Thursday, November 29, 2007

Oprichniks vs Boyars 2.0

prichniks were Russian paramilitary forces
established in 1564 under the rule of Tsar Ivan the Terrible to operate outside, in parallel and partly as a substitute to the Russian Tsardom civil, military and court apparatus. As a rule Oprichniks, including many of their highest leaders, were raised from low classes to serve the Tsar directly. Supposedly the Tsar needed them to crush powerful Russian nobles, mainly the Princes (Knyazes) and the Boyars, as well as traders grown too independent in the liberal northern cities such as Pskov and Novgorod. Because Oprichniks came from the low layers of society (Boris Godunov served as archer in the army before becoming one of the leaders of the Oprichnina and later himself ascending to the throne) and had no political support other than the Tsar himself they were fanatically loyal and hated nobles whom they saw as unjustly rich, powerful and corrupted. They believed in the Tsar as the only legitimate power in Russia. Because Ivan the Terrible was always suspicious of his entourage he created and entrusted this militant organization to defend him against the enemies. Oprichniks were supposed to be "pure" people, caring not for their personal well-being but for the Tsar and Russia.

Oprichniks had to be strong so they could stand own ground against a rebellion by the nobles and their private armies. This never happened. But the main activity Oprichniks were engaged in was neither military nor security related. They became infamous for massive prosecutions and property confiscations.

n interview in Russian business daily Kommersant reveals the following shocking information: today a 600 000 strong army of modern-day Oprichniks operate in Russia. This force, formally separate from the state is drawn from the former basic and middle level state enforcers: retired police, special services and so on. The force in question is jointly managed by Siloviki and pro-Kremlin businessmen.

The background? The sensational interview was given by a Russian businessman, Oleg Shvartsman (ОЛЕГ ШВАРЦМАН), CEO of a "finance-industrial conglomerate" group Finansgrupp (Finansgroup), which is organization worth 3,2-billion dollars. In the interview he acknowledges that his activities are directly subordinate to certain high-ranking officials in the administration of president Vladimir Putin, including the almighty head of presidential office himself, Igor Sechin. The activities of Finantsgrupp CEO and his affiliates, acting under the cover of several other private and non-government organizations are allegedly approved by the president.

The goal? In the interview Mr Shvartsman claims that the network's goal is "re privatization" of any and all large lucrative private property, which is not yet under control of the figures from the presidential administration. Subject to this plan of "re privatization" are undertakings, which in the opinion of Oprichniks do not earn sufficient sums for Russia's State budget. Too small tax revenue, explains interviewee, is bad for the country's economically deprived regions and therefore undertaking have to be given to somebody else, namely to his Kremlin associates.

The means? Today's Oprichniks achieve their goals in several stages: first, using their operatives across the country they select companies sufficiently attractive for takeover. For this task they employ the net of former state security services operatives numbering some 600 000. These operatives act under protection of power-related state ministries such as the ministry of internal affairs, FSB and so on. Formally these retired officers act under umbrella of several non-governmental societies, the most powerful of them being "Social Justice Union of Russia" (Союз социальной справедливости России). Their tasks include analysis of potential acquisitions and contacting minority shareholders with the purpose of "convincing" them to sell. And further planning. No one is being beaten, claims Mr Shvartsman. "People get paid money".

After initial situational assessment measures are undertaken to bring down the firm's market value by the means of applying administrative pressure. Mr Shvartsman gives an example: a company in Orenburg region, which produces Chrome (metal substance) has market value of 800 million dollars and is considered one of the best, most profitable Russian producers of this rare element. After the company is approved for takeover administrative measures are applied until firm's market price drops. In particular case the company can be obtained for just 300 million dollars, two and half times cheaper than its real value. Ms Shvartsman does not specify in the interview the form in which this kind of pressure is manifested, but judged from past experience it could be as simple as "accidental" and "irreparable" breakdown of a government monopoly operated pipeline or power line. Or tax fraud investigation. The buyers are firms controlled by Siloviki. As interviewee explains Siloviki do not hold shares directly in the companies, it is done under the cover of organizations such as Finantsgrupp itself and different offshore schemes.

The results? Putin's control over the acquired assets is ensured by the means of giving majority shares to Cyprus-registered firms, which, in turn, belong to spouses and family members of "the people loyal to Russia". These people are the members of the current presidential administration, most of whom, in turn, are head of state's personal friends. After the takeover the market value of the undertakings grows back quickly.

