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Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The EU + Ukraine: London meeting organised

London will have an opportunity June 10 to hear and question a prominent Ukrainian journalist on the European Union and Ukraine.

Co-founder of Hromadske International and and 2016 fellow at FCO's International Leaders Programme Maxim Eristavi will be discussing if we are prepared for Ukraine’s arriving into Europe “whether Europeans want that or not.” Eristavi will debunk popular misconceptions about Ukraine and Eastern Europe and expose the shortcomings of European policy towards this region.

Ukraine has become an issue in the EU Referendum campaign as a number of leading ‘Brexiters’, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have claimed that the Union is somehow responsible for the war in that Eastern European country. The latter is also a popular narrative used by ruling elites in Russia.

When Johnson's remarks hit the headlines last month I got so angry at the rubbish I was seeing on social media about Ukraine that I did a tweet series and Storified it.

This event provides an opportunity to hear from someone who was there during Ukraine's 'Revolution of Dignity', as Eristavi documented in 'What happened on the Maidan in Kiev?' (video after the jump).

Eristavi on the Maidan
The event is at 7pm, June 10 at the London Ukrainian Club, 154 Holland Park Ave, London W11 4UH.

You don't need to register - just turn up!

Google Maps:,-0.2108675,15z *NOTE* The nearest underground station, Holland Park, is closed at the moment. Use Shepherd’s Bush or Notting Hill Gate.

Maxim Eristavi biography

Civil rights advocate, media professional and writer. Co-founder of Hromadske International.

One of the most famous English-speaking journalists and civil rights advocates working and based in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, He specializes in new media expertise, politics, breaking news coverage and civil rights advocacy.

Featured as contributor to:

BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera America, HuffPost TV, CTV, ITN News, the Daily Beast, Fusion, CJR Magazine, Reuters, Politico, The New Republic and Foreign Policy.

Essential Twitter source for Ukraine, according to Mashable, Bild, CTV and The New York Times.

He is the only openly gay journalist in Ukraine and has been an outspoken voice in raising civil rights issues of the region abroad. In October 2015 he was featured among 10 most prominent LGBTI people in Ukraine during the first ever queer project at the country's biggest modern art center, The Pinchuk Art Center.

Eristavi is a 2015 Poynter fellow at Yale University with a focus on informational wars and pan-regional LGBTI civil rights movements. He is also a 2016 Fellow at International Leadership Program, UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office and a 2016-2017 fellow at Millennium Leadership Program, Atlantic Council.

See also:

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Jamala's win must lead to support for Crimean Tatars

It was clear even during the semi-finals of Eurovision that the presence of Ukraine's Jamala and her song about the genocide of the Crimean Tatars by the USSR had already drawn attention to the plight of her people - I saw a number of tweets saying as much. Her stunning and unexpected victory will undoubtedly lead to much more.

What Jamala's win will also lead to is an already bad situation for the Tatars in Crimea getting even worse, as the lawyer for the kidnapped and imprisoned by Russia Ukrainian soldier Nadiya Savchenko, Mark Feygin, pointed out - only now the world will hopefully be paying more attention. This will also hopefully include the world's Muslims, as she is the third Muslim to win - something which was noted by many on social media, if not by the press.

What the repression must lead to is some concrete action rather than, as explained below, not just more weasel words. This means, as I have argued before, targeted sanctions as (through listening to their wining) it is clear that this is the only language which the Kremlin truly understands.

Reblogged with permission.


By Halya Colnash.

Russian pro-Kremlin channels have been in overdrive since Jamala’s victory for Ukraine in Eurovision, however their lies, including the claim that her song remembering the genocidal Deportation of 1944 was about people “leaving for a better life”, began much earlier. The gutter-level campaign to undermine her message and her victory was probably to be expected. Russia has a lot to conceal, and not first and foremost about the Deportation, but about its repression and terror against the Crimean Tatar people now.

Imprisoned Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz earlier welcomed Jamala’s participation in the competition, saying that “the world will hear our pain”. Let’s hope that the world will, and that they begin directly addressing the repression, including the insane trial against Chiygoz and other Crimean Tatars.

Concern has recently been expressed that Chiygoz, who is the Deputy Head of the Crimean Mejlis [representative assembly] could face further charges following Russia’s banning of the Mejlis. This would be legal nihilism at its worst, but so too are the charges under which Chiygoz, Mustafa Degermendzhy and Ali Asanov have been in detention for over a year.

The arrest on May 12 of Ilmi Umerov, another top official of the Mejlis, on ‘extremism’ charges have only exacerbated such fears. Vissarion Aseyev from the Crimean Human Rights Group, had predicted that “the ban of the Mejlis would provide the de facto authorities with a basis for a new wave of administrative and criminal prosecutions of Crimeans, and Crimean Tatars in the first instance”. This has now happened with Umerov accused of - wait for it - “public calls to action encroaching on Russia’s territorial integrity”, through statements opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Jemilev meets Jamala in Stockholm before her win
Aseyev believes that the court ruling declaring the Mejlis ‘extremist’ may be used to add ‘extremism’ charges to those the men are already facing. This would mean, for example, that Chiygoz would also be accused of ‘organizing an extremist society’ under Article 282.1 § of Russia’s Criminal Code, with this carrying a sentence of up to 8 years’ imprisonment. Five other men: Ali Asanov; Mustafa Degermendzhy; Eskender Emirovaliev; Eskender Kantemirov and Arsen Yunusov could face up to 4 years for ‘taking part in an extremist organization’. Similar predictions were made recently by Nikolai Polozov, