Here it is:
Here it is:
In a recent interview with the opposition Dozhd TV channel – which is, incidentally, available for public viewing in Russia as part of the NTV Plus satellite TV package – for the first time openly declared he wants to be President. He also speculated about the motivations behind the Kirovles fraud case being brought against him. (He expects to get a suspended jail sentence that will disbar him from electoral politics).
However, I think other parts of the interview were at least equally interesting and telling about what sort of politician Navalny would be. First, he unequivocally said that he would send Putin and his friends to jail. It is rather ironic that the self-appointed leader of the extra-parliamentary Russian opposition doesn’t bother, unlike Putin, to even pay lip service to the rule of law and judicial impartiality that he supposedly espouses. Second, his tendency to intemperately react to critics – even those who support him – is, once again, on full and inglorious display.
Below is a translation from the relevant part of the interview.
Host: Many people interpreted you as saying, I paraphrase, “I am Alexey Navalny and I will put you in prison, once I become President.”
Navalny: I don’t know about a President Navalny, but one day there will come to power those who will put him in prison. It’s a general feeling, I or we altogether, in another regime we would put him…
Host: [interrupting] [unclear] is it we or I?…
Navalny: Well, I, because I feel myself as part of this process, and I will do everything possible to make sure that he, and Putin, and Timchenko, and the entire list go to prison. To me these are all chains in this odious, kleptocratic regime, from the policeman who breaks your arm to Timchenko who steals oil, it’s all related…
Host: [interrupting] Do you want to become President?
Navalny: I do want to become President. I want to change life in this country, I want to change the system of administration, I want to make it so that the 140 million people of in this country – who are surrounded by oil and gas that flows out of the ground – would no longer have to live in destitution and hopeless squalor, but lived normally, like in any European country. We aren’t any worse than Estonians!
Host: Do you have a clear, well-planned program? Because as we know, and I think we raised the issue a year ago with you, you said that one shouldn’t lie and steal, and we got questions from many people like this on air: “To not steal and lie is all well and good, but what can we concretely do about it?”
Navalny: These “many people” are all idiots. We don’t need to do anything other not lie and not steal.
Host: So everyone will cease to not lie… will cease lying and will cease stealing…
Navalny: [interrupting] It’s the principles that are important.
Host: … and the Sun will start shining?
Navalny: If the top echelons of government will no longer lie and steal, but will do what is expected of it, and will at the least start to realize those nice programs of Putin such as Strategy 2020… All the reforms we need have already been compiled, down to roadmap detail. But none of them are being fulfilled.
Host: [interrupting] [unclear] … So the plans suit you. At least as they are on paper.
Navalny: No. They don’t exist. The plan for Russia’s development, and reforms, has been reworked multiple times, and overall everybody pretty much understands and agrees… We have this strange situation where we have a consensus between Left and Right as relates to the reforms we have to carry out, but they aren’t getting carried out, because the essence of the current regime is corruption. Everybody more or less understands how to combat this corruption, and we bring very concrete and constructive proposals on how to combat corruption to Medvedev’s anti-corruption conferences…
Host: For example Rospil.
Navalny: Yes Rospil, and our Anti-Corruption Fund, and many other suggestions, and many people there agree with those suggestions, but nothing happens further.
h/t Red Hot Russia.
“Despite it being a sad and fearful prospect, in my opinion a totalitarian reversion for a certain period of time is possible. But the danger lies not in the law enforcement agencies, the power organs, and not even the Army, but in our own mentalities – our people’s, our population’s, in ourselves. It all seems to us – and I admit it, at times it seems that way to me as well – that if we restore order with a firm hand then our lives will become better, more comfortable, and more secure. In fact, this sense of comfort will pass by quickly, because that same firm hand will soon start to strangle us. We will feel it on ourselves and on our families. It is only under a democratic system that officers from the law enforcement agencies – whether they are the KGB, MVD, NKVD, or go by some other name – know that tomorrow could see a replacement of the political leadership in their country, region, or city, and that they would have to answer this question: “Did you comply with the laws of your country? How did you treat the citizens under your power?” – Vladimir Putin, 1996.
“When Russia has no Tsar, there appears a Time of Troubles. When the supreme power weakens, civil war flares up. You understand, the precise name – Tsar, President, General Secretary, Chairman of the Supreme Council – has no relevance whatsoever. There has to be a strong power, a strong executive. If there is no strong power – there will be no united Russia, but constant wheeling-dealings, violence and reprisals.” – Boris Nemtsov, 1997.
A few weeks back Navalny brought my attention to this lovely song extolling Putin’s achievements by Tolibjon Kurbankhanov, a Tajik singer from Dushanbe.
Navalny exhorts his minions to spread this clip far and wide. The writing between the lines is obvious. His reasons aren’t nice and altruistic, but utterly insidious, playing on xenophobia towards Central Asians. The idea being that hearing a Tajik singing in support of Putin will hurt his standing among “true” Russians. “Liberal fascism” may be met with bemused grins in the US, being the rhetoric of unhinged demagogues like Jonah Goldberg, but in Russia the term accurately describes the emerging alliance between liberal podpindosniki and ethnic nationalists, as best embodied by Navalny.
That said, I’m spreading this clip nonetheless. Not because I support Navalny, nor even because I support Putin, but because I support the idea of Russia as a multi-national federation. And because it really is a very nice song.
The above photo, part of a photo report by Ridus, shows the Anti-Orange protest at Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow on February 4th. Does that look like 35,000 people to you, let alone 20,000 or 15,000? Because those were the most commonly cited figures in the Western media, apart from those cases where they ignored them altogether (The Guardian) or even tried passing them off as a ANTI-Putin rallies (e.g. Le Parisien).
Let’s now try to get at the real figures. Attendance at Bolotnaya was respectable; not as high, probably, as the 75,000 or so at Prospekt Sakharova in December, but the photographer Ilya Varlamov’s estimate of 50,000-70,000 is eminently reasonable (reasonable estimates of turnout at the original December 10 rally there range from 30,000 to 60,000). Ridus estimates a lower 25,000-30,000. But regardless of whether the real numbers were closer to 25,000 or 70,000, it is certainly well short of the organizers’ figure of 120,000 that was typically uncritically quoted in the Western media. For it’s not quite dying away, but Navalny’s promise to get one million people onto the streets wasn’t fulfilled either.
RIA has an app that tries to measure rally attendance by calculating areas and crowd densities. They estimate 53,600 for Bolotnaya and 117,600 for Poklonnaya. Back in December, Novaya Gazeta estimated 102,000 for Prospekt Sakharova counting not maximum attendance but the total number of people who arrived and left; the range for max attendance is 60,000-80,000, i.e. 60%-80% of the total figure. The figures quoted by the police on this basis for Poklonnaya is 140,000; applying the same adjustment gives max attendance of 85,000-115,000.
The other two Meetings on February 4th were complete flops. Zhirinovsky got 1000-3000 people, while the liberals-only Meeting with Borovoy and Novodvorskaya and co. got 150-200 despite that they had permission for 30,000.
Anyone, no matter how you spin it, it’s undeniable that the pro-Putin Meeting enjoyed substantially higher attendance than the Bolotnaya one – at least half as much again, and probably double or even triple. So no wonder that the liberals, abetted by the Western and the Russian liberal media, are trying to discredit the former by saying they were all state workers bussed in on the threat of firing. There are anecdotal accounts of this and there’s little doubt some are valid. But do they account for the majority? Probably not. From the videos, they do not look like an unenthusiastic bunch; the speakers enjoy many cheers, and chants of “Glory to Russia” are eagerly taken up.
Ignoring, misrepresenting, and trying to discredit the massive rallies in support for Putin, and in Moscow of all places – the bastion of liberalism in Russia – isn’t going to make it all go away. But it is going to make his supporters angry and all the more determined to vote for him one month hence.
Others odds and ends.
Update: Channel 1 has a balanced report on the Poklonnaya meeting. Look at 1:10 and on for confirmation of the 100,000-scale of the meeting.
(h/t Alexandre Latsa)
Russia’s winter of discontent? from Al Jazeera’s Stream. Overall, fairly balanced. I appear at 8:50 to ask a question about the suspicious timing – two months before the actual elections – of the creation of the website promoting the White Ribbon as the symbol of the anti-Kremlin protests.
Generally speaking, I’m skeptical about the more grandiose claims of foreign involvement in the discontent. But the White Ribbon does seem to fit the bill: It’s a nice memorable meme (i.e. a good revolutionary symbol), it’s site is under a .com domain, etc. But there’s one problem – whichever idiot came up with it didn’t bother tracking down its negative historic connotations. So no wonder it hasn’t really been catching on (despite the best efforts of our good friend Edward Lucas).
On reading Western commentary on the upcoming Russian Duma elections, I realized that they can’t decide between two narratives: either the popularity of United Russia is sinking faster than Herman Cain’s following his sex abuse scandals, thus meaning that it will manipulate the votes to get its desired majority; or Russian elections are complete shams anyway (as we all know) and thus irrelevant, which does away with the inconvenient fact that for all the liberals’ harping about United Russia being the “party of crooks and thieves” consistently more than 50% of Russians still insist on voting for it.
The reality is quite a bit simpler than these convoluted attempts to discredit Russian democracy (thought some are quite simple and transparent in their propaganda: given the data from opinion polls, it is hard to believe Miriam Elder, who wrote in the Guardian that when she asked a classroom of 22 students whether they would vote against United Russia, “every single student raises their hand”). As I wrote back in July, opinion polls of voter preferences closely correlate to election results. And unfortunately for some it just so happens that the “decline” of United Russia’s popularity is really little more than the product of fevered imaginations: as you can see from the list of opinion polls on Wikipedia, United Russia’s share of the vote (excluding the undecided and those who won’t vote) has stayed largely steady and well ahead of all the other parties.
As you can see from the graph of Levada polls above, United Russia remains head and shoulders above the KPRF (Communists) and LDPR (populists). The only major change of recent months – far surpassing the largely insignificant fluctuations in UR’s dominant support levels – is that Fair Russia looks that it will overcome the 7% barrier. Before its 5-10% point fall in popularity, UR looked like it would retain a slight constitutional majority, from today’s 70%, to something like 67%, by virtue of Fair Russia not getting in due to its low support levels. However, the late night (and unexpected) increase in Fair Russia’s popularity means that it is increasingly likely that it WILL clear the 7% barrier and get into the Duma again, meaning that United Russia will be left with with something like 55% of the seats. I.e., a reduction from 315/450 seats to 253/450 seats, which means a loss of its current constitutional majority. It will remain comfortably dominant, just not quite as overweeningly so as before. The two liberal parties remain irrelevant: Yabloko for being pathetic (their unstinting support for Euro-integration especially doesn’t look good now on the background of the current Euro crisis), and Right Cause are neoliberal ideologues who’ve Russians already had a lifetime of in the 1990′s.
