Monday, 23 September 2013

Russia's sub par submarines- Trouble under the surface of military reform

There have been several recent indications (two submarine accidents and a missile test failure) that the $650 billion being taken away from Russian schools and hospitals and thrown at the military budget may be money down the plughole, and that's even without the corruption to take into account.

The Russian nuclear powered submarine Tomsk was undergoing repairs near Russia's far eastern port of Vladivostok on Monday when it burst into flames and burnt for five hours. The Defence ministry eventually changed its story and admitted that fifteen sailors had been wounded in the fire, contradicting its earlier certainty that everything was totally fine. It was the second fire of this kind on board a Russian submarine in less than two years.

The first was the submarine Yekaterinburg which also burst into flames in its shipyard in north western Russia in December 2011. Officials said at the time that there had been no nuclear missiles on board. That was a lie said one respected magazine afterwards, citing its own sources. This caused an international furore with Norway's Foreign Minister among those demanding the truth.

In August this year an Indian submarine INS Sindhurakshak was rocked by two huge explosions and fire ripped through the vessel as it sat in dock in Mumbai. Eighteen sailors on board were killed by the blasts and the boat sank in the port. It is one of India's worst ever naval accidents. That submarine was bought from Russia in 1997. In 2010 it had been sent to Russia and refitted with Russian cruise missiles. Investigators say it may have been the weapons on board, possibly those missiles, that exploded causing the disaster. There are nine more 'Kilo-class' submarines like that one which India bought from Russia. The Indian government has now been forced to review its safety systems on board all of them.

Russia's submarine woes don't end there. In November 2008 the fire extinguishing system on the Russian submarine Nerpa went off as it was doing sea trials. Compartments on board were flooded with deadly gas, killing twenty. Despite the catastrophe that submarine has since been leased and then commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Chakra.

But the greatest tragedy of them all since the collapse of the Soviet Union was on the Russian submarine Kursk. In August 2000 explosions on board sank the Kursk in the Barent's sea. Those of the 118 crew not killed by the explosions had time to write notes before the oxygen ran out. All the while the Russian government of then new President Vladimir Putin refused help from other countries which might have saved them. The criticism of Putin, who stayed on holiday in the south of Russia and said nothing to a distraught Russian people for five days as the horror of the Kursk catastrophe unfolded, was vociferous and remains to this day.

All of these accidents have occurred since the year 2000 making Russia's public record on submarine technical safety one of the world's worst.   

Lets go back to those nuclear weapons and missiles, the one's Russia prides itself on above all. In November 2011 then Chief of the Russian General Staff Nikolai Makarov announced that,"I do not rule out local and regional armed conflicts developing into a large-scale war, including using nuclear weapons." That sabre rattling was directed at Europe, the US and NATO.

Except that Russia may not have as much firepower as it thinks. On September the 6th the much hyped 'Bulava' submarine launched ballistic missile (yes we're back to submarines again), made to carry ten nuclear warheads, failed a test launch….again. That's eight times out of at least nineteen launches of the Bulava that the missile has fallen out of the sky, as this one did, or variously been declared a flop. The Russian military maintains the Bulava is the only way to update Russia's nuclear submarines, and of course takes for granted that they must be updated. There is no debate about even the possibility of perhaps not keeping up those huge numbers of expensive nuclear missiles. Instead it's back to the manufacturer once again for more testing. 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Sobyanin's works frenzy- Maddening and endangering Muscovites before the mayoral election

Take a look at the video and picture above. It's of Bolshaya Dmitrovka street right in the heart of Moscow. The Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre are a few minutes walk away. It's full of tourists and Muscovites alike, either rushing to and from work or meandering while seeing the sights. Or at least they are trying to, because this street is now absolute chaos, and a potential death trap.

As one walks down it there is no special pavement for pedestrians. They have to pick their way through rubble, shunting lorries, swinging digger buckets and pneumatic drills. It's a wonder someone hasn't been maimed or killed. The workers seem to be in a terrible hurry. There has been no thought given to even the most basic public health and safety. It seems they are desperately trying to finish the pedestrianisation of the street as quickly as possible. Want to know why?

Ask Sergei Sobyanin, incumbent Moscow mayoral candidate. Opposing him is main contender Alexey Navalny then Sergey Mitrokhin, Ivan Melnikov, Nikolai Levichev and Mikhail Degtyaryov. But none of his opponents have the resources at their command that he does. He's chosen to start what Muscovites are derisively calling a 'Pharaoh's building programme'. I'm sure he hopes it will win him votes. But as you can see from the picture above it is frustrating and endangering the lives of people in the city. The timing of the projects are atrocious. Who would want to start works like this at the height of the tourist season, in the middle of summer? Sobyanin would, and presumably because he wants them finished before the election on the 8th of September. I've seen diggers blasting their horns or slamming on their brakes next to pedestrians trying desperately to navigate the last disappearing slivers of asphalt. Such is the abandonment of any pretence of health and safety in the rush to finish the new street that pedestrians on and around it are at very real risk of injury or death. That would be a perfect PR gift for the mayor's opponents. 

All over Moscow roads are being torn up and re-laid at a newly furious pace. As screaming drivers are driven out of the their minds by traffic jams in places they would never normally be they shout that the roads were fine before. Why are they being done now and with such illogical haste? Why indeed. 

Floods in southern Russia- Some justice for Krymsk victims at last?

Many of Krymsk's houses collapsed under the weight of the water and many of the dead were asleep inside, unwarned and unable to get out in time.

