Ukraine Frontline Troops Dig Down with Pig Named 'Putin'
by Naharnet Newsdesk 07 June 2015, 17:57
Yet with barely a house left standing, Pisky remains a daily target of shelling, despite the latest truce with pro-Russian rebels, and Kiev's troops are digging down to survive.
Before the separatist conflict erupted in the east of the ex-Soviet country 14 months ago, Pisky was home to 2,000 people, many of whom worked in the coal mining center of Donetsk just three kilometers (two miles) away.
But with Donetsk becoming the rebels' de facto capital last summer, Pisky became a strategic flashpoint that changed hands on repeated occasions.
It was an important supply center for troops trying to control Donetsk's international airport, and became a prized outpost once the militants finally seized the hub in January.
Pisky's residents fled for safety, with only a handful of elderly people still somehow managing to survive amid the mangled metal and piles of rubble today.
Their new neighbors are Ukrainian soldiers, who spend much of their time underground. The troops like to remain inside a network of trenches facing southeast toward Donetsk, the well-armed rebels just 300 meters (yards) away.
"Man is an animal who can get used to living in conditions like this," said one soldier nicknamed Uncle Vova, short for Volodymyr.
- Watching Batman on TV - Now 46, Uncle Vova lives with a dozen other soldiers in a two-story house just behind the trenches.
They say the house was built by a businessman as his summer retreat. It was abandoned when the first booms of warfare echoed over Ukraine's once-thriving rust belt.
Traces of its original use as a summer residence are still evident. There is a small gym and a second outdoor kitchen in the garden. The soldiers spend their time in the basement, where they sleep, eat and while away the time.
The television still works, using a generator, as does an ancient video player. Tapes of Batman and Moby Dick are scattered nearby.
The soldiers say they prefer watching films to the news on TV.
That is hardly surprising, since the channels aired locally are only Russian or the one run by the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
Troops take turns cooking on a gas cylinder. And to make life even remotely resemble the one before daily bloodshed, they have started gardening and planting vegetables. In a central courtyard, a small farmyard is sprouting up.
"I've got five chickens, a rooster and a turkey," said an officer who goes by the call sign Farmer.
"There's even a small pig named Putin," he added, referring to the Russian president that most in Pisky blame for starting the war.
"We used to have Yanukovych, but we killed him and ate him on Victory Day," he said, invoking the name of the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian president ousted in the weeks preceding the fighting.
- Walls pierced with bullets -
To wash, they have set up a small wooden outdoor hut that they prefer not to use more than once a week. The shower drains precious water, which they get through irregular deliveries in plastic bottles.
But one man, 75-year-old Vasyl Bobyl, refuses to spend his nights sheltering underground like the other dozen or so residents still clinging on in the village.
"I'm not afraid," said Bobyl, a toothless man who has lived in Pisky for six decades.
"Those who can still walk have left, the others have stayed," said Bobyl, who walks with a limp. His daughter, for example, has fled for Odessa, a southern port controlled by Kiev and a fairly safe distance away from the front.
A poster of a religious icon is pinned on one of the walls inside Bobyl's residence. "That's my armor," he said with seeming irony.
"You see, all the other walls have been pierced with bullets or shrapnel. But this one is intact."
Source: Agence France Presse
07/02/2015 03:56 PM
Muzzling the Media: Defying the Kremlin Crackdown on Press Freedom
By Benjamin Bidder and Matthias Schepp
Against the backdrop of the bloody conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin is seeking to harness the Russian media and increasingly clamping down on critical voices. But some journalists are refusing to deliver pro-Putin propaganda.
It takes a while to remove an article from 50,000 newspapers after they have already been printed. Seven editors of the Siberian weekly paper Novaya Buryatia spent fully three days on the project, though they were assisted by secretaries and graphic organizers, of removing page 16 from every single copy. Only then could the issue of the free paper, known for its independent editorial stance, be distributed as usual in shops, schools and offices in the province of Buryatia on Lake Baikal.
What triggered this bizarre act of self-censorship on the part of the editor-in-chief was a call from Russia's mighty domestic intelligence service, the FSB. President Vladimir Putin's security services, it seemed, deemed the article a threat to domestic security and to Russia's international reputation.
The article quoted the mother of a certain Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, lamenting the fate of the young tank gunner with Unit 46108, stationed in the provincial capital Ulan-Ude. His commanding officers had sent him to Eastern Ukraine, 5,000 kilometers away. He and his fellow soldiers fought alongside pro-Russian separatists against the forces of the central government based in Kiev. The piece was illustrated with two photos. One was of the soldier laughing, and it had been taken just before his tank exploded. The second showed him in his hospital bed, his body ravaged by severe burns, his mutilated face covered in bandages.
The article and the accompanying images are evidence that the Kremlin is lying when it maintains that no Russian soldiers are fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
A growing number of news outlets are being bullied by similar calls from Putin's secret services. The Russian president has a vested interest in keeping the public in the dark about the war being waged in Eastern Ukraine. He relies on the populace's sustained support for the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, despite the considerable political and economic consequences. For the time being, Russians are still celebrating the "return of Crimea to its native harbor" and the sense that the country is once again a fearsome super power. But although they continue to back pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, only one in four Russians actually wants a war. The Kremlin therefore does all it can to squelch reports of coffins and injured soldiers returning from Eastern Ukraine, hampering the work of even the most independent media outlets.
The state has already pulled the plug on the popular opposition online television station Dozhd, now only a website, along with a slate of other anti-government regional broadcasters. Russian parliament also forced through a law, effective from January 1, 2016, that limits foreign ownership of Russian media companies to 20 percent stakes. Russia's best business daily Vedomosti used to be a joint venture between the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Finnish publishing group Sanoma. Earlier this year, Sanoma sold its stake.
The Kremlin is also targeting Axel Springer. A subsidiary of the German company publishes the Russian edition of the highly profitable financial magazine Forbes, seen as one of the best and most critical publications in the country. Axel Springer will now have to decide by the end of the year whether it is willing to continue operating as a minority stakeholder or whether it prefers to withdraw from the Russian market altogether.
The Kremlin believes the war in Ukraine calls for a united media on the home front. In late May, another law came into effect that bans the media from reporting on casualties among Russia troops deployed in special operations, classifying them as military secrets. "Journalists are being turned into propagandists, their pens transformed into bayonets," says the Moscow-based media expert Dmitry Kasmin. At an awards ceremony for Russian journalists in March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu announced that "information, words, cameras, photos and the Internet have become tools of our armed forces."
This mobilization of the media is proving effective. Although Russia's economic performance is stalling, Putin's approval ratings are at 90 percent.
"Just Doing My Job"
But not everyone is toeing the line. There are still courageous journalists who defy censorship and remain committed to their objective of denouncing regional injustices such as nepotism and corruption.
One of them is 44-year-old Arkady Sarubin. He was the one who went public with the censorship of page 16 of Novaya Buryatia, posting the revelation online. "It was no act of heroism," he says. "I was just doing my job."