"Oprichnik", painting by Apollinary Vasnetsov (C) Wikipedia

he demise of Oprichniks came as fast as was their rise, but not before they lost control over situation engulfed in indiscriminate robbing and slaughtering of people, enriching themselves instead of strengthening the state power. Feared as they were, they proved to be little actual force faced with determined opposition. When the Crimean Khan besieged Moscow in 1571 Oprichniks, corrupted by the enormous riches they had collected in Tsar's name, failed miserably. The city was captured and burnt down (with the exception of the powerful fortress of Kremlin). Soon Oprichniks were dissolved, but it was too late to save the kingdom. Several years after this event the Tsar died and with his death the ancient Rurik's dynasty declined. With the nobles destroyed the country was struggling in military competition with foreign powers and soon descended into Smuta period, the darkest in the Russian medieval history.

While some historians argue that the harsh acts of Oprichniks could be seen as a tool to destroy the power of the Princes, nobody agrees with their actual actions. In the end they not only asserted Russia's image as barbaric, but hardly brought the intendent benefits.

Could history be repeating itself?

See also: Eurasia Daily Monitor. FINANSGROUP: HOW RUSSIA’S SILOVIKI DO BUSINESS. By Jonas Bernstein. Friday, November 30, 2007.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Run, Yuli, run!

Photo (C) Alexandr Kogtev (Александр Когтев)

As crackdown on the opposition rallies by the incumbent Kremlin administration intensified in the wake of fast approaching State Duma elections this photograph of a man running from OMON (OMON is the Russian riot police, see the entry in Wikipedia) appeared in the Russian blogs. According to the bloggers the old man in question is:

..."a lonely dissident wolf" Yuli Rybakov (Юлий Рыбаков) running from OMON on the St Petersburg's Mayakovski street. "Right, with a white clove I ran away from them. They are bad runners in their diving-suits. Only one of them grabbed me but I was able to force myself free and took a turn behind a corner. Later I returned. They were dragging Natalia Evdokimova into detention buss (in Russian "автозак", sort of buss modified for prisoners' transportation). So I sat there down too."

Needless to say mocking pictures immediately appeared in the users net, such as this one:

I am afraid this is not just a random lucky photo by the photographer, but it captures the real feeling, which is dominant in the election campaing today: enforcers armed with the full might of state apparatus chasing the defenceless, in fact harmless opposition, outnumbered dozen-to-one.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Russian Federation abandoned its attempts of making the Bronze Soldier an international issue

In a suddenly sober move the Russian Federation abandoned its efforts of making the question of relocation of the Bronze Soldier monument (see Wikipedia on the subject) an international issue. This might become the last in a series of attempts to raise the particular issue in various international organizations such as the EU and PACE.

This development came within the process of adapting a UN GA resolution directed against the phenomenon of the modern-day nazism, racism and xenophobia. Indeed, the United Nation has in recent years been working on a resolution condemning modern nazism, which in practice proved to be difficult. The difficulty lies in the fact that different nations perceive particular notion differently. In various places around the World we can discover in newspapers such names and brands as "American Oil Nazis", "Islamic Fascists" and many others. Such strong is today the image of the WW2 Hitler that a party in a heated debate sooner or later gets called "nazi" by the opponents. There are in fact real neo-nazis and xenophobiacs as well, that is those who indeed support Hitler or indiscriminately hate people just because they are different. So the envisaged UN resolution was initially intended to condemn such groups. Its adoption proved difficult, because each government has own political agenda and many of them have no problem of fixing the intended anti-racist resolution in the suitable direction so that they could have a new pretext for doing what they really want. Which, in the failed Russian case, was to hit at Estonia for the monument relocation.

The United Nations' General Assembly page displays background information to the recent UN General Assembly votes, including the background of the draft resolution condemning "certain practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance".

As appears in the text on the UN page at some point the Russian Federation inserted into the text of the draft a reference to the relocation of Tallinn's Soviet monument. However, facing perspective of failure of the resolution if the reference remained, they withdrew this amendment at the last minute.

According to the UN document the Russian Ambassador made following statement:

The representative of the Russian Federation said the text was a timely one...

(Here I skip the meaningless part, which is accessible on the website, and point straight to the important one):

He then made an oral amendment to the text, removing the words “or transfer monuments” from operative paragraph 3.

Clearly, the "operative paragraph 3" was nothing less than a reference to the events in Tallinn, where the monument known as Bronze Soldier was relocated on the 27th of April, 2007, causing a head-on clash between Russia and Estonia.

