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FT analysis: In Russia, ultra-nationalists join mainstream

New York Times story titled "Putin's Iron Grip on Russia Suffocates Opponents":

Shortly before parliamentary elections in December, foremen fanned out across the sprawling GAZ vehicle factory here, pulling aside assembly-line workers and giving them an order: vote for President Vladimir V. Putin's party or else. They were instructed to phone in after they left their polling places. Names would be tallied, defiance punished.

The city's children, too, were pressed into service. At schools, teachers gave them pamphlets promoting "Putin's Plan" and told them to lobby their parents. Some were threatened with bad grades if they failed to attend "Children's Referendums" at polling places, a ploy to ensure that their parents would show up and vote for the ruling party.

Around the same time, volunteers for an opposition party here, the Union of Right Forces, received hundreds of calls at all hours, warning them to stop working for their candidates. Otherwise, you will be hurt, the callers said, along with the rest of your family.

Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin's wishes.

While those tactics have been widely recognized, they have been especially heavy-handed at the local level, in far-flung places like Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. On the eve of a presidential election in Russia that was all but fixed in December, when Mr. Putin selected his close aide, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as his successor, Nizhny Novgorod stands as a stark example of how Mr. Putin and his followers have established what is essentially a one-party state.

Mr. Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union. For most Russians, life is freer now than it was in the old days. Criticism of the Kremlin is tolerated, as long as it is not done in any broadly organized way, and access to the Internet is unfettered. The economy, with its abundance of consumer goods and heady rate of growth, bears little resemblance to the one under Communism.

Still, as was made plain in dozens of interviews with political leaders, officials and residents of Nizhny Novgorod over several weeks, a new autocracy now governs Russia. Behind a facade of democracy lies a centralized authority that has deployed a nationwide cadre of loyalists that is not reluctant to swat down those who challenge the ruling party.

Wall Street Journal profiled the state backed youth group, Nashi, in this 2005 story:

The leftist youth group's weekly gathering began and ended like others before it: After an hour of planning for rallies, the session adjourned. As the ragtag members trailed out of the meeting hall, they were ambushed and beaten by men wearing ski masks and wielding baseball bats. "They are hunting us," said Olga Bessanova, who listened to the screaming from behind a locked door as the assailants broke both hands of one friend and beat three others senseless.

Young people have become a top concern within Russia's ruling establishment, after youth groups in neighboring Ukraine formed the core of mass demonstrations last year that drove the Kremlin's favored candidate from office. Today in Russia, they are seen not only as a threat in their own right, but also as a stalking horse for Western interests. In the wake of upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow has been cracking down on fringe leftist groups, which have risen to prominence in the vacuum left by the Kremlin's marginalization of mainstream opposition.

The government also has been lavishing support on a pro-Kremlin group, Nashi, meaning "Our Guys" in Russian, that has been attacking the National Bolsheviks -- the most prominent of the leftist youth groups -- as a threat to the country's future.

...The Kremlin-backed Nashi, by contrast, rallied 60,000 young people at its first big gathering in Moscow in May and is backed by a well-funded organization that buses supporters from Russia's outlying regions.

Echoing comments by top Kremlin officials, Nashi's leader, Vasily Yakemenko, says the Bolsheviks, along with other radical groups that have united with it, are a real threat to Russia. At the entrance to the group's headquarters in Moscow, a photograph of Eduard Limonov, the Bolshevik leader, is glued to the floor for visitors to wipe their feet on.

...Mr. Yakemenko previously headed another pro-Kremlin movement called Walking Together, which became notorious for staging book-burning ceremonies. His new group has focused on defending Russia from what he says is an external threat.

...At a summer camp this year, pro-Kremlin youths heard speakers such as Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who frequently works for the Kremlin. He said members need to be ready for street action to put down an antigovernment uprising. "Young people need to understand the technology of constitutional action. And sometimes, constitutional action involves conflict or street action," Mr. Pavlovsky said. ("Russia's Radicals Feel Heat,'' by Alan Cullison, WSJ, September 8, 2005 - behind a pay wall, email me to send)

New York Times story titled "Youth Groups Created by Kremlin Serve Putin's Cause":

Yulia Kuliyeva, only 19 and already a commissar, sat at a desk and quizzed each young person who sat opposite her, testing for ideological fitness to participate in summer camp. "Tell me, what achievements of Putin's policy can you name?" she asked, referring to Russia's president since 2000, Vladimir V. Putin.

"Well, it's the stabilization in the economy," the girl answered.

"Pensions were raised."

