Russia's Summer of Fire, Intrigue, Political Mystery: World View
Is lightning striking twice in the same place? Kommersant has sounded the tocsin, warning that once again peat bogs around Moscow are burning: "According to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, on Sunday in the region around Moscow sixteen wildfires broke out simultaneously."
Authorities said that the fires have been extinguished, but Kommersant quoted Grigory Kuksin, of Greenpeace Russia, who refuted the good news. "In the Gus-Khrustalny district alone, five fires are burning," Kuksin said. "The situation in the region is bad. There aren't enough resources to put out fires or even contain them."
The bogs currently ablaze may prefigure a return of the catastrophic wildfires that last summer coincided with a record-shattering heat wave and raged for weeks, generating lethal smog that blanketed the capital, wrought billions of dollars worth of damage and, at least indirectly, caused tens of thousands of deaths.
Disaster may well hit again. Zhivoy Zhurnal published a photo of a grim poster of unknown provenance that has mysteriously been turning up in the capital's elevators. The poster states: "In accordance with predictions of an emergency in 2011, the threat of wildfires in the Moscow region continues."
For now, rains are holding the smog at bay. Alarmed Muscovites may take additional comfort in the (reportedly air-conditioned) "anti-smog" centers to be established at the mayor's orders in each district of the capital, according to Russkaya Sluzhba Novostey. But will such facilities really manage to accommodate many of Moscow's 12 million residents? Don't count on it.
A bombshell has just landed on President Dmitry Medvedev's desk. A report on July 5 from the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights delivered the latest turn in the investigation of the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky in Matrosskaya Tishina prison.
Magnitsky was a lawyer who represented the investment company Hermitage Capital. In response to allegations of tax fraud and evasion against his client, Magnitsky had accused various agencies of the Russian government of perpetrating fraud against Hermitage -- a perilous demarche in Moscow's current business environment.
In 2008, Magnitsky was detained on "no legal grounds," the council stated in its preliminary conclusion. "He had been arrested on tax evasion charges just days after claiming to have uncovered massive embezzlement of state funds on the part of law-enforcement officials."
The press had long conjectured that Magnitsky died of (possibly deliberate) medical neglect. But the report said that his death may have been the result of a beating, according to RIA Novosti's summation:
"Before his death, Magnitsky was deprived of medical care. In addition, there is reasonable suspicion to believe that the death was triggered by beating Magnitsky: Subsequently his relatives recorded smashed knuckles and bruises on his body. In addition, there is no medical description of the last hours of his life."
Medvedev responded that Magnitsky's death was "caused by criminal actions," according to RIA Novosti.
Alexandra Odynova of the Moscow Times provided the gruesome details from the report:
"Eight prison guards severely beat lawyer Sergei Magnitsky shortly before his ... death in pretrial detention ... providing a new twist to allegations that Magnitsky had been tortured in prison."
This news broke just after Dutch parliamentarians passed a resolution calling for sanctions against Russian officials involved in the Magnitsky affair, according to Lev Makedonov at Gazeta.ru. Makedonov reminded readers that the U.S. Senate and the European Parliament are also poised to impose sanctions.
The Magnitsky affair puts pressure on Medvedev, a professed liberal who has decried Russia's "legal nihilism" and often calls for judicial reform. But in the Moscow Times, Vladimir Frolov issued a damning op-ed critique of the head of state and his self-avowed liberalism, comparing Medvedev to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin:
It is hard to figure out where the real Medvedev is. He says one thing and then does the opposite ... Putin is different, however. At least he does what he says, and you know what to expect from him, even though you might not like it. We now know who Mr. Putin is. But who is the real Mr. Medvedev?
Putin, meanwhile, continues to drum up support for the All-Russia People's Front, an organization created at his initiative that aims to unite unions and business associations, presumably to back Putin's candidacy in next year's presidential elections. Zhivoy Zhurnal reported on the front's newest, and certainly most scantily clad, members. "Premier Putin's call has been heard by representatives of the younger generation. The Union of Russian Cheerleaders has joined the All-Russia People's Front!" The pictures accompanying the text are revealing of more than just the union's support for Putin.
But is the former spymaster really planning to mount a campaign? Speaking at a United Russia conference in Yekaterinburg, Putin declared that the morning after the vote, "I'll go and wash up, in the hygienic and political sense of the word" -- a metaphorical admission that the election, scheduled for March 2012, is bound to sully its participants. Colorful though his statement was, it didn't clarify whether he intends to again seek the office he held for two terms, from 2000 to 2008. (The constitution prohibits a third consecutive term.) He has yet to announce his candidacy, though he is widely expected to run.
But against whom? Nina Khrushcheva, an associate professor of international relations at the New School in New York and the daughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, has a good idea of who won't be running. In her syndicated column, Khrushcheva dismissed (perhaps too hastily) a Medvedev candidacy, calling him "meek" and citing his recently announced disinclination to run against Putin, who, she reminds us, "put him in power in the first place."
Medvedev’s role can't be understood outside the political environment in which he operates, Khrushcheva continued:
The current regime is clearly autocratic. Yet it aspires to democratic legitimacy in the eyes of Russian citizens and the international community. It is to this end that Medvedev performs his civilizing mission -- participating in world forums, posting Twitter updates, berating rampant corruption and supporting "modernization" and the "rule of law."
She denied "that anything Medvedev says means that Russia is changing," and implied that the Obama administration is under no illusions, even as it hopes to sway the outcome of the elections:
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, usually a critic of Russia, arrived in Moscow in March, supposedly to convince Putin to surrender his presidential ambitions for 2012. A month later, talking to Putin by phone, Biden invited him to visit Washington, despite the fact that the prime minister has no foreign-policy role, according to Russia's constitution. Does the U.S. support Putin in the election? Or by recognizing Putin's historic importance, does Washington mean to convince him to leave power? No one knows.
The U.S. government's preferences will have little or no effect on who next holds the keys to the Kremlin. At the heights of power in Russia, a mysterium tremendum prevails, stymieing predictions and thwarting attempts at outside influence.
(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)
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