Daily Archives: May 10, 2008

Kremlin stages display of military power reminiscent of Soviet era

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March of the titans: Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles roll through the square

Daily Mail | May 9, 2008

Kremlin’s blast from the past: Awesome display of military power in Red Square for Russia’s new leader

By EDWARD LUCAS

It was a chilling sight from a different age.

Nuclear missile launchers and scores of tanks rolled across Red Square yesterday for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The military hardware – including Topol-M ballistic missiles and T-90 tanks – may be a reminder of the days when the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal cast a shadow over the world, but in truth there is little reason for us to fear the corrupt, decrepit husk of the Russian armed forces.

Yet we should be deeply alarmed about the politicians who command them, greeted with the traditional chants of “Ura! Ura!” (Hurrah! Hurrah!) by the 8,000 troops who goose-stepped through the ceremony, which marks Stalin’s victory in the Second World War.

There they stood on their podium, the great leader, Vladimir Putin, and the new president, Dmitri Medvedev.

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Master and his pupil: Putin, centre, and Medvedev, right

Mr Putin, now prime minister, is credited with rescuing Russia from chaos and poverty, while Medvedev will supposedly add the ingredients of freedom and the rule of law.

So those hurrahs from the Russian troops – known as the Red Army until 1946 – in Red Square yesterday are echoed by the Kremlin’s supporters abroad too, who maintain the country is on the verge of a golden age.

But keep the cork in the shampanskoye (Russia’s sickly tank-fermented version of champagne).

The grim military parade reflects the Kremlin’s increasingly ruthless approach to politics – and the direct threat it poses to to Georgia, a plucky western ally on Russia’s southern flank.

Even if Mr Medvedev wants to change the style of Kremlin rule, and dares to try, how will the brooding steely figure of the prime minister, his political mentor and the darling of public opinion, react?

Mr Putin has said that no big changes in Russia’s policies at home and abroad should be expected.

He has come close to humiliating Mr Medvedev over the tiniest perceived differences of opinion. It is his hands that will stay on the levers of power.

Never has the gap between deeds and words seemed bigger. Mr Putin claims to have stepped down out of respect for the Russian constitution, which allows only two successive terms.

Yet he remains the most powerful person in the country.

Mr Medvedev, a diminutive lawyer with – unusually for the Kremlin – no background in the military or espionage, talks about freedom and the rule of law, which Mr Putin and his ex-KGB pals have trampled into the ground.

Make no mistake: Mr Medvedev’s job is to put a presentable face on the sinister regime that runs Russia.

He may criticise, rightly, Russia’s colossal corruption, shambolic public services, crumbling infrastructure, soaring inflation, grotesque abuses of power, sprawling bureaucracy, and overweening state intervention in the economy. But that does not mean he can or will do much about them.

A system that has proved so hugely lucrative to the hard men in the Kremlin is not going to disappear over night, if at all. Mr Medvedev’s “hurrah chorus” say that the ruthless tycoon-bureaucrats of the Putin regime will be pensioned off.

They will either accept their “severance packages” of a few billion dollars or they can join Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil baron who was once Russia’s richest man, in his prison cell near the Chinese border.

But for this to happen, Mr Medvedev will have to turn on his own.

Nothing in his eight years in senior positions at Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, suggests he will do so. For a start, the firm epitomises the overlap between business and politics that he claims to despise.

It would be better named ‘Kremlin Inc (Gas Division)’ for its unwavering support of Russian diplomacy.

Nor is there any sign that Mr Medvedev will change Russia’s prickly relations with the west, and its bullying of former captive nations.

Earlier this year he described the U.S. as a “financial terrorist” for seeking to impose its accounting standards on the rest of the world.

Mr Medvedev has called the British Council, sponsor of folk dancers and well-meaning culture vultures, a nest of spies.

His supporters stress he likes rock music and yoga. He has a glamorous and devoutly religious wife. Such clues are spun into an illusory blanket of good intentions.

But those who have met Mr Medvedev speak of a pedantic, chippy figure, a nervous nitpicker ill at ease with the limelight.

He may change. Mr Putin did. I remember how he emerged into public view in 1999, looking more like Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter than a world leader.

Many thought the third-rate spy with a taste for gutter slang would last months, not years.

How wrong they were. It is now Mr Putin who dominates Russian politics. The clan of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, is history.

So are the “oligarchs”, the overmighty tycoons who once ruled the political roost. Some are in exile. Others have kow-towed to the Kremlin, gaining even greater riches in return for obedience.

Under Mr Putin, elections have become a sham, dissent criminalised, the legal system part of the Kremlin, and assassination a tool of foreign policy.

Many blame the Kremlin for the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, who fled to Britain after uncovering what he termed murderous corruption in the FSB, the KGB’s successor.

Since then Russia’s relations with Britain have been in a deep freeze, thawed only by the recent “football diplomacy” in which both countries have relaxed visa regulations for each other’s fans.

Changing Russia’s increasingly hard-edged foreign policy stance would be a formidable undertaking for Mr Medvedev.

