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Russian It Girl’s path from parties to protests

June 14, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — “I’m Ksenia Sobchak, and I’ve got something to lose. But I’m here.” That’s what the 30-year-old blond socialite and TV personality said when she began her unlikely foray into political activism by taking the stage at a huge anti-Putin rally in December.

It was a shaky start. Sobchak was greeted with jeers and boos from protesters, who derided her as a rich party girl and were suspicious of her motives because of her family’s close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Six months later, Sobchak has been accepted into the ranks of Russia’s protest leaders, completing a transformation that reflects the civic awakening of millions of young Russians after a decade of political passivity.

Young Internet-savvy office workers, students and members of what is known as the “creative class” form the heart of the protest movement that has drawn tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow since a December parliamentary election was won by Putin’s party with what observers said was widespread fraud.

Putin has taken a tougher approach toward the opposition since returning to the presidency in May. But while hundreds of demonstrators have been detained over the past month, Sobchak found out only this week that she does indeed have something to lose. Her apartment was among the homes of protest leaders that were raided by police. They read her personal correspondence, seized her passport — and confiscated at least 1 million euros ($1.3 million) in cash.

It was a quick change of fortune for Russia’s It Girl. Sobchak had been considered untouchable because of Putin’s enduring loyalty to her late father, who as mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s gave Russia’s future president his first government job and launched his political career. Putin began a third term on May 7 after four years as prime minister.

When asked about Putin, rumored to be her godfather, Sobchak has expressed gratitude to him for taking care of her family after her father, Anatoly Sobchak, fell out of political favor. She has been restrained in her criticism of Putin himself, while at the same time calling for more open government, fair elections and an end to the corruption that pervades Russian society.

While still in her early 20s, Sobchak became one of the most recognized figures in Russian entertainment, the girl everyone loved to hate. She dated pop stars and wealthy men and co-wrote a bestselling book called “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Her fashion tastes were often over the top. In 2007 on the Russian show “Circus of the Stars,” Sobchak wore an enormous pink bow while prancing around the stage with two French poodles.

One of Sobchak’s most controversial projects is “Dom-2,” a scandalous reality show modeled on “Big Brother” that she has hosted since its interception in 2004. Russian viewers also saw her shimmying across the stage of “Dancing With the Stars” and posing as a scantily clad Tarzan on a 2006 cover of Playboy magazine.

Throughout the 2000s, this enfant terrible epitomized the hedonism and materialism ushered in by the oil boom. By her own account, she earns more than $2 million a year. “I don’t understand why they hate me so unanimously,” Sobchak said in a 2008 interview with the newspaper Izvestia. “I don’t call for killings, riots or overthrowing the government. I’m just a hostess of entertaining shows.”

Sobchak did not respond to interview requests sent by email, Twitter and text message. In recent months, Russians have watched Sobchak trade her bows for boxy spectacles and her millionaire boyfriends for a low-key romance with Ilya Yashin, a leading figure of the opposition.

To those who question the sincerity of her transformation, Sobchak asserts that her move toward the opposition was long in the making. In an interview following her debut at the Dec. 24 protest, Sobchak said the entertainment industry had served as her escape from her expected path. After graduating from a Moscow university favored by Russia’s political elite, she knew she could have had her pick of government jobs.

“It was a conscious choice, to build my own career, to make a name for myself,” she said in the January interview with the New Times weekly. “Another issue here, of course, is that I used all means to build it and was ready to pay any price for it.”

Her embrace of the opposition was another conscious choice, she said. “I’m against this system. I’m against bureaucratization, corruption, seeing the same people in power,” Sobchak said in the New Times interview. “But I’m not personally against Putin.”

When she took the stage at the opposition rally, dressed in jeans and a white bomber jacket, Sobchak was visibly nervous. “The most important thing is to be able to influence the government, not seek to overthrow it,” she told the crowd to shouts of “bitch” and worse. At later rallies, she was met with more restraint and even some applause.

The socialite’s public stand has taken a toll on her career. Previously a welcome guest on entertainment shows on all national television channels, Sobchak says she has effectively been blacklisted by the Kremlin-controlled networks. Her attempt to bring political discourse to a younger audience failed when her show on Russian MTV was taken off the air after just one show.