To reach the mountain village of Arshan from Moscow, one must spend six hours in a plane and a further four on the road. Sarubin produces his small newspaper out of a small wooden house, halfway between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border. Arshan has a print run of 3,000, which sounds modest but allows it to reach almost all of the 20,000 residents in the area.
Among the stories that Sarubin and his one staffer brought to light was that of the nouveau riche district head, who was awarding bridge-building contracts to companies in which he used straw men to disguise his stakes. Last fall, he documented how the candidates of two opposition parties were excluded from regional elections. The district leader had him beaten up by two men, one of whom was a former officer with a special unit now in charge of youth work in the local government. "He could have killed me," says Sarubin. "But his job was merely to intimidate me."
His assailants were tried in court and sentenced according to Article 116 of the Russian criminal code, which penalizes battery. "Unfortunately they weren't sentenced according to Article 144 on the Obstruction of the Lawful Professional Activity of Journalists," says Sarubin. "The state doesn't like to invoke that one."
In fact, Sarubin himself went on trial, accused of endangering the state with extremism because he reported on an anti-fascist demonstration. The article was illustrated with a photograph showing a swastika, and fascist symbolism is banned in Russia. In late May, Buryatia's supreme court found him guilty and Sarubin had to pay a small fine. He's now planning to appeal.
It didn't help the journalist's case that he has become something of a local celebrity since meeting President Putin a year ago. Speaking at a media conference in St. Petersburg organized by the All-Russia People's Front movement started in 2011 by Putin, Sarubin drew attention to the pressure being exerted on regional media. The president pledged to help and in record time, the government had established 300 generously-endowed awards for investigative regional journalism and founded a center offering journalists legal advice.
Return to Soviet-Era Repression
It was, however, little more than a hostile takeover in classic Kremlin style. Whenever independent parties start to make trouble, it simply starts its own opposition parties. When NGOS get annoying, it sets up pro-Kremlin puppet organizations, and squeezes out critical groups. Facing closure in the city of Voronezh in southern Russia, for example, is the private Center for the Protection of Media Rights, one of the last surviving regional groups providing support for beleaguered journalists. Last year alone, over one hundred journalists were put on trial.
Sarubin asked Putin for protection against a system Putin himself had created. The president responded by tasking the same system with solving the problem. Putin's regional media initiative signals nothing less than a slow slide back into the spirit of the Soviet-era, when the press was effectively gagged and any kind of grassroots organization was seen as inherently suspicious.
Yet it isn't even all that long ago that the Russian public was hailing the emergence of an independent media. In the mid-1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced Glasnost ("openness"), newspaper articles and TV reports were allowed to shine a light on social issues such as housing shortages and alcoholism. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's first democratically-elected president Boris Yeltsin also encouraged the development of an independent and diverse media landscape.
But as the power of the oligarchs grew, many of them bought up all the major newspapers and television stations and used them as weapons in the battles over privatization's juiciest prizes. Putin had barely assumed office before he was not only stripping the oligarchs of their power, but also putting journalists on the state payroll or that of loyal state enterprises. Press freedoms were scaled back more and more with every passing year -- aside from a brief period of tolerance during Dmitry Medvedev's tenure as president.
Pockets of Resistance
Pavel Gusev knows about the rollercoaster ride that Russia's media has been on in recent years better than anyone. The editor-in-chief and owner of the mass circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets has decked out his office like a little shop of historical horrors. Perched on his desk are busts of Lenin, Hitler and Mao Tse-tung, while gracing the walls is a portrait of Joseph Stalin. The artist who painted it was jailed because he had the audacity to scrawl his signature across Stalin's coat -- an abomination amounting to sacrilege. "If a new Stalin ever appears, I want my reporters to be able to recognize him," says Gussev of his collection.
Gusev wears a pale gray suit that matches his carefully trimmed beard. Now 66, he's spent half his life as editor-in-chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets, commonly referred to as MK. Before that, he served as an official with the Communist Party youth organization of the same name. The paper started out as the organ of the organization.
The paper has a circulation of 700,000 in Moscow alone, and 2 million nationwide. MK is a force to be reckoned with -- even in Vladivostock, a nine-hour flight from Moscow on the Pacific coast, where a regional edition is published.
Moskovsky Komsomolets is the most serious tabloid in Russia. The headlines might be racy, but the articles are long and appear in relatively small print. Most of them are about politics. Gusev took charge of the paper during the Soviet era, when the censors shared the same premises. They sat in room 717, and would either approve new editions or dictate changes. "The rules of the game used to be clear," says Gusev. "Today things are more complicated. Pressure is exerted behind the scenes and all of a sudden you find you've become the enemy."
Gusev's paper is, on the whole, pro-Kremlin -- which perhaps explains why it can afford regular blasts of barbed criticism, or at least, it could until now. When harried authorities accused the opposition of having started the forest fires that laid waste to vast swathes of Siberia in April, the paper referred to the "fires in the heads" at those authorities. Then, on the 15th anniversary of Putin's first term as president, top columnist Alexander Minkin made a point of looking at the seamy side of his leadership, condemning the bloody ends to the Beslan school siege and the Moscow theater hostage crisis, which claimed the lives of over 450 hostages. In today's Russian, his swipe at the president was tantamount to lèse-majesté.
A Disease Called Freedom
Putin is no longer prepared to take it and the Kremlin is taking aim at Gusev's paper. Its stance is "explicitly anti-state," according to an article published in the pro-Kremlin paper Izvestia -- and likely placed by the presidential office. Once a beacon of the free press in the wake of Perestroika, the mass-circulation broadsheet Izvestia is now owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, a billionaire businessman and financier reputed to be Putin's personal banker and who is on the West's sanctions list. His media outlets serve as a mouthpiece for the secret services, with the Kremlin using them as pet pitbulls to stir up anger against the opposition or the US, its arch enemy.
Moskovsky Komsomolets and the liberal radio station Echo Moskvy were long permitted to voice uncomfortable truths as a vent for public criticism. But, says Gusev, "our independence is no longer welcome." The question now is: For how much longer will the paper be able to continue? The state has withdrawn subsidies and advertising -- which are now earmarked for more pliable newspapers. Moreover, the advertising market is faltering not only because of the economic crisis but because the Russian parliament has banned advertising for tobacco, alcohol and prescription medicine. Advertising revenue is down 40 percent from last year.
Given these developments, Gusev has taken to cheering himself up by glancing up at his gallery of rogues. He takes a long, hard look at a portrait of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, head of the notorious Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Joseph Stalin during World War II. "We're making progress," says Gusev sarcastically. "In the past they would have shot me long ago." He has no plans to hang up his hat. "I find it hard to rid myself of this disease that befell me 25 years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed," he says. "It's called freedom."
Russian science foundation shuts down after being branded 'foreign agent'
Dynasty Foundation, which gave grants to young scientists, announces it is liquidating all activities after it was sanctioned under controversial Kremlin law
Luke Harding and agencies in Moscow
Wednesday 8 July 2015 16.00 BST
A Russian foundation that gave grants to young scientists and mathematicians has been forced to close down after it was branded a “foreign agent” under a controversial Kremlin law.