And why bother? The current policy is working well. The Russian people delight in the stability and high living standards that the Putin era has brought – in contrast to the poverty and uncertainty of the 1990s.

Many Russians are pleased too that their country is respected (or at least feared) by its neighbours.

A muzzled, sycophantic media means that the country’s real problems, and the corrupt, threadbare record of the Putin years, receives little scrutiny.

Nor is there much to worry about abroad. The bullying of Georgia has brought only ineffectual bleats of protest from the EU and NATO.

Germany’s cosy ties with Russia have created a Trojan Horse in the heart of the west’s two main alliances.

Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy and Nicolas Sarkozy’s France adopt the same stance: accepting the riches of trade with Russia, while ignoring the political cost.

The U.S. and Britain are too distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet Lithuania, one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, is bravely challenging the consensus, insisting that the EU toughens its stance before starting talks with the Kremlin.

Its neighbour Latvia is scraping together some symbolic diplomatic support for Georgia.

Every new man in the Kremlin enjoys a honeymoon with the west. And in each case that is followed by bitter disillusion: Mikhail Gorbachev caved in to hardliners and proved ineffective; Yeltsin succumbed to alcohol and the corruption of his cronies; Mr Putin turned into a menacing autocrat.

How long before we learn our lesson?

Raul Castro moves to cement Communist Party rule over Cubans

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People carry signs with photographs of Cuba’s retired leader Fidel Castro and his brother President Raul Castro during the May Day parade at Havana’s Revolution Square May 1, 2008.

ASSOCIATED PRESS | Apr 29, 2008

By Anita Snow

HAVANA – President Raul Castro is shoring up Cuba’s one-party rule after an unexpectedly smooth leadership change from his brother Fidel, announcing a Communist Party congress that should cement the move to a more institutionalized power structure.

The younger Castro announced Monday that the party will hold its first congress in a dozen years on a yet-unspecified date in the second half of 2009. Fidel Castro officially still heads the party as first secretary, and the congress is likely to select a new chief, ending his last formal claim to power.

Party congresses historically have been held every five years or so to renew leadership and set major policies.

Castro also announced that officials would commute the death penalty for an unspecified number of common prisoners and he said it was reviewing the cases of two Central Americans on death row for hotel bombings – including one that killed an Italian tourist – as well as a U.S.-based exiled convicted of killing a fisherman during a 1994 commando raid.

Excerpts of his speech to party cadres were aired on state television.

Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and relinquished power to Raul, five years his junior. He formally stepped down as president in February, but keeps a presence through essays published in state media.

The bearded revolutionary cast a large shadow over the island during his almost half-century in power. His once-high-pitched voice was the soundtrack of daily life as his hours-long speeches emanated from radios and television sets.

Far less charismatic, Raul shuns the public stage Fidel once relished and is moving to replace his brother’s personalized rule with the Communist Party’s collective leadership.

“In these times, and those to come, it will be necessary and decisive to count on political, government, mass, social and youth institutions,” Raul told party leaders. “When difficulties are greater, more order and discipline will be required. For that, it is vital to strengthen institutions.”

The younger Castro also shored up support for his own leadership by naming two military men and a political ally to the party’s select Politiburo. They are Gen. Alvaro Lopez Miera, defense vice minister and chief of staff, Ramiro Valdes Menendez, a revolutionary commander and communications minister, and Salvador Valdes Mesa, secretary-general of the Cuban Workers Union.

The new president spent most of his life as defense minister and he draws much of his support from the island’s armed forces.

Lopez Miera and Valdes Mesa were added to Cuba’s supreme governing body, the Council of State, when Raul Castro assumed the presidency two months ago. Valdes Menendez was already a member.

Raul Castro also announced a further centralization within the party by creating a super-exclusive directing committee of himself and six other men inside the 24-member Politburo. Fidel Castro was not among them.

The president said that the Council of State was reviewing the cases of Salvadorans Ernesto Cruz Leon and Otto Rene Rodriguez Llerena, who say Cuban exiles hired them for a 1997 bombing campaign to scare tourists away from the island.

Also under review is the case of Humberto Eladio Real Suarez of Florida, who was arrested after an October 1994 raid that killed a fisherman.

Cuba halted capital punishment from 2000 until 2003, when three armed men who hijacked a ferry were sent before a firing squad. The executions brought worldwide condemnation, and Raul Castro said capital punishment has not been applied since.

Maoists threaten takeover of Nepal government

AFP | Apr 29, 2008

KATHMANDU (AFP) — Former rebel Maoists warned Wednesday they will form a new government in Nepal with or without the help of the mainstream political parties they resoundingly defeated in landmark elections.

The ultra-leftists — who waged a bloody guerrilla war for a decade before a peace deal was brokered in 2006 — took twice the number of seats won by their nearest rival in the 601-member body that will chart Nepal’s political future.

“We will lead the government as we are the biggest party,” spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara told AFP on the sidelines of a Maoist central committee meeting in Kathmandu.

“If the other parties don’t want to join us in a coalition, we will form the government by ourselves,” Mahara said.

