—Things continue to heat up in Azerbaijan before tomorrow’s elections. Azeri police raided the headquarters of two opposition parties, Popular Front of Azerbaijan and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, arresting their campaign directors, Gabil Mammadrzayev and Faramaz Javadov. The arrests are yet another attempt by the Aliyev government to preempt any chance the parliamentary elections will become “colored revolution.” So says Azeri Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, “If someone puts up tents somewhere, no matter what their color, and violates the rights of other citizens, and if it’s on some road where there’s transport, that will be prevented.”
—Inmate riots continue at Prison No. 31 outside the Kyrgiz capital of Bishkek. Security forces stormed the prison and crushed prisoners’ control of the prison. Two weeks ago prisoners revolted to protest living conditions. They took control of the prison and killed imprisoned former deputy Tynychbek Akmatbayev. But there is more to this story than prisoners rioting to protest conditions. Consider how Gulnoza Saidazimova describes the situation at Prison No. 31:
“Machine guns and knives, mobile phones, and computers with Internet connection, large amounts of money in U.S. dollars and euros as well as narcotics — all are in the possession of a “vor v zakone”, or a criminal kingpin, in Kyrgyz jails.
Consider, for example, Aziz Batukaev, who served a term in Prison No. 31 in the settlement of Moldovanovka near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek until he was transferred to another prison on November 1.
Speaking to journalists on 1 November in the wake of October unrest in Kyrgyz penal colonies, Deputy Prosecutor-General Abibulla Abdykaparov said Batukaev had occupied a whole floor of his prison. That included 16 rooms, where he kept three mares and 15 goats.
Abdykaparov explained that the convict used to drink the domestic animals’ milk to heal his ulcer. His wife and daughter-in-law as well as a bodyguard — not convicts themselves — were with him when the troops burst into the prison building.”
This of course is the conditions of the Kingpin. Other prisoners don’t fair so well. According to Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik opposition party,
“Conditions are extremely harsh, firstly, because of lack of food. What they get is [called] ’balanda,’ which is not only not nutritious, but also kills people. In some prisons, inmates have no food at all or get it once a week. The other problem is that prisons are overcrowded. So there is simply no air. I experienced that myself. In the cells of five-six people, we were 17-18 inmates.”
The “vor v zakone” rules at the behest of corrupt prison officials. The system seems to be a symbiotic one. The Kingpin controls the prison population from within, while the authorities get a piece of the prison drug trade. Though Kyrgyz officials have denied prison authorities involvement in narco-trafficking, (what are they going to do admit it and ruin their action!?), Turgunaliev adds,
“Prison facilities are a center of corruption. I know narcotics, including ‘gera’ [heroin] is brought there. I saw myself how they make 50-70 ‘lyap’ [portions] from a gram of gera. Each lyap cost [$1.5] in 2001. I don’t know the current prices. There are two kinds of narcotic trafficking [in prison],” he said. “The first is that of vory v zakone. The other one is controlled by the prison administration. Usually, one of the deputies of a prison head is in charge of the traffic. They get tens of millions [sums of profit] every month. I emphasize once again: tens of millions.”
—Like a modern day Peter the Great, Putin went to the Netherlands this week to discuss economic relations. He also gave an interview to Dutch TV. Some of Putin’s answers are worth highlighting.
QUESTION: In October, events took place in Nalchik that showed that terrorists are spreading their action beyond Chechnya and into the whole of the North Caucasus. Does this mean that Russia is losing the fight against the terrorists? How do you assess the effectiveness of your law enforcement agencies’ work in Nalchik?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: This is not the first time terrorists have made incursions into other parts of the Caucasus and other regions of the country. Russia was one of the first countries to be confronted with terrorism, and the reasons for this are clear. The Soviet Union fell apart, the state was in an extremely weakened position and the population had to face the collapse of the economy and the social protection system. Elements of this break up of the Soviet Union made their way onto Russian territory. This all made possible the terrible situation we have been facing for the last 15 years. But no terrorists can defeat the people that in their time vanquished Nazism, above all because the Russian people and the other peoples of Russia have an extremely strong feeling of self-preservation.
But several things are needed to be able to fight terrorism effectively. We need to strengthen the state and the legal system, achieve economic growth and create a middle class, strengthen the law enforcement agencies and develop more effective international cooperation.
Regarding how effectively the law enforcement agencies worked in Nalchik, preliminary reports say that the group of bandits that attacked Nalchik counted around 150 people, of which 93 were eliminated and 40 arrested. The terrorists managed to take three groups of people hostage at three different locations. Our law enforcement agencies’ special forces carried out three operations to free the hostages. All the hostages were freed, there were no lives lost among the special-forces officers and all the terrorists were eliminated.