In a one-line statement on its website the Dynasty Foundation in Moscow announced on Monday that it was “liquidating” all of its activities. The foundation had been operating since 2002 and had sponsored numerous scientific grants and prizes.
Its 82-year-old founder Dmitry Zimin – a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Beeline, one of Russia’s biggest mobile networks – left the country last month and is now in exile abroad, according to media reports in Russia.
The foundation is the latest victim of a 2012 law, which requires all non-governmental organisations that receive western funding to register as “foreign agents” – a term that implies the organisations are involved in spying.
Russia’s justice ministry says the non-profit foundation falls under the definition of because Zimin’s bank accounts, which support Dynasty, are kept abroad. Zimin’s supporters point out that his fortune is entirely self-made.
They add that the money - $8m (£5.2m) this year - has been used for patriotic purposes and for the benefit of Russian science, following years of degradation, brain drain and budget cuts.
Russian science outcry as Kremlin targets major funder
The ministry later broadened its attack by pointing to Dynasty’s funding of Liberal Mission, an organisation run by former economy minister Yevgeny Yasin that aims to spread liberal values in Russia. Yasin said that Zimin had now quit Russia “for an indefinite period”.
The decision to close the foundation was made on Monday. It follows an emotional meeting by the board last month which decided to explore alternative sources of funding, with a view to carrying on.
Scientists have reacted angrily to the assault on Dynasty. More than 3,000 researchers, writers, publishers, and students have signed an open letter calling on the justice ministry to reverse the decision, which they called “not an ordinary example of mindless bureaucratic zeal but a direct blow to the pride, prestige, fame, and future of the country”.
Separately on Wednesday Russia’s upper chamber called on authorities to blacklist 12 foreign NGOs – including US-based Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ukrainian World Congress – as “undesirable”.
MH17 crash: Russia and separatists deny mounting evidence of involvement
One year on, there is no conclusive proof of who was responsible for shooting down the plane, though most evidence points to Ukraine’s separatist forces
Shaun Walker in Petropavlovka
Thursday 9 July 2015 05.00 BST
When she heard the bang, Natalia Voloshina rushed out of the small, one-storey house that passes for the village administration office in Petropavlovka, and looked up at the sky.
“I could see these tiny black dots high in the sky, which started getting closer and bigger, and then things started falling around us,” said the 43-year-old mayor of Petropavlovka, sitting at the same desk last week and recalling the afternoon of 17 July last year.
“We realised they were pieces of plane, but first we assumed it was a military plane. The rebels had been shooting down Ukrainian military planes in the area in the preceding days.”
The terrible truth soon became clear as dazed residents of Petropavlovka and other villages surveyed the fields around them. The remains were from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which had apparently been shot out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile. All 298 people on the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight died.
In the nearby fields, there were human remains: sometimes mangled limbs, sometimes intact bodies. There were also all the accoutrements of modern air travel strewn on the ground.
“People started bringing letters, medicines, suitcases, all kinds of personal possessions. Many people just came to be here and talk, because they were scared to go home. There were pieces of plane, overhead panels, everything. It was awful,” said Voloshina.
It took rescue workers several days to fill bags with the bodies: black for whole bodies and green for parts. The cleanup mission was complicated by the fact that the plane fell in territory controlled by the pro-Russia rebels, where Ukraine had lost its sovereignty. The crash site was never properly sealed off, and rumours spread of looting and interference at the scene.
A year later, there has been no conclusive proof of who was responsible, though most evidence points to separatist forces shooting down the plane by accident with a Buk missile system, possibly brought across the border from Russia. Messages appeared on social media from an account linked to the rebels saying they had shot down a Ukrainian plane, but were swiftly deleted.
Russia has furiously denied accusations that pro-Moscow rebels were responsible. Russian media suggested the plane had been shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, and even produced witnesses who had supposedly seen the plane being tailed before being downed.
Pro-Russia separatists stand guard at crash site
Mostly the pro-Russia forces denied ever having used a Buk, though one leader, Alexander Khodakovsky, told Reuters he believed the separatists had taken control of such a system from Russia.
“That Buk I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place,” he said last summer.
In an interview with the Guardian in Donetsk last week, he was more circumspect. “There was all the fuss about the Buks which were maybe there or maybe weren’t there, but honestly I can’t say anything with clarity because I didn’t see anything and didn’t hear anything. Recently, in order to stop any insinuations, I have tried not to talk about that theme.”
The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic was more blunt. “I have said several times that we did not shoot down the Boeing,” said Alexander Zakharchenko from his office in central Donetsk. “We never had this kind of missile system. The Ukrainian army had a Buk. And so with a calm conscience we will happily receive any mission that wants to look into it.”
But Khodakovsky pointed out that the rebels last summer were still made up of several disparate groups with no central command.
“At that time it was chaotic here. One division didn’t know what the others were doing. We were sitting here and were responsible for our tasks; those who were elsewhere had other tasks,” he said.
Exactly who was controlling the Buk remains a mystery, although there is some evidence it came from across the border and may have been manned by a Russian crew. In the days after the crash, the Ukrainian security service released what it said were phone taps that implicated a number of separatist leaders, including Igor “the Demon” Bezler, who ran the town of Gorlovka at the time but has now left the region. An attempt by the Guardian to question Bezler ended with him threatening to kill the interviewer, but one of his former prisoners said Bezler could not have shot down the plane.
“The recording they released was about another plane. I was there when he was talking about it,” said Vasyl Budik, during a recent interview in the town of Slavyansk, where he works as an adviser to Ukraine’s defence ministry. He spent three months last summer as a prisoner of Bezler in Gorlovka. “When he was told about the passenger plane later, he was going crazy; he understood that there would be major consequences for the rebels. But Bezler had nothing to do with it. He couldn’t believe it.”
In Moscow, amid public denials of involvement, diplomats scrambled to establish what had happened. A diplomatic source in Moscow said scheduled liaison meetings with counterparts in the Russian foreign ministry were held as planned all last year, with the exception of the week after the MH17 incident. It was almost as though the Russians wanted to get their story straight before meeting foreign officials, the diplomat said.
On 29 July, 12 days after the incident, an intriguing column appeared in the Kommersant newspaper by the long-time Kremlin pool correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov. With its odd tone purporting to read Vladimir Putin’s mind, it read like no other piece he had ever written.
“If at the end of the day it turns out that the rebels really were responsible for this, this will radically change his attitudes to them,” wrote Kolesnikov, in what appeared to be a carefully calibrated transmission of a message he had been asked to put across. “Even if it turns out to be a fateful mistake. Innocent dead children … this would be a red line for him he could not cross. To cover up for those who did this knowing that they did it. No, this is a sin he could not countenance … Our policy of relations with the resistance fighters would be rethought once and for all. Vladimir Putin would ditch them.”
That is not what happened, however. Instead, in the weeks after the tragedy, Russian involvement in east Ukraine appeared to intensify. In mid-August, the Guardian witnessed a convoy of armoured vehicles crossing the border under cover of night; shortly after, a group of paratroopers were captured by the Ukrainians (Russia said they had “got lost”), and in late August came the battle of Ilovaisk, where regular Russian soldiers are believed to have taken part, despite Moscow’s denials.
