by Nadezhda Banchik
- USA -
However, President Putin spoke precisely these words to a crowd gathered on November 18th at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. “Jackals” is an especially inflammatory prison slang term in Russian. Putin also described his opponents as those who “ruined Russia in 1990s”.
On December 3rd, Russia had yet another parliamentary election. Here in the US elections are a normal part of a citizen’s life and changes in power aren’t extraordinary, “revolutionary” events. Here no leader of a party who calls his opponents “enemies like hungry jackals seek[ing] money from foreign embassies” would even get elected; instead he would be regarded as crazy and dangerous.
Younger generations who didn’t live through the Cold War might not understand how damning the President’s message is.
I am from the Ukraine. I was raised during the Brezhnev era, when Russia and the Ukraine were unified; that Soviet Union was also deaf to dissenting voices. Then during Gorbachev’s turbulent Perestroyka (or “Rebuilding”), I witnessed new independent states emerging from the ashes of the old communist empire. I watched as the difficult but seemingly peaceful birth of the new Russian Federation unfolded. We hoped that it would not draw us into another apocalypse. I held my breath happily during the coup in August 1991 that eradicated what we hoped would be the last attempt of the old regime to regain power. And Boris Yeltsin reigned victorious as President of a new Russia. However, before long any opponent of his administration, whether at the local level or at the very top, was considered an “enemy” of the state who should be arrested. And “elections” only offered a single candidate who “ran” unopposed.
Communism wounded Russia grievously–but Yeltsin’s rule has been described as "one of the most corrupt regimes in history." Yeltsin's clique, which included his daughter, was known as "the Family" – not as in "family values," but as in the Russian equivalent of The Sopranos. Once he became president, Vladimir Putin issued a special decree guaranteeing the immunity of Yeltsin and the members of his family; he blocked all investigative activity could have affected those former courtiers privy to the secret of his ascent to power.
Now, with President Putin eyeing the rest of his lifetime in power, Russia is on its way to the same sort of regime – one that allows no opposition.
During the elections, everything was done to prevent “unwanted” opposition. Both Gregory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko Party and Boris Nemcov’s Union of the Right Forces were barred from advertising and campaigning. Their supporters were arrested and severely beaten when they demonstrated in the streets, while United Russia’s campaign was afforded all the benefits of prime time TV and mainstream media.Even the elected parties’ names are a mockery of the electoral system. The Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky is in fact near-fascist, an Orwellian-style parody of democratic values. Not surprisingly, this is the party of Andrey Lugovoy, the primary suspect in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. By becoming a member of an elected party, he not only mocks the West’s values but avoids Britain’s calls for his extradition.
On the other hand, the two parties that weren’t “elected” both oppose the current administration and its policies. And both represent “Western values,” just Russian-interpreted. The Union of Right Forces represents less brutal new businessmen in politics who are striving to rebuild Russia’s economy, but not to rob the country.
Gregory Yavlinsky of Yabloko Party, one of the most prominent leaders of Russian liberalism represents the core moral values of the so-called Russian intelligentsia: personal honesty, justice, compassion and non-conformism. His party is potentially the most dangerous to Putin’s organized crime syndicate. They are eager to sue the criminals in the courts, including international courts. They are ready to replace the present outrages with more humane and effective policies. However, Gregory Yavlinsky doesn’t seem strong enough to stand up for the “final victory” of democracy only because this fight is simply too dangerous. Anna Politkovskaya, arguably Russia’s best journalist, died for her work exposing Putin’s sponsorship of genocide in Chechnya and the siphoning of Russia’s new natural gas and oil profits into the pockets of a ruthless few.
The results of the recent elections were blatantly manipulated: although eleven parties nominated candidates, all the candidates “elected” were from just four parties. Overwhelmingly victorious was Putin’s party, United Russia (nearly 64% of the vote), then the Communist Party achieved a modest second (18%). The remaining two had negligible success; the Liberal Democratic Party (7%) and Just Russia (11%) were barely represented.
The voting process in the recent “elections” was so flawed that all international observers including the US State Department, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the OSCE) and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly declared this election “not free, not honest and non-democratic.”
Those who know Russia from personal experience were even more vocal in their criticism of the election results.
Prominent Russian expert and former economic adviser to the Russian government, Andrey Illarionov is now a fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity in Washington, D.C. He wrote on the Russian-opposition website Grani.ru, that a real popular vote for United Russia would garner no more than 37 – 38% of the vote if the elections were truly honest and free.
The brilliant ex-Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, who lives in London and is trying to challenge the Russian regime by entering the presidential race (he renewed his Russian citizenship) told me from London: “The top leaders of Russia this time acted even more overtly anti-democratic [than anyone] in post-Soviet times. Arresting the opposition, the beatings in the streets, the countless violations in the poll stations like “carouseling” (voters were brought by bus from one polling station to another so that they could vote many times) – all this makes clear where Russia is going.”
Another immigrant from Russia, Lev Dumer, who survived Stalin and now lives in San Francisco, told me that such elections are “pure Stalinism even though they pretend to be some kind of competition. It is a dictatorship.”
Chechnya is in even more dire straits
But in Chechnya the election results presented by Kadyrov’s pro-Kremlin administration were even more unlikely: there, supposedly 99% of those who have voting rights participated in the elections and 99% of them voted for United Russia! That’s not just a simple lie; it’s mockery.
Renowned Chechen human rights activist, Saidemin Ibragimov, created and now heads the International Association for Peace and Human Rights created in Strasbourg in 2002. Ibragimov told me in a phone interview that the polling stations in Chechnya had been empty. “Only a small portion of the population came to vote. The administration wrote in their red tape whatever they were told from the Kremlin.” He says the elections in Russia “resemble Hitler’s rise to power: he also had his own party as well as his loyal youth. Brutality, cynicism, racial profiling, immense instrumental lies, persecution and labeling the opponents – all these features of Hitler’s Germany are in Putin’s policies”.
