Customs Union takes back seat to security concerns

President Putin’s schedule has been almost completely revamped given the events over the past days in Volgograd. While preparations for the Winter Olympics race forward in Sochi, the rest of the country is in a bit of a shock.

We’re not likely to hear much about the Customs Union, and especially inclusion of Ukraine, in the coming days until the government gets a handle on the violence coming from the Caucasus region of Russia where militants wish to create an Islamic super state under separatist rule by Muslim clerics as in Iran. The very nature of the Olympic games will divert focus from the Customs Union as well.

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Even so, grassroots efforts to promote the expanded trade area, and wooing Ukraine to join, may slow for awhile but will certainly move back to centre stage once the Olympics have ended. Already we’re seeing efforts to bring the grassroots efforts along.

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я за таможенный союз (I’m for the Customs Union) and русское единство (Russian unity) are themes which play well across the heartland of Russia.

We’ll have to wait and see how well the theme plays in Ukraine.

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Second bombing in two days, 13 dead so far

Город в панике means “city in a panic” and as one fellow journalist remarked, Volgograd is returning to Stalingrad. It is as if the city is back in a war zone, on the front lines between radicals and civilization. He may be on to something as another bomb blast, the second in two days, ripped apart a crowded trolleybus on busy route N15A early Monday morning as commuters were going to work. The bus was in the Dzerzhinsky district opposite the busy Kaczynski market when the blast went off around 8:23 am.

Volgograd trolleybus bombing, 30 Dec 2013.
Volgograd trolleybus bombing, 30 Dec 2013.

There have been conflicting reports about the type of bomb. At first emergency workers said that body parts from a suicide bomber may have been discovered in the wreckage however officials now believe that the device was planted in the middle of the bus for greatest effect and detonated remotely. The blast shook nearby buildings and shattered windows along the street.

(photo: kot-de-azur.livejournal)
(photo: kot-de-azur.livejournal)

One eyewitness today reporters that the blast began with a loud band, followed by a flash of fire and soon the entire area was in smoke. Nearby shoppers at the market at first did not understand what had happened until the smoke gave way to the mangled trolley and bodies strewn everywhere. The driver of the bus was a new employee in training and survived although the driver was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

As news spread many riders got out of buses and trolleys and walked to work in fear of further explosions. In Moscow, President Putin met with FSB head Alexander Bortnikov and then dispatched Bortnikov along with fresh teams of medical specialists to Volgograd.

Officials and health workers are asking residents to donate blood. If you can assist, dial +7 (902) 656-02-22.

Today the question on everyone’s lips is Что будет завтра? (What will happen tomorrow?)

Another terror attack in Volgograd

VOLGOGRAD, December 29 -– For the second time in just over two months the southern Russian city of Volgograd has been the scene of a terror bombing attack. Russia’s Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin reported that the attack was carried out by a suicide female bomber, as was the previous bombing in October.

Although we don’t have sound, here is a web cam video of the explosion as it happened from outside the train station.

So far officials say that 18 people have died and around 35 people injured in a terror blast that ripped through the entryway of the train station in Volgograd. The blast was triggered when a female approached the metal detectors at the entrance to Volgograd’s train station. A security guard noticed the woman looking nervously at the checkpoint and when approached she tripped the device.

RIA/Novosti is reporting that one of the seriously injured is a nine-year-old girl whose mother shielded her with her own body at the time of the blast. The girl is in critical condition but her mother died at the scene.

Entry to Volgograd Train station after the bombing.
Entry to Volgograd Train station after the bombing.

Volgograd region governor Sergei Bozhenov confirmed that the remains of a suspected suicide bomber were discovered at the scene and police have tentatively identified the suicide bomber as Oksana Aslanova. She has been on a “most wanted” list of terror suspects in Russia. It is thought that the suspect planned to board a train before setting off the bomb.