The Dutch-led investigation into the crash has proceeded slowly, with a full report not expected until October. The investigators are believed to have concluded that the plane was indeed shot down by a Buk missile. Perhaps in an attempt to pre-empt this, the version of a Ukrainian fighter jet has been ditched by Russian media and a press conference was recently held in Moscow by the manufacturers of Buk systems, Almaz-Antey, in which they claimed investigations showed the plane had been hit by a Buk missile system that only Ukraine possesses. Other investigations, such as by the citizen blogging team Bellingcat, have suggested the Buk came from Russia, and was operated by a Russian military crew.
There has been talk in the Netherlands and Malaysia about an international tribunal to establish criminal responsibility for the shooting down of MH17.
“No route is 100% perfect, but this is the route that is by far the most preferred,” the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said last week. “We also have plan Bs if this approach doesn’t work, both national and international, but this is the route that would be the best. And that’s why we are exploring that possibility first of all.”
Russia, however, has described the idea of a tribunal as premature. This week, the deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov tweeted: “Russia opposed to a #MH17 tribunal as politically illogical, unnecessary and complicated to create.”
On the ground, most of the debris has been cleaned up. In the village of Grabovo, where many of the remains of MH17 fell, and where even a few months ago pieces of the plane’s exterior could still be found scattered in the fields, everything has been cleared away. There is little sign of the horror of a year ago, although villagers occasionally turn up personal possessions in the field.
A proper clean-up of the plane wreckage only became possible in March, after a shaky ceasefire was signed in Minsk in February. Residents helped collect fragments and belongings from the crash, and in April a Dutch mission arrived to take away everything that had been collected in a big truck, paying residents for their time. Médecins sans Frontières sent a psychologist to work with the children of the village. Even now, walking in the fields is not safe: just a few weeks ago in a neighbouring village, a six-year-old boy was killed by a mine.
At the spot where much of the wreckage lay, a small makeshift memorial has been created with a few bedraggled children’s toys and some candles laid on the ground. A placard is mounted on the nearby electricity pylon, bearing a poem in handwritten red block letters: “Pause and pray / Feel the minutes pass / Here fell the Boeing / And in a terrible moment / Their lives were taken.”
The rebel leader Zakharchenko said he did not know whether there were any events planned to mark the one-year anniversary. “Why are you asking us? Ask the Netherlands. If they want to do anything we’ll guarantee their safety,” he said.
Voloshina, the mayor of Petropavlovka, said the father of a Dutch victim had visited the area in early June, and had taken soil from the fields in which MH17 had crashed to keep as a memory.
Georgia accuses Russia of violating international law over South Ossetia
Latest in series of surprise operations sees Russian troops erect new ’border’ markings several hundred metres deeper into disputed region
Andrew North in Tblisi
Tuesday 14 July 2015 12.29 BST
Georgia has accused Russia of violating international law after it erected new “border” markings in the disputed South Ossetia region, effectively seizing part of a BP-operated oil pipeline in the process.
While European leaders were focused on resolving the Greek crisis over the weekend, Russian troops were installing the new signs, pushing their self-declared border several hundred metres deeper into Georgian territory.
“We’ve lost most of our fields,” said a farmer from Tsitelubani, one of the villages in central Georgia affected by the move. “The Russians said we are no longer allowed there.”
Location of pipeline and disputed territory.
According to Georgia’s foreign ministry, the move means that a one-mile (1.5km) section of the Baku-Supsa pipeline beneath this farmland is now in what it called occupied territory.
It is the latest in a series of similar surprise Russian operations, which critics say are part of its creeping annexation of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian territory.
Russia has occupied the two regions since 2008 in violation of an internationally agreed ceasefire following its brief war with Georgia. But most countries regard South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of Georgia – with the pro-Russia separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine among a tiny handful of bodies to have recognised them as independent.
An earlier Russian fence-building operation in the same area led to another Georgian farmer being cut off from the rest of his village.
Officials from the EU’s monitoring mission (EUMM) say one new sign has been placed 300 metres south of a previous marker near the village of Orchosani, while another has been moved 1km further south near Tsitelubani.
They would not say whether this meant Russia had seized territory beyond South Ossetia’s disputed administrative boundary line. But spokesman John Durnin said it was a clear sign that what he called Russia’s “borderization” policy continues, which “creates obstacles to freedom of movement and the livelihoods of the local population”.
One new Russian- and Ossetian language sign declaring the area as part of South Ossetia is just a few hundred metres from Georgia’s main east-west highway, linking the capital with its Black Sea ports and neighbouring Turkey.
During the 2008 war, Russian tanks used the same road to move on Tbilisi, stopping 20km short of the capital but demonstrating Georgia’s vulnerability.
The Baku-Supsa pipeline carries up to 145,000 barrels of oil a day from Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil fields to Georgia’s Supsa terminal on the Black Sea. Its strategic importance was made clear just before the 2008 war, when BP had to use it to re-route oil to western markets after its larger BTC pipeline across Georgia was closed by an explosion.
No doubt conscious of its huge interests in Russia, BP has sought to play down the dispute. “It doesn’t change anything,” said Gia Gvaladze, the oil company’s chief spokesman in Georgia. “We don’t need physical access to maintain it.”
There has been no comment so far from the Kremlin, but analysts say, as in Ukraine, keeping everyone guessing as to its intentions is part of its strategy with Georgia.
Some see it as a sign of Moscow underlining its opposition to the former Soviet republic joining Nato and the EU, mirroring its position in Ukraine. Russian officials denounced recent joint US-Georgian military exercises here, aimed at helping it join the alliance.
Russia has also been infuriated by the appointment of Georgia’s pro-western former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, as governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region, right next door to Crimea. The outspoken Saakashvili has become a symbol of resistance to Russia’s efforts to maintain its hold over its erstwhile domain in the former Soviet Union. During the 2008 war, Vladimir Putin famously threatened to “hang Saakashvili by his balls”.
This sudden flare-up is hugely embarrassing for the Georgian Dream coalition government, which said it wanted to reduce tensions with Russia when it took office three years ago. Instead, Moscow has further entrenched in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Diplomatic ties between the two neighbours are still suspended, but Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abishidze, has vowed to raise what he called this “dangerous provocation” at a planned meeting with Russian officials later this week.
In reality there’s not much Georgia can do – and western leaders have their minds elsewhere. The European council president, Donald Tusk, has postponed a planned visit to Georgia this week because of the Greek crisis.
Many here believe the west failed to heed the warning signs from the 2008 war about Russia’s wider ambitions.
However, renewed tension in the Caucasus comes after America’s top military official, Gen Martin Dempsey, recently labelled Russia as a rising threat to global security, focusing on the danger from what he called its “hybrid-conflict” strategy in eastern Ukraine.
Such tactics, warned Dempsey, “serve to increase ambiguity, complicate decision-making and slow the coordination of effective responses”.
New Russian migration law boosts Islamic State recruitment in Tajikistan
Moscow controls on workers from outside Eurasian Economic Union have led to economic hardship in Takijistan, making it a prime target for Isis recruiters
Karoun Demirjian for the Washington Post
Tuesday 14 July 2015 12.38 BST
When American-trained Tajik special forces commander Colonel Gumurod Khalimov defected to Islamic State (Isis) a few weeks ago, he issued a clarion call for hundreds of thousands of his countrymen working as migrant labourers in Russia to follow him.
“Stop serving the infidels,” he said in an online video, prompting the Tajik government to block access to Facebook, YouTube and other social networks for several days.
But local migrants and religious advocates say that if Isis is recruiting from Tajikistan, it is driven more by economics than ideology.
Since the start of the year, a new Russian migration law has required foreign workers from countries outside the Eurasian Economic Union customs bloc to pass Russian language and history tests, acquire expensive permits and pay steep monthly fees to keep the jobs they have been doing for years. The law has had a particularly severe effect on Tajikistan, where remittances account for almost half the national income. The World Bank expects them to drop by 23% this year.
Meanwhile, Isis recruiters are at the ready, offering large sums of cash to desperate, unemployed workers to go to fight in Syria. And many – given the lack of options in the poorest of the former Soviet republics – are answering the call.
“If our citizens who are without work, who are young, who don’t have a salary, who don’t have a life, are offered a golden city and told ‘you can earn more money, you can improve your conditions’ – naturally he would feel that he would be much better off going to fight in Syria,” Mavjuda Azizova, of the International Organisation for Migration’s Tajikistan office, said in an interview recently. “More than 400 of our citizens are in Syria, officially, and it could be even more. Those are just the ones we know by name.”
Dilshod Saliev, 22, returned from Moscow to Sarband in south-western Tajikistan about three months ago, after he was forced to leave his job at a furniture factory. He says that if Islamist recruiters came to him offering cash to join their ranks, he wouldn’t take the money. But he knows someone who did, just a month ago – and understands why others would.
“Of course there is a threat of extremism – many people in this situation are very desperate,” he said. “They need land, they need to build their houses, they have children, schools to pay for; they need money so badly that they could follow some groups that would offer them money. So there is a risk.”
Saliev says his former boss withheld his pay and replaced Tajik employees who complained with Ukrainians, who have been flooding the Russian job market since war in eastern Ukraine began displacing the local population.
Before the new Russian labour policy, Saliev’s salary – roughly 29,000 roubles a month, or about $900 before the rouble crashed – let him pay for his wedding and his sister’s wedding and even to buy a plot of land. But now, if Saliev wants to go back to Russia, he would have to save every penny of the approximately $100 per month he makes doing odd construction jobs for at least half a year to pay for the new work permits, because a high school dropout such as him can’t pass the entry test without a prep course or paying a bribe. His salary isn’t even enough to support his wife and two children, he says.
The extent of the Central Asian recruiting threat is unclear. Russian diplomats warn of a steady supply of fighters running from Central Asia to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, and there is ample anecdotal evidence of Tajiks – from the security officer to university students and migrant workers – joining Isis. But western academics studying the region say such warnings are overblown – bolstered perhaps by national agendas and global security concerns. The idea that Islamist extremist groups would seek Tajiks as foot soldiers in their armed quest for a caliphate is both obvious and paradoxical.
Tajikistan has a long, largely unsecured border with Afghanistan that could be as open to extremist transit as it has been to an illicit regional drug trade.
But Tajikistan’s religious Muslim population exists under the fiercely secular authoritarian government of Emomali Rahmon, which banned face veils for women and children under age 18 attending mosques, shut down scores of religious schools and is reported to support forced shavings of men with beards, to keep the religious look off the streets of Tajikistan.
The anti-Islamist mood has become so strong that the Islamic Revival party – an opposition group that has participated in Tajik politics since the country’s post-Soviet civil war – complains the government is scapegoating them instead of addressing the socioeconomic roots of instability they say are fuelling rising interest in Islamic State.
“If the authorities could make it possible for people to work and live, I do not think there would be any radical groups – people would not want to join,” said Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, head of the analytical centre of the Islamic Revival party, which he described as “a shield against spreading radicalism” that disproportionately targets “very vulnerable” migrant labourers.
“If you can’t find work, if you can’t provide for yourself, and you live in this system with a high level of corruption – a person will either become a criminal or go to support Islamic State,” said Oinihol Bobonazarova, a well-known human rights activist who ran as the main opposition candidate for president a few years ago.
“In most cases, those people that go are very poor. It’s not about religion, it’s about poverty.”
Analysis How Isis is recruiting migrant workers in Moscow to join the fighting in Syria
Bobonazarova likened Tajikistan’s dependence on the Russian market to a “hostage situation”. In fact, Russia’s role in perpetuating the instability roiling Tajikistan goes deeper than this migration law: it’s in Russia, experts say, where Tajiks and other Central Asian migrants are exposed to extremist ideologies, in the mosques they attend alongside Chechens and other Muslim communities with closer ties to Islamic State.
“If migrants are going to Syria from Russia, nobody will know how they got there,” said Muzaffar Olimov, director of the SHARQ Research Centre in Dushanbe, who said that while radicalised Tajiks may head to Syria, they won’t inspire widespread social support for religious fundamentalist groups or an Arab spring-style social uprising on the home front. “For that you would need different circumstances, different facts – people just don’t want to go for that here.”
Still, in a country where the average age is under 24, salaries are a fraction of what they are in Russia and nearly 20% of young men who stay in-country are unemployed, growing instability is a real concern that almost certainly can’t be settled domestically.
“Tajiks basically rely on God and the hope that everything will be OK,” said Muhammed Ziyo, 26, a former migrant worker who now peddles his skills as an electrician and technician in Dushanbe’s informal day labour markets.
Ziyo returned two years ago, when his father became ill. Then his son was born. Now he would go back to Russia, but with five mouths to feed on about $250 a month – if he’s lucky enough to get work – he could never afford the new permits.
Ziyo sees only one way out: if Tajikistan joins Russia’s customs union, all barriers to work eligibility would be lifted. More than 70% of the country favours that option, according to Olimov. But for now, Ziyo plans to just hang on and avoid any high-paying offers for high-risk rewards.
“I believe in God, and so I just say thanks to God, even if I find only a crust of bread in a day,” he said. “That’s how I avoid this temptation, even if life is not easy.”
How the hallucinations of an eccentric KGB psychic influence Russia today
What does it say about our country when a top official cites claims supposedly retrieved from Madeleine Albright’s subconscious in a trance, asks Oleg Kashin?
Read the interview with Nikolai Patrushev: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/15/russia-terrorism-ukraine-america-putin
Читайте эту статью на русском: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/15/russian-oleg-kashin
Oleg Kashin in Moscow
Wednesday 15 July 2015 05.02 BST
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council and one of the most senior officials in the country, has given an interesting interview to Kommersant.