The early morning raid on her apartment this week, though, was the first time she had come under direct pressure. The investigators announced the seizure of the $1.3 million in cash, apparently hoping the enormous sum would dispel any sympathy for Sobchak. She said she earned that money as one of Russia’s best paid television personalities and she was keeping the cash at home because she doesn’t trust Russia’s banks.

Sobchak said the search was humiliating but would not change what she describes as her “moderate” political views. “I still stick to the same things,” she said in the radio interview. “You can’t just chant ‘Putin, go away!’ because it doesn’t make any sense at this point. We need to chant: ‘Putin, give back our votes!'”

A month before her debut at the protest rally, Sobchak starred in an hour-long talk show dedicated to her 30th birthday. Wearing a long and somber black dress, Sobchak said she was ready for a new life.

“Before I turned 30, I worked to create Ksenia Sobchak,” she said. “Ksenia Sobchak turned out to be appalling and terrible in some respects, but nice in others. Now that I’ve created this Ksenia Sobchak, I need to pursue new goals.”

Thousands show up at anti-Putin protest in Moscow

June 12, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Thousands of Russians are gathering Tuesday for the first massive protest against President Vladimir Putin’s rule since his inauguration as investigators summoned several key opposition figures for questioning in an apparent bid to disrupt the rally.

Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, leftist politician Sergei Udaltsov, liberal activist Ilya Yashin and TV host Ksenia Sobchak were called for interrogation by the Investigative Committee just an hour before thousands of protesters were to gather for a march across downtown Moscow.

The interrogation session would make it hard, if not impossible, for them to appear at the rally, and it follows searches of their apartments Monday that were described by some as a crude attempt by the government to derail the protest.

Udaltsov snubbed the summons, saying on Twitter that he considers it is his duty to lead the protest as one of its organizers. He may now be arrested. Braving a brief thunderstorm, thousands of protesters showed up on the iconic Pushkin Square ahead of the planned march.

“Those in power should feel this pressure, we will do this by no means no matter what are the methods, peaceful or not,” said Anton Maryasov, a 25-year-old postgraduate student. “If they ignore us that would mean that the bloodshed is inevitable.”

The investigators’ action follows a quick passage last week of a new bill that will raise fines on those who take part in unauthorized protests 150-fold, to nearly the average annual salary in Russia.

The top Twitter hashtag in Russia on Monday was “Welcome to the Year ’37,” a reference to the height of the purges under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Tuesday’s protest has city approval, but any shift from the agreed upon location and timeframe could give police a pretext for a crackdown.

The previous big opposition rally a day before Putin’s inauguration in May ended in fierce clashes between police and protesters. The raids of the opposition leaders homes and their questioning were connected to the May 6 protest.

Andrey Bulay in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russia’s Putin signs anti-protest law before rally

By Gleb Bryanski | Reuters

ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Friday a bill that will dramatically increase fines for people who take part in protests that violate public order rules, just days ahead of the next planned rally against his 12-year rule.

Putin told a meeting of top judges in his native St. Petersburg that he decided to sign the bill despite objections from his own human rights adviser, Mikhail Fedotov, who asked the president to veto it.

Participants in protests where public order is violated could now face fines of 300,000 roubles ($9,100) – more than the average annual salary and up from 1,000 roubles. The organizers of such rallies could be fined up to 1 million roubles.

Putin, who has largely ignored a wave of protests that weakened his grip before his return to the presidency, said the law would prevent demonstrations from turning into the sort mass unrest seen in Europe, with cars being burnt and stores looted.

“By guaranteeing some citizens the right to express their opinions, including on the streets, society must protect other citizens from radicalism,” he said.

Opposition leaders said the Kremlin rushed the law through so it could be in place before an opposition demonstration planned for Tuesday and say the bill could radicalize the opposition movement.

Just hours after the law was signed, Putin’s opponents took to Twitter pledging their support for the rally, dubbed the March of Millions as a sequel to the violent 20,000-strong protest on the eve of Putin’s third presidential inauguration last month.