Fun tidbit: UR has a good sense of humor, as shown in its campaign video above (h/t A Good Treaty). Proudly embracing Navalny’s “party of crooks and thieves” accolade to “demonstrate” its inclusiveness and the envy it arouses within lazy malcontents: ballsy, and effective.
Will there be cheating? Obviously, there will be some violations and falsifications. There ALWAYS are in practically any democracy. It’s fairly predictable (based on past history) that many Western journalists and election will cry foul regardless, because they suffer from Putin Derangement Syndrome, believe that anybody who doesn’t put Western interests before their own country’s must necessarily be a dictator and a kleptocrat, and thus disparage UR as an authoritarian party that stuffs ballots as the only way to retain power against all those Russians who earn for the kind of true democracy enjoyed by Libya and Egypt. But these are dishonest and mendacious arguments as long as election results remain in line with opinion polls – which, on past experience, they will be. Bearing in mind that voting intentions for United Russia have fluctuated from 49% to 60% in the past two months – and for the entire past year, for that matter – as long as its election result remains in the 50%’s, it will be very hard to build a credible case that it did electoral rigging. If it scores SIGNIFICANTLY more than 60%, say 65% or more, only then could it be said with some certainty that there was systemic manipulation (I will also acknowledge that and burn the Putin portrait on my wall). Likewise if it polls significantly less than 50%, say 45%, one can then say: WTF? Is the Kremlin rigging votes against itself?
The eternal question of whether Russia’s elections are fair (they are quite obviously free as far as such things realistically go in most of the world) is a bit too for this post. The article on whether Russian elections are rigged quoted in this piece has many good comments on that topic.
Three interesting stories, all tied with Russia and water.
1. The explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in Siberia. Though the official Russian version is that it was a blown transformer, the Chechen separatists / terrorists are claiming that it’s their work:
A decision was taken at the start of the year at a meeting of the council of the Mujahideen of the Emirate of the Caucasus, led by Caucasus Emir Doku Abu Usman, to activate an economic war against Russia on its territory. To carry out these tasks, subversive groups were created and sent to a host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage power lines, and sabotage at factories.
In the name of Allah, through our efforts on Aug. 17 an act of sabotage, long in the making and thoroughly thought out, was carried out at the Khakasia region’s Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power plant, the largest in Russia. An anti-tank mine on a timer was planted in the turbine room, and its explosion caused enormous damage, greater than we anticipated. The result halted the hydro-power station completely, and caused losses to Russia worth many billions of dollars.
[...talks about their recent militant attacks in Ingushetia & threatens those who cooperate with the "apostates" with death]
Lay down your arms and return to your homes, work and earn money in the ways permitted under Sharia, and you will once again have a calm life.
However, they’re not exactly the most reliable of sources (they were wrong in their prediction that Russia would invade Georgia in mid-August 2008), and there could be genuine infrastructural reasons for the dam failure, such as the well-known depreciation of Soviet-era infrastructure. (Though it should be noted that from Wikipedia this dam seems to have had a bad history of accidents even throughout the Soviet era).
On other hand, according to people in the know (from Untimely Thoughts), this could not have been a question of aging infrastructure, but rather incompetence at the highest levels:
It takes serious skill to screw up a hydro plant. The only energy is water falling in ready built channels. My apprenticeship was in a large electrical machine plant. Amongst other things we built hydrosets. I later did insulation design for hydro (and also nuclear) generating sets. A 30 year old turbine is not old. The parts that might age are the insulation and the bearings, both easy to maintain. This was not an insulation failure. The bearings can be monitored automatically for vibration and temperature rise (UK practice since before my apprenticeship began in 1970). It is easy to predict failure and replace months before any real problems begin. Poor maintenance is not strong enough a term for this. It would require acts of serious criminal negligence to put a hydroset in the way of danger. The same goes for the ability to open a sluice gate so quickly that there was a serious overpressure of water. The motors opening the sluice gate wouldn’t be able to run fast enough. It takes over 12 hours to run a big hydroset up to full speed. (Pumped storage schemes use different, less efficient channel designs and water channels). If it was possible to open the gates with simple gravity then the design was appalling in the first place. The responsibility for this goes up to the top of Roshydro. An example should be set to encourage other bosses to pay attention to their maintenance bills. Corporate Manslaughter anyone? Do the workers families have access to the legal (and supporting financial) capacity to demand damages? Will the Roshydro security director persuade them otherwise?
In other words, they didn’t give a dam.
The effects are certainly serious, with 6000MW of power going off-line, several billions of dollars in damage and 500,000 tons of annual aluminium production curtailed. It would certainly be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to this. This is yet another blow to Siberia this year, which has lost the bulk of its winter harvest to drought and fires this year.
So far, the official reaction seems to be pure Показуха (appearing to be doing something, but not really), with Putin calling for a “sweeping probe” of the nation’s infrastructure. It would have been more useful if a) these things were done a few years ago, instead of building polar bridges to nowhere, and b) in any case with the drying up of foreign credits and investment, Russia will not have the means to address its vast infrastructural problems in the next few years bar much heavier state intervention. Thus, yet more incentive and impetus for the return of the Russian state as the spearhead of economic development in the next decade.