"And what's in Chechnya?" Ms. Kuliyeva asked, probing her knowledge of a separatist conflict that has killed tens of thousands and, although largely won by Russia's federal forces and Chechen loyalists, continues.

"In Chechnya, it's that it is considered a part of Russia," the girl responded.

"Is this war still going on there?"

"No, everything is quiet."

Ms. Kuliyeva is a leader in the Ideological Department of Nashi, the largest of a handful of youth movements created by Mr. Putin's Kremlin to fight for the hearts and minds of Russia's young people in schools, on the airwaves and, if necessary, on the streets.

Nashi, which translates as "ours," has since its creation two years ago become a disciplined and lavishly funded instrument of Mr. Putin's campaign for political control before parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election next March.

It has organized mass marches in support of Mr. Putin — most recently gathering tens of thousands of young people in Moscow to send the president text messages — and staged rowdy demonstrations over foreign policy issues that resulted in the physical harassment of the British and Estonian ambassadors here.

Its main role, though, is the ideological cultivation — some say indoctrination — of today's youth, the first generation to come of age in post-Soviet Russia.

New York Times story titled "Video Draws Attention to Growing Violence Against Minorities in Russia":

Attacks against ethnic minorities in Russia have steadily increased over the last several years, as more and more immigrants from abroad or from Russia's poorer ethnic enclaves have moved into large urban centers in search of work.

...There were about 600 violent racist attacks, including 80 murders, reported in Russia in 2007, according to the Sova center, an organization that monitors hate crimes in Russia. The number of attacks this year reached 232 as of June 1, 57 of which were murders. Human rights groups have often accused officials of ignoring the problem of racist violence in Russia, though, in Moscow at least, a recent spike in murders of dark-skinned people has prompted a noticeable response among law enforcement agencies.

Wall Street Journal A1 story titled "Russia Becomes More Dangerous for Immigrants":

A significant increase in anti-immigrant attacks by neo-Nazi skinheads in Russia has led to a rare police crackdown in Moscow and a warning of vigilante justice by diaspora organizations.

Ultranationalist skinheads killed 41 people in the first three months of this year, a more than 400% increase from the same period last year, according to the Moscow-based Sova center, which monitors such attacks. The victims were nonwhite Russians, dark-skinned immigrants from former Soviet republics, and people from Asia and Africa.

Sova says the number of such racist attacks is increasing, as is the severity -- evolving from simple stabbings to torture and disfigurement.

The Kremlin hasn't been able to control the problem, and some critics say nationalist rhetoric from the government is feeding the problem, even though ultranationalist politicians have been marginalized or operate only under strict Kremlin control.

The leaders of countries that supply Russia with migrant labor took time out of a political and economic summit in February to complain about the violence to President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin promised tough action.

Diaspora groups and migration experts estimate there are as many as 15 million immigrants living in Russia -- out of a population of 142 million -- including a large number of illegal immigrants. Immigrant numbers are growing, according to the United Nations, a trend that Russian officials say is aggravating tensions.

Racism experts and officials are divided on why skinheads have cranked up the violence. One theory is that they are reacting to tougher policing; another that it is the work of infamy-hungry copycats.

Killing migrants with a knife has become a skinhead pastime, says Semyon Charny, an expert at the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. The attackers sometimes record their crimes on videos as proof of work done for shadowy neo-Nazi groups that, police believe, commission the killings.

"People are afraid to walk the streets," says Muhammad Egamzod, a spokesman at the embassy of Tajikistan, a country whose citizens have been targeted.

("Russia Becomes More Dangerous for Immigrants," by Andrew Osborn, WSJ, April 7, 2008 -

New York Times story titled "At Expense of All Others, Putin Picks a Church":

It was not long after a Methodist church put down roots here that the troubles began.

First came visits from agents of the F.S.B., a successor to the K.G.B., who evidently saw a threat in a few dozen searching souls who liked to huddle in cramped apartments to read the Bible and, perhaps, drink a little tea. Local officials then labeled the church a "sect." Finally, last month, they shut it down.

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir V. Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin's surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. They have all but banned proselytizing by Protestants and discouraged Protestant worship through a variety of harassing measures, according to dozens of interviews with government officials and religious leaders across Russia.

This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Mr. Putin's tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working "in symphony."

Mr. Putin makes frequent appearances with the church's leader, Patriarch Aleksei II, on the Kremlin-controlled national television networks. Last week, Mr. Putin was shown prominently accepting an invitation from Aleksei II to attend services for Russian Orthodox Easter, which is this Sunday.

The relationship is grounded in part in a common nationalistic ideology dedicated to restoring Russia's might after the disarray that followed the end of the Soviet Union.

