Saturday, November 27, 2010

Russia Admits Guilt on Katyn At Last

Russia’s Duma admitted, after more than a half century of denial, that the Katyn massacre of more than 22,000 Polish officers and administrators was ordered by Stalin and signed off by the Politburo. Historians have had access to the Katyn “smoking gun” document since the early 1990s: a request from Lavrenty Beria to the Politburo for permission to execute the Polish POWs in Soviet hands signed by Stalin and other members of the Politburo. The Russian cover up began after German forces were driven from Eastern Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine. The cover story was that the Poles had been executed by the Germans, and that was Stalin’s position during the Nuremburg Trials. In order to maintain good relations with Communist Poland after the war, Russia was forced into some weak admissions – that perhaps the Poles were executed by rogue elements of the secret police without permission from the Kremlin. Only during the Yeltsin years was the smoking gun document handed to the Polish side. The Putin administration avoided any outright admissions of guilt and did not restrain a cult of “Katyn deniers,” who claimed that it was the Nazis after all who executed the Polish officers. Recent suits of Polish family members in Russian courts brought no satisfaction: there was too little evidence, the bodies had never been identified, and the culprits were long dead anyway.

Russia’s admission of guilt was issued for the purpose of improving relations between Poland and Russia. It has not been backed by an official statement by either Putin or Medvedev, but it is clear that the Duma would not have acted without their consent. The Duma’s admission should be the first step in a fairly long process. Russian authorities must rehabilitate the victims (who were executed for treason) and presumably offer their survivors compensation. This will not be an easy process. The Soviet archives suggest that thousands of case records were destroyed under Nikita Khrushchev. Moreover, the executions were carried out in a variety of locations (not only the Katyn forest), and the exhumation results so far have identified only a handful of victims.

Katyn will continue to sour Russian-Polish relations despite this considerable progress.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North Korea Provocations: Completely Predictable

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said that North Korea remains predictable in its unpredictability. Mullen’s view is incorrect: North Korea’s unprovoked shelling of Yeonpyeong Island combined with its deliberate revelation of a formerly secret uranium enrichment facility are totally predictable. The North has a simple goal: They want legitimization of their regime (and indirectly the North’s next “beloved leader”) by being treated as an equal at a negotiating table with the United States. North Korea has learned well the lesson of all totalitarian regimes: aggressive behavior brings more rewards than cooperation. The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island (almost next door to South Korea’s international airport) was made even more predictable by the limp response to the North’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel with substantial loss of life and national grief. It is now clear that the North is confident that renegade behavior can only result in benefits and no costs. This is a dangerous position for South Korea and the United States to be in, but both have themselves to blame.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Where Is the Outrage? The Khodorkovsky Berlin Declaration

On October 25, 2003, Russia’s path to a totalitarian kleptocracy was cemented with the arrest of Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at Novosibirsk Airport. Khodorkovsky’s Yukos Oil Company was seized and was subsequently cannibalized by Vladimir Putin and his associates. On May 31, 2005, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison. Having served most of his time, Khodorkovsky is in Moscow waiting to be sentenced to a new term under new charges. He will likely not emerge from prison until he is an old man.

In dealing with Khodorkovsky, Putin has taken a page from Stalin’s book. Stalin charged his political enemies with imagined Nazi espionage, poisonings, and political assassinations. Although Yukos paid more taxes than all other Russian oil companies combined, Khodorkovsky was sentenced in 2005 for tax fraud. The fantastic new charge against Khodorkovsky is that he personally stole the entire production of Yukos – quite a feat, given that Yukos was audited by Price Waterhouse and its production accounted for.

Where is the outrage? Just as “a rich man will hardly enter the kingdom of heaven” so will Khodorkovsky hardly be granted the status of “dissident” or “prisoner of conscience” that he justly deserves. The Russian public and the world community take little notice of his political repression.

Khodorkovsky is indeed a political prisoner of Putin’s Russia. Among his political sins were to contribute his wealth to rival political parties and to set up charitable foundations for independent educational, scholarly, and political thinking. Such activities made him the most likely challenger to Putin. His greatest sin was to convert Yukos into a company run according to Western standards of management, accounting, and corporate governance. Yukos, under Khodorkovsky, was Russia’s most highly capitalized company, well on its way to achieving a market value consistent with its reserves. A “clean” Yukos could not be allowed to stand: It would lay bare the vast corruption dragging down the market values of other energy and mineral companies in the hands of Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

Putin took other pages from Stalin’s playbook. While ordering the arrest and “turning over to the courts” of political rivals, Stalin also dictated their sentences, usually death. There is little doubt that Khodorkovsky’s new sentence will be dictated by “telephone justice” (a telephone call from the Kremlin). Putin is also copying Stalin’s public humiliation of political rivals. Khodorkovsky appears in court imprisoned in a glass cage.

Khodorkovsky was given fifteen minutes at the end of his trial to make a final statement. His words are worthy of considerable note:

“What must be going through the minds of the entrepreneur, or the senior manager, or simply an ordinary educated, creative person, watching our trial, and knowing that its result is absolutely predictable? The obvious conclusion is chilling in its stark simplicity: it is that the forces of power can do anything….Millions of eyes throughout Russia and the world are watching this trial … with the hope that Russia will still become a country of freedom, and law is above the bureaucrat. Where supporting opposition parties is not a cause for reprisals. Where special services protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and the law. Where human rights no longer depend on the mood of the czar, good or evil.”
Khodorkovsky chose not to take the easy path of other out-of-favor oligarchs by fleeing the country with much of their wealth intact, to luxurious residences and ownership of sports teams abroad. He was offered this option but did not take it.
“I am not a perfect person, but I am a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to, I will. The things I believe in are worth dying for.”

To its great credit, Amnesty International Germany is using the occasion of Khodorkovsky's closing statement to present a "Berlin Declaration", signed by several prominent Germans to demand the end of "injustice" in Russia. The declaration has been signed by Nobel prize winner Herta Müller, actress Katja Riemann, Marieluise Beck from the Green Party and Markus Meckel from the Social Democrats. The declaration is to be delivered to the Russian Embassy after November 15.

To add your name to the letter below, email your full name, country of residence and profession with "Berlin Declaration" in the subject line.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama's Defeat: View From Berlin

The eight PM Tagesschau (Show of the Day) on Channel 1 is the major source of news for Germans. On Wednesday November 3, the Tagesschau devoted about one third of its coverage to the U.S. elections. The grave announcer and the similarly somber Washington correspondent related that President Obama suffered a major loss. Pictures of Tea Party protesters dressed in historical garb were flashed across the screen to introduce German viewers to the “extremists” who were threatening to take over the Republican Party from its “reasonable” (vernuenftige) wing. There was a brief mention that the new Republican “radicals” wanted a smaller state, but the new constellation of Congress will result in “trench warfare,” “ideological battle,” and an attempt to repeal Obama’s major achievement – health care reform. The general tone was one of disbelief that the American voters could turn into such a mob of radicals.