This is a very interesting examination of the Kursk sinking in August 2000, which goes contrary to the official claims, both Western and Russian, that the tragedy was due to a torpedo detonation caused by hydrogen peroxide propellant seeping out from underneath the torpedo casings. It presents evidence that during the exercises, which involved the testing of the advanced, supercavitating Shkval torpedos in the presence of Chinese observers (and prospective buyers), the US submarine USS Toled o, which was tailing the Kursk, crashed into it and damaged it. To cover its tracks, and upon what it perceived as the Kursk readying a torpedo to launch against the Toledo in retaliation, the USS Memphis pre-emptively torpedoed the Russian submarine. The USS Toledo appeared damaged off a Norwegian naval base according to satellite photos and took a suspiciously long time to limp back across the Atlantic to the Norfolk naval base, where it was promtly hidden from civilian eyes. Given the political implications of the truth, both Western and Russian leaders connived to cover it up (recall that Russia was still pro-Western at the time). Soon after, Russia received a 10bn $ loan on favorable terms from the IMF. According to the French film-maker, the sinking of the Kursk, with all the ensuing criticism of the government, marked a seminal point in Russia’s drift back to authoritarianism.
It has its holes, but an intriguing thesis / conspiracy theory. Recommended viewing.
3. I am rather cold to the recent sensationalist talk of Arctic piracy, especially Latynina’s bizarre claims about the ship being used to transport nuclear materials to Syria at the behest of the Russian government (there are far more reliable routes, even if Russia thought it worthwhile to do this). However, there’s a far more interesting case of real piracy being played out in the Black Sea. Abkhazia Threatens Tbilisi Over Seizure of Fuel Tanker:
TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region accused Tbilisi on Thursday of trying to suffocate the Black Sea territory and threatened a “proportionate response” after Georgian authorities detained a tanker delivering fuel.
Georgia has stepped up efforts to isolate Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, since a five-day war with Russia last August. It has banned economic and commercial activities there without its permission.
The Turkish captain of the tanker, operating under a Panama flag, was remanded in custody Wednesday and faces up to 24 years imprisonment if found guilty of smuggling and violating the ban on unauthorized economic activity.
“Under the law in force in Georgia, we don’t even have the right to breathe without permission from Tbilisi,” Abkhazia’s foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, told Interfax.
“We warned Georgia that we can make a proportionate response, take the same kind of actions that the Georgian side allows itself,” he said.
The tanker, with its Turkish and Azeri crew, was detained in the Black Sea off the Georgian coast on Monday carrying 2,000 tons of gasoline and 700 tons of diesel.
No date has been set for the captain’s trial. Abkhazia said it was the third case of “Georgian piracy” this year. The tanker remains in the Georgian port of Poti.
This is a de facto naval embargo and, it could be argued by Abkhazia and Russia, an act of war against a sovereign state. Again, Russia is caught in the cleft of a dilemma. On the one hand, it could confirm it is serious about its recognition of Abkhazian independence and take military action to lift the embargo… on the other hand, this will be met by a chorus of Western condemnation and more to the point, this would be a dangerous move given the US naval presence in the region.
Putin gave an interview to CNN, logically and comprehensively explaining the Russian view on the South Ossetian War. What did CNN do? They censored most of the interview (in stark contrast, Saakashvili’s frequent deranged rantings bouts got prime attention during the conflict), leaving only the stuff that makes Putin look like a loon to the average Joe.
Don’t let those craven neocon shills win. Watch the full interview.
Matthew Chance: Many people around the world, even though you’re not the president of Russia anymore, see you as the main decision maker in this country. Wasn’t you that ordered Russian forces into Georgia and you who should take responsibility for the consequences?
Vladimir Putin: Of course, that’s not the case. In accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the issues of foreign policy and defense are fully in the hands of the president. The president of the Russian Federation was acting within his powers.
As is known, yours truly was at that time at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. This alone made it impossible for me to take part in preparing that decision, although of course, President Medvedev was aware of my opinion on that issue. I’ll be frank with you, and actually there is no secret about it, we had of course considered all the possible scenarios of events, including direct aggression by the Georgian leadership.
We had to think beforehand about how to provide for the security of our peace-keepers and of the citizens of the Russian Federation who are residents of South Ossetia. But, I repeat, such a decision could only be taken by the president of the Russian Federation, the commander in chief of the armed forces, Mr. Medvedev. It’s his decision.
Matthew Chance: But it’s been no secret either that for years you’ve been urging the West to take more seriously Russia’s concerns about international issues. For instance, about NATO’s expansion, about deployment of missile defense systems in eastern Europe. Wasn’t this conflict a way of demonstrating that in this region, it’s Russia that’s the power, not NATO and certainly not the United States?
Vladimir Putin: Of course not. What is more, we did not seek such conflicts and do not want them in the future.
That this conflict has taken place — that it broke out nevertheless — is only due to the fact that no one had heeded our concerns.
More generally, Matthew, I will say this: We must take a broader view of this conflict.
I think both you and your — our — viewers today will be interested to learn a little more about the history of relations between the peoples and ethnic groups in this regions of the world. Because people know little or nothing about it.
If you think that this is unimportant, you may cut it from the program. Don’t hesitate, I wouldn’t mind.
First mistake. Never, ever give the media permission to do anything. They have extremely liberal interpretations.