It was the night of the 6th July 2012 in the small town of Krymsk near the black sea. As locals slept there and in nearby areas in Russia's southern Krasnodar region they were unaware of flash flood waters surging toward the town. Six months worth of rain had fallen in one night. They would have had a better chance if the local authorities, who knew what was happening hours before the surge hit, had warned them properly. 

As it was a virtual tidal wave smashed into the unsuspecting town. More than 170 people drowned as the waters rose in minutes. Terrified survivors fought for their lives as their houses collapsed around them, clinging to fences or any debris that managed to stay standing as the deluge flipped cars over in the streets and filled properties with trees and debris. I was one of the first outside journalists to arrive in the wreckage of Krymsk. Bodies lay in the streets and aid was slow to arrive, enraging the distraught locals. There was no electricity and very little edible food or water left. At the town's mortuary, unusable in the blackout, bodies had to be stacked in refrigerated supermarket lorries.

What had formerly been someone's bedroom.

What most angered the people of Krymsk and the surrounding area was that this gut wrenching tragedy was an avoidable one. 

Over a year later some justice has finally been seen to be done for the bereaved and angry residents of Krymsk. Four local officials have been found guilty of criminal negligence for their failure to warn people on that terrible night. Vasily Krutko, former head of the district administration, Vladimir Ulanovsky, former Krymsk mayor, Victor Zhdanov, head of the district emergencies and civil defence department and Irina Ryabchenko, former head of the Nizhnebakamsk local administration were all convicted of negligence. 

But their crimes are greater even than that. Krutko, Ulanovsky and Ryabchenko have also been found guilty of hurriedly forging documents after the flood, lying that they had adhered to proper practice and warned people in time. Zhdanov was also found guilty of stealing compensation money meant for victim's families. 

Three of the defendants deny their guilt, only Krutko accepted it. Prosecutors have asked the court for sentences of six, four and a half, and three and half years imprisonment for Krutko, Zhdanov and Ulanovsky respectively and a suspended sentence of three and half years imprisonment for Ryabchenko. 

Another defendant, Nadezhda Kurochkina has made a guilty plea bargain in a separate trial. She was head of the Prigorodny settlement in the area and is on trial for negligence and forgery.

The bloated faces of unidentified victims are posted up as bodies are carried out refrigerated supermarket lorries to be placed in coffins.
However one figure is conspicuous by his absence in the doling out of punishment. Alexei Tkachyov, the regional governor and a man heavily involved in the allegedly corrupt Sochi winter Olympics plans, visited the shocked and betrayed residents shortly after they had just learned that his administration could have saved them from this catastrophe. 

All this time later, as the verdicts were announced, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee said, "The people were defenceless not only from the elements but, as the investigation has discovered, also from bureaucratic indifference." 

Back then, as Alexei Tkachyov stood in front of a furious crowd in a Krymsk town square they yelled questions about why they weren't warned. He yelled back at them, "what did you expect us to do! Go door to door!" Yes was the answer. Yes that is precisely what you should have done, as Mr Tkachyov and the deadly complacency and corruption of Krasnodar's authorities was drowned out by the shouting of a people who felt utterly betrayed.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thumbnail- A car crash in Moscow there and gone

A car and a motorcycle have crashed. There is oil and wiper fluid across one of Moscow's badly surfaced roads. On the grass lies the motorbike driver. I don't know if he is dead or just hurt. An ambulance turned up shortly after I took this picture.

And half an hour later, nothing. A snapshot of life and catastrophe, unfolding then swept away like a crisp packet on a dusty city wind.  No one passing this spot now would ever know what had happened here such a short time before. The drama, the tension; a little tragedy among millions casting a fleeting shadow over some forgotten road bend. But I was there. I saw.

More flooding expected in northern China and far eastern Russia

The first reports came in around Wednesday the 7th of August. Massive flooding had hit northern China and far eastern Russia in areas surrounding the Heilongjiang River (known as the Amur river in Russia). Thirty settlements were evacuated as the Zeiskaya hydropower plant discharged huge amounts of water to prevent it from being overwhelmed. A state of emergency was declared in several Russian regions as rivers burst their banks and sixteen settlements were flooded. Thousands were evacuated as roads were washed away, necessitating boats and local army units to bring supplies in and people out.

In northern China it's been called the worst flooding in decades. Four people have already died there with thousands evacuated. More water is expected in the coming days, sweeping down the Heilongjiang river along the border with China and Russia and then flowing north into Russia's Khabarovsk region.

One of the biggest problems in Russia will be paying for the cleanup. A Deputy Finance Minister has already admitted that Russia's reserve fund equivalent to $300 million for 2013 has already been used up. They may, he admitted, have to raid the 2014 fund to pay for the cleanup. The damage in Russia is so far estimated at around $30 million.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Thumbnail- A quick haul from the shopping mall

A women carries her child, in pram, across train tracks. It's one of the only routes to one of Moscow's largest shopping centres approaching from the north. There are three tracks to cross with no footbridge, underpass or walkway.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Thumbnail- There's driving and there's style....

Clearly Vika, or whoever bought this for her, are particularly concerned about declaring ownership! But whether she drives in style....
Sights like this are not rare around Moscow. This was taken by me, but for many more visit the chortle-full page-

Friday, 26 July 2013

This is Air Traffic Control Moscow- We want our money

Flying to or from Moscow soon? Well perhaps you won't be. Potentially serious storm clouds are gathering over Moscow's airports, and it's not because of the weather. Workers from air traffic controllers to baggage handlers, around 2800 in all, say they haven't been paid and may go on strike. That would affect safety, plane maintenance, cleaning and more.