But why did the Russians remove the reference to the "transfer of monuments"? Have they softened on Estonia? The UN text gives following clue:

Explaining his vote, the representative of Switzerland said his delegation recognized the value of the last-minute change that had been made to operative paragraph 3. It had allowed Switzerland to continue to abstain on the resolution as a whole.

Thus, Switzerland abstained from the resolution (instead of rejecting it altogether), along with other 52 countries comprising the members and the candidate countries of the EU and NATO, as well as neutral developed and non-militarist countries such as Switzerland, Iceland and Japana.

Here the EU was leading the way, as representative of Portugal at the UN was not only speaking on behalf of the 27-strong block, but even wider group of pro-EU European countries. According to the EU's statement at the time of the development of the draft in 2005 this group of countries consisted of, in addition to EU itself, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Ukraine and the Republic of Macedonia. In 2007, the EU group further grew in numbers. However, with the massive help of African, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, the resolution - after removal of the reference to the "transfer of monuments" - was adopted.



Albania, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Ukraine, United Kingdom.


Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chile, China, Colombia, Comoros, Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe.


The United States

The United States explained their negative vote in following terms:

The representative of the United States said his delegation had called for a vote, and that it would vote against the draft. No country abhorred hatred and Nazism more than the United States, but the draft resolution failed to distinguish between actions and statements that, while offensive, might be protected by freedom of expression, on the one hand, and actions and statements that incited violence, which should be prohibited, on the other. Curtailing expression was not a viable means of eliminating racism and related intolerance; only through a free flow of ideas, unfettered discussion and vigorous debate –- cornerstones of democracy -- could deplorable ideologies be challenged.

A Russian democratic blogger (link in Russian language) gives following background to the real meaning of the resolution, which at the UN was chiefly defended by the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan:

In essence, the Russian proposal constitutes an attempt to create an export version of Putin's law on "extremism" and it calls upon foreign States to enter into their legislation norms, which would enact persecution of citizens for expressing opinions thus giving international blessing to the practice of prohibition of freedom of political speech enforced in the RF under pretext of "fight against extremism".

"Estonians and dogs are not allowed" (Wikipedia) a sign at the entrance of a restaurant in a provincial city in Russia. The place to start enforcing UN anti-racism legislation?

The UN's General Assembly resolutions are not binding. It is interesting that in the particular vote Israel have voted together with the countries such as Syria, Iran and North Korea against the USA.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Defending" the Russian values: pillage and loot

The violence, directed largely at the police and the content of the boutiques in Tallinn downtown during the infamous April events, led the protesters-turned-looters to be branded "gangs of youths running riot" (DPA) or, perhaps more precisely, "gangs of marauding Russian youth" (Reuters) on "six-hour rampage and looting spree" (AFP) as the police was forced to respond to the "protesters trashing shops" (BBC).

The DPA correspondent writes about Tallinners' emotional impressions of the events:
The looters smashed windows and stole everything from drugs from the chemist's shop to women's underwear, designer jeans and alcohol.
"It is absolutely disgusting how some Russian youths behaved. This has nothing at all to do with the Soviet monument," - 29-year-old Svetlana Bruskova told AFP.

But on larger scale Ms Bruskova might be considered a local exception, not necessarily a rule.

Despite the fact of massive looting and maradeuring (for which, to tell the truth, some representatives of local non-immigrant population were also apprehended) captured on dozens of video cameras of international press correspondents, in the Russia proper the comprehension of the Tallinn's events remains different.

According to the Russian blogs en masse, which follow up the stories in the Russian (state controlled) media, Estonia's police staged "brutal dispersal" of peaceful "defenders of Soldier Liberator Monument" in Tallinn, while the West, in turn, clapped hands cheering at this massive face-to-the-ground humiliation of the ethnic Russians in Tallinn, at the same time hypocritically condemning crackdown on the participants of the opposition movement Other Russia rally in Moscow, conveniently smoothed out by the Motherland's press commentators.

In the eyes of Russians this contradiction yet again demonstrates the practice of "double standards" by the "so-called democratic World". Now in the Russian blogs following "quiz" circulates (links are in Russian language):

10 reasons why Russia is not yet the most democratic country in the World

1) We still don't shoot up opposition's demonstration with rubber bullets.
But in Georgia...
But in Estonia...
But in America...

3) We still don't use sound grenades, water cannons and tear gas against marching «non-agreeing».
But in Georgia...
But in Estonia...
But in Hungary...
But in Czech Republic...
But in Germany...