Ibragimov also expresses deep disappointment in the international political community’s “deliberate inaction towards Russia’s growing aggressiveness. The European as well as American politicians think they are [removed] from what’s going on in Russia but they’re wrong. Evil does not have boundaries, it grows more and more widespread if unpunished”.The price of this indifference was the war, a bloody genocidal conflict that started with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, when Chechnya declared independence. Chenchnya tried to use the same legal means to gain its independence as had the 14 former Soviet republics and Russia itself. Nonetheless the United Nations did not recognize its claim. (Chechnya was deliberately not given the status of a “republic in the Union” under the Soviet-era constitution, but rather was identified as a so-called ‘autonomous republic’ within the Russian Federation.)
What really strangled Chechyna and ultimately caused the infamous war were the organized crime groups comprised of former KGB agents which emerged during the Gorbachev and tumultuous Yeltsin years. Top Army generals and the so-called “black market” (a shadowy version of entrepreneurship created and somehow tolerated by the Soviet state-controlled economy) robbed the ex-Soviet states of political ownership and money. Chechnya fought domination and suffered most. Former New York Times correspondent David Satter declares in his book, Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003), that “the Russian state has once again fallen victim to a false idea: this time the ‘free’ market, which in their understanding does not differentiate between honest and criminal capital”.
These Mafia groups had been seeking their own “black-market zone.” Unrecognized and “semi-independent” Chechnya seemed like a good fit. They declared Chechnya “independent” by isolating the tiny republic from its economic ties with both Russia and the West. They would rape the state and the people without restraint, and they had no intention of doing anything about the country’s many woes. Their solution to restoring constitutional order included imposing state-supported terror in the form of carpet bombing, shelling, and sweeping all villages clean of terrorists (read opposition).
On September 24th, 1999 the systematic bombing of Chechnya began. The 1999-2000 US presidential race was just beginning. Presidential candidate George W. Bush declared, “Not a cent for the Russian government until they stop the war in Chechnya”.
Yet another new administration in the US betrayed the Chechen nation’s hopes that the West would come to its aid. Instead it chose to play dirty games with Putin and surrendered Chechnya to a genocidal war. The US chose expediency: it closed its eyes to these crimes to increase trade. Mutual nuclear and chemical disarmament was then well under way, but some corporations recognized a convenient if unstable new market in Russia and jumped into business with its Mafia-controlled commerce.
But the main aim and result of the carnage in Chechnya is that the Chechen Republic has ultimately been criminalized, under the leadership of and with money from the Kremlin. Having killed Chechnya’s best leaders (most notably A. Maskhadov and A. Sadullayev), the Kremlin now backs the criminal elements in Chechen society. Those who engaged in violent robbery, kidnapping and organized Mafia-like crime now hold positions in the pro-Russian leadership structure in Chechnya. The black market zone now has complete freedom to pursue its activities.My friend Zina is a Chechen who has moved to Moscow with her family for a better life although they struggle to survive there. She says Chechnya’s capital is “full of expensive foreign cars driven on ruined roads exceeding the speed limit, disregarding street signs and driving rules - they could hit and kill anyone and go absolutely unpunished.” Though some streets have been rebuilt, the majority are still in rubble. There is no electricity and no gas. To Zina the worst part is that “throughout Chechnya, and even beyond, almost every day people are being kidnapped and either disappear without trace or [are] falsely accused of ‘terrorism’ and get long years in prisons”.
The Chechen people are quite possibly living out their last days under a regime that can be described as an Orwellian mix: Stalinist terror and an abusive parody of Western democracy. Exhausted by “unknown” epidemics, drug addiction, murder, kidnapping, torture and public executions in the spirit of medieval Islam, the Chechen people continue to suffer.
Of course, it’s not yet as bad as the dark times under Stalin. The Communist Party is going to challenge the “election results” in court. The opposition was able to hold their congress and at least attempted to challenge the regime through nominating their presidential candidates.
However, neither Stalin nor Hitler established absolute dictatorship and totalitarianism instantly. Stalin destroyed all opposition step by step, sometimes lifting tyranny but then making his next step even more brutal. And the current KGB-led regime in Russia is following precisely the same pattern.
Does Putin really dream of rebuilding Russia, and restoring “law and order,” as he claims? My answer is simple – No. What he fears most is being brought before an International Tribunal as Slobodan Milosevich was. And he fears losing the immense fortune he has amassed as Mafia Boss. This is why he reacts to even the smallest sign of opposition or dissent in Russian society with such brutality – as he’s done with the Chechens. One way or another Putin is determined to milk Russia for his profit and destroy the Chechens, who will not forget nor forgive him or his men for the atrocities unleashed upon them.
About the Author
Nadezhda (Nadya) Banchik was born and raised in L’viv, Ukraine. She holds a Masters in Journalism from the Ukrainian Academy of Publishing (Ukrains’ka Akademia Drukarstva) and completed post-graduate studies at Moscow State University. In 1996, she moved to San Jose, California.
Nadya writes for several Russian- and Ukrainian-American newspapers, most often as a columnist for the Russian-American weekly West-East (Denver) and the Ukrainian biweekly Viche (Chicago). As a journalist, Nadya is interested in politics, human rights and humanitarian issues in the Ukraine and Russia, including Caucasus as a conflict zone.
Nadya is a member of Amnesty International and works on international campaigns to resolve the Russian-Chechen conflict and aid Chechen refugees. She translated a profound monograph written by Dr. John Dunlop, Senior Associate of the Hoover Institution, Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of Separatist Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 1998), from English into Russian that was published by the Russian human rights center Memorial in 2001.