But I would like to recall that all these state entities, each in its own time, voluntarily integrated into the Russian Empire. Back in the mid-18th century, in 1745-1747, Ossetia was the first to become part of the Russian Empire. At that time, it was a united entity; North and South Ossetia were one state.
In 1801, if my memory serves me, Georgia itself, which was under some pressure from the Ottoman Empire, voluntarily became part of the Russian Empire.
It was only 12 years later, in 1812, that Abkhazia became part of the Russian Empire. Until that time, it had remained an independent state, an independent principality.
It was only in the mid-19th century that the decision was taken to incorporate South Ossetia into the Tiflis province. Within a common state, the matter was regarded as not very important. But I can assure you that subsequent years showed that the Ossetians did not much like it. However, de facto they were put by the tsar’s central government under the jurisdiction of what is now Georgia.
When, after World War I, the Russian Empire broke up, Georgia declared its own state while Ossetia opted for staying within Russia; this happened right after the events of 1917.
In 1918, as a result of this, Georgia conducted a rather brutal punitive operation there, and in 1921, it repeated it.
When the Soviet Union was formed, these territories, by Stalin’s decision, were definitively given to Georgia. As you know, Stalin was ethnically Georgian.
Therefore, those who insist that those territories must continue to belong to Georgia are Stalinists: They defend the decision of Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.
Yet, whatever has been happening recently and whatever the motives of those involved in the conflict, there is no doubt that all that we are witnessing now is a tragedy.
For us, it is a special tragedy, because during the many years that we were living together the Georgian culture — the Georgian people being a nation of ancient culture — became, without a doubt, a part of the multinational culture of Russia.
There is even a tinge of civil war in this for us, though of course Georgia is an independent state, no doubt about it. We have never infringed on the sovereignty of Georgia and have no intention of doing so in the future. And yet, considering the fact that almost a million, even more than a million Georgians have moved here, we have special spiritual links with that country and its people. For us, this is a special tragedy.
And, I assure you, while mourning the Russian soldiers who died, and above all the innocent civilians, many here in Russia are also mourning the Georgians who died.
The responsibility for the loss of life rests squarely with the present Georgian leadership, which dared to take these criminal actions.
I apologize for the long monologue; I felt it would be of interest.
Matthew Chance: It is very interesting that you are talking about Russia’s imperial history in this region because one of the effects of Russian intervention in Georgia is that other countries in the former Soviet Union are now deeply concerned that they could be next, that they could be part of a resurgent Russian empire … particularly countries like Ukraine, that have a big ethnic Russian populations, but also Moldova, the central Asian states and even some of the Baltic states. Can you guarantee to us that Russia will never again use its militarily forces against a neighboring state?
Vladimir Putin: I strongly object to the way this question is formulated. It is not for us to guarantee that we will not attack someone. We have not attacked anyone. It is we who are demanding guarantees from others, to make sure that no one attacks us anymore and that no one kills our citizens. We are being portrayed as the aggressor.
I have here the chronology of the events that took place on August 7, 8 and 9. On the 7th, at 2:42 p.m., the Georgian officers who were at the headquarters of the joint peacekeeping forces left the headquarters, walked away from the headquarters — where there were our servicemen, as well as Georgian and Ossetian servicemen — saying that had been ordered to do so by their commanders. They left their place of service and left our servicemen there alone and never returned during the period preceding the beginning of hostilities. An hour later, heavy artillery shelling started.
At 10:35 p.m., a massive shelling of the city of Tskhinvali began. At 10:50 p.m., ground force units of the Georgian armed forces started to deploy to the combat zone. At the same time, Georgian military hospitals were deployed in the immediate vicinity. And at 11:30 p.m., Mr. Kruashvili, brigadier general and commander of the Georgian peacekeeping forces in the region, announced that Georgia had decided to declare war on South Ossetia. They announced it directly and publicly, looking right into the TV cameras.
At that time, we tried to contact the Georgian leadership, but they all refused to respond. At 0:45 a.m. on August 8, Kruashvili repeated it once again. At 5:20 a.m., tank columns of the Georgian forces launched an attack on Tskhinvali, preceded by massive fire from GRAD systems, and we began to sustain casualties among our personnel.
At that time, as you know, I was in Beijing, and I was able to talk briefly with the president of the United States. I said to him directly that we had not been able to contact the Georgian leadership but that one of the commanders of the Georgian armed forces had declared that they had started a war with South Ossetia.
George replied to me — and I have already mentioned it publicly — that no one wanted a war. We were hoping that the U.S. administration would intervene in the conflict and stop the aggressive actions of the Georgian leadership. Nothing of the kind happened.
What is more, already at 12 noon local time, the units of the Georgian armed forces seized the peacekeepers’ camp in the south of Tskhinvali — it is called Yuzhni, or Southern — and our soldiers had to withdraw to the city centre, being outnumbered by the Georgians one to six. Also, our peacekeepers did not have heavy weapons, and what weapons they had had been destroyed by the first artillery strikes. One of those strikes had killed 10 people at once.
Then the attack was launched on the peacekeeping forces’ northern camp. Here, let me read you the report of the General Staff: “As of 12:30 p.m., the battalion of the Russian Federation peacekeeping forces deployed in the north of the city had beaten off five attacks and was continuing combat.”
At that same time, Georgian aviation bombed the city of Dzhava, which was outside the zone of hostilities, in the central part of South Ossetia.
So who was the attacker, and who was attacked? We have no intention of attacking anyone, and we have no intention of going to war with anyone.
