Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Social #netWARks- new dimension, or crass distraction?

The internet is swamped with talk of the 'new dimension' of warfare that this latest Gaza, Israel fighting has spawned. From the twittersphere to traditional broadsheets articles are spewing forth on the potential importance of this radical new battleground. One of the most commonly cited exchanges of 'tweet bombs', this between the official twitter accounts of Israel's military and Hamas' military wing-

But these are just the more official combatants circling each other in this much vaunted cyber dual. There are armies of bloggers, facebookers and tweeters lining up to take a side and do battle, mostly under fluttering hashtag banners like #GazaUnderAttack or #IsraelUnderFire-

There have even been fake accounts set up, further contributing to the chaotic online struggle. Look carefully at the twitter handle of this user. 'Spokeperson' instead of 'Spokesperson' on the genuine Israeli Defence Force account. Having copied the look of Israel's official military voice, look what this platform is used to broadcast-

But what does all this swirling storm of comment actually consist of? Many of the tweets sent by supporters of the various camps call for support and try and to justify their side's case. Others attack the other side or criticise those that support them. And some others celebrate or lament some reported, all too often gossiped, victory or defeat, for example the Israeli jet 'shot down' on the internet which strangely never materialised in real life.

Once upon a time a reporter was surrounded by the details of the story, struggled to pick and choose which elements to include and which to leave out for the audience, and that was pretty much it. Now that pyramid if you like, a mass of raw detail on the bottom distilled into a selective report at the top, has metamorphosed. It hasn't been turned upside down, because the mass of detail is still there on the ground, rather than pulled out into a giant block.

The usual myriad of details, depending on how deep you want to look, is still being fed in. But that mass is also more easily fed out through a vastly expanding number of outlets. In a way this is good, breaking the stranglehold of traditional media on the 'truth'. However it's now fed out fast, with little checking and often shot through with rumour, comment and emotion. Does it deserve the title, 'a new dimension of warfare'. Hardly.

By its nature this mass of social media publishing, on the surface united in support of a single side or cause, is not organised. It doesn't have a clear or unified objective. And it doesn't contribute to the overall aim of a campaign. In fact, far from well representing their cause many social media warriors end up creating a scatological mob. Their 'arguments' swirl around like a murmuration of starlings.

Even worse, many of the barrage of comments are just plain crass. Ignoring many of the human tragedies unfolding in Gaza and Israel, comments like this-

or this exchange-

There are 'conversations' on the web far, far more hateful than this. They make the whole thing seem like some sick ideological game. Even if there is mention of the dead, the rabid fury with which dedicated groups or individuals tweet their cause sets them permanently onto 'output' mode and seems to disconnect them further from reality. It's easy to tweet or post. But all chatter seems to fade into the background when stories of real human tragedy present themselves. Like the BBC Arabic journalist in Gaza who's baby, among other family members, was killed in an Israeli airstrike. It rather puts it all into context to see pictures of him, not filled with rage but sobbing with heartbreak, asking only, "what did my son do to die like this? What was his mistake? He is 10 or 11 months old. What did he do?  

War is intimately connected with society. War is a political act. Many of these social media comments are highly, even obscenely, politically charged.  But with such grave consequences on the ground, and such a need for calm, clear headed compromise from both sides, it begs the question, is this frenzy of shouting down and denouncement really 'social media', or in fact something highly anti-social?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Shadows over Ashkelon- A snapshot of the Israel-Gaza war 2012

Looking out to Gaza and the war beyond.

It was dusk, and a few kilometres away from Gaza the sounds of war drift across to me. The whirr of the drones and graze of the planes never stops, their jet streams looping over the bombarded city. The thud of the bombs and missiles are loud and regular. They can’t but lift one’s head from what you are doing and send a thought racing about who might have been underneath it. As of writing the death toll in Gaza stands at over 100, both militants and civilians. The pictures of children caught up in the random terror of aerial bombardment will not stop provoking shock.

The death toll in Israel stands at 3 as of writing. Yet it is luck that means it’s not been more. Israeli spokespeople will find it increasingly difficult to justify the rising civilian casualties in Gaza. They still have a point though when they say that Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza are really only targeting civilians and they are trying their best to target only militants. The same law of averages that means militant rockets from Gaza mostly miss the towns they are fired at, or are too weak or faulty to cause casualties also means the powerful bombs and missiles dropped on Gaza, no matter how high tech, are steadily pushing up the collateral damage cost.

But war is war. Both sides try to inflict damage on the other. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups, hateful though their objectives are, are trying to hit back at Israel the only way they can. So here it was. As I strolled down Histadrut street in Ashkelon in the south of Israel in came the latest rocket attack.

The missiles snaking up to meet, and this time intercept, the incoming rockets are from Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system. Israelis usually have between 10 and 15 seconds to scramble for a shelter when the sirens start wailing. The iron dome teams, and any journalists like me who want to cover the aerial dual of physics, parabolas, rocket vectors and statistical chance have even less time.  

The entrance to the staircase of one of the shelters Israelis flee to when the sirens sound.

As night falls Hamas, who struggle to aim their rockets well enough by day, largely stop firing. With the background noise of the town gone, and only a quiet few kilometres of scrubland separating me from Gaza, the sounds of the fighting are distilled through the darkness. Around 2 am heavy plane engines drone in over Ashkelon. A few minutes later a series of huge booms roll back to me. Then a pattern of three small blasts, followed by three huge ones, repeating several times. It sounds like artillery fire. Israeli gunboats stand off the Gazan coast blasting targets to order from aerial spotters. It was likely them, I thought.

Another worry was preying on many minds though that night. The statements Israeli generals make about what will come next are rarely calm. 75,000 reservists were ready to be sent into battle. And the latest statement from an Israeli commander indicated the ground attack would come that night. Was it, I wondered, the opening volleys of the ground offensive? These worries are frequent and I’m sure they aren’t felt by me alone.

