin is called 'an efficient state manager', when what they would like to say is that efficiency in management is the same as violence. Why would the ruling elite do that in Russia? What they probably mean to say, and what they try to make us believe, is that the state, the government, is the supreme value of our life, the sun, the god. And corruption is the special profession attached to this god.

When asked about the motivations of those who govern Russia, he answered bluntly:  "They want to rule as Stalin did and live as Abramovich does."  That's Roman Abramovich, one of Russia's richest billionaires and one of the Kremlin's closest functionaries.

Though the IPI award did not receive as much coverage as it should have, it did provoke significant attention that the Kremlin would have much preferred to avoid.  Der Spiegel ran a massive review of the Kremlin's harassment of Novaya Gazeta, including an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the paper's leading defenders and supporters. 

The paper's reporters and editors have been struggling heroically, literally risking their lives every day, to get out the truth about their country and to show the world that not all Russians support a return to the darkest days of Soviet atrocity and failure.  At last, they're getting at least part of the recognition they are due from their colleagues in the West; it's time for our political leaders to follow suit. Barack Obama should reach out to Muratov when he visits Russia next month, and signal that the United States will not tolerate a return to the dark days of Soviet repression.

Here's what the IPI said about Russia in its most recent review of world press freedom:

Europe's worst press freedom offenders continued to decline in 2007. In Russia, freedom of speech took ever more knocks in the run up to the elections, and the country proved that it remains a dangerous place to practice journalism. The death of Kommersant journalist Ivan Safranov was explained by authorities as a suicide, although family and friends remain convinced that the reporter did not take his own life. Safronov fell to his death from a stairwell window on 2 March, not long after he had claimed that he was facing criminal investigation for information he planned to publish revealing state secrets.

Having Russia declared one of "Europe's worst press freedom offenders" is yet another hard body blow to the Putin regime.  Russia's woeful economic performance over the past year (its GDP has shrunk four times more than America's, twice as much as Europe's) has emboldened the regime's critics and created an opportunity for President Obama to turn a trickle into a deluge by openly rallying support for human rights and democratic values, just as Ronald Reagan once so successfully did. If Obama does not take this opportunity when he visits Russia in July, history will not be kind to him.

If adequate steps are not taken to protect the great Russian patriots at Novaya Gazeta, the Kremlin will liquidate them just as it has done to virtually every other significant institution of critical journalism in the country over the last ten years.  Those it cannot buy it intimidates, and those it cannot intimidate it murders.  Then Russia may soon prove itself the world's very worst oppressor of information.  Again. 

It appears Muratov's heroics may have made an impression on Obama and his advisors.  Obama has not only given an interview to Novaya Gazeta that is being published as he arrives in Moscow, he intends to sit down for a meeting with leading opposition political leaders Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov.  Nemtsov has published a series of stinging indictments of Putin's policy failures that the Kremlin has banned from Russian bookstores and which my blog has translated into English, and the meeting will infuriate Putin beyond words.  Obama has also issued a tough statement indicating that he has written off Putin and will seek to pressure the Medvedev government to oust him as a relic of the Soviet past. These are unprecedented actions from the White House, a sure sign that the Putin regime has become so extreme that business as usual is no longer possible.

But words alone are not enough.  Only real policy actions can turn the tide in Russia.  We still have no idea what, if anything, the Obama government is prepared to do stand up for American values in Russia before it is too late.  Republicans have much to contribute to the formulation of these policies, but have so far been woefully reactive.  Hopefully, the Obama visit can be the start of "reset" relations that will mean the restoration of American moral leadership in a part of the world where it is desperately needed.

Kim Zigfeld blogs on Russia at La Russophobe and writes the Russia column for Pajamas Media. She can be reached by e-mail at
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