Among other things, he said that America is jealous of Russia’s great natural resources, and believes that “we control them illegally and undeservedly because, in their view, we do not use them as they ought to be used”. He substantiated this by saying: “you surely remember ex-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s claim that neither the Far East nor Siberia belong to Russia”.
This phrase, “you surely remember”, is misleading and you cannot blame the interviewer for not interrupting Patrushev and asking him for a source. It is one of those claims we have heard somewhere before. Upon hearing it again, we are liable to nod absent-mindedly and think “yes, yes, I remember”. But therein lies the trap.
A number of pithy foreign quotes circulate in the Russian political language as common currency. But turn to the original language and no one can find them. There is the Dulles Doctrine (a supposed plan by the CIA to destroy the Soviet Union) and Churchill’s apparent claim that “Stalin came to power when Russia had only a wooden plow, and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. There’s Margaret Thatcher allegedly saying that the Russian population could happily be cut in three, and there is Albright’s quote about Siberia and the Far East not lawfully belonging to Russia.
When these quotes are wheeled out by Russian “patriots”, they attract the attention only of uncritical acolytes. Patrushev, on the other hand, is an important figure and his words were picked up on by journalists who all rushed to discover the origin of the Albright quote. They found it.
He said his boss had penetrated Albright’s subconscious, where he discovered thoughts about Siberia and the Far East
In 2006, the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta published a lengthy interview with a retired Russian general, Boris Ratnikov, about the security service’s occult and parapsychological activities.
A lot had already being written about this in the 1990s. Alexander Korzhakov, a former KGB general who served as head of the presidential security service from 1993 to 1996, had a deputy, Georgy Rogozin, who dealt specifically with these matters. He raised the souls of the dead, penetrated people’s subconscious through photographs and made up horoscopes for Boris Yeltsin. That was the sort of time it was.
Rogozin’s contemporaries made fun of him, of course, but time is a great leveller. Reading the interview with Ratnikov, who served under Rogozin, everything looks quite respectable. Who knows what the security services get up to?
Ratnikov said his boss Rogozin had used a photograph to penetrated Madeleine Albright’s subconscious, where he discovered thoughts about the need to strip Russia of Siberia and the Far East.
After the recent interview with Patrushev, the BBC Russian service tracked down Ratnikov, who repeated the claim that Rogozin would lie down and fall into a hypnotic state through which he could communicate with Albright.
What are we to make of this? Not much. The world is full of unscientific tosh and not short of people to believe in it. Rogozin was a believer, Korzhakov believed Rogozin and Yeltsin believed Korzhakov. But this was all long ago and there is nothing to do but to laugh about it.
Or rather you could laugh if it were not for Patrushev, who now, in 2015, apparently credits the words uttered many years ago by a Kremlin parapsychologist in a hypnotic state, and attributed to Albright.
Think about it. Patrushev is a very important and influential politician, a person crucial to the system. He has been with Putin from the very beginning, since his rise to power in 1999. Patrushev is now secretary of the Security Council, meaning that his purview extends to the most serious matters of state, including war and peace. Any mistake on his part risks catastrophe.
This is the man who repeats the words attributed to Albright as if they were self explanatory, when in fact they were pronounced by an eccentric Russian general 20 years ago. On the basis of these words, Patrushev draws conclusions, conceives notions and pens doctrines. Perhaps Russia is preparing for war with the US because it says in some secret file of his that Albright planned to take Siberia away.
It turns out that the hallucinations of a long-dead Kremlin psychic could result in a real war or, at the least, a real crisis in foreign policy. Imagine that Patrushev’s file comes to the attention of Putin and that when he meets his American counterpart he thinks about how the Americans want to seize our natural resources.
This state of affairs is unhealthy and abnormal and one would be justified in calling for Patrushev’s immediate resignation. Here, after all, is a man who confuses lies for truth, is incapable of properly weighing up existing threats and has proved unable to critically assess the reliability of sources.
We Russians have a real problem on our hands here – which goes well beyond the story with Albright. Our authorities are unchanging and isolated. We can only judge what is going on in their heads from their chance blunders, as in the case of Patrushev. Within their circle they speak a language all their own, their folklore and humour are unknown to us. They believe in things of which we have not the slightest inkling. Their superstitions, horoscopes, saints, fears, hopes, their good, their bad – all these have existed for a long time and mutate in ways foreign to us, the ordinary Russian people.
For decades, people on the other side of the power divide have lived outside the world of you and me. It stands to reason that a new, distinct culture has grown up in which only they can live, in which the voice of Madeleine Albright in the head of a Kremlin psychic is by no means the most surprising thing one might find.
One day, we will find out everything about them. On that day, we will be in for a big surprise.
A version of this article first appeared in Russian on Free Press. Translation by Cameron Johnston
Russia fights calls for tribunal one year after downing of flight MH17
Reports suggest investigation into disaster will accuse Russia-backed rebels, but Vladimir Putin tells Dutch PM that creating UN tribunal is counterproductive
Alec Luhn in Moscow
Thursday 16 July 2015 19.14 BST
Amid reports that the Dutch-led investigation into the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine will blame Russia-backed rebels, Moscow continues to push other explanations and fight against calls for an international criminal tribunal.
Friday marks one year since the tragedy, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board. The Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia this month have sought the creation of a UN tribunal to prosecute suspects.
Speaking with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, on Thursday, Russian president Vladimir Putin argued against the “prematureness and counterproductiveness” of creating such a tribunal, according to a Kremlin statement. “At the same time, it was stressed that leaks to the media of different versions of events with an openly political character are inadmissible,” the statement said.
Putin was apparently referring to a report on Wednesday that a draft of the findings of the Dutch Safety Board, which is leading the MH17 investigation, blames a surface-to-air missile fired from a village under the control of Russia-backed separatists.
It also said that unlike some airlines that avoided flying over eastern Ukraine, Malaysia Airlines was not reading warnings from other countries about potential dangers involving conflict zones. The final report is expected to be released in October.
On Thursday, a lawyer for the relatives of 17victims, including six Britons, said they had filed an $850m civil suit in a Chicago court against Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who was the top commander of separatist forces when the tragedy occurred. A post on a social media account linked to Girkin bragged shortly after MH17 came down that rebels had shot down an AN-26 transport plane, but this was soon deleted as it became clear that the aircraft was a civilian airliner.
Speaking with Gazeta.ru, Girkin criticised the families for “assessing the lives of their relatives in terms of money”, but declined to comment on the downing of MH17.
Lawyer Floyd Wisner, who brought the lawsuit, said that it had “nothing to do with the money”, but was rather meant to put pressure on the UN and Russia to bring those responsible for the disaster to justice, especially in light of Moscow’s resistance to the creation of an international tribunal.
“The relatives want answers, and we believe Girkin has answers,” Wisner said. “This lawsuit could shed light on the families’ concerns, particularly over slow-moving diplomatic measures.”
While western journalists have gathered evidence that separatists shot down MH17 with a Buk missile, with British blogger Eliot Higgins even using photographs published online to trace a suspected Buk launcher from Russia to eastern Ukraine, Moscow has thrown up a variety of explanations implicating the Ukrainian side.