Flight dispatchers say they are considering action even though they're banned from it under their labour code. Instead of actually striking they may expose the extra work they've been given (also they say a break of the code by their employer) by sticking strictly to the letter of their agreement which says that any one controller can only handle six aircraft at once. That, say dispatchers, would mean around forty percent of flights go unattended to. Their labour code even allows controllers to sit at work and do nothing until they are paid.

The sum? 173 million roubles, or over five million dollars in wages owed them by their employer, the State ATM Corporation (ironic though the name is) which runs air traffic control across Russia. The dispute has been going on since 2011. Every six months, say staff, they are supposed to have their pay adjusted in accordance with a profit growth ratio. Even though a Moscow court found in favour of the employees on May 24th this year their demands have still not been met.

The president of the federal Russian air traffic controllers labour union, Sergey Kovalev, says that air traffic controllers and others will not actually strike, merely follow a strict 'no extra work' ethos. As he says, controllers who should only be handling six planes at a time are now routinely given fifteen to seventeen to manage at once.

The state ATM corporation is refusing to comment, though they previously claimed the agreement referred to by workers is invalid, superseded by another. Whether a mark of the seriousness of this labour standoff, or an attempt a scaremongering, the country's Federal Air Transport Agency is also supporting the state ATM corporation. It says giving in to the workers' demands could lead to similar ones by regional airport staff across Russia and force up air fares.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Kursk and Prokhorovka- Seventy years on from the battle

Ninety year old Abram Yekhilevsky, "Everything burned....I don't think any living thing could stand it."

It was seventy years ago when Abram Yekhilevsky stood on the battlefield near his home of Belgorod in south western Russia near the Ukranian border. He is ninety now, but watching him remember himself as a young man, terrified amid a living hell, is humbling. He is expressive, lowering and raising his voice, pausing and waving his hands. But none of it seems designed to hide or gloss over those memories.

"I couldn't even hear my mate next to me, who was shouting at the top of his voice, amid the din. It seemed like every gun in the world was firing at once." 

Abram was caught in one of the eastern front's, and history's, biggest battles. It was summer 1943, Hitler's last great offensive to try and cripple the Red Army. Previous Soviet attacks had pushed a large bulge, or salient, into German lines around the town of Kursk. The Germans planned to attack into the base of that bulge like a crab's pincer and trap the vast Soviet forces concentrated inside.

Eighty seven year old Anna Mishnyeva. "I told my friend to shoot me if the Germans broke through."

Anna Mishnyeva was also inside the Soviet defences at the time. She was a sixteen year old signaller in the Red Army and knew of the huge battle that was raging, and the possibility that the Germans could break through. 

"I gave my friend a pistol and told her to shoot me if they broke through and I wasn't able to shoot myself. I did not want to be captured."

The battle of Kursk wasn't like Stalingrad the year before. Both sides knew a titanic clash was coming and each side's build up was obvious. But through extensive espionage, including that provided through British cooperation, the Soviets came to know a lot about German plans such as the start time of their attack. Soviet artillery started their own barrages of German positions before German artillery started what it thought was going to be a surprise bombardment, disheartening many German soldiers waiting to begin the attack.

Abram ended up fighting both in the north of the salient, near the town or Orel (pronounced Ariol, with emphasis on the 'o') and in the south near Belgorod, at the battle he is describing, a huge clash of tanks near the village of Prokhorovka. 

"The tanks were so loud. It was frightening."

Prokhorovka was perhaps the overall battle's most iconic moment, as unfair as that is to all the other desperate clashes along the hundreds of kilometres of front where the Germans tried to punch through three main Soviet defence lines. They nearly succeeded in the south of the bulge, and Prokhorovka was a last attempt to break through the the third line of defence, which would have threatened to unravel the entire Soviet defence. But the Soviets weren't sitting back passively at this point either. They wanted to blunt and destroy the German spearheads.

Living history re-enactors try to give a taste of what life was like inside a military camp of the time.

The result was one of history's largest tank battles across this rich, gently lilting landscape of farmland, woodland, small rivers and streams. German and Soviet formations, with tanks, infantry and artillery crashed headlong into each other. The was little manoeuvre, little finesse could be added by the generals. It was a furious, desperate slogging match under a 30 degree summer sun. German tanks, especially the heavy 'tiger', could shoot further and more accurately than Soviet tanks, so the Red Army crews drove fast and up close to the Germans to negate their advantage. But the result was a maelstrom of clashing metal as Abram witnessed.

"One tank would ram into another. Everything burned. The tanks burned, the ground burned. I couldn't imagine any living thing being able to stand it."

Ninety year old Ivan Shevtsov. "It was very frightening.... all I could think about was survival."

For eight hours the battle raged. Infantry tried to hold trenches as artillery shells rained down and aircraft battled in the skies and strafed them from above. Ivan Shevtsov, also now ninety years old, was fighting for his life in the Kursk salient. He has hit twice by shrapnel, once is his leg and once in his liver.

" It was very frightening and by the end of the battle all I could think about was survival."

The result was a tactical victory for the Germans who destroyed more Soviet tanks and killed more men. But neither side achieved what they had wanted, both withdrawing from the battlefield. The Soviets however could more easily replace their losses, not that that made it any easier for Red Army soldiers like Abram to cope.

"Of 45 of my comrades who had been around me 7 of us were left alive. When we emerged from our trench you couldn't find a patch of earth to sit down on. The ground was littered with bodies, covered with them. One officer who you would expect to be a hard man, when he saw how many young men were dead, he wept such tears."

The Germans began to lose ground soon afterwards. The Red Army had finally managed to beat them on their own terms, blunting and then reversing a major German summer offensive. For the rest of the war the initiative would remain with the Soviets. They would bleed and batter a route all the way to Berlin.