During my eight years as president, I often heard the same question: What place does Russia reserve for itself in the world; how does it see itself; what is its place? We are a peace-loving state and we want to cooperate with all of our neighbors and with all of our partners. But if anyone thinks that they can come and kill us, that our place is at the cemetery, they should think what consequences such a policy will have for them.
Matthew Chance: You’ve always enjoyed over your period as president of Russia, and still now, a very close personal relationship with the U.S. President George W. Bush. Do you think that his failure to restrain the Georgian forces on this occasion has damaged that relationship?
Vladimir Putin: This has certainly done damage to our relations, above all government-to-government relations.
But it is not just a matter of the U.S. administration being unable to restrain the Georgian leadership from this criminal action; the U.S. side had in effect armed and trained the Georgian army.
Why spend many years in difficult negotiations to find comprehensive compromise solutions to inter-ethnic conflicts? It is easier to arm one of the parties and push it to kill the other and have it done with. What an easy solution, apparently. In fact, however, that is not always the case.
I have some other thoughts, too. What I am going to say is hypothetical, just some suppositions, and will take time to properly sort out. But I think there is food for thought here.
Even during the years of the Cold War, the intense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, we always avoided any direct clash between our civilians and, most certainly, between our military.
We have serious reasons to believe that there were U.S. citizens right in the combat zone. If that is the case, if that is confirmed, it is very bad. It is very dangerous; it is misguided policy.
But, if that is so, these events could also have a U.S. domestic politics dimension.
If my suppositions are confirmed, then there are grounds to suspect that some people in the United States created this conflict deliberately in order to aggravate the situation and create a competitive advantage for one of the candidates for the U.S. presidency. And if that is the case, this is nothing but the use of the called administrative resource in domestic politics, in the worst possible way, one that leads to bloodshed.
Matthew Chance: These are quite astounding claims, but just to be clear, Mr. Prime Minister, are you suggesting that there were U.S. operatives on the ground assisting Georgian forces, perhaps even provoking a conflict in order to give a presidential candidate in the United States some kind of talking point?
Vladimir Putin: Let me explain.
Matthew Chance: And if you are suggesting that, what evidence do you have?
Vladimir Putin: I have said to you that if the presence of U.S. citizens in the zone of hostilities is confirmed, it would mean only one thing: that they could be there only at the direct instruction of their leaders. And if that is so, it means that in the combat zone there are U.S. citizens who are fulfilling their duties there. They can only do that under orders from their superiors, not on their own initiative.
Ordinary specialists, even if they train military personnel, must do it in training centers or on training grounds rather than in a combat zone.
I repeat: This requires further confirmation. I am quoting to you the reports of our military. Of course, I will seek further evidence from them.
Based on this, the “stories” that Putin claimed the US purposefully instigated the war to help McCain win, despite that he explicitly said it was a possibility that ought to be considered. Mistake number 2.
Why are you surprised at my hypothesis, after all? There are problems in the Middle East; reconciliation there is elusive. In Afghanistan, things are not getting any better; what is more, the Taliban have launched a fall offensive, and dozens of NATO servicemen are being killed.
In Iraq, after the euphoria of the first victories, there are problems everywhere, and the number of those killed has reached 4,000.
There are problems in the economy, as we know only too well. There are financial problems, the mortgage crisis. Even we are concerned about it, and we want it to end soon, but it is there.
A little victorious war is needed. And if it doesn’t work, then one can lay the blame on us, use us to create an enemy image, and against the backdrop of this kind of jingoism once again rally the country around certain political forces.
I am surprised that you are surprised at what I’m saying. It’s as clear as day.
Matthew Chance: It sounds a little farfetched, but I am interested because I was in Georgia in the time of the conflict, and the country was swirling with rumors. One of the rumors was that U.S. personnel had been captured in combat areas. Is there any truth to that rumor?
Vladimir Putin: I have no such information. I think it is not correct.
I repeat: I will ask our military to provide additional information to confirm the presence of U.S. citizens in the conflict zone during the hostilities.
Matthew Chance: Let’s get back to the diplomatic fallout of this conflict, because one of the consequences is that action is being threatened at least against Russia by many countries in the world. It could be kicked out of the G-8 group of industrialized nations. There are threats it could have its contacts with the NATO militarily alliance suspended. What will Russia’s response be if the country is diplomatically isolated as a result of this tension between Russia and the West?
Vladimir Putin: First of all, if my hypothesis about the U.S. domestic political dimension of this conflict is correct, then I don’t see why United States allies should support one U.S. political party against the other in the election campaign. This is a position that is not honest vis-à-vis the American people as a whole. But we do not rule out the possibility that, as happened before, the administration will once again be able to subordinate its allies to its will.
So what’s to be done? What choice do we have? On one hand, should we agree to being killed in order to remain, say, in the G-8? And who will remain in the G-8 if all of us are killed?
Mistake number 3. You’re beginning to sound like a psycho, when quoted out of context (as you inevitably will be).
You have mentioned a possible threat from Russia. You and I are sitting here now, having a quiet conversation in the city of Sochi. Within a few hundred kilometers from here, U.S. Navy ships have approached, carrying missiles whose range is precisely several hundred kilometers. It is not our ships that have approached your shores; it’s your ships that have approached ours. So what’s our choice?
We don’t want any complications; we don’t want to quarrel with anyone; we don’t want to fight anyone. We want normal cooperation and a respectful attitude toward us and our interests. Is that too much?