I rose early and headed down to the Iron dome launchers themselves. A morning volley of rockets was becoming routine, around 8-9am. Once there I found out that no ground offensive had started, also that the Hamas rockets were expected soon. Sure enough my heartbeat, as all the others in Ashkelon rose in tempo to the waking siren as Iron dome burned into action. But it didn’t seem such a clear engagement as the day before. Although some aerial reports sound out, other iron dome missiles seem to fumble blindly about the sky. 

This time, Israel lost the war of the vectors. The Hamas rocket had made it through reportedly hitting a house on, where else, Histadrut street. As I ran back through this unfamiliar corner of Israel my surroundings became more known to me. I realised the block of flats around which the crowds of reporters and police were gathering was a mere 100 metres from where I had stood and filmed the evening before.

Thankfully there was no one at home and the rocket didn’t explode. But it did punch through the roof of one apartment into another and nearly into a third. For Israelis too, as much as it may look like it, this war is not a game.

A ceasefire would be a start. Then at least we are back to the over sensitive politics, crushing historical burden, unreasonable demands and deforming social and economic effects that militarisation has on the region. But as many times as it has fruitlessly been said before, a solution to the old fashioned territorial politics underlying all of this is the only thing that will stop the recurrence of the terrorism and the terrifying bombardments.   

The hole in the apartment block roof where the rocket entered. It continued down through  one of the top floor flats and into another.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Cold War not Old War- Russia's modern spy networks

It's yet another spy revelation like others embroiling Russia in recent years. This time it was discovered in Germany, which hasn't seen anything like it since re-unification. But it goes far beyond German borders. It hints at a level of international tension and espionage so shocking in scale it seems the Cold War never ended.

It all reportedly goes back to 1988 when the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall and the KGB were still standing. Two agents, we know them only by their codenames 'Andreas A.' and 'Heidrun A.', arrived in South West Germany. They had come from South America but carried fake Austrian passports. He purportedly started work as an engineer and they settled into a seemingly boring, bourgeois life near Stuttgart.

However when a special unit of the German police entered the house in October 2011 they caught Heidrun A. red handed. She was sat at her radio equipment communicating with Moscow. She was so shocked she fell off her chair dragging wires out of the wall with her. Andreas A was arrested elsewhere in Germany.

They had not been living a bourgeois life at all but had been busy stealing information on NATO and EU strategy and passing it to the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence agency, a successor to the KGB. They had a contact inside the Dutch Foreign Ministry who passed them secret information via a dead letterbox. They were in constant contact with the SVR in Moscow and were being paid 100,000 euros a year to do their spying. They have now been charged with espionage, charges which they deny.

For the SVR and Russia it’s another potentially huge embarrassment. The network of spies that’s been uncovered is far larger than just Andreas A. and Heidrun A. They sat at the centre of web stretching across Europe and beyond. They played a linking role with other agents. They had informers in the German government supplying them with information on the politics, society and security Germany and the German people. They had their spy inside the Dutch Foreign Ministry. They were also linked to a Russian spy ring in the US broken up in 2010.

There have been other major Russian spying incidents in recent years too. In 2009 Hermann Slimm, an Estonian defence ministry official gave thousands of EU, Estonian and NATO documents to Russia. He is now in jail serving twelve and half years.

There should be concern from Europe and the US. As the head of Belgium’s security service summed it up to a European journalist, spying by Russia and China is being carried out at the same intensity and extent as it was in the Cold War. 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Drink Driving in Russia- Trying to make it a road less travelled

The 22nd of September 2012 was a relaxed Saturday afternoon as the small group made their way back from a festival of arts and crafts. Five teenagers from an orphanage, their teacher Olga Shirshova and her husband were waiting for the bus on Minskaya street in Moscow. Suddenly a toyota came screaming up beside some waiting traffic. Inside it was 30 year old Alexander Maximov. He was drunk. In fact he later said he'd been drinking for two days. He veered off the road and smashed into the bus stop and the people waiting there at 200 kilometres an hour. All seven from the orphanage were killed as the car skidded on 10 metres, dragging the twisted wreckage of the bus stop and all inside with it. 

Three others were injured. They and other witnesses saw how Maximov clambered out of the car, not even realising they said, what he had just done. Instantly they knew he was dunk. When police arrived, other reports say he was aggressive and tried to lash out at a video camera they were using to film the scene. Blood tests conducted afterwards showed he had 1.5 per mil alcohol in his blood, equivalent to 0.15%.

Maximov reportedly said he wanted to shoot himself, so guilty was he once he did realise what had happened. A criminal case has been opened and if charges of multiple manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol are brought he could spend up to nine years in prison with a three year driving ban after.

Another cruel irony in this case was that it was international car free day, celebrated in Moscow as elsewhere to try and encourage less dependence on personal vehicles.

But this was just one case. Most people in Russia know it. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said it, “We’ve recently had a series of horrifying road accidents, unfortunately, the majority of them were caused [by drivers] in a drunken state. In this way the picture is worse here than in any other country."

Russia has an abominable record for road safety, even when you don't count the alcohol. As many as thirty thousand people die in collisions each year and tens of thousands more are injured. As for drink driving, though 2,103 people were killed by drink drivers in 2011. 2,300 have already been killed so far in 2012.

These figures were used by United Russia duma deputy Shamsail Saraliyev to argue for the most harsh increase in punishment, life imprisonment if drink drivers end up killing people. He says causing deaths by drink driving amounts to terrorism. Emotional, populist nonsense came the reply, from experts who say this goes against legal norms and objectives and would do little to solve the problem. As one lawyer, Yuri Shulipa, commented, life sentences are given for crimes where there is clear intent. Drunk drivers like Maximov by their very nature don't have intent to kill people. They aren't even in control of their actions. Even other members of Saraliyev's party rejected the idea as simply too vindictive.

However few would disagree that Russia's punishment of drink drivers needs to be harsher. The current fine is 5000 roubles ($160/£100) as long as there has been no collision. There are also no harsher measures for repeat offences. Andrey Vorobyov, United Russia's leader in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, has suggested fines be increased to 100,000 roubles  ($3200/£2000) with driving bans and criminal cases for repeat offenders. There are already laws that deal with death caused by drink driving as Alexander Maximov will likely be facing. But the maximum sentence there is nine years in prison. There has been talk of equating incidents where people are killed by drink drivers to murder which can carry a fifteen year sentence.