The memorial tower on the site of the battlefield at Prokhorovka. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Ankara in Protest- The Battle of Dikmen Street


After earlier being hit by a water cannon in the Kennedy street area of Ankara my cameraman and I were told of clashes in the Turkish capital's district of Dikmen. As our taxi driver dropped us on the junction below Dikmen street we could already see the glow of fires. Along a half kilometre stretch between two petrol stations the street was filled with burning barricades and crowds of angry protesters. They were a much more militant crowd than those we had witnessed around Kugulu park and Kennedy street. There police water cannon and tear gas firing vehicles, backed up by columns of riot police, set about breaking up crowds each night with ease. What would start as peaceful protests quickly degenerated into knots of demonstrators chanting a little then running to try and find safety. Not in Dikmen. 

Barricades burn along Ankara's Dikmen Street as protesters defy the riot police.

None of the shop windows were broken or private property damaged along the street. It seemed the community was very much supporting the protesters. Public dustbins, street signs and communal flower display pots had been torn or smashed up and dragged into small barricades. As we walked along the street people shouted support from windows and threw mattresses down do add to the bonfires started with old wooden doors and the contents of the dustbins. Hundreds of protesters were variously grouped around the barricades, fetching material to add to them or were chanting or dancing in groups.  One woman stopped banging a pot and pan and came up to us. "Erdogan devil! Erdogan devil!" she shouted then told us old people and children were being tear gassed in the streets. It was a joyous, defiant and angry atmosphere that rose up into the Ankara night with the banging of the dustbins and the smoke from the fires. But we had seen a number of 'TOMA' (shown in the video link) water cannon vehicles waiting about a kilometre away down the road. TOMA (Toplumsal Olaylara M├╝dahale Arac─▒, English: Riot Control Vehicle) is written on the sides of each one. They have become something of an infamous household name around Turkey these days. With a bulldozer blade on the front, a remote controlled water cannon on top and tear gas spraying from their sides they have become a tool of choice for the police and a hated symbol of a brutal crackdown for demonstrators. A few minutes later they came.

The protesters had used all available public property to try and block the street, including their own street signs.

Blue and red lights showed through the smoke. The crowd surged forward to scream their defiance at two approaching TOMAs and then surged back as they rammed the first barricade and began raking the street with their water cannons. Everyone ran before them and they proceeded to work their way up that half kilometre stretch, blasting anyone who didn't reach cover in time and pushing aside each barricade. My cameraman and I had ran down a side alley as it charged past. Now the protesters emerged from side alleys all along the street and ran up to a TOMA from behind, pelting it with stones. It seemed it was all they could do to hit back, but the crew inside the TOMA couldn't fight them all off, stones clanging off its sides as it's water cannon flailed around trying to hose down one protester after another. They circled around it like ants around an angry elephant amid the fire and debris strewn street, shouting and hurling the nearest piece of masonry they could lay their hands on.

One demonstrator looks up the street to where the police vehicles might approach as a crowd dance in a circle behind her.

Behind the TOMAs drove so called 'scorpions', armoured cars with a turret hatch above from where a police officer fired tear gas from a hand held launcher. With loud sirens they sped around the side streets and up and down Dikmen street. A bang and sparks and a gas canister would fly into some side alley and spew out clouds of the noxious stuff. We had put on our gas masks and kept them on, only taking them off periodically to check how heavy the air was with the stinging CS gas. Fired at groups of protesters the gas canisters can be very dangerous. I met a protester, Ersin Ertas, who had been sheltering behind a wooden board when police fired a canister through it, hitting him in the face. It broke his nose, sent splinters flying into his left eye and left his face horribly swollen for days. 

A TOMA riot control vehicle charges down Dikmen street with its water cannon firing.

My cameraman and I found ourselves split up in the mayhem. I had to hide as a TOMA revved around a corner, only a plastic advertising banner next to a shop to hide behind as the water jets blasted protesters in front of me. I only managed to rejoin my cameraman by clambering through a nearby garden and car park, apologies and thanks to the owners. Later we found ourselves among a group of protesters running from a scorpion as it sped down the street. Firing three of four gas canisters, one ricocheted off a low wall and just missed me. These were just two of most tense moments in a night where we seemed like one of only two television news crews trying to cover violent and defiant clashes. A government spokesman had previously told me things had calmed down in Turkey. They have not.

Once the TOMAs had passed groups of stone throwing protesters circled around them.

So when might this all end? When hooligans and vandals stop their attacks on property, police and public order says Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing AK party. There are some protesters who have taken things too far. Dozens of buses have been burned or smashed up, shop windows have been broken in some protests and public property smashed up and made into barricades. But the majority of protesters I have seen have been vastly outgunned by police that seem all too eager to charge in and break up ostensibly peaceful demonstrations. In Dikmen protesters were not peaceful, but there was non of the looting that Erdogan has previously claimed. This was a community ranged against a police forced that seemed to them too brutal in its crackdown. When will this all end? When the authoritarian Erdogan goes, say some protesters. At least until there are changes, police more amenable and, they demand, more accountable for their actions. 

The message I heard most, and one that does not bode well for either side in this increasingly bitter civil divide is this, "We will stay out on the street as long as they, the police, do."

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ankara in Protest- Water, Gas and elemental threats

Protesters gather on Ankara's Kennedy street just before being charged by two police water cannon trucks.

Whereas Tuesday's protest in Ankara ground on until the small hours, the police response shocked everyone in the days after. Up to a thousand protesters were gathered on Ankara's downtown Kennedy street where I headed after an evening witnessing the sit-ins and standing man protests at the city's Kugulu park. The park gatherings, with groups having lectures or discussions, are themselves a nod towards Istanbul's Gezi park protest camp. On Kennedy street which nightly sees standoffs between police and protesters the atmosphere is more noisy. Horns and banners, chants and small knots of usually young men daring each other to go forward close to police lines. 