You have mentioned the G-8. But in its present form, the G-8 already doesn’t carry enough weight. Without inviting the Chinese People’s Republic or India, without consulting them, without influencing their decisions, normal development of the world economy is impossible.
Or take the fight against drugs, combating infectious disease, fighting terrorism, working on non-proliferation. OK, if someone wants to do it without any involvement of Russia, how effective will that work be?
That’s not what we should be thinking about, and it’s pointless to try to intimidate anyone. We are not afraid, not at all. What’s needed is a realistic analysis of the situation, looking to the future so as to develop a normal relationship, with due regard for each other’s interests.
Matthew Chance: The raw as you’ve mentioned areas of cooperation still between the United States and Russia, particularly for instance over the issue of Iran’s very controversial nuclear program.
Are you suggesting that you may withdraw your cooperation with the United Nations in tackling that problem from the United States if the diplomatic pressure were to be ruptured up between Russian and the West?
Vladimir Putin: Russia has been working very consistently and in good faith with its partners on all problems, those that I’ve mentioned and those that you added. We do so not because someone asks us and we want to look good to them. We are doing it because this is consistent with our national interests, because in these areas, our national interests coincide with those of many European countries and of the United States. If no one wants to talk to us about these problems and cooperation with Russia becomes unnecessary, God bless, do this work yourself.
Matthew Chance: And what about the issue of energy supply, because obviously European countries in particular are increasingly dependent on Russian gas and on Russian oil. Would Russia ever use the supply of energy to western Europe as a leaver to apply pressure should the diplomatic tensions be ratcheted up?
Vladimir Putin: We have never done it. Construction of the first gas pipeline system was started during the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and for all those years, from the 1960s until this day, Russia has been fulfilling its contract obligations in a very consistent and reliable way, regardless of the political situation.
We never politicize economic relations, and we are quite astonished at the position of some U.S. administration officials who travel to European capitals trying to persuade the Europeans not to buy our products, natural gas for example, in a truly amazing effort to politicize the economic sphere. In fact, it’s quite pernicious.
It’s true that the Europeans depend on our supplies but we too depend on whoever buys our gas. That’s interdependence; that’s precisely the guarantee of stability.
And since we are already talking about economic matters, I would like to inform you about a decision that will be taken in the near future. Let me say right from the start that it is in no way related to any crisis, not to the situation in Abkhazia nor in South Ossetia; those are purely economic matters. Let me tell you what it’s about.
For some time, we have had a debate about supplies of various products from different countries, including the United States. And of course the debate is particularly intense, as a rule, as regards agricultural products.
In July and August, our sanitation services conducted inspections of U.S. plants that supply poultry meat to our market. It was a spot-check inspection. It revealed that 19 of those plants ignored the concerns that our specialists had raised back in 2007. These plants will be removed from the list of poultry exporters to the Russian Federation.
Twenty-nine plants were given warnings that they must, in the near future, rectify the situation that our sanitation specialists find unacceptable. We hope the response will be rapid and that they will be able to continue supplying their products to the Russian market.
That information has just been reported to me by the minister of Agriculture.
Let me say once again that I would hate these things to be lumped together: the problems caused by conflict situations, politics, economics, meat. They all have their own dimension and are unrelated.
Matthew Chance: Prime Minister Putin, this appears or may be interpreted in the United States as tantamount to economic sanctions. Specifically, one of these 19 agricultural enterprises been importing to Russia that you’ve found to be flawed?
Vladimir Putin: Well, I am not an agricultural expert. This morning, the minister of agriculture gave me the following information.
I have already said it and want to repeat it. In July and August of this year, spot checks were made at U.S. plants that supply poultry to the Russian market. It was found that some of the concerns raised by our specialists earlier, in 2007, had been ignored and that the plants had done nothing to correct the deficiencies identified during the previous inspections. For that reason, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to remove them from the list of exporters.
At 29 other plants, certain problems have been found. They have been properly documented, with instructions as to what needs to be changed in order for the previous agreements on deliveries from those plants to Russia to remain in effect. We hope that they will quickly rectify the problems identified during those checks.
It has been found that their products contain excessive amounts of some substances that are subject to certain controls in our country. They contain excessive amounts of antibiotics and perhaps some other substances such as arsenic. I don’t know; it’s for the agricultural experts to consider. This has noting to do with politics. These are not some kind of sanctions. Such measures were taken here on several occasions in the past. There is nothing catastrophic here. It just means that we should work on this together.
What’s more, when the minister called me, he said, “Frankly, we don’t know what to do. It’ll look like sanctions, but we need to take a decision. Of course, we could take a pause, too.”
I think they said it’s arsenic. But we have our rules. If you want to export to our market, you must adjust to our rules. They know all about it. They were told about it back in 2007.
Matthew Chance: The U.S. won’t like it.
Vladimir Putin: We too do not like some of the things being done. They need to work closer together with our Ministry of Agriculture. Such things have happened before.
We closed it, and then we allowed them in again. It happened not only with regard to U.S. suppliers but Brazilian, too.
Matthew Chance: To conclude –
Vladimir Putin: We could go on. I am in no hurry.
Matthew Chance: Prime Minister Putin, perhaps more than anyone else, you’re credited with restoring a degree of international prestige to this country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, after the chaos of 1990s, are you concerned that you’re squandering that international prestige by your actions over Georgia, by actions like these banning of bird meat imports from the United States? Is that something the concerns you?