If a new law helps to bring down the frightening death toll on Russia's roads it won't come a moment too soon. However that's just the point argue many angry onlookers. This draft law has been on the books for some time. Why did it take this particularly poignant tragedy to force action? There are also worries about the enforceability of any new law. As Peter Shkumatov, coordinator of a famous anti-motor corruption group called the blue buckets (to simulate fake blue emergency lights)  says, so many drink drivers in Russia who have had their licences taken away continue to drive and simply bribe police officers. 

Sadly, if events like those of the 22nd of September are not be repeated, as they are with alarming frequency, it will take more than just a change in attitudes in Russia's Duma. Though judging by that piece of pavement where before there was a bus stop on Minskaya street, flower by flower, candle by candle, there is the real desire that Russia's roads will become safer.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Migrant labour in Russia- Needs versus wants

The biggest proportion of migrant workers will be needed for building and road repairs says the Labour Ministry.

Russia's labour ministry has published a report on the numbers of migrant workers Russia needs in 2013.

It's apparently around 1,750,000, and that's how many work permits will be issued. So how do you come up with a figure like that?

First of all this million and three quarters includes foreign workers currently in Russia. Around 412,000 new invites have been issued. The ministry's estimate is based on proposals from regional Russian governments on how many workers they think they need. They've also looked at the labour market, demographics, the principal of priority of national labour and the effectiveness of the foreign labour force in 2011.

They estimate Russia will need a foreign labour force 2.4% the size of Russia's total labour force next year, roughly the same as was needed this year. The ministry notes that's not a huge number and won't put Russians out of work.

The biggest proportion is builders and road workers at nearly 600,000. The ministry also says Russia will need more than 350,000 unskilled workers and over 100,000 foundry and factory workers. However more skilled workers are also needed, notes the ministry. Demand for skilled workers makes up 80% of the total demand for foreign workers by many employers.

In addition, changes in urban planning policies mean that construction companies will try and hire more highly skilled workers and more Russian workers.

However it's hard to know if these figures are realistic or of much use. Russia estimates that over 5 million migrants are working in Russia illegally, though figures are hard to establish. It's easy though to see pressure building against migrant workers, especially illegal workers. Russia has announced a clampdown and the Russian parliament is considering a new law to make arriving applicants take Russian language, history and legal tests. This isn't for citizenship, just a work permit.

This has lead to numerous cases of exploitation. Just last week 11 vietnamese workers died in a fire in at a sewing factory in the Moscow region where they were locked in to prevent them leaving and only brought food once a day. Hundreds of workers from central Asia are discovered each year who have had their documents taken from them and are subsequently forced to work for a pittance in inhumane conditions.

The large numbers of migrant workers employed in construction and manual labour in Russia, mostly from former Soviet republics in central Asia, have also caused a rise in tensions with ethnic Russians. There have been widespread reports of increases in crime from migrant communities and of fights and even murders between central Asians and Russians.

With an ageing infrastructure, major building projects and a population that isn't going to see any appreciable growth for the time being Russia needs workers. But trying to protect both the needs of the Russian economy and population and of the workers themselves is looking like a labour of Hercules.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Put your money where your Duma is- Russian attempts to keep it in the country

A draft law presented to Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, would forbid officials from owning assets abroad or having foreign bank accounts.

The bill was proposed by representatives of the United Russia, Liberal Democratic, Just Russia and Communist parties.

If the bill is accepted at debates in the autumn it could become law by 2013. It could carry penalties as high as 5 million roubles (over $150,000) or up to five years in prison.

All foreign owned assets and money in foreign bank accounts would be made illegal.

If a Russian politician, law enforcement or military official, from the municipal level right up to the president inherited a foreign property for example; under the new law they would have to sell it within a year and move the money to a Russian bank account. The law may also be extended to to officials' spouses.

There would be exceptions though if medical treatment was needed abroad.

In a recent poll 63% of the Russian respondents said they supported the idea.

The bill will face opposition though from members of the A Just Russia party who say these measures are excessive and populist and that they will only encourage schemes to hide money abroad that are already well known to rich and corrupt Russian officials.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Russia's budget battles- there's a lot at stake when the roubles are down

Russian president Vladimir Putin has criticized some of his ministers for poor financial plans and for ignoring his spending orders. His comments were made at a budget meeting in the black sea resort of Sochi. 

Putin says that the draft fiscal plan of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government means that thirteen decrees he made, straight after being sworn in for his third term as Russian president, won't be implemented. He demanded this be changed. Medvedev wasn't present at the meeting. The criticisms of his government have raised speculation that Russia's previous president and his government might be forced from their posts.

Dmitry Medvedev reportedly locked himself in his prime minister's office with the finance minister, Anton Siluanov, in a scramble to change the 2013-15 budget. Putin has asked Medvedev to reprimand two ministers for failing to stick to his priorities. Labour Minister Maxim Topilin and Regional Development Minister Oleg Govorun are the two specified for an upbraiding. Putin says they will, "bear personal responsibility," for their ministries not following his orders. He is angry that no new pension plan has yet been created as per his orders. Finance minister Siluanov says that pension reform can probably be included without huge disruption. Plans for the development of Siberia and the Russian far east also remain unprepared. Whilst saying it wasn't his job to do it, Putin's highlighting the task for Medvedev is seen by some as undermining his Prime Minister.

It seems the Russian government has come to an economic fork in the road. Putin is urging his ministers to work towards a balanced budget because of the financial crisis but also demands they meet his spending commitments. However contradictory messages are coming from different parts of the Russian government.

There has been in-fighting between ministries over budget allocations and the need to prepare for a second wave of financial crisis in recent weeks. Russia's Finance Ministry has been one of those throwing its weight around more than most. It has told the Ministry of Economic Development that its forecasts for the possible effects of a second wave of financial crisis aren't pessimistic enough. And it's been doing what finance ministries are notorious for, telling other parts of government they can't spend.

First, healthcare. The Healthcare Ministry wanted 2.7 billion roubles ($85 million) for research centres and 3 billion roubles ($94 million) for developing medical equipment. The Finance Ministry says it's not a priority.

Next, culture. The Ministry of Culture had wanted 1 billion roubles ($31 million) to buy museum specimens. In the current climate that was perhaps an easier one to shoot down. As for the 11 billion roubles ($345 million) requested by the Education and Science ministry for additional music and arts classes (hopefully for students, not them) a decision is yet to be made.

In the realm of science and technology the Finance ministry has come out against giving the Russian Foundation of Fundamental Research the 3 billion roubles (over $94 million) it asked for. Also denied are 8.5 billion roubles ($270 million) for developing the grandly titled 'infrastructure of tech cities', 9 billion roubles ($283 million) for buying equipment and 4.2 billion roubles ($132 million) to maintain the Skolkovo innovation centre outside Moscow. That may even mean that Skolkovo, the brain child of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev back when he was president in 2009, and hoped to be the start of a Russian silicon valley, may have been an enormously expensive white elephant. 

As regards child benefits the Finance Ministry suggests that if a child is under 18 months old the mother should only receive benefit payments if she earns below the minimum wage.

Perhaps most controversial of all is the ministry's rejection of the request for 34 billion roubles ($1 billion, 68 million) to raise public sector salaries. All ministries had hoped for gradual wage increases from next year. The Finance Ministry says instead it will raise salaries twice in 2017, it's reported. That's one of the decisions Putin doesn't like.

The aim of all this is to try and fix next year's budget further in advance and to try and get some control and efficiency in Russian government spending. The problem here is that unlike many lower priority expenses which are easier to put on hold, the above measures fall under so called 'social spending' and were considered a priority, at least by the ministries in question.

Dmitry Medvedev is speaking of the necessity to balance the budget and the immense damage that could result from overspending if a second wave of financial crisis hits Russia. 

Putin, for his part maintains that there are great projects in Russia that money must be put towards.

So what are the Russian government's biggest spending priorities? Defence it seems, and foreign debt. Foreign debt payments will be most welcome in this age of financial constriction and will help build confidence in Russia's economy among investors. The increase in the payments though is enormous, up 64% by 2015 compared to 2012. Defence spending is predicted to rise over 50% in 2015 compared to 2012. Few doubt that reform in Russia's armed forces is needed. But a figure as big as 20-21.5 trillion roubles (over $650 billion) for the armed forces in the next decade could start to cause public anger when people see, as indicated by these inter-ministerial arguments, that it will cost healthcare, education, science and wages.

It has been left to the economists to point out that you simply can't have everything. The Russian government has been put in a virtually impossible position. Trying to meet the demands for higher defence spending, paying off debt, salary increases, pension plans and all the other spending promises mean that a tight fiscal line can't be kept and the budget will not be balanced, they say. 

When it comes to wages in particular, these announcements will raise doubts as to whether Vladimir Putin can keep his election campaign promises to keep increasing pensions and to double the average pay of teachers, scientists and cultural workers by 2018.

The daily newspaper Kommersant reports that there have been 164 labour related protests in Russia from January to July 2012, more than for the last three years and they are on the increase. Outside the Russian government as well as within it, budget choices in the next few years could cause many more than just the President or the Finance Ministry to start throwing their weight around. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The danger of a dog's life- Killing canines in Russia

50-letiya Oktyabrya (50 years of October) park in Moscow where the dogs were poisoned.

Dozens of dogs have died and a man has been made ill after poison was spread around the 50-letiya Oktyabrya park in south west Moscow. One woman, who lost her pet described how her dog started to foam at the mouth and was dead before she could get it to the vet.

Most of the animals died within two hours, displaying the same symptoms of asphyxia, vomiting and convulsions. Vets were only able to save a few.

Locals think it was an attempt to kill off strays, or perhaps it was a response to dogs being let off leashes. Russia has a problem with stray dogs. It's hard to measure but it's estimated there are around a million strays in the country as a whole and perhaps as many as 100,000 in Moscow. Attacks result, with around 16,600 reported in 2008. Some have been mutilated, bitten to death or have died of blood loss when attacked by one or more animals. 

Ineffective government policy has failed to tackle the problem. Attempts at killing the animals, sterilizing them or taking them to shelters have cost millions of dollars while doing little to reduced feral dog populations. Many Russians are made angry by parliament's dithering over new laws on the issue.

This has lead to the rise of the 'dog hunters', locals who take matters into their own hands and try to kill dogs themselves. Some are treated as local heroes, seen as protecting people from potentially dangerous animals. But some animal rights activists have gone out of their way to attack the dog hunters themselves. As one shelter owner said, "both sides have been driven insane by the same issue." There's one thing they agree on. They blame the government for letting it come to this.

In this particular case the police received two complaints from people whose dogs were poisoned. They don't know yet what the substance is. The have increased patrols but don't want to shut the park or open a criminal case yet.

Whoever did scatter the poison was probably behind notices that went up after the first attacks. They warn people to keep their dogs on leashes or the attacks will continue. The signs also say they will throw minced meat around the park with fish hooks inside it. The poison they used was, according to the declarations, amanitin from the infamous death's cap mushroom. Tests are not yet back to say if this is true.

In response locals have announced a 30,000 rouble ($960) reward for information and a 100,000 rouble ($3200) reward for finding those responsible. They are reportedly also trying to patrol the park themselves. If the culprits are found they could face up to two years in prison for animal cruelty.

But with feelings running as high as this over the dogs of Russia, whether stray or domestic, it seems it won't be the end of the difficulties for canines or humans.

Politics of Business or Business of Politics? Russia's MPs scrap over corruption and illegal business activity

Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

Before opposition Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov was dismissed from the Duma, which has raised fears of more deputies being turfed out, his son Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Ponomaryov from the A Just Russia party have started publishing information on the assets and income of members of the ruling United Russia party.