Guardian published excerpts from the diaries of slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya ("'Fascism is in fashion' "):

December 8 Were we seeing a crisis of Russian parliamentary democracy in the Putin era? No, we were witnessing its death. In the first place, the legislative and executive branches of government had merged and this had meant the rebirth of the Soviet system. The Duma was purely decorative, a forum for rubber-stamping Putin's decisions.

In the second place the Russian people gave its consent. There were no demonstrations. The electorate agreed to be treated like an idiot. The electorate said let's go back to the USSR - slightly retouched and slicked up, modernised, but the good old Soviet Union, now with bureaucratic capitalism where the state official is the main oligarch, vastly richer than any capitalist. The corollary was that, if we were going back to the USSR, Putin was going to win in March 2004. It was a foregone conclusion.

Ritual murders are taking place in Moscow. A second severed head has been found in the past 24 hours, this time in the eastern district of Golianovo. It was in a rubbish container. Yesterday evening, a head in a plastic bag was found on a table in the courtyard on Krasnoyarskaya Street.

Both men had been dead for 24 hours. The circumstances are almost identical: the victims are from the Caucasus, aged 30-40 and have dark hair. Their identities are unknown. Such are the results of racist propaganda in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Our people are very susceptible and react promptly.

Economist story on proto-fascism in Russia:

Russia's huge size and troubled history make any comparisons risky. Yet some see historical parallels in present trends. Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, draws an analogy with inter-war Germany, which like post-Soviet Russia experienced economic chaos, then a period of stabilisation in which post-imperial nostalgia took hold. Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few remaining independent parliamentarians, worries that Mr Putin seems to be switching from an imperial idea of Russia towards one more resembling a "Reich".

History also offers a term to describe the direction in which Russia sometimes seems to be heading: a word that captures the paranoia and self-confidence, lawlessness and authoritarianism, populism and intolerance, and economic and political nationalism that now characterise Mr Putin's administration. It is an over-used word, and a controversial one, especially in Russia. It is not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading towards fascism.

("The hardest word," Economist, Oct 12, 2006 - behind a pay wall, email me to send)

A column by British Harvard historian Niall Ferguson titled "Look back at Weimar – and start to worry about Russia":

In an amateurish way, I am a Russophile. It was reading "War and Peace" as a schoolboy that convinced me I should study history at university. My favorite film of all time is still the Soviet-era adaptation of Tolstoy's masterpiece. Throughout my 20s, I was a Dostoevsky devotee. Even today I can think of few pleasures to match reading the short stories of Chekhov. And then there is the music. For me, Shostakovich's chilling, haunting Piano Quintet will always be the signature tune of the 20th century.

Yet it was always possible to love Russia and to hate the Soviet Union. And it is possible today to love Russia and to hate what Vladimir V. Putin is doing to her.

I seldom agree with the New York Times, but Nicholas Kristof was pretty much on target. "The bottom line," he wrote, "is that the West has been suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin. Rather, he's a Russified Pinochet or Franco." /opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2005/01/01/do0101.xml &sSheet=/portal/2005/01/01/ixportal.html

An article in the British Independent titled "Putin cronies exposed in new list of Russia's rich":

Russia's political class has amassed as much wealth as power under President Vladimir Putin, according to a new "rich list" published yesterday.

In revelations which will outrage many pensioners, who have recently campaigned against welfare cuts, Finance magazine reported that three regional presidents, 20 MPs, 11 senators, a regional governor and a deputy regional governor were among the country's 468 wealthiest individuals.

...Though he was the only household name on the list - at least outside Russia - his political role turns out to be far from uncommon. Valery Oif, much of whose money is derived from Mr Abramovich's oil firm Sibneft, was listed as the 24th richest person and was said to be worth $1.68bn. He is a senator in the country's Federation Council. Farkhad Akhmedov, another senator, was said to be worth $1.27bn; much of his money is from a firm called Nortgaz.

Leonard Simanovsky, an ordinary MP, was estimated to be worth $1.1bn (his money was from the same source), while the MP Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent in Britain, was reckoned to be worth one billion dollars exactly.

Most parliamentary deputies have backed Mr Putin's proposals to savagely cut Communist-era benefits for a quarter of the population, including pensioners. A series of concessions were obtained after street demonstrations gained international publicity.