Volgograd suicide bomber suspect, Oksana Aslanova. (Photo: Twitter)
Volgograd suicide bomber suspect, Oksana Aslanova. (Photo: Twitter)

Russians call them “black widows” – women who seek to avenge the deaths of their family members in North Caucasus fighting between the government and Islamic extremists.  LifeNews channel is reporting that Aslanova was married twice to militants who were killed. Aslanova is believed to have been a close friend of Naida Asiyalova, the “black widow” from the bombing in October.

On October 21 female suicide bomber Naida Asivalova killed six people aboard a crowded bus leaving Volgograd for Moscow.  Islamic rebel leader Doku Umarov has called for “black widows” and other Islamic forces to target civilians and disrupt the Olympic Winter Games which will run from February 4 to 23 in the Russian city of Sochi.

Sochi is only 690 kilometres southwest of Volgograd, a vital transport link in the region, often carrying travelers to and from North Caucasus regions such as Chechnya and Dagestan. The rebels have vowed to use violence surrounding the Olympic games to call attention to their drive for an Islamist state in Russia’s North Caucasus region.

RT television reported that Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry has transported some of the most critical victims to Moscow trauma clinics by air ambulance.

Holiday oranges colour Moscow

As children growing up in rural settings, there would be an orange or tangerine in our Christmas stockings each year. As siblings, we would pool those to make them last as long as possible. Such delicious fruit from far away in those days was something special.

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Oranges don’t grow in Moscow either and what a pleasant surprise to discover some years ago that giving citrus around the holiday season is a tradition for some families, too!

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This week there are “New Year trees” and decorations going up all over cities in the East and we can report that Moscow is very festive and beautiful today!

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One group of young ladies organized a “flash mob” of sorts to stand at several Moscow Metro locations where New Year trees are being erected to pass out flowers and oranges/tangerines to women and children.

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Demonstrating the talents of LiveJournal photographer Dmitry Rogachyov, we think this is a very cool way to greet the coming New Year and Christmas holidays.

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Happy New Year and Merry Christmas!

Restaurant reviews not the only thing to end at the Moscow News

It is sad to see the Moscow News drop restaurant reviews. Perhaps the comprehensive dining guide, now a free standing full companion to the Moscow Times, competitor of the Moscow News is the reason. Generally however restaurant reviews are not a cash cow in and of themselves. Restaurants come and go and are notorious cheapskates when it comes to advertising. Money is make when the reviews are a circulation draw or monetized in other ways as the Moscow Times has proved successfully.

So we bid farewell, probably, to the Moscow News restaurant review section. We use the term probably because in announcing the end of the feature, the newspaper itself used it. Odd that a big announcement has that particular adverb attached, but hey, это Россия.

The real reason for discontinuing the feature is that the newspaper itself is in danger. As the food writer explained, “If life was like a restaurant, it would be like Hub Bar. It’s confusing. Surprising. It’s hard to find your way. There’s not enough food. It’s disappointing at times, yet somehow, the experience is too short. Thankfully, though, there’s plenty of alcohol, so if the company is good, you’re more or less set”

“Had I known this would be The Moscow News’ final restaurant review, I would have picked someplace outrageously, sickeningly expensive. (As the newspaper is part of RIA Novosti, which is in the process of liquidation, the money for dining on the company dime has run dry).”

As we mentioned already, restaurants are cheap and often unwilling to pay for a meal even for legitimate restaurant reviewers. That practice is almost universal and in some ways assures the independence of the published review. If you’ve ever sold advertising one of the first hard lessons is that rarely will restaurants provide your publication with a consistent income. Most just expect to be included in your guide and reviews but don’t dare ask them to be a part of paying the freight. In a world where anything longer than six months is a lifetime in the restaurant business, one can sort of understand. The quickest way to personal bankruptcy is to open a restaurant–another universal concept.