“Putin signed the law on demonstration fines. But it won’t stop me personally,” said a tweet from a founder of Moscow gay parade Nicolai Alexeyev, reflecting a popular message.

Rights activist Lev Ponomaryov said he believed Putin wanted to put pressure on would-be protesters by signing the bill. “I think this may cause the opposite reaction. I mean people will nevertheless come out into the squares,” he said in a statement.

The Moscow mayor’s office approved the route for a 50,000-person march along a central ring road followed by a demonstration on Prospekt Sakharova, the site of one the first anti-Putin protests in December, hours after the law was signed.

RIGHTS DEFENDERS OBJECT

Fedotov, chairman of the presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council, urged Putin at the end of May to veto the law, before it was approved by both houses of parliament.

This week, Fedotov’s council issued a nine-page statement offering expert conclusion on the law, which it said contradicted Article 31 of the Russian constitution that protects citizens’ freedom of assembly.

“The law’s main defect is that in substance it suggests criminalizing the procedure of using the basic constitutional right – the right to peacefully assemble,” the statement said.

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Fedotov would continue to chair the human rights council for now but criticized him for making his views public before the president had a chance to hear his objections.

The spokeswoman of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Maja Kocijancic, said on Thursday the European Union was also concerned over the possible implications of the new bill.

“The recent civic activism in Russia offers a valuable opportunity for the state to engage in a constructive dialogue with civil society, which could benefit both sides,” she told journalists at an EU briefing.

“In our view regulations that discourage civic engagement are not conducive to achieve this objective,” she said.

In a sign he would brook no Western criticism on human rights or democracy, Putin, a 59-year-old former KGB officer, defended the fines as being in line with European norms.

(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Alison Williams)

Putin’s hard line against protests to be tested

June 08, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — Helmeted riot police round up hundreds of protesters, including some whose only apparent crime is wearing white ribbons of opposition. A teacher who spoke out about election rigging is dragged into court and fined. Now a new law awaiting President Vladimir Putin’s signature raises fines for participating in unauthorized protests 150-fold, to nearly the average annual salary in Russia.

Putin has cracked down on the opposition since returning to the presidency, and he seems to be betting that by threatening demonstrators with prison time and harsh fines he can quash the street protests that have posed an unprecedented challenge to his 12-year rule. His strategy faces a major test on Tuesday when the opposition plans its first mass demonstration since he began his third presidential term on May 7.

Some opposition leaders contend that the tough line will help their cause by fueling anger and bringing more people out for next week’s protest. Others say the repression will scare away the middle-class protesters who turned out in the tens of thousands for peaceful demonstrations this winter.

Putin, for his part, is refusing any talks with the opposition. “He understands only one language, the language of force, and therefore he perceives any normal discussion and any rational compromise as personal weakness,” said Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist who has campaigned against Kremlin-backed road construction that is destroying a forest outside Moscow.

Chirikova and Ilya Yashin, who recently spent 15 days in jail for leading unsanctioned protests, were among a group of opposition leaders who met Thursday in Moscow to discuss the implications of the new law, which would jack up fines to 300,000 rubles ($9,000).

Yashin tried to ease worries, saying protest leaders would collect donations for those punished, as was done within hours when St. Petersburg teacher Tatyana Ivanova was fined 30,000 rubles ($1,000) last week. Ivanova was found guilty of damaging the reputation of an education department official she had accused of pressuring her and other poll workers to falsify the December parliamentary vote.

The anti-Putin protests broke out after the December election, which observers said was riddled with fraud in favor of Putin’s party, and continued in the run-up to the March presidential vote. As many as 100,000 people turned out in the frigid cold for demonstrations demanding free elections, and the streets of Moscow rang with cries of “Russia Without Putin” and “Putin Is a Thief.”

Although he was denied a majority in Moscow, Putin won the election to return to the Kremlin post he had held from 2000 to 2008 before moving into the prime minister’s office to avoid violating a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms.

With the election over, the protest movement seemed to fade. But on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, an opposition march and rally drew tens of thousands, far more than either the organizers or the police had expected. The demonstration turned violent after police restricted access to the square where the rally was to be held. Bottles and pieces of asphalt were hurled at police, who struck back by beating protesters with truncheons and detaining more than 400. Some demonstrators were dragged away by their hair. Opposition leaders claim the clash was provoked by pro-Kremlin thugs.