Protestesters try to gather further up the road but are chased down side  streets.

Suddenly around midnight a police water cannon truck charged the crowd, firing its jet at the few who didn't scatter like startled pigeons. Into the clumps of stripped tree bark, smashed branches, debris and water sped two vehicles with tear gas firing turrets atop them. The water cannon truck itself sprayed tear gas from its sides if any demonstrators approached too close. Those that had been gathered in demonstration now scattered down side streets, chased by the vehicles. A few dozen riot police held back, letting the vehicles do the work. The gas firing riot cars made numerous rounds of these streets. The water cannon operators inside seemed frustrated, even blasting my cameraman and me as we were reporting. I do not believe they didn't see that we were media. There are also accusations by protesters that police are mixing something, tear gas or some other irritant, into the water cannon water. Whatever it is the water they were firing was coloured red.

A used gas canister lays next to a gutter. By the night's end the streets were running red, not with blood, but with the irritant protesters claim is added to the water cannons' streams.

This all seemed rather at odds with what what I was told by one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK party spokespeople earlier. The world from up there in Turkey's parliament on its hill can look rather different. Flocks of politicians and their aides whisk about the large, cool corridors. Turkish parliamentary journalists chat with them on garden sofas under the shade of trees while sipping tea and nibbling on cherries and apricots. It is a permissive, thoughtful atmosphere mixed with the rapid deal making of politics. That is expected, perhaps even reassuring. But is doesn't stop it seeming strange compared to what you see at the sharp end of civil politics on the street. This government spokesman maintained that there were a hardcore of real troublemakers within the protesters' ranks and that apart from a few isolated incidents the police were a model of restraint. Such is the gulf of opinion dividing the two sides in this civil unrest. If there was a reason why the police vehicles charged protesters then I could not see if from where I was. There was certainly no obvious hardcore of hooligans among this particular crowd. Politicians I spoke to from the two main opposition parties criticised the government's way of ruling and police overreaction but weren't as overt in their support of protesters as one might think. They're politicians. They deal in dialogue and that's what they were calling for more of.
Ersin Ertas, after being hit in the face by a gas canister  fired by police in Ankara's Kizilay square.

I also met Ersin Ertas in Ankara's Kizilay square, another focal point for protests, and violent ones in the early days of the unrest. Ersin was demonstrating here among many thousands of the protesters when the police started firing the volleys of tear gas they have been so heavily criticised for. 'A rain of them' Ersin described it as. As the crowd fell back he found himself trapped and scrambled behind a wooden board, his only protection in the exposed street. According to Ersin the police then turned their launchers on the his small group. One slammed into the wood hitting him the face. His nose was broken and splinters lodged in his left eye. He had to run through the hail of gas missiles, nose streaming blood, in order to reach medical help. He was luckier than some. One man, Ethem Sarisuluk, was killed in the same square by a metal fragment, probably a bullet according to initial autopsy.

A protester shouts at a water cannon truck.

All of this gives a sense of public alienation. Many of the demonstrators camped out in parks or gathering on the streets do not lend passionate support to any of the main parties. There is little doubt that the real target of their anger is up on parliament's hill. There has been no attempt as yet to demonstrate closer to the Turkish parliament. Goodness knows what the government's response would be if they did. When I put it to my government spokesman that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc's threat to use the army to quash protests smacks of scare tactics he seemed to want to claim that that was a misinterpretation whilst also reinforcing Arinc's message. He said that the statement was merely 'reminding the people of our legal right to use all measures deemed necessary.' This sounds like the thinly veiled strong man message that Erdogan's government has become so disliked for by many. It must also be said that Erdogan is supported by a significant proportion of Turks. But the more people hear that uncompromising message in his politicians' words, or feel it in the tear gas or water cannon, the more sour the atmosphere around Erdogan and his AK Party is likely to become. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Ankara in protest- Meet TOMA the tear gas and water cannon truck

TOMA is the name given to the tear gas and water cannon trucks that have been part of the the heavy criticised police crackdown on protests in Turkey. Two of these trucks were used to disperse protesters on Ankara's Kennedy street on the nights of both Wedndesday 19th and Thursday 20th of June 2013.

They charged protesting crowds with no obvious signs of the 'hooligans' or 'terrosists' Prime Minister Erdogan has been referring to in recent speeches. They spray tear gas from their sides if protesters approach to close to the vehicle. There are also accusations by demonstrators that an extra additive in the water cannon water, which colours it red (see in the water jets), is tear gas or some other irritant.

For more more than three weeks protesters have clashed with police in Turkey, demonstrarting against what they say is authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Ankara in Protest

Prosters sit and stand silently in Ankara in solidarity with Istanbul's 'standing man' protest.

Ankara was in protest for another night on Tuesday, though a more muted one after violence at the weekend. Protesters copied the approach of Istanbul's 'standing man' in Ankara's central Kizilay area. There a vigil continued for Ethem Sarisuluk, one of five killed in two weeks of protest across Turkey, chiefly against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Protesters on Ankara's Kennedy street face off with police.

Elsewhere in the capital an intersection of Kennedy street has become a nightly standoff point between police and demonstrators. Tuesday was mostly peaceful if not quiet. Around a thousand protesters crowded the street, chanting, blowing plastic trumpets and being supported by vehicles sounding their horns or revving their engines. One protester, Burak, who didn't want to reveal his surname for fear of arrest told me, "we must stay here until (Prime Minister) Erdogan stops behaving like he does. He's not a dictator but if he carries on like this he will become one." Another, Buse Nicole Adali told me she was, "not afraid of the tear gas. As long as they (the police) keep coming so must we."