As you can see, the terrorists have ever less opportunity to act effectively in Chechnya itself and so they are trying to expand their activities into other regions of the Caucasus, but they will not succeed in this objective for we will not let them.******
QUESTION: I wanted to ask a question about mass media freedom in Russia. The organisation Reporters without Frontiers put Russia in 138th place in its list of countries evaluated according to freedom of the press. The problems most commonly cited with regard to freedom of the press in Russia are the so-called ‘black hole’ when it comes to coverage of events in Chechnya, increased state control over the press and more. Could you comment on the conclusions of this organisation?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: It seems there is no getting away from the problems of Chechnya, the fight against terrorism and everything connected to the Caucasus. I will make my final comment on this point and then let us move on to another subject, the one you just raised, for example.
The tradition of appeasing any aggressors and extremists following the principle of ‘make agreement with anyone at any price, if only they will leave us alone’ has become firmly rooted in European political thought. This is a dangerous way of thinking that in practice leads to great tragedies. It is enough to remember Chamberlain and Daladier who signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938 and announced on their return home that they had brought with them ‘peace in our time’. But the Second World War broke out only a year later. In this respect, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was no better, but it was a necessary measure after the western countries accepted a deal with Nazi Germany.
I think this is a very dangerous trend and we have to realize that this kind of practice leads to problems in all of our countries. No sops to terrorists, not even giving them political asylum, can buy them off, and the recent tragic and serious events in a number of European countries are the clearest confirmation of this.
Now, regarding the media, we are aware, of course, of these evaluations and I think that we need to listen to such criticism. We have many problems, especially at regional level, and I am aware of this. I think that freedom of the press is one of the basic conditions for developing democracy in the country. Without freedom of the press we will not be able to root out corruption or build a free society. The most important task for us is to ensure the media’s economic independence so that it will serve the interests of all of society rather those of the economic groups or oligarchs.
Today in Russia there are 47,000 registered periodical media publications and around 3,000 radio and television companies. It would be impossible to control them all even if we wanted to, and we have no such desire anyway. That is not to mention the Internet, which is developing absolutely freely, without any control from outside at all, and has an ever-growing number of users.******
QUESTION: You spoke about your past, and now, perhaps, you could answer a question about your future. You said that in 2008 you will step down from the post of President. Do you already have any plans for the future? Will you remain active in political life or will you go into some other area of activity?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Every normal person has plans for the future. It is hard to imagine someone who has no plans at all. But it is not such a good omen to talk about the future. The future depends on how we live and what we do in the present. We build our future ourselves, through our present action.
QUESTION: You are very popular in the ratings in Russia at the moment and you are one of the stabilising factors for the situation in the country. Can you imagine a situation in which you would decide to remain in office for a third term?
VLADIMIR PUTIN: You are suggesting that destabilization could take place in the country?
RESPONSE: Perhaps. It is a situation that cannot totally be ruled out.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I realize that 2008 will be an important test for Russia, and not an easy one.
At the same time, the Constitution of the Russian Federation states that the President, the head of state, is elected for four years through direct secret ballot and cannot stay in office for more than two consecutive terms.
I am not indifferent of course to the question of who will take in their hands the destiny of the country I have devoted my life to serving. But if each successive head of state were to change the Constitution to suit them, we would soon find ourselves without a state at all. I think that Russia’s different political forces are sufficiently mature to realize their responsibility to the people of the Russian Federation. In any case, the person who receives the votes of the majority of Russian citizens will become the President of the country.
At the same time, I would like to note that, according to the Constitution, the presidential powers are conferred on the new President after the inauguration takes place, and until this time, the incumbent head of state carries full responsibility for the situation in the country. In the name of the interests of the people of the Russian Federation, I will not allow any destabilization in the country.
—Russia’s new holiday, Unity Day, which supposedly marks the 1612 liberation of Moscow from Polish rule, showed few signs of unity. A 1000 nationalist youths from the Eurasian Youth League held a demonstration calling for the liberation of Russia from illegal immigrants, mostly those from the Republics to its south. Youths from the liberal group Oborona threw condoms filled with water at the nationalists in retaliation.
Catholics are claiming that the holiday is merely a celebration of Orthodoxy’s triumph over Catholicism. In 1612 the liberation of Moscow by armies led by Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin drove out the Polish pawn and pretender, False Dmitri. Some believe that this victory prevented the Catholicization of Russia.
The contention over Unity Day doesn’t stop there. Historians argue that the Kremlin got the date all wrong charging that November 4 is more about replacing the holiday commemorating the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 rather than celebrating the liberation from the Poles or the end of the Time of Troubles. As Communist Deputy Sergei Reshulsky said, “This is just a fake holiday. Even the dates are wrong. The Kremlin came up with this holiday just to make people forget their communist past.” Of course, as the Moscow Times reports, the reasons for the holiday matter to many Russians as long as there is a holiday. When asked what she thought of the holiday, Lyudmila Knyazeva, a 49-year-old accountant said, “I don’t know what we are celebrating and, to be honest, I don’t care. What is important is that I don’t have to go to work. The weather is not cold yet, and I might go to the dacha.” Let the holiday spirit ring.