Under the timetable laid out in Nepal’s interim constitution, the first meeting of the body that is set to abolish the world’s last Hindu monarchy in its first session, has to be held before May 26.

Established political parties fared dismally in the elections to the constituent assembly, despite predictions they would win handsomely.

The Maoists took 220 seats, twice as many as the traditionally dominant Nepali Congress (NC), while the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist; CPN UML) won 103.

The Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal are currently holding internal meetings amid deep divisions in their ranks about whether they should join the Maoists in government.

Senior leaders from the Nepali Congress, firm favourites before the shock results, have suggested that the current interim government, led by the architect of the peace process, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, should remain.

Mahara said that those who wanted to retain the status quo were working against the mandate given to the Maoists in the April 10 elections.

“The other parties said they were committed to democracy, but by suggesting they will not join the government and that we should not lead it, they are showing they are not committed to democracy,” Mahara told AFP.

The general secretary of the Nepali Congress, Bimalendra Nidhi, said the party had yet to decide whether to join the government, but that the Maoists would not be able to go it alone.

“The Maoists can’t form a government unilaterally. It’s true they are the largest party, but they still need to gain the confidence of the other parties,” Nidhi said.

Koirala has called for the mainstream parties and Maoists to start discussions on forming the new government, but formal talks are yet to begin, Mahara said.

The larger parties will have to work with the former rebels but are having difficulty adjusting to their unexpected trouncing, Krishna Jwala Devkota, editor of the Nepalese daily Naya Patrika, told AFP.

“This is a bargaining phase to try and secure respectable positions in government. It’s also a tactic to pressure the Maoists politically,” said Devkota.

“Think of it this way: if the NC or CPN (UML) had emerged as the biggest parties, there would not be any question of who would lead the government,” he said.

The elections were a central plank of the peace deal between the Maoists and mainstream parties.

The peace pact ended the Maoists’ “people’s war,” launched in 1996, which left at least 13,000 people dead and destroyed an already fragile economy.

Nepal Maoists hail global revival of Communism

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Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Chairman Prachanda speaks to an AFP reporter during an interview at his home in Kathmandu, on May 03, 2008. Nepal’s Maoists and mainstream political parties held a first round of talks Friday to set up a new government following the former insurgents’ stunning win in landmark polls, officials said.

AFP | May 6, 2008

KATHMANDU (AFP) — The leader of Nepal’s Maoists, Prachanda, says the victory of his left-wing former rebels in last month’s landmark elections is a sign of the global resurgence of communism.

The former schoolteacher, once branded a “terrorist” and wanted by Interpol, is now vying to be the first president of a republican Nepal, and he says his party’s success at the ballot box is rooted in its communist ideals.

“The revolutionary process is now happening in third world countries, and when it is completed in developing countries, a new wave of socialist revolution will be there in developed countries,” Prachanda said.

“Here in Nepal we are trying our best to develop our ideology according to the changed situation,” the 54-year-old told reporters from AFP and an Italian news magazine.

“Communists all over the world need to understand the new challenges, the new developments of the 21st century.”

The Maoists won 220 seats — more than twice as many as its closest rival, the Nepali Congress — in the April 10 elections for a 601-member body that will rewrite Nepal’s constitution and abolish the monarchy.
“Our victory in the constituent assembly elections will be a big reference point for Maoists all over the world,” said the moustachioed Maoist, whose nom-de-guerre means “the fierce one.”

After living underground for 25 years, Prachanda emerged from the shadows to sign a peace deal in 2006 and end a decade-long revolt that left at least 13,000 people dead and destroyed Nepal’s already fragile economy.

The Maoists are now promising radical change in Nepal, a traditionally conservative country with strict caste, ethnic and gender divisions where around 31 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day.

“We have come to a new understanding that multi-party competition is a must, even in socialism,” said the Maoist leader, whose party displayed portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong at campaign rallies.
“Without having multi-party competition, it is not possible to create a vibrant society.”

The Maoists warned last week that they would form a new government with or without the help of the mainstream political parties with which they signed the 2006 deal — and which they resoundingly defeated in the April elections.

Senior leaders from the Nepali Congress, firm favourites before the shock results, have suggested the current interim administration led by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala should remain.

But Prachanda has said he has the right to lead the next government.
The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal are now holding internal meetings amid deep divisions about whether they should join the former rebels.

Under the timetable laid out in Nepal’s interim constitution, the first meeting of the constituent assembly has to be held before May 26.
The Maoists promised voters to bring about “revolutionary” land reform but they have also said they want to attract foreign investment and start to tap the Himalayan country’s massive potential for hydro-electricity.

“We are interested in private investment from inside and outside the country, but the priority of the investment will be decided by the Nepalese and Nepalese government,” Prachanda said.

The Maoist leader said he believes that no matter what follows, his party has secured a place in history.

“I think history should remember our ideology and actions as this is something new for the 21st century,” he said.

“Communism has revived itself from all the old experiences. New ideology, new strategy has been created by the Nepalese Maoists.”