By the time police moved in to clear the street in the small hours of the morning only a few dozen protesters remained. A water cannon was used once and there were a few scuffles with individuals who strode up to police lines. A few beer bottles were smashed. Police in Ankara have carried out dozens of arrests after violent clashes there and in the capital over the weekend as authorities moved in to clear protest spots. Protesters accuse Prime Minister Erdogan of authoritarian leadership and the police of brutality against demonstrators. Erdogan for his part has called some of the protesters 'terrorists' and has shown his still substantial levels of support, addressing large rallies. 

A prevailing view at the moment is that although these protests are unlikely to unseat Erdogan by themselves they may make it more difficult for his AK Party to do as well as it has previously in upcoming local elections. They have also soured the mood in a Turkey which has seen huge growth in its economic and international political power in the last decade under Erdogan's leadership.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Russian prison break- Use those spoons

Once again there’s been a Russian prison break. This time it’s from the supposedly maximum security Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor’s Rest) prison in Moscow. Thirty three year old Oleg Topalov managed to dig through the ceiling of his cell, get out onto the roof, over the fence and away, Russia’s prison service told new agencies.

Russia’s investigative committee says he is charged with double murder and and illegal arms trafficking. He was in pre-trial detention when he escaped. A man hunt is now underway, as is an investigation, with words such as ‘dishonest’ and ‘careless’ used about possibly negligent guards.

The cells were searched regularly maintain prison authorities, concluding that it could only have been a spoon that Topalov used to dig out. They add there were also seven other inmates in Topalov’s cell, though it’s not know if they were involved.

The last escape from the Matrosskaya Tishina was nearly a decade ago. But across Russia a number of escapes have been hitting the headlines. Just last month a man convicted of drugs offenses claimed he was another man and literally walked out of the prison. In March last year an inmate in a remote Russian prison escaped when accomplices hijacked a helicopter and lifted him out on a rope. He was later caught. In 2001 three prisoners at Moscow’s Butyrka prison also dug a hole through their wall and onto the street.

'Victory Day' in Russia- Triumph, tragedy and hypocrisy

The tanks are already rolling through Moscow. For weeks before the official date roads are repeatedly closed off, window panes rattle, tracks and wheels grind down central streets. They're rehearsing for the 9th of May, 'Russia's greatest holiday' as the news presenters say carelessly, Victory Day. 9th May 1945, the armistice is signed with what remains of Nazi Germany. Night has already fallen when German officers put pen to paper. VE day is on the 8th of May in Western Europe but in Moscow midnight has already struck, so it's the 9th.

As a student of history I champion the cause of remembering that fateful moment more than most. Remember we should. But though the news presenters and politicians in Russia blithely trot out the same platitudes year after year they don't really remember it. They don't discuss anything new about it, though themes vitally important to Russia's future are crying out to be frankly and publicly aired. 'Victory Day' in Russia is not remembered, not properly, it is gaudily celebrated. And that is wrong.

In his book ‘Absolute War’, the historian Chris Bellamy writes that ,“If Russia wishes to move on, and confront future challenges safely, it must first confront and unravel its Stalinist past.” This is a vital point. Without a mature discussion of all that went on leading up to, in, and as a result of the Second World War Russians will continue to make decisions in the modern world based on the wrong motivations. But there has been no grown up public discussion of the subject to this day. The Russian government is primarily to blame. The Kremlin has too many easy points to score by ignoring the uncomfortable truths surrounding the Soviet Union and World War Two and keeping the subject one of mindless flag waving, fireworks, flowers and parades. That joviality was earned in 1945, not anymore.

We can already see some of the evil that such glossing over can lead to. The Kremlin has announced once again the need for a ‘standardised’ Russian school history textbook. When, as part of this documentary, the BBC looked at Russia’s last attempt at this they found the lies that Russian schoolchildren are being taught. The officially approved text states that as of 1941 the western allies were continuing their policy of appeasement towards Germany. Not only is this an outright lie. Allied service personnel died in fighting at this time and lies like that are an insult to their memory.

Insults to memory. There will be others here perpetrated by the Russian government and, sometimes consciously sometimes not, by other Russians. There will also be trends that started with the war that are today twisting public debate and policy in Russia and leading to innocent people being hurt and killed. Yes, history here really matters.

In so many conversations with so many otherwise intelligent, open minded Russians the childish, nationalistic nonsense spouted when it comes to world war two is inexcusable. So in the interests of honest history and politics here are some much needed home truths about Russia, the Soviet Union and the Second World War.  

1. Yes, it’s the Second World War, not the Great Patriotic War as many Russians call it. Russia and the Soviet Union fought in the Second World War. The term Great Patriotic War is a convenient little communist creation to try and instill some pride in soldiers and people. Yes the Great Patriotic War did start with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941 and end on the 9th May 1945 in Germany. But ‘The Great Patriotic War’ was a misnomer from the moment it was coined. It is a dangerous misnomer that tries to hide the Soviet Union’s active role in the Second War War from the start, it’s involvement on the same side as Nazi Germany.