("Putin cronies exposed in new list of Russia's rich, Andrew Osborn, February 9, 2005" - behind a pay wall, email me to send)

Guardian op-ed on the unjustifiable silence over the slaughter in Chechnya: /print/0,,329598616-103677,00 .html

An op-ed signed by Vαclav Havel, Mary Robinson, George Soros and Desmond Tutu (inter alios) calling on the world to "End the Silence Over Chechnya":

http://www.project-syndicate .org/commentary/havel25

Invasion's ideologues: Ultra-nationalists join the Russian mainstream

By Charles Clover in Moscow
Published: September 8 2008
The Financial Times

A decade ago, many of the most influential thinkers in today's Russia were in the intellectual wilderness. While some sat in pamphlet-littered basements churning out copies of underground ultra-rightwing newspapers with names such as Lightning and Russian Order, others were in jail following failed coups in 1991 and 1993 against the pro-western "occupation regimes" of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Russia's intellectual journey since then has been dizzying, as the radical has become mainstream and the hardline position increasingly moderate-sounding, with what were the margins emerging as the political centre.

Now, against the backdrop of conflict in Georgia and deteriorating relations with the west, Russia's ultra-nationalist thinkers are starting to exert unprecedented influence. The wide acceptance of a group of ideas once dismissed as laughable signals a new era in Russia's foreign relations, as Moscow seeks to protect what President Dmitry Medvedev calls a "region of privileged interest" in parts of the former Soviet Union.

Rising nationalist opinion could also mean bigger defence budgets and a race to modernise Russia's military as well a presaging a yet more nationalist approach to economic policy. The government is coming under increasing pressure to invest the country's oil wealth at home rather than abroad and could even respond to international criticism of the war in Georgia by pre-emptively imposing trade restrictions on the US.

The war not only boosted the prestige of the military, which enjoyed its first successful campaign in a generation. It has also enhanced the reputations of a narrow group of ultra-nationalist thinkers who prophesied the coming clash with the west. Today's Russia, willing to press its national objectives with military force, unconcerned with the erosion of democracy and dismissive of world opinion, was foretold a decade ago in inky manifestos and in lecture halls full of bearded radicals straight out of Dostoevsky.

"I am convinced that now, following the war, there will be a huge shift in the balance of power within the Russian elite," says Aleksander Dugin, leader of the Eurasian Movement, a prominent far-right group.

Aleksander Dugin: Author of the influential 1997 book 'The Foundations of Geopolitics', which he wrote in conjunction with a general from the Academy of the General Staff. In it, he theorised that Russia, the earth's largest land power, was the natural antagonist to the "Atlantic world" of the US and Britain. He heads the Eurasian Movement, devoted to that philosophy, and has helped translate European "new right" authors into Russian. He has been a professor at Moscow State University and now has a weekly radio show.

Mr Dugin has seen a remarkable improvement in his fortunes since the days in the early 1990s when he worked out of a basement flat in a gritty central Moscow district penning works on the metaphysics of Christianity. He went on to become a television talk show host and a professor at Moscow State University. Now he has a radio show on the Kremlin-supported 107 FM.

"The people that formed the centre under [former president, now prime minister Vladimir] Putin will now become marginal. And another pole will appear that did not exist under Putin at all. That is the army, the military and patriotic movements. That is us. Under Putin we were the extremists: respectable, yes, but radicals. Now we are moving right into the centre," he says.

Not everyone shares Mr Dugin's view, but the newly ascendant nationalism is likely to bring new ideas into Russia's mainstream. These form no less than the basis of a looming ideological clash between Russia and the west. "Political momentum has been shifting in [the ultra-nationalists'] direction for quite some time. One could argue that the incursion into Georgia was something new, but it was building on a momentum that we have been seeing," says John Dunlop from Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Viktor Erofeev, a well-known author and one of a small and shrinking minority of Russians who question the reasons for the war against Georgia, attributes the wave of patriotism to a widespread "cult of power". In a recent radio debate, Mr Erofeev described it as "the joy of victory, in sport, in politics, but also in war. It is an archaic form of self-consciousness ... [that] has remained with us, where it has disappeared in more civilised countries."

Amid the bombast about reimposition of Tsarist rule, the reconstitution of the Soviet Union or Russian empire and banishing Washington's influence from the region, the new right does have a philosophical bone to pick with the west, which proclaims the "universality" of democracy and human rights and makes the US ready to defend and promote these goals throughout the world – by military force if necessary.

Russia's opposition to "unipolar domination" by Washington is tied to the view pushed by the thinkers of the new right that such universal truths are an illusion, that their nation and civilisation form a unique "whole" that has a right to existence. That this ideological approach has penetrated to the Kremlin can be seen in a now famous speech in Munich in February 2007 by Mr Putin, in which the then president said he considered the unipolar model "not only unacceptable but also impossible in today's world". The model was flawed, he argued, because "at its basis there is and can be no moral foundation for modern civilisation". It was a speech that was labelled by some commentators as the start of a new "cold war" with the west.