At a press conference on Thursday, Oleg Storchevoi, deputy head of Russia’s state air transport agency, said western investigators were only taking into account facts leading to the “necessary result”, and that Russia had submitted evidence supporting other explanations, including an air-to-air missile or a surface-to-air missile launched from Ukrainian-controlled territory. He left without taking questions from the press, arguing that he couldn’t comment until the full report is published.
Both the Russian defence ministry and the investigative committee have previously said the Boeing 777 was likely downed by a Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack fighter jet, an explanation that seems implausible given both the Su-25’s low operating ceiling and the fact that no air-to-air fighting has occurred over eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Almaz-Antey, the Russian maker of the Buk surface-to-air missile, gave a presentation in June suggesting that MH17 was brought down by Ukrainian forces using one of its missiles. On Thursday, Storchevoi similarly argued that a Buk could only have been fired from near the village of Zaroshchenske, rather than from separatist-controlled Snizhne, or Russian radar would have detected it. It is not clear which side was in control of Zaroshchenske at the time of the disaster.
Storchevoi also said Kiev’s “greed” was to blame for the catastrophe, arguing that “obviously the Ukrainian side didn’t want to lose large profits by closing its airspace” over eastern Ukraine.
****************Footage of Russian-backed rebels ransacking MH17 luggage is sickening, Julie Bishop says
The Australian foreign minister says it is deeply disturbing that the video published by News Corp Australia has now emerged
Australian Associated Press
Thursday 16 July 2015 22.27 BST
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is sickened by footage apparently showing Russian-backed rebels ransacking luggage of passengers in the aftermath of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Bishop said she couldn’t verify the authenticity of the video published by News Corp Australia.
“It is sickening to watch and 12 months on from the downing of MH17 it is deeply concerning that this footage has emerged now,” Bishop told the Nine Network.
MH17 tragedy: a year on, families of Australian victims gather to grieve
Bishop said it had been a tough year for grieving families and it would be an emotional day ahead.
“Their grief is inconsolable and the burden of grieving and then seeing this footage will be almost too much to bear,” she said.
The disaster killed 298 people, including 38 Australians. Bishop has flagged a second investigation report into the tragedy will be released in October.
The next step was establishing an international criminal tribunal, but Bishop acknowledged it would be tough to get it approved by the United Nations Security Council.
An estimated 200 of their family members will attend a commemoration at parliament house in Canberra on Friday, which the prime minister, Tony Abbott, says he hoped will bring some comfort to the families left behind.
“I know that nothing anyone can do can bring back their loved ones, nothing anyone can say can make it easier for them,” Abbott told ABC TV on Friday.
“This was not just a tragedy. It was an atrocity.”
Abbott suspects Russian president Vladimir Putin is horrified by the event and does not believe the Russian leader knew anything in advance.
Australia urges UN support for tribunal to prosecute those who downed MH17
“The point that I made to (Putin) when we spoke about this was that, as a parent and as a human being, he owed it to the families of the victims to do what he could to try to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
It would be a credit to Russia if there was full co-operation with the ongoing criminal investigation into the plane’s downing, Abbott said.
Toowoomba man Paul Guard, who lost his parents Roger and Jill, is in Canberra for the ceremony along with nine other family members.
“I think it will be a difficult day, but hopefully a useful part of the healing process,” he told ABC TV.
Abbott will join friends and family of the 38 Australian citizens and residents who died to unveil a plaque at the memorial service.
Click here to see and read more about this evil pigs: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/never-before-seen-footage-reveals-russian-backed-rebels-arriving-at-the-wreckage-of-mh17/story-fniztvnh-1227444676268?nk=e99971e4bd2b09a19554418c332f6d09-1437135430
Click here to see the actual footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFRwM6WDpSw
Alexander Litvinenko murder inquiry: the unanswered questions
Three things we’ve learned and three things we still don’t know about the death of the former Soviet spy in London in 2006
Friday 24 July 2015 09.13 BST
After months of extraordinary testimony the public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko resumes on Friday. One of the two alleged killers, Dmitry Kovtun, is due next week to give evidence by video from Moscow.
Here are three things we’ve learned and three things we still don’t know.
Three things we know ...
The identity of the murderers
The public inquiry into Alexander Litvinenko’s murder began in January and finally concludes next week. It’s been exhaustive: 70 witnesses, 15,000 pages of evidence, months of hearings in the high court in London.
One thing is clear: two Russians, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, murdered Litvinenko by slipping radioactive polonium into his green tea. The forensic evidence against them is enormous. The killers left a trail. Scotland Yard’s radiation schedule – it runs to a whopping 265 pages – is a ghoulish and fascinating document. Scientists tested everything including a bronze phallus in a nightclub visited by Kovtun and Lugovoi during their last London trip (it was negative).
On Friday, the final witnesses are likely to give more proof of the pair’s guilt. They include former colleagues of Kovtun from the days when he worked as a waiter at an Italian restaurant in Hamburg. Kovtun told one of them – “D3” – he was planning to kill a “traitor” using a “very expensive poison”. He even asked D3 if they knew a cook in London who might put the poison in Litvinenko’s food or drink.
Kovtun and Lugovoi are safe in Moscow having refused to travel to the UK. In March, just as the inquiry was wrapping up, Kovtun said he was willing to testify as a “core participant”. He is scheduled to give evidence by video on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Kovtun is likely to claim that Litvinenko poisoned him. This is nonsense. Tests show that Litvinenko had no contact with polonium prior to his meeting with the two men from Moscow, who had already left alpha radiation in their hotel bedrooms.
The inquiry has established a motive
Litvinenko lived in Britain for six years before his poisoning. In exile, he was a remorseless Putin critic. He made speeches, wrote articles, and co-authored a controversial book, Blowing Up Russia, which accused Putin of orchestrating a series of apartment block bombings in which nearly 300 people died. The bombings, Litvinenko alleged, gave Putin a pretext to invade the rebel republic of Chechnya. The book came out in 2002. A stream of anti-Putin allegations followed. So why murder him in 2006?
The evidence laid before the inquiry offers a persuasive answer. Litvinenko was killed because of his investigation into the Russian mafia and its links with prominent Kremlin figures, including Putin himself. The mafia took root in Spain from the mid-90s onwards. Litvinenko helped Spanish intelligence in operations to “behead” top mafia bosses.
From hundreds of wiretaps, as well as bank documents, and money transfers, Spanish investigators found these bosses had intimate links with senior Kremlin politicians. They came to a stunning view: that Russia had, in effect, become a “mafia state”, a phrase used by Ben Emmerson QC, counsel for Marina Litvinenko, on the first day of the inquiry. At the time of his murder, Litvinenko was due to be a star witness in a series of trials.
One Russian in the frame is Viktor Ivanov, a powerful Putin ally, who heads the Kremlin’s federal narcotics service. In September 2006, Litvinenko wrote a report alleging that Ivanov was part of a criminal network in St Petersburg and had links in the 1990s with Colombian drug cartels. At the time, Putin worked in St Petersburg’s mayor’s office. Litvinenko wrote: “While Ivanov was cooperating with gangsters, he was protected by Vladimir Putin ... who was not Mr Clean at that time.”