2. Oh yes, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. The ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop’ pact it is known, also the Nazi-Soviet Pact. When it was announced to a shocked world in August 1939 the details made public were only of ‘non aggression’ between the two states. Young Germans are taught this. Most young Russians aren’t. But there was also a secret protocol where the two dictators worked together to launch aggressive war without provocation all over Eastern Europe. Hitler would invade western Poland. The Soviet Union would invade eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and parts of Lithuania, Romania and Finland. Yes all of those swathes of other countries had Soviet troops invade them long before 1941. Watch the look of genuine amazement or embarrassment on a Russian’s face when they learn that Hitler’s Nazis and Stalin’s Communists had divided up Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania and Finland between them. Two weeks after the Germans poured into Poland from the west Soviet troops flooded in from the east. Stalin continued his invasions into all of the above countries, throwing hundreds of thousands of troops at Finland in the winter of 1939.

3. That Nazi-Soviet pact is the perfect answer to the oft trotted out Russian gripe that, ‘Americans think they won the war. We lost 27 million dead fighting the Germans.’ That 27 million is most probably accurate as far as statistics can cope with such population and casualty figures, as it is true that Soviet troops did the lion’s share of the fighting against Nazi Germany. These necessary truths do not denigrate the bravery, sacrifice and heroism of soviet soldiers. The world truly owes them a debt of gratitude. But in today’s rabidly anti-western politics in Russia, this tragic statistic is twisted to try and say that Russia is good and America bad. Part of the reason the Soviet Union had to fight so hard is that they actively collaborated in helping Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Soviet oil from the Caucasus drove German tanks. Soviet grain from Ukraine fed German soldiers. If Stalin had not chosen Nazi Germany’s side at the war’s start and left Britain to fight alone from May 1940 to June 1941 the Soviet Union would not have lost that 27 million.

4. Then we come to the Soviet Union’s conduct in the Second World War. The Soviet army was a huge ethnic hotch potch. Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Caucasians (from the Caucasus region), Central Asians, Siberians and more fought like heroes to push back the hotch potch of German lead invading forces.  But as in any army, some soviet soldiers were not just heroes but could also be bloodthirsty criminals. Soviet war crimes abound. Crimes by officers who could not or would not control their men. Crimes by a Soviet regime that lowered itself to the brutal standards of Nazi Germany in its treatment of prisoners of war, its own soldiers and ethnic minorities. That the Soviet Union was the one of the two that was invaded was of course a terrible crime and vengeance was right to live in the heart of every Soviet soldier. Of course Nazi treatment of Soviet prisoners and civilians was a terrible crime too.

But when over 20,000 Polish officers were taken from invaded Poland it was long before June 1941. It was the Soviet Union that had invaded Poland and all those officers were massacred by Stalin’s regime. Those who perpetrated it are probably dead. If any are left alive they should be put on trial. The attempt by Vladimir Putin to sort of apologise for the Katyn massacre all those decades later had such naked realpolitk showing through the display as to make it hollow. More than that, current Russian leaders have no right to say sorry on the culprits’ behalf.  Katyn, like all the Soviet Union’s other crimes, is now a historical fact to be recognised and laid out in the open so that Russians can strive not to come close to such acts ever again.

By the 1960s in Germany there was public discussion and debate about the horrific crimes of the Nazi regime. Even today such a discussion has yet to take place in Russia. Forget the feelings of veterans. They can be rightfully lauded as heroes and at the same time condemned as murderers, thieves and rapists if they are found to be so. It was war, but that does not excuse Stalin’s regime starving German prisoners to death or sending their own soldiers into Gulags if they had been captured. Penal battalions (soldiers sent to walk minefields for any number of misdemeanours) were a horror and an asinine waste of manpower. That behaviour makes the Soviet Union no better than Nazi Germany. The state of war does not excuse the mass rape of as many as 2 million German women by Soviet soldiers advancing into Germany. It does not excuse the burning and looting of settlements and the murder of their populations, the most extreme example being the sack of Konigsberg in East Prussia. To this day Russia still holds that territory, calling it Kaliningrad.

5. At the war’s end Stalin’s Soviet Union behaved just like Nazi Germany had, occupying and imposing Soviet Regimes on most of Eastern Europe. Only after decades of control from Moscow, with Soviet tanks putting down dissent in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were the peoples of Eastern Europe able to throw off the Soviet jackboot. Many of those peoples knew before the war that the Soviet Union was as dangerous an enemy as Germany. Little wonder many joined the Nazi cause out of self interest to protect themselves. Little wonder those states are no friends to Russia now.

6. Now we come to Stalin himself. He was without doubt as bad a monster as Hitler, minus the master plan of ethnic extermination and enslavement. He was useful for the Soviet Union in the war as a figurehead only. It could have been anyone on those Soviet Propaganda posters and people would have rallied round. When war came Stalin’s motivational power paled into insignificance compared to the sheer anger at the heinous invasion and murder being perpetrated on Soviet soldiers and civilians by Nazi Germany.

The most important bubble that needs to be burst about Stalin comes back to that heartbreaking death toll. It would not have been 27 million dead if someone more competent had been in charge. Stalin was quite simply a terrible general, war leader and military organiser. His mind was rotten with power and paranoia. His purges in the 1930s denied the Soviet Armed forces of 90% of their top officers including such talented minds as Marshal Mikhail Tuchachevsky who arguably came up with a version of Blitzkrieg mobile warfare before the Germans did.

Stalin alone failed to see the German attack of June 1941 coming, ignoring constant warnings. Despite decades of historical debate his willful blindness still stands out in it’s stupidity. Solzhenitsyn’s observation that ‘Stalin only trusted one man, it’s just a shame that man was Adolf Hitler,’ speaks both to two characters alike and to that lack of foresight.