It's a strike back at United Russia who they say have been trying to sling mud at opposition figures.

In June 2012 details of the business activities of Gennday Gudkov (Dmitry's father and also a Deputy of Just Russia) were investigated. The documents, say Russia's Investigative Committee, show that in 2008 Gudkov bought a stake in the company OOO "Kolomenskyi stroitel" by a deed of gift (65.72%). They are also claimed to show he ran the company whilst a deputy, as well as another firm, "Roshan", being part of the management.

It is illegal for Russian MPs to start or run businesses due to the potential for conflicts of interest and corruption.

Gudkov junior and Ponomarev say that the investigation against Gudkov senior was fabricated and is really punishment for his support of opposition protests after the parliamentary elections of December 2011 which brought allegations of mass vote rigging. United Russia members are hypocrites, they say, guilty of the crimes they accuse Gudkov Senior of. Specifically their misdeeds include buying shares, starting new enterprises, and managing vast portfolios of assets. 

They are publishing the details from discrepancies between two parliamentary declarations. The first are annual declarations of assets. The second are declarations made before parliamentary elections, the last was that controversial election in December 2011. It turns out, say the two politicians, there are many assets owned that are not listed in one or other of the declarations.

It seems many of these business dealings were done after their electoral declarations, to avoid having to declare them. Gudkov and Ponomaryov say there are an enormous 55 such cases in United Russia. They maintain that four deputies still run businesses. They say it is suspicious that deputies own assets far exceeding what could have been afforded on their salary. They have also highlighted luxury vehicles including Bentleys, Porsches and Lexuses and real estate in Russia and abroad in countries such as Germany. They have named some, ‘brave fellows’ at the centre of this scandal-

Gregory Anikeev: he owns three companies (JSC "Delta", CJSC "Westa" and JSC "Norta"), not mentioned on his election declaration, so which must have been set up after that.

Deputy Ilya Kostunov, according to the register, is the CEO and owner of 40% of the Company "Consulting Management Strategy", in which 30% belong to the former head of Rosmolodezh Vasily Yakimenko.

Deputy Yelena Nikolayeva is listed as the general manager of Company "Zolotoi krendel." [gold pretzel]

And the chairman of the Committee on Labour and Social Policy Andrei Isayev, according to the declaration, while working at the State Duma of the previous convocation became a member of Company "IGP groups." In addition, says Dmitry Gudkov, the deputy made major acquisitions: land in Germany and the Moscow region, two apartments in Moscow with a total of more than 300 square meters. Еven the approximate value of the property significantly exceeds the declared total family income.

The opposition wants each case found to be investigated.

That’s left those accused scrambling for explanations. Ilya Kostunov, who himself is a member of the committee on Security and Corruption, says it was a mistake in the databases. So do other deputies. Many point out that they did own or managed companies but that those companies no longer operate or that they are no longer in charge.

MPs in Russia are formally allowed to acquire shares and assets, but they must be in a trust.

Kirill Kabanov from Russia's National Anti-Corruption Committee says that business activity is rife throughout Russia's political class.

Ivan Ninenko from Transparency International commented, in Russia it is very hard to legally define what qualifies as a business. However he added, why would you establish a presence in a business in the first place, except to do business.

Vladimir Yuzhakov from the Institute of modernisation of Public Administration says, involvement in a business does violate essentially both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Further investigation will be necessary into each individual case, but the hope is that in the meantime this mudslinging within parliament will lead to real improvements in the clarity and transparency of regulation in this area.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Russian politics- A nasty business

It's the end of the road for opposition Russian Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov. On Friday the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, voted to strip Gudkov of his parliamentary seat. He has been accused of engaging in business activities while a deputy, which is against the law. In a vote held behind closed doors 291 deputies voted for his removal, 150 against. Gudkov rejects the accusations completely, saying this is politically motivated revenge for his opposition activities.

His United Russia opponents, who make up the majority of the Duma, used  a 'special procedure' to hurry through the attack on him. They invited prosecutors into the Duma to deliver reports against him. They say he bought stakes or was involved with three different businesses whilst a deputy which is banned. After that questions were asked. Gudkov himself was allowed just ten minutes to defend himself before the vote was held. He delivered an impassioned rebuttal to his accusers. "My mandate was given to me by the people. Only a court can remove it and you all know that." He was defiant, declaring the accusations against him are nonsense and making it clear there would be no confessions and no apologies. He said he won't weep about losing his post and will be present at an opposition protest on Saturday. Being stripped of his post also removes Gudkov's immunity from prosecution. None is more aware of this than him, and he says he expects a criminal case to follow. "I don't rule out a prison sentence," he said, "I just hope the authorities come to their senses before then."

Only a majority of 226 votes were needed for him to have to go and United Russia have 238 seats. Gudkov is a member of the 'A Just Russia' party and has been active in opposition rallies against allegations of mass vote rigging in the December 2011 parliamentary elections and March 2012 Presidential elections. His party leader Sergey Mironov said United Russia's rushing forward of the process when they are still waiting for the constitutional court's word on the matter is, "a disgrace for the entire State Duma."

However Mironov himself now faces a possible investigation for illegal business practices whilst being a deputy. To Gennady Gudkov, ex-KGB Kremlin loyalist turned opposition figure, this is all just a politically motivated attempt to silence him. He says Russia's Investigative Committee have no evidence he engaged in business activity. At one company he was allegedly involved with, Kolomensky Stroitel, he says he had pre-signed some blank documents in case decisions were needed when the boss wasn't available. When that situation arose, he says, the decision that was made was to appoint him and his wife general directors. He had no knowledge of it and was not related to the document used as evidence against him. He says he gave over the responsibilities to his wife in 2009.