Note how Matthew goes on about these same topics with the same gusto, just at a slightly different angle, no doubt hoping Putin would get frustrated and make more slip-ups that could the headlines.
Vladimir Putin: Well, I have told you that there is no ban on U.S. poultry. It’s a ban on some plants that did not respond to our concerns for a whole year.
We have to protect our domestic market and our consumers, as is done by all countries, including the United States.
As for Russia’s prestige: We don’t like what’s been happening, but we did not provoke this situation. Speaking of prestige, some countries’ prestige has been severely damaged in recent years. In effect, in recent years our U.S. partners have been cultivating the rule of force instead of the rule of international law. When we tried to stop the decision on Kosovo; no one listened to us. We said, don’t do it, wait; you are putting us in a terrible position in the Caucasus. What shall we say to the small nations of the Caucasus as to why independence can be gained in Kosovo but not here? You are putting us in a ridiculous position. At that time, no one was talking about international law; we alone did. Now, they have all remembered it. Now, for some reason, everyone is talking about international law.
But who opened Pandora’s box? Did we do it? No, we didn’t do it. It was not our decision, and it was not our policy.
There are both things in international law: the principle of territorial integrity and right to self-determination. What’s needed is simply to reach agreement on the ground rules. I would think that the time has finally come to do it.
As for the public perception of the events that are taking place, of course this in large part depends not only on the politicians but also on how cleverly they manipulate the media, on how they influence world public opinion. Our U.S. colleagues are of course much better at it than we are. We have much to learn. But is it always done in a proper, democratic way, is the information always fair and objective?
Mistake number 4. The average Westerner who thinks his/her media are the epogee of free, objective reporting and that their civilization is the very best thing since sliced white bread is going to dismiss this as the rabid ranting of a conspiracist lunatic. Typically truth is a very blunt weapon in infowars.
Let’s recall, for example, the interview with that 12-year-old girl and her aunt, who, as I understand, live in the United States and who witnessed the events in South Ossetia. [Amanda Kokoeva] The interviewer at one of the leading channels, Fox News, was interrupting her all the time. All the time, he interrupted her. As soon as he didn’t like what she was saying, he started to interrupt her, he coughed, wheezed and screeched. All that remained for him to do was to soil his pants, in such a graphic way as to stop them. That’s the only thing he didn’t do, but, figuratively speaking, he was in that kind of state. Well, is that an honest and objective way to give information? Is that the way to inform the people of your own country? No, that is disinformation.
We want to live in peace and agreement; we want normal trade; we want to work in all areas: to assure international security, to work on problems of disarmament, on fighting terrorism and drugs, on the Iranian nuclear problem, on the North Korean problem which is now showing a somewhat alarming tendency. We are ready for all that, but we want this work to be honest, open and done in partnership, rather than selfishly.
It is wrong to make anyone into an enemy; it is wrong to scare the people of one’s own country with that enemy and try to rally some allies on that basis. What we need is to work openly and honestly on solutions to the problem. We want that and we are ready for that.
Matthew Chance: Let’s go back to the assertion that the U.S. provoked the war. Diplomats in the United States accuse Russia of provoking the war by supporting the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by arming them, by increasing forces in the territories and by recognizing their institutions … basically giving them the green light to go ahead and operate de facto. Wasn’t it Russia that really caused this conflict?
Vladimir Putin: I can easily reply to this question. Since the 1990s, as soon as this conflict started, and it started in recent history because of the decision of the Georgian side to deprive Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the rights of autonomy. In 1990 and 1991, the Georgian leadership deprived Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the autonomous rights that they enjoyed as part of the Soviet Union, as part of Soviet Georgia, and as soon as that decision was taken, ethnic strife and armed hostilities began. At that time, Russia signed a number of international agreements, and we complied with all those agreements. We had in the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia only those peacekeeping forces that were stipulated in those agreements and never exceeded the quota.
The other side — I am referring to the Georgian side — with the support of the United States, violated all the agreements in the most brazen way.
Under the guise of units of the Ministry of the Interior, they secretly moved into the conflict zone their troops, regular army, special units and heavy equipment. In fact, they surrounded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, with that heavy equipment and tanks. They surrounded our peacekeepers with tanks and started shooting at them point blank.
It was only after that, after our first casualties and after their number considerably increased, after tens of them had been killed — I think 15 or 20 peacekeepers were killed, and there was heavy loss of life among the civilian population, with hundreds killed — it was only after all that that President Medvedev decided to introduce a military contingent to save the lives of our peacekeepers and innocent civilians.
What is more, when our troops began moving in the direction of Tskhinvali, they came across a fortified area that had been secretly prepared by the Georgian military. In effect, tanks and heavy artillery had been dug into ground there, and they started shelling our soldiers as they moved.
All of it was done in violation of previous international agreements.
It is of course conceivable that our U.S. partners were unaware of all that, but it’s very unlikely.
A totally neutral person, the former Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms. Zurabishvili, who is I think a French citizen and is now in Paris, has said publicly, and it was broadcast, that there was an enormous number of U.S. advisers and that of course they knew everything.
And if our supposition that there were U.S. citizens in the combat zone is confirmed — and I repeat, we need further information from our military — then these suspicions are quite justified.
Those who pursue such a policy toward Russia, what do they think? Will they like us only when we die?
Matthew Chance: Thank you.
Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.
Save your breath, Putin. The Annals of Western Hypocrisy Go On and On, World and Time Without End.