As for the RIA Novosti empire, this includes an institution known globally as the Voice of Russia radio, “the BBC of Russia” or the Russian version of the Voice of America. Earlier this month President Putin ordered the group to be dismantled and reorganized under direction of Dmitry Kiselev, a known history revisionist and certainly no friend to legitimate journalism.

New RIA Novosti boss Dmitry Kiselev.
New RIA Novosti boss Dmitry Kiselev.

As reported in the Economist, in a recent live broadcast from Kiev on Russian state television, a protester pushed his way onto camera.  As the Russian reporter, standing in the middle of Independence Square, the stage of the latest protest in Kiev, tried to describe the scene, the protester handed him a little statue, resembling an Oscar. “Pass this Oscar to the Russian Channel and to Dmitry Kiselev for the lies and nonsense you are telling people about Maidan.

Two weeks ago Mr. Kiselev met with the RIA staff and the tweets afterward were telling. My guess is that those brave enough to speak their minds about the changes knew that they were about to be shown the door anyway. One staff member tweeted that Kiselev came across as a “frothing rabid propagandist.” No surprise there, that is why he got the job.

Make no mistake, Dmitry Kiselev was chosen by Mr. Putin for his hardline views. When he was at Russia Channel One television, Kiseley made news by saying that if a homosexual died in a car accident, his or her heart should be buried or burned, but never given to someone as a transplant since the organs would be “unsuitable for extending the life of another.

As to the entire RIA Novosti family, a great news organization and the last true independent news gathering voice under Kremlin control, we’re sorry to see you go. It seems that restaurant reviews are not the only thing about to end at the Moscow News.

Ukraine is the new California?

Is this banner true? Whether Russia and Ukraine really represent “One people, one story/history” as this social media banner suggests has long been a part of the debate over the fate of Ukraine and her relationship to Russia.

Ukraine Rus one people one story

As we write this column we are listening to a fascinating interview on Moscow’s Radio Echo with socialite and TV personality Kseniya Sobchak. Until her marriage last February, Sobchak was somewhat of a combination of Paris Hilton meets Madonna when she wasn’t marching with the opposition movement against Vladimir Putin, an old family friend of her father who just happened to be Putin’s mentor in earlier days. Somehow Sobchak remains in Putin’s nominal good graces, even having Christmas dinner with the Putin family when not out marching on the streets.

The interview called our attention to an article that is creating quite a stir. The article was authored by Aleksandr Lebedev, a businessman with interests in both Russia and Ukraine. According to Lebedev, “Ukraine could become a new California if she expels her stagnant past.” That is the premise of a recently published article in the Russian language magazine In Pressa in which Lebedev says that the territory and population of Ukraine is comparable with France given that it has a deep rivers, forests, and ice-free seaports.

Lebedev believes that Ukraine’s soil is so fertile that it could easily feed two planets like ours, thus apparently his reasoning for titling Ukraine as a potential новая Калифорния (new California). With those comparisons, why he doesn’t think of Ukraine as a “new France” would be an interesting question.

He does have a way to bring the subject to the topic at hand in Kyiv. Subject to constant invasions, Ukraine has historically attracted invaders and except for a few years at the end of the First World War has never had the opportunity to develop a truly independent state. Soon after WWI the Bolsheviks succeeded in forcing Ukraine back into the Russian fold.

Kyiv (Kiev) the capital of Ukraine is often considered the birthplace of Russia and the author addresses the question of the Russian Empire as a colonial power in Ukraine and whether Ukrainians are “little Russians” as Russia likes to think or were Ukrainians a separate and distinct people?

As to whether Ukrainians are a distinct people, polls show a variety of opinions and not surprisingly, many Russians regard Ukrainians little brothers, somewhat inferior, but related just the same. Western Ukrainians general self-identify as distinct while Eastern Ukrainians with their strong ties to Russia typically think of themselves are Russian.