This way of removing deputies from office could have opened a very nasty can of worms. Many deputies from United Russia are also accused of business dealings whilst being Duma deputies, some of them by Gennady Gudkov's son Dmitry, also a Duma deputy for A Just Russia. Political targeting of this kind has been called for and threatened more and more recently. It could become the weapon of choice for those wanting to silence their political opponents. Weapons like this mixing with politics in present day Russia? It sounds like there could be a lot of blood on the Duma carpet.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

No longer a space race with a Russian loss of face

The Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, site of most Russian rocket launches. This Soyuz vehicle would carry three astronauts up to the International Space Station.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is annoyed at the litany of errors that have befallen Russia’s space exploration efforts in the last couple of years.

In August the booster of a Proton M rocket with two communications satellites attached cut out, leaving the whole assemblage stranded at a much lower orbit than intended. The craft will eventually fall back to earth and burn up, the satellites still attached to it.

The botched launch lead to the resignation of Russia’s general director of state research and production at Russia’s space centre.

In the past year and a half says Medvedev there have been problems with seven different launches. Ten satellites have been lost. Space officials say there have been only five failures out of sixty launches. Even so it’s a miserable record for a country that once had a groundbreaking space industry. Even more embarrassing, this is happening at a time when NASA has just successfully landed a rover on distant Mars.

The reasons Medvedev has identified are sadly familiar among other technological disasters in Russia in recent years including boats sinking, numerous plane crashes and the flooding of a hydroelectric power station-

1. An outdated and ageing industrial base ever more desperately in need of repair or replacement.

2. A weak base for the supply of specialist modern electronics and construction equipment.

3. An ageing and retiring workforce and a lack of new personnel.

After the technical failures comes the political wrath. The media has been speculating as to which heads will roll. Some of the different agencies which produce different parts are on a ‘hit list’ of responsibility. The Prime Minister though is also reportedly angry with his deputy, Dmitry Rogozin, who instead of making constructive comments started stamping his feet, saying he would take ‘manual control’ of the situation.

The Russian authorities do however want to overhaul the organisation of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos and the Russian space industry overall.   

Russia's space efforts are not as blessed as they once were, but efforts are being made to bring back success.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Baring gifts- Can Russia stop its officials taking bribes?

The government has prepared a draft provision on the receiving of gifts by officials which they hope will be adopted as law by the end of the year.

The provision would require officials to declare any gifts received on business trips or at events within three days. The gift will then be appraised by experts. If the gift is over 3000 roubles in value the official will have a first choice chance to buy it back at auction.

This new draft applies to all Russian government officials whereas it seems that before there was a mess of different regulations in Russia’s civil code, the law on the civil service and the law for servicemen. Russia’s civil code allows legal entities or individuals to give gifts whereas federal laws forbid officials to receive them. The Labour ministry says these contradiction make it hard to enforce the law.

It’s a classic case of more law doesn’t mean good law. However the Labour ministry has decided that until the contradictions can be sorted out its best to add more rules on top. Officials will now be allowed to accept gifts under 3000 roubles as long as they declare them. Experts will then try and assess what the gift is worth if not declared or if it seems to be of unique cultural worth. If the gift turns out to be worth less than 3000 roubles it will be returned the official. If more it will be auctioned. If an animal is given, like the puppies, horses or even the Tiger given to Vladimir Putin and it is not bought back it will be given to a zoo.

The complexity of the new law being added on top of the existing mess has been criticised by the head of Russia’s anti-corruption committee, Kirill Kabanov. He says the document is complex, adds to the existing complexity and has holes in it. So an official could take a bribe, say it was a gift and he was going to declare it in three days.

Far better, says Kabanov would just be to ban accepting all gifts for all officials, bar the free pens. Everything else should be put up for auction, and officials not given special priority.

These rules already exist, says Oleg Mitvol from Rosprirodnadzor, but nobody followed them. He says it would be shocking to see the amount of expensive watches for example to come out of the woodwork if everything had to go to auction.

The Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov laughed at the proposals. Honest  officials would be happy to receive a bottle of perfume for example. But those who take hundreds of thousands of dollars, do you think will put them off?

Its part of Russia’s anti-corruption plan for 2012-2013. Russian government officials have a poor reputation both in Russia and abroad when it comes to corrupt behaviour. Despite many announcements about combating corruption in Russia in past years there has been little progress in achieving it.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A toxic legacy- Russia’s struggle to dispose of its chemical weapons

Years after the cold war in which they were readied to be used, Russia and the USA still have tonnes of chemical weapons. They are now nearing the end of the process of dismantling them, or at least they should be. In Russia problems with ageing stockpiles have started a race against time to dispose of the deadly weapons before it might be too late.

Most of today's destruction of old stockpiles of chemical weapons goes back to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) ratified in 1997. Although various agreements had essentially made chemical weapons unusable some years before then, that agreement really spelled the end of chemical weapons stockpiles in many countries, including the old cold war rivals Russia and the USA. In 1997 Russia declared an arsenal of just under 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, that was more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. declared just under 31,000 tonnes.

To date Russia says it has destroyed 66% of its stockpile. The U.S. has destroyed 90% of its stockpile as of last January.

The declared intention was to have them all gone by the agreed CWC deadline of April 2012. But even that had been an extension. Now they've missed that deadline, apparently due to the environmental difficulties of disposing of these chemicals, which range from irritating to lethal, safely. 

Russia has said that many of the casings these chemicals are kept in, either containers or artillery shells are now in such poor condition it's slowed the task down. 

With these disposal problems remaining it seems likely it could take another four years, until 2016 for them all to have been destroyed. Chemical weapons, like many chemicals, have expiry dates. The trouble for Russia is that the remaining stockpile expires on January the 1st 2013. That makes everything more dangerous and urgent. Expiry dates indicate when chemicals might start to become unstable and when their containers become too old.  At a conference held by the news agency Interfax on Tuesday General Vladimir Mandych said the numbers of Russia's chemical weapons on the 'urgent' list is growing by the day. 