Litvinenko gave a copy of the the report to Andrei Lugovoi. He thought Lugovoi was his business partner, but actually Lugovoi was flying to London to kill him. Weeks later Litvinenko lay dead.
Putin has thumbed his nose at the inquiry
A day after Emmerson described Russia as a “mafia state” Russian Tupulov bear bombers buzzed the south coast of England. Coincidence? No, rather a typical sabre-rattling sign of Kremlin displeasure. Downing Street was forced to scramble two RAF typhoons to track the aircraft. The following month, Russian bombers turned up near the coast of Cornwall.
But Putin’s most demonstrative act was to give a major state honour to Lugovoi, now an influential deputy in Russia’s Duma. On day 22 of the inquiry, Interfax announced that Lugovoi was getting a medal for “services to the motherland”. Supposedly this was for his work in parliament. In reality, it was a thank you to Lugovoi from the top and a sign that he still enjoys warm presidential support.
And three things we don’t know …
The secret evidence
Over the last few months the inquiry has been hearing secret government evidence. We don’t know details. The hearings have not been public. But it is bound to include MI6’s classified file on Litvinenko, who worked part-time for the British intelligence agency from 2003 until his murder in November 2006. He was an informant, giving expert advice on Russian organised crime across Europe. Did MI6 know that its source was at risk? And if not, why not?
The material may also feature phone transcripts and emails gathered from British and US interception operations against prominent Russian targets. (GCHQ’s eavesdropping capabilities are widely known, post-Snowden, but not officially acknowledged.) Plus, reports from MI6 agents in the field. And the foreign office’s internal conclusion as to who murdered him – the Russian state. It was this classified report and Putin’s refusal to hand over the killers that in 2007 led the then foreign secretary David Miliband to expel four Russian diplomats from London.
Only Sir Robert Owen, the inquiry chairman, has been allowed to review these documents. They will inform his conclusions but will be redacted from his final report to home secretary Theresa May, due later in 2015.
We know where the polonium came from but are missing details
The inquiry was told the polonium used to kill Litvinenko came from Russia. It started off as bismuth, and was irradiated at the Mayak nuclear complex in the Urals region. It was then transported to Avangard, a closed government facility in the city of Sarov. Avangard is the only laboratory in the world that produces polonium-210 on a commercial line. (The UK stopped making it in the 1960s.)
After this the trail goes murky. According to Professor Norman Dombey, a physicist, a “government institution” would have converted the polonium into soluble form. Dombey means the FSB, the Russian spy agency. Its predecessor the KGB ran its own notorious poisons factory, which Lenin set up in 1917. We don’t know who gave the polonium to Lugovoi and Kovtun in Moscow, possibly at the airport. It was almost certainly concealed in a purpose-built vial. (The amount was tiny. Litvinenko drank just 26.5 micrograms.)
We do know that it took them three attempts – one bungled, another aborted – before they finally managed to put it into Litvinenko’s tea on 1 November 2006, at the Millennium hotel. It was an expensive hit. The cost was “tens of millions of dollars”, Emmerson said.
Who gave the order to kill Litvinenko?
Several witnesses argue that only Vladimir Putin could have given the order to liquidate Litvinenko, their friend. Yuri Shvets, who co-wrote Blowing Up Russia, says that in Soviet times assassinations were agreed at the highest bureaucratic level – not least because Kremlin officials were keen to cover their backs. Alex Goldfarb characterised Putin’s conflict with Litvinenko as personal and said it’s inconceivable a group of rogue officers could have murdered him without the boss’s say so.
All of this is plausible. But it doesn’t amount to proof. Soviet leaders traditionally gave only verbal instructions when it came to state murders: there was no paper trail. They talked in oblique terms; Stalin preferred the indirect phrase “action”. In interviews with detectives, given hours before his death and revealed at the inquiry, Litvinenko said the truth about his poisoning would emerge when the current Putin regime collapsed. Or its spy chief defected to the west.
Neither of these things has happened yet. The full truth is there but we may have to wait for it.
Luke Harding is the author of Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, published by Guardian Faber
Litvinenko inquiry judge suspects 'Kremlin manipulation' for no-show
Sir Robert Owen gives murder suspect Dmitry Kovtun one final chance to give evidence after he pulled out of proceedings on Friday
Monday 27 July 2015 14.10 BST
The judge presiding over the inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has said he had the “gravest suspicions” the Kremlin was trying to manipulate proceedings after one of the Russian spy’s alleged murderers failed to show up.
Sir Robert Owen said he would give Dmitry Kovtun one final chance to give evidence on Tuesday at 9am.
Kovtun was originally scheduled to appear by videolink from Moscow for three days this week. Kovtun and another Russian, Andrei Lugovoi, are accused of smuggling radioactive polonium into Litvinenko’s green tea during a November 2006 meeting at the Millennium hotel in London. Both have refused to travel to the UK.
In March, as the hearing was winding up, Kovtun suddenly indicated he wanted to take part. Owen granted him “core participant” status, which gave Kovtun – and presumably others in Moscow – access to 15,000 inquiry documents, excluding secret government files.
On Friday, however, it emerged Kovtun was now claiming his obligations to the Russian investigative committee meant he could no longer appear.
“In my mind [there is] the gravest suspicion that an attempt is being made to manipulate the situation,” Owen said on Monday.
He added that he was giving Kovtun a last window to testify so he would be unable to claim later that he had wanted to participate but had been turned down.
Ben Emmerson QC, counsel for Litvinenko’s widow Marina, told Owen: “I can only endorse your concern. It appears these proceedings are being manipulated in a coordinated way between Mr Kovtun, the murderer, and the Russian state which sent him to commit the murder.”
He added: “It’s a continuation of a collusion that began in 2006.”
Emmerson endorsed Owen’s decision and said that the inquiry, which began in January and was delayed for several months to accommodate Kovtun, had been “conducted openly, transparently and logically”.
The inquiry heard Kovtun had offered implausible and ridiculous explanations for his failure to give evidence. He claimed that he had been unable to find the Russian prosecutor and said he needed consent from Russia before he could participate. He also said he had signed a non-disclosure agreement.
On Friday, Richard Horwell, acting for Scotland Yard, said Kovtun had been engaged in a blatant fishing expedition. Its goal was to scoop up as much evidence as possible, he suggested.
Horwell said on Monday it was obvious what was happening. Far from respecting confidentiality, Kovtun had given an interview on Monday to the BBC, he pointed out. “Kovtun is speaking to journalists,” he said.
Kovtun’s apparent exit from the inquiry follows damning evidence on Friday from a German witness known as D3. According to D3, Kovtun confessed he was travelling to London to put a “very expensive poison” in the food or drink of Litvinenko, “a traitor” and a pig. “It’s meant to set an example,” Kovtun told D3.
The inquiry resumes on Tuesday. It ends this week with Owen’s report to the home secretary, Theresa May, due later this year.