Russia's insistence on the right to "sovereign democracy", a phrase of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's top ideologist, can also be traced to this philosophical opposition to moral absolutes. Mr Surkov argues that each nation has the right to practise democracy in its own "sovereign" way, which rationalises in theoretical terms the fact that Russian democracy is not very democratic at all.

Dmitry Rogozin: Elected to Russia's lower house of parliament in 1997, he co-headed the ultra-nationalist Rodina (Motherland) party from 2003. Rodina, a Kremlin-backed nationalist party, was designed to draw votes away from the powerful Communist party, which has been in constant opposition to the Kremlin. Mr Rogozin was removed as a leader of the party in 2006 after losing an internal power struggle. In January 2008 he was named Russia's ambassador to Nato.

Many ultra-nationalists already walk the corridors of power: Dmitry Rogozin, former head of the Rodina (Motherland) party, is Russia's ambassador to Nato. The Duma, or parliament, has also been a hive of activity of radical nationalists since the mid-1990s, regularly featuring the rantings of arch-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

While their liberal western-oriented counterparts spent the decade following the collapse of communism learning the economic theories of Milton Friedman or reading up on the Council of Europe, the venerable organisation dedicated to promoting human rights, Russia's nationalists were studying the Orthodox church, mugging up on French postmodernism or simply "drinking beer, playing chess and lifting dumbbells", as Valery Korovin, leader of the Eurasian Youth Movement, puts it.

Russia's military and "special services" such as the former KGB, now FSB, have long had a mysterious connection to these ultra-rightwing groups. The rising stature of the siloviki, as the former uniformed men are known, has accompanied a rise in the prestige of rightwing philosophy. While serving officers tend to keep their political leanings to themselves, several retired officers took on a high profile in the media during the Georgian war and their prestige is only likely to increase with the success of the military campaign.

Aleksander Prokhanov, editor of the radical rightwing Tomorrow newspaper and known as the "nightingale of the general staff" for his close links to Russia's top brass, predicts a political crisis between pro-western and nationalist political factions. After the military victory in the Caucasus, the nationalists will need to guard against political setbacks at home, he says. That requires "very fast changes – social, political, economic and ideological" in Russia, in which the main opponent will be the new pro-western elite "who are loath to give up their assets in the west".

The event that gave the new right much of its popularity was Russia's agonising decade of economic collapse following the end of communism: that destroyed the credibility of liberal democratic reformers. In addition, the US campaign against Russia's ally Serbia in 1999 sparked a sea- change in public opinion.

Aleksander Prokhanov: One of the original nationalist writers to emerge in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, he is now editor of Tomorrow newspaper and a close friend of many of Russia's top generals. Those include Field Marshal Dmitry Yazov, who planned the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, which ultimately failed. He is a successful fiction author and is often featured on television and radio programmes representing rightwing views.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, opinion polls showed nationalism was a phenomenon associated primarily with lower-income groups, while the upper echelons of society saw imitation of the west in all things, from democracy to liberal economics, as desirable. But already in 2001, a study by the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow noticed a new "ideology" among the middle and upper class – previously the "agents of modernisation". A majority had come to see Nato as a hostile force and the break-up of the Soviet Union as a mistake. Most viewed Russia as belonging to a unique civilisation separate from the west.

Under Mr Putin's eight-year presidency, the popularity of rightwing ideas grew as he deployed belligerent rhetoric and used Kremlin resources to sponsor groups such as Nashi, the youth movement organised by Mr Surkov. Mr Putin, and Mr Medvedev after him, adorned the presidency with the trappings of empire – regularly featuring the orthodox cross of Tsarist Russia and the red star of Soviet might.

Today, Russia's ideological transformation is complete, if contradictory. Just like in the 19th century, when Russia's armies fought against Napoleon while its aristocracy spoke French, today's Russian elite embraces a confusing agenda: Nato is considered a hostile force and they support the war in Georgia, but they still prefer holidaying in the west, owning property there and sending their children to British private schools.

However, analysts caution that public support for Kremlin policies is not unconditional. More than on patriotism and national pride, public approval for Mr Putin is based on his – and now Mr Medvedev's – presidency delivering higher living standards. Dmitri Simes of the Washington based Nixon Center says there are limits to the sacrifices people will make: "They don't want to be cut off from the west, they don't want to be isolated or ostracised." Russians do not want to increase military spending in a way that would compete with or threaten other national priorities, he says.

"Mr Putin was so hugely popular not just because of his national security credentials but because, under him, Russians began to live much better. But a new cold war, a new arms race, would threaten all that."

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