For some it's already too late. There have been reports of leaks of some of Russia's chemical weapons. Among them are three 2-tonne aviation bombs that starting leaking though it wasn't said what was inside them. Some 6 tonnes of the deadly nerve gas VX started leaking back in July, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports. VX is the most toxic nerve agent ever synthesised so far as has been tested. Even worse there were no experts there in time so soldiers rushed to the scene equipped only with gas masks and not the full isolation suits necessary to protect from this deadly chemical weapon. The lethal dose is estimated at just 10 milligrams.

And the task ahead only gets worse with the remaining weapons the most complex to dismantle, which is more costly and dangerous to do, while all the time the weapons pass their intended storage life.

The countries involved actually do seem to want to get rid of this remaining bulk of weapons, if a few years late. And this is an example of an area of post cold war cooperation. It's an international operation, with the U.S. and EU providing Russia with equipment and helping to build disposal and storage sites. Security remains high against the risk of theft of any of these chemical agents. Remember there was a Sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a cult in 1995.

Russia is also trying to make a thorough job of it. They first chemically deactivate the agents, usually breaking them down into less harmful compounds, then burn that matter until it is safe. 

Of course this also ties into this week's row over the threat Syria may use it's chemical weapons. The only three countries in the world that were thought to have VX nerve gas were the U.S., Russia and....surprise, surprise....Syria. The U.S. finished destroying all of its VX in 2008. Although the general wouldn't comment on it, it's almost certain that Syria's chemical weapons were supplied by the Soviet Union. Russia's is now close to closing this dark chapter in the history of warfare on its own territory, and hopefully they will never be deemed necessary again. However, in Syria, there is the chance that chemical weapons might have a last, dreadful sting in their tail.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Vitaly Danilenko- Soldier in an alien land

A Russian soldier who grew up in the USA has deserted his conscript service in Siberia, reports Russia's channel 1.

Vitaly Danilenko had spent his first sixteen years in Alaska before moving with his parents to Russia’s eastern Altai region just two years ago. When he turned eighteen he was sent to be a conscript soldier in Novosibirsk in Siberia.

After just two weeks with the unit he deserted. He has apparently called his sister to say he is alright but that he won’t be going back to the army. Despite intensive phone calls and searches Vitaly’s number is unavailable and his whereabouts are unknown.

The main problem seems to be the huge language barrier faced by the eighteen year old. He had not learnt much Russian by the time he was conscripted. That meant, as his fellow soldiers said, that he couldn’t interact with his officers or other soldiers. When it came to his swearing in ceremony Vitaly had to painstakingly memorise each syllable of his oath. Some of his fellow soldiers tried to speak to him in English.

His parents had tried to explain to officers about his language barrier and requested that he be given some other duty. But they hadn’t been told that if they had wanted that they should have applied for it at least half a year before. They were informed that Vitaly had no way out and that Russian conscription law knows no concept of a ‘language barrier.’

Vitaly’s commander says that he struggled with his language barrier. He was given extra sessions with a psychologist but he was mostly silent in them. His commander went on to say that he didn’t understand why Vitaly couldn’t talk to him. His parents explained that he was shy but his commander says that, “other soldiers managed to talk with me, so why is Vitaly afraid? Apparently the language barrier still has an effect.”

There are no reports of problems or bullying at the base.

Thousands of conscripts reportedly flee their units annually due to bullying and poor conditions. In 2009 official statistics showed that 149 Russian soldiers killed themselves. Soldiers' families say that complaints rarely get anywhere. More soldiers die each year in reported accidents and incidents. The Committee of Soldiers Mothers, a group set up to try and protect the rights of soldiers, says many of these suicides and deaths are just cover ups for the fact that soldiers are beaten to death. In 2012 Ruslan Aiderkhanov, a conscript from Russia's central Chelyabinsk region was raped and tortured to death by his seniors. The lone witness who testified against the alleged perpetrators, Danil Chalkin was later found shot dead in his military base. A contract soldier, Alikbek Musabekov was later arrested in connection with the incident.

Unofficial figures put the number of Russian army deserters being searched for in 2011 as high as ten thousand. Russia's ministry of defence says the statistics relating to desertion are closed information. A criminal case is underway into Vitaly’s desertion. If found guilty he could face up to seven years in prison.  

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Russian Floods- An unnecessary tragedy

It is hot, and the room is crowded. Around the walls sit eight or so police officers behind desks, sweating as they shuffle papers. In front of them a stream of people move to sit, hunched over forms, trying to work out what to write in the heat and the noise.

It is July 2012, and these people are documenting the destruction of their lives.

On the night of Friday the 6th of July, about 1am, a surge of water swept into the town of Krymsk in southern Russia’s Krasnodar region, near the Black Sea coast. The next few hours were filled with terror for the residents of the town. Witness after witness described, not a steady rise but a wave of water spilling down streets and into houses. It reached up to the tops of first story windows, in some places much more, up to 7 metres high. It tore up paving slabs and traffic lights on the streets, lifted people from their beds up to their ceilings, flipped over cars and vans and strew debris through people’s gardens and homes.

By the time the waters receded on Saturday afternoon the true extent of the tragedy was apparent. Many houses in the town are built chiefly of wood. They collapsed completely under the weight of the water, soaking, smashing or carrying away everything they had inside. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands were damaged leaving thousands of people homeless. One lady, Lyudmila, told me of her ordeal-

“The water came up to the windows and the house started to fall apart. I dashed outside and, fighting to hold onto the fence, dragged myself along it until I reached a neighbour’s house with a fence tall and strong enough. I hauled myself on top of it and sat their all night as the flood water surged around me. I was terrified I was going to fall in as I would certainly have drowned.”

When she returned Lyudmila realised everything was destroyed. Outside in her yard her cooker, washing machine and TV were covered in the layer of mud which lay on the streets and floors all around. The roof was on the ground with the walls collapsed outwards. Her furniture had been smashed to pieces. All she had managed to salvage were half a dozen pots and pans.

Lyudmila Haralampidi's house collapsed around her. She only just escaped.

This was Lyudmila's living room.

This was her kitchen.