In the days that followed, police chased opposition activists around the city, detaining hundreds. Then the crackdown eased, as the authorities allowed the opposition to set up camp on a leafy boulevard. But there were strings attached: The organizers could not put up placards or make political demands, since that would technically turn the camp into an unsanctioned protest.

The authorities tolerated the camp for about a week before getting a court to rule that the activists were creating a mess in the neighborhood, giving police the legal right to disperse them. The anti-protest legislation also would provide police with new powers against such Occupy-style camps. “Large-scale public gatherings” could be banned and the organizers fined if they disrupted public order.

In a Levada poll released Thursday, 65 percent said they expected the protests to continue, although they differed on how likely the protests were to intensify or spread. The poll, conducted May 25-29 among 1,604 people across Russia, has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

The bill was rushed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament this week in an effort to get it in place before Tuesday’s big protest. Putin’s signature could come as soon as Friday. Some opposition leaders held out hope that Putin would refuse to sign it. Others, however, said they had no illusions, pointing to a comment by Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov after the violence on the eve of the inauguration. Protesters who hurt riot police, he said, “should have their livers smeared on the asphalt.”

It was the kind of language that Putin likes.

Irina Titova in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

Russian parliament approves harsh bill on protests

June 05, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) — The Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament on Tuesday rammed through a harsh bill that raises fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned rallies, a move aimed at discouraging the opposition from challenging President Vladimir Putin.

The bill would jack up fines from the current 2,000 rubles to 300,000 rubles ($9,000), and comes after a series of massive protests that have reflected growing public frustration with Putin’s 12-year rule. The potential punishment is more severe than for many other crimes, including even violations in the storage of nuclear materials.

The opposition factions in the lower house, the State Duma, put forward several hundred amendments in an unprecedented attempt to stymie the bill’s passage, reflecting a new willingness to stand up to the Kremlin.

But members of the Kremlin’s majority United Russia party voted the amendments down one by one during a marathon session that lasted nearly six extra hours and ended just before midnight. United Russia then used its majority in the 450 seat parliament to approve the bill in the second and third readings. The final vote was 241-147.

The Kremlin wants the new bill to become law by next Tuesday when the opposition plans a major protest in Moscow. The bill also will require approval by the upper house and Putin’s signature, but both steps are formalities.

Since returning to the presidency in May, Putin has toughened his line toward the opposition, whose protests over the winter drew up to 100,000 in an unprecedented challenge to his rule. Due to term limits, Putin spent four years in the prime minister’s seat after already serving two consecutive terms as president from 2000 to 2008.

He recently has spoken in support of the bill, saying, “We must shield our people from radical actions.” Russian authorities routinely deny permission for opposition rallies or offer rally organizers venues away from the city center.

Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Fair Russia opposition faction, said the bill was a “spit in the face of the Russian people.” “This odious bill is an attempt to scare the people and shut their mouth,” he said before leading his faction out of the session hall before the final vote.

He and other opposition leaders warned that the law would exacerbate tensions in Russian society and leave the public with no free outlet for discontent. “In the past, tightening the screws in Russia has only caused bloodshed. This is a sure path to a civil war,” Gennady Gudkov of Fair Russia faction told the house. “You’re assuming responsibility for the country’s future and pushing it toward a crisis, collapse and bloodshed.”

Fair Russia and the Communists submitted more than 400 amendments to the proposed bill to slow down its passage and raise public awareness about the legislation. “It will destroy the social peace and deepen the divide in the society,” said Anatoly Lokot of the Communist Party. “Instead of a dialogue you are offering a big stick.”

Sergei Ivanov of the nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party, which usually votes along with Kremlin wishes, said its members opposed the bill. “It was the worst day in the history of the State Duma,” he said. “The State Duma hasn’t yet seen such a shame.”

Several dozen opposition activists, including the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, were detained Tuesday morning outside the State Duma for holding an unsanctioned gathering. Some were released shortly afterward.