Lukashenko comments free europeans vs rus slaves

Even the Communist dictator of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has decided to weigh in on the issue. The above caption is from Lukashenko’s VK page (Russian language social media site) and supposedly shows the plight of “free Europeans” in Kyiv on the left as contrasted with Russia’s “slave regime” showing a peaceful scene of Russian citizens happily ice skating on Moscow’s Red Square. Lukashenko has aligned Belarus as a member of the Russian Customs (trade/economic) Union.

Today the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and then joined the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia in Moscow for a meeting to approve the entry of  Kyrgyzstan and Armenia into the Russian Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Council.

President Putin welcomed Prime Minister Mykola Azarov today to the Kremlin.
President Putin welcomed Prime Minister Mykola Azarov today to the Kremlin.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov is an outspoken champion for Ukraine to develop closer ties with the country of his birth, Russia.

Meanwhile in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed into law the bill for a general amnesty and aimed at preventing prosecution or punishment of individuals in regard to events that took place during recent protests in Ukraine. The law removes liability from protestors from November 21 until the bill comes into effect. Those arrested are to be freed immediately and their police records wiped clean.

Opposition leaders however are concerned that the language of the bill may still give prosecutors license to act as the bill provides amnesty to those involved in peaceful protests and most of the recent rallies has not been that peaceful.

Meanwhile Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich addressed the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) today by saying the events of Euromaiden have been driven by the desire for a better life. He defended his rejection of the EU agreement by saying, “the Association Agreement with the EU would have caused economic losses in agriculture, transport mechanical engineering, aircraft manufacturing and other high-tech spheres. If we sign this Agreement under such terms people will not forgive this mistake.”

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More information on the Khodorkovsky release

We knew that the Khodorkovsky pardon was initiated by the Kremlin but at the time couldn’t prove it. His attorneys were as surprised as ourselves and Khodorkovsky himself had made no mention of seeking a pardon.

Smiling after release, Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin.
Smiling after release, Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin.

The two parties, Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were at a stalemate. Putin wasn’t going to pardon without an admission of guilt and promise to stay out of politics and Khodorkovsky wasn’t going to admit guilt to crimes he clearly didn’t commit.

Checkmated, President Putin issued presidential decree number 922 ordering the release of Khodorkovsky from penal colony number 7 in the small town of Segezha in Russia’s Karelia region. Khodorkovsky was quietly removed from the prison before reporters could arrive and Putin’s claim the day before that the former Oligarch had admitted guilt turned out to be hollow..

However the journalists at Kommersant were busy at work and yesterday it was revealed that the Kremlin sent security agents to visit Khodorkovsky to negotiate a release based on behind the scenes negotiations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who over the years has served as both a critic but yet a friend of Mr. Putin. President Putin, facing another possible epic failure of the Olympics (does anyone remember 1980?), needs to revise his image–and fast.

Mr. Putin got half of what the wanted: a promise not to run for office or support the opposition. As for Khodorkovsky, he got half of what he wanted which was personal release without admitting guilt and permission to leave the country, however the Putin pardon does not include Khodorkovsky’s long time friend and business partner, Platon Lebedev. Lebedev’s sentence expires in May of 2014 and barring any new criminal charges he will be released at that time.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Berlin with former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. (photo: drugoi/livejournal.)
Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Berlin with former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. (photo: drugoi/livejournal.)

Khodorkovsky left Russia a day after his release, traveling to Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport on a private jet owned by former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. It was Genscher who met him at the airport in Berlin with a waiting police escort to be reunited with his parents and eldest son Pavel. His mother Marina, age 79, also flew to Germany for specialized cancer treatment.

At a news conference in Berlin on Sunday Khodorkovsky went out of his way to steer clear of politics and indicated that he had no intention of running for President of Russia in the future. He did however promise to work on behalf of other political prisoners who remain behind bars.

Khodorkovsky told reporters that a boycott of the Olympics was counter productive and would hurt millions of people, not just the Russian government. As to whether he would return to Russia, Khodorkovsky said that he was free to return but not certain that he’d be allowed to leave again. His German visa is for one year.