Everyone else, wherever I went among the lower lying parts of the town faced the same situation. One old lady came up to me looking completely bewildered. “Where can I find some food or some shelter?” she asked. She didn’t seem to hear the answer. Fighting back her tears she just said, “The water came within 2 hours. How many years is it going to take me to rebuild my house?”

But the most terrible losses weren’t belongings or homes. As of writing nearly 200 people died in the floods, mostly in Krymsk but also in nearby areas. Most of them were very old or young, too weak to escape when they awoke to the rising waters in the middle of the night. The terror of those terrible hours was etched on people’s faces. The force of the water meant front doors couldn’t be opened. No open spaces could be crossed without being swept away. One old lady, Ekaterina, spoke of waking to the sound of her dog’s crazed barking-

“He was tied up and as the waters rose he knew he was going to drown. As I put my foot over the edge of the bed I was knee deep in water. I have two dogs and six cats. I clawed at the dog’s rope, I don’t know how I managed to undo the knot. The cats were all on top of the wardrobe. I snatched them down and started getting them all up to roof. The water was rising so fast, up to my shoulders. I managed to get up there with them too. Only my chickens I couldn’t save.”

Ekaterina was lucky. Emergency workers were sifting through the wreckage of collapsed houses, picking out bodies. In the first day after the floods many bodies were left in the streets under blankets until authorities figured out what to do with them. The bodies of animals and livestock also lay about.

Bodies were loaded into ambulances which kept coming in convoy for the funerals.

Krymsk was left without gas, electricity, fresh water or landline telephone connection. There was hardly any food to be found. So where were the authorities? You would have expected people in Krymsk to be in despair, in shock, in confusion. They were certainly hungry, thirsty and exhausted. But the chief emotion that stood out more than any other was anger.

People queuing for food at one of the distribution centres. They were hot, tired, exhausted and angry.

Firstly they were angry about the lack of warning. The local authorities later mumbled something about a TV ticker announcement or some other half hearted attempts. People were asleep. They knew nothing of the oncoming waters. What later emerged was that the authorities had known about the surge of water a whole three hours before it reached Krymsk. When challenged by the townspeople, Krasnodar regional governor Alexander Tkachev lashed out at them, shouting, “What were we supposed to do? Go door to door!” No wonder people were so enraged.

Secondly people were angry at the slow response of the emergency services. With no food and water, and no way of getting any, people were in a desperate situation in the day or so after the flood arrived. Apart from a command centre there seemed hardly enough emergency workers out on the streets helping people. By the third day after the flood the operation had seemed to gain more momentum. People were grateful for the help they got, but it took too long to come they said, at the time when it was needed most.

A local church gathering and sending out food for people as fast as they could.

An emergencies ministry camp. People said they were grateful for the help in cleaning up when they did arrived, but that should have been a lot sooner.

Thirdly nobody that I spoke to believed the official line about what caused the flood. Officials said that it was just a natural freak after more than a month’s rain fell in just a few hours. It is true the region’s hydrology means some flooding here happens every year, but not like this, not with 7 metre waves with the water coming in and then flowing away so fast. Locals thought the Neberdzhayevskoe reservoir and its dam upstream opened its sluice gates. That could have been, they said, to protect bigger towns like the popular holiday resort Gelendzhik or the port of Novorossiisk. Local authorities deny that, with a variety of confused announcements from ‘the sluices did open but they wouldn’t release enough water to create a flood’ to ‘no sluices were opened, it was an emergency overflow system’ to ‘the reservoir had no sluices and released no water’ ending up in just ‘we rule this possibility out’. Nobody I spoke to was having any of it.

People were sceptical about other things too. Many believed there were far more dead than the official death toll of 171. Others told me that disaster money, 10,000 roubles (£200), was only being handed out if locals signed documents saying that they had been given a warning. That, even though there had already been an official admission, and a district chief had been fired, for the lack of warning. Even though it wasn’t possible to corroborate these stories the overwhelming sense is that nobody believed the authorities had done enough, and their anger was palpable.

Bodies were being kept in these refrigerated lorries. There was no space anywhere else.

A van with pictures of people's faces, bloated by hours under water, to try and identify them.

To see the true physical cost of the Krymsk flood I travelled to the town’s mortuary. There the bodies were being kept in refrigerated supermarket lorries because there was no refrigerated space inside. It was a disturbing sight, but must have been more so for the distraught relatives waiting outside. One by one the bodies were carried out of the back of the lorries, past pictures of bloated human faces used to try and identify the dead, and loaded into coffins. Tractors were hastily digging extra graves at the town’s cemetery.

The police room where people were coming to register all the things, or people, they had lost.

For the emotional cost I only needed to talk to one of the grieving. People who had a missing relative or who wanted to report someone dead also came to that same hot, stressful and claustrophobic police room. Sitting in an office above were Natalia Nesteryenko and Oksana Gorbunova. Quietly and solemnly they told their parts of the tale.

When the flood waters came Oksana’s husband, police officer Vyacheslav Gorbunov jumped straight into his car and drove to the lower part of the town. When the waters rose too high he abandoned the car and went on foot. He picked up some children in the darkness and the surging water and took them to safety. One was Natalia’s ten year old daughter Tatiana. She was terrified about the fate of her daughter but didn’t know who had saved her. When she asked Tatiana who had rescued her she replied that it was a ,”Mr policeman,” but didn’t remember his name. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she thanked Oksana. “Without your husband’s help my daughter and all those kids would have died.”

Vyacheslav’s body was found some hours later. He had been overcome by the force of the water.

His widow Oksana cried too. But she was calm and, as she said, she knew he would never have acted any other way, “he wouldn’t just pass someone by who was in trouble. It was in his nature.”

Clothes were being donated from across other towns and cities. Food and supplies were being given out and debris cleared by volunteers, mostly from local towns. Friends, families and neighbours were starting to try and rebuild their homes and their lives. People have been promised around 170,000 roubles (£3300) to help rebuild their houses in the long run. There will be an inquiry into how and why it happened and there will be memorials to the great flood of 2012. But people here will keep asking one simple question. Why did all these sacrifices, all this death, all this destruction have to happen in the first place.