(and so on)

These talking points are saturated with linked examples from the stories about "police horrors" in countries like Estonia - stories, where desinformation is taken to a level perhaps surpassing that of the Soviet propaganda.
The quiz received more than 400 comments and spread further among the bloggers.

Yesterday, however, Russia was again internationally humiliated as European Court of Human Rights delivered rulings on five separate cases, which concern Russia's armed forces and FSB looting and murdering Russian citizens of Chechen ethnicity. Russian news portal within "com" domain in greater details describes the events in which of one of the cases took place (
The plaintiff in the case in question is father of one of two local Chechen police officers, whose bodies were found after they were taken away (the disappeared policeman, Aslanbek Kukaev is assigned number 221 in the list of persons disappeared) by the Russian troops. There was following background of their arrest by the army:

On 26th of Nov, 2000 two disappeared law enforcers went to work to Chechnya's capital market place.
On the same day at 11 AM the Federal (Armed) Forces conducted there "special operation". Numerous witnesses at the spot reported that the market place (those tend to be huge in the South) and several city blocks around it were surrounded by army units with heavy equipment including tanks, armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and trucks, which after cordoning off the area moved into the market.

To cut long story short the market was soon engulfed in looting on industrial scale with the soldiers shooting their Kalashnikovs into the air and rounding up local men under threat of execution as frightened women were handing over the stuff for the troops to load it into the fighting vehicles. There went small merchandise, cases of snickers bars, beer cans and crates of vodka, everything. Average market stand yielded some 22 thousand Russian rubles (700 dollars) in loot.

"I was working at the market on November 26, when the Russians started roughing people up outrageously. They stole merchandise, food, boxes of vodka, cigarettes and equipment. When two police officers from the Zavodskyy Region tried to intervene, they took away their identification and led them away somewhere. Things stolen from my locker included raincoats, jackets, suits, and shoes, worth 50,000 rubles. Only a few of my colleagues managed to hide and preserve their goods"

The local policemen, which heroically but stupidly attempted to intervene, were taken away by the soldiers, later two of the law enforcers were found shot, dead.

"I went to the central market to buy some clothes. Suddenly a panic broke out, people started running around in confusion. It turned out that the Russians had surrounded the market and were conducting a document check. Although I presented my passport and student identification, they took me to a vehicle with several dozen other young men who were being detained. On the road I managed to negotiate with one of the soldiers, who let me go in exchange for money. Several other people from my group also managed to buy their release. I don’t know what happened to the others. I only know that their relatives are looking for them. If I hadn’t had some money with me at the time, I’m sure mine would be looking for me now"

For the Russian justice (or should it be "justice"?) agencies this whole special operation remained one of the many mysteries of Chechen wars as no perpetrators were found when the relatives of the dead filed complaints. So the case - one of thousands of pending cases of rape, murders and looting by the Russian military and special forces in Chechnya - ended in international court. Russian state was found guilty and compensation of some 50 000 euros was awarded to the victims' relatives.

I wonder if "defenders of Constitution" in Grozny were also as keen on getting hygiene supplies for their girlfriends as this kiosk looter in Tallinn.

Here are some points of similarities between the players in the events in the two cities:
  • Mostly ethnically Russians;
  • Revered defenders of important things. In Tallinn they defend the Monument, in Grozny - Constitutional Order and Integrity of the Federation. Both WWII "Bronze Soldier" Monument in Tallinn and territorial integrity of the Motherland are proclaimed to represent some of the most solemn Russian values;
  • Favorite drink is vodka, measured in liters and gallons;
  • Loot spoils of war. Enjoy indiscriminately sweeping clean the shelves of the local retail outlets. However in Tallinn they lacked the armor to load the spoils onto;
  • Don't like local police;
  • Anti-fascists. How they came to be is unclear, but in the Russian media it is explained by the fact that both Estonians and Chechens "collaborated with the Nazis" during WWII. Hence, looting shops there is an act of anti-fascism;
  • Patriots of the Great Motherland. In Tallinn the crowd was chanting "Russia, Russia!" when charging the shops doors and windows; in the army it must come automatically with the office;
  • Youth under 30 years in both cases. Kids are our future, used to say Lenin.
There's a striking parallel between the behavior of the youth in Tallinn and Grozny, with the exception that the police in Tallinn is not as easy to take away in a truck and shoot dead. One could only be sorry for good part of decent Russians who live in a coutry, whose values are defended by gangmen.