Once the war started Stalin proved time again how adept he was a ruining good plans and chances for successful operations. His order for a million troops to stand and defend Kiev even as it was being encircled could have been spotted as a catastrophe in the making by even an army cadet. The Soviet Union lost, unsurprisingly, over 700,000 soldiers in the battle of Kiev. It was only by pleading and cajoling that Georgy Zhukov and other officers were able to convince Stalin to back off just in time to stop Moscow itself falling. Before, during and after nearly all of the eastern front’s major battles Stalin pushed plans that were operationally infantile. Usually he favoured all out attacks and fights to the death as if war was some heroic game. He never wanted to bide his time and wait for the right moment, always having to be talked out of rash decisions by subordinates.

The one moment when the Soviet people could most have used his inspiration was at the very beginning of the German invasion when confusion, fear and rumour reigned. Instead he fled to his Dacha, burying himself in self pitying depression. Vyacheslav Molotov, the foreign minister (of Ribbentrop pact fame) gave the Soviet Union’s first wartime speech instead. After two weeks, with the Soviet Union getting on with the war without him his politburo comrades came to fetch Stalin. When they arrived he thought they had come to kill him. If they had, right then and there, the Soviet Union very likely would have done no worse, very possible better.

Once again the true heroes are the Soviet officers and soldiers who bled, starved, died, and eventually learned and fought to victory. They won the war despite Stalin and the Soviet leadership, not because of him. And what did they get for their efforts? Soldiers who had been captured or surrounded were sent to Gulags. Whole peoples Stalin thought disloyal were deported to work or starve elsewhere. Georgy Zhukov himself, a cruel but successful Marshal was lucky to keep his life after he rode the white horse at the 1945 victory parade. Stalin was supposed to but was too scared. In a fit of childish jealousy he demoted Zhukov and sent him to a small command out in Siberia.

7. And what of the veterans since? Indeed veterans that served throughout the decades of the cold war. Many today live in poverty. Their pensions are tiny, their flats falling apart. They are dressed up and presented on victory day for the spectacle. Russians do right by them on that day. They say thankyou to them, present them with flowers, take photos with them. But sometimes it seems like they are a kind of tourist attraction. Rarely are their stories listened to or their present day concerns heard.

They are the only real link with what happened all those decades ago. Most people only see how much their number has dwindled once a year at victory day amidst modern parading tanks that weren’t there to help them then, or nuclear missiles that would look more at home trundling through North Korea than through a supposed Russian federal democracy. This long after the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union serious questions have to be asked of a country that still deems it necessary to hold parades on this day, not as a solemn memorial but as a sordid and paper thin display of ignorant bombast.

Most years millions of orange and black ribbons are given out on Russia’s streets for people to wear. On the surface it seems an equivalent of the poppies worn in Britain for the 11th of November ceremony remembering the dead of war. But victory day is not like the 11th of November and the ribbons are not like Britain’s poppies. The ribbons aren’t taken seriously. Here is a constructive suggestion I have for how Russia can more usefully and caringly remember the occasion. If everyone paid just 10 roubles( 20 UK pence, 30 US cents) for a ribbon millions could be raised to improve conditions for the heroes that everyone lauds so much. The donation doesn’t have to be obligatory. I think Russians would be happy to pay if given the chance. I certainly don’t think Russians are deliberately negligent or cruel to their veterans. But despite their kindness Russia’s victory day is by its ignorance of their plight, an insult to the very contribution veterans are hailed for. Each victory day is like this. But war is absolutely not the glorious crusade portrayed in modern Russian low budget war films or in the carefully manicured archive footage plastering TVs every year. For German and Russian alike, and all the ethnicities that fought under their banners, war brought life shattering horrors. The really sad thing is that despite their good will Russians have forgotten how sad and dire a warning Victory Day is. There are two minutes of silence every Victory Day, often lost on the crowds busy singing and drinking. But for those that care enough, there you will see the tears.

I have been to eternal flames of memory in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Kursk, Moscow and elsewhere and shed a tear for the supreme sacrifice of those brave men and women. But there are those in modern Russia who have taken things shamefully the wrong way. The do not shed tears but wield banners and, of all things, hobnail boots. The country has a growing problem with ultra right wing nationalists who not only display, but act on Nazi ideas. That swastika wearing Neo-Nazi skinheads can be parading, calling for ethnic purity (their slogan- Russia for the Russians), beating up and killing other ethnic minorities in modern Russia is a supreme and tragic historical irony. They have some of the most twisted outlooks of all to justify their violence and hatred. While Hitler never got to Moscow, with each convert to this way of thinking, his invasion is belatedly succeeding.   

Tears are what I must end on. I invited a British friend a while ago to come and visit me. He was interested in history and knew the Soviet people had suffered terribly in the Second World War. But I made sure I took him to Moscow’s Victory Park and it’s Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow. From the ceiling of the dimly lit, quiet, cool marble hall dangle over two million tear shaped crystals, each representing tears shed for the millions of Soviets who died. We were both moved close to tears ourselves. And that is, sadly but importantly, what Victory Day should make one feel. Germany has faced up to its terrible wartime past and has recovered socially and economically since. So has Japan. In Britain, the US, France, Italy and a host of other countries difficult truths have been remembered and painfully accepted. Russia and the Russians have not yet faced up to their terrible wartime past nor have they recovered from it. The talk in Russia is still tasteless hyperbole about a great soviet victory combined with a needlessly militaristic display of force. There are plenty of other occasions when Russians can and do show their pride in their country and their military. But on this day it needs to stop. Russia is not the Soviet Union. That should make it easier to look this subject in the face. Apologies are not useful. But it is time for everything to be said and everything heard, slowly and deliberately. Bright commemoration of that great Victory and thanks to veterans are right and proper. But Victory Day should be a day of solemn reflection and tears, for the pity of that war, for the pity of all wars and for all that has been lost in them.