The bill would see maximum fines for taking part in unsanctioned rallies rise from 2,000 rubles ($60) to 300,000 ($9,000). United Russia originally proposed an increase to a whopping 1.5 million rubles ($45,000).

For public officials, the maximum fine would be raised to 600,000 rubles ($18,000) from the current 50,000 rubles ($1,500). In comparison, violating safety precautions in designing, building and using nuclear energy facilities that could cause danger or radioactive contagion is punishable by a fine of 200,000 rubles ($6,000).

The bill’s authors also included similar punishments for any mass public gathering even if it lacks the formal signs of a political protest. That was a clear response to a series of recent creative demonstrations in Moscow, where participants left their slogans and posters at home and walked silently so that their actions don’t formally count as rallies.

Maria Rybakova and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.

Russian prisons and concentration camps worse than Abu Ghraib

2 September 2011

A well-known Moscow human rights activist Lev Ponomarev published an article on the situation of inmates in Russian prisons and concentration camps. In it, he notes in particular:

“The information on the events in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became known. It got the whole world talking. Putin said to Americans: you are demanding openness and disclosures from us – and look what is going on in your own back yard. Medvedev also said something similar.

Yes, it was the outright humiliation of prisoners. But they were not killed, they were not even tortured. They were simply photographed without clothes. This is undoubtedly bad and humiliating.

But in Russia, it is a norm to strip prisoners and keep them naked. Several times a day. Then they force you on your knees and look for something in your anus. Supposedly, a mobile phone. Several times a day! In some Russian prisons and concentration camps, it is just a norm.

Not to mention, for example, of a threat of real rape. The prisoner, who writes a complaint and threatens to expose the GULAG atrocities, is told: either you stop or … silence. Then (I have many such testimonies) they get the biggest, ugliest beast out of criminals to come to you. The beast undresses and masturbates as if preparing for a rape.. And the prisoners break down and sign any papers.

I know that there are cases of real rape, but such complaints never reach higher authorities. Because if a person was raped, neither he nor his family would ever admit it. I know a case where a young man, eighteen or even sixteen years old, I don’t remember exactly, was thrown into a cell to most ugly criminals, naked. And afterwards, he hung himself. What happened to him in the cell, we can only guess. The case was not investigated. That’s what is scary.

Most terrible are so called torture zones. For instance, in Russian Investigation Prison # 1. A documentary film was made about it. Lawyer Belyak was shot on for it, just a few days ago, there was an attempt on his life. Luckily, it failed. The film is available online, and we distribute it. And there are published reports about tortures in Prison # 1. They name the criminal who tortures and kills for Russian police and the KGB there. That man is finished. He cannot get out. He cannot live outside the prison. As they say, he is a waking corpse. He lives there, in Prison # 1.

But he is provided with comfortable luxurious hotel-type environment. He lives in a separate room, it has a TV set. And (again from the information that we have) he is ordered to carry out the killings in other prisons and camps. If Russian authorities need somebody to get killed, -he is transported to another GULAG zone. He does the killing, and is returned to his home Detention Center # 1.

There are reports on a man who participated in beatings, and possibly murders. He repented and gave testimony. The testimony was recorded by a lawyer. It is on the Internet. We held a press conference about it. The lawyers read the testimony of this man. But Russian authorities never investigated the case”.

Department of Monitoring
Kavkaz Center

Source: Kavkaz Center.
Link: http://kavkazcenter.com/eng/content/2011/09/02/15054.shtml.

Russia successfully tests veteran missile with new warhead

Moscow (AFP)
Sept 3, 2011

Russia on Saturday successfully tested its Topol strategic missile with a new warhead designed to breach missile shields, Russian news agencies reported, citing the defense ministry.

“The experimental warhead of the missile hit the designated target with high precision at the testing site on Kamchatka peninsula,” a spokesman for the strategic rocket forces told the Interfax news agency.

The Topol intercontinental missile used has been operational for 23 years and was being tested to check its durability in extended use, the spokesman said.

The missile was fired from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region to its target area around 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles) to the east.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Russia_successfully_tests_veteran_missile_with_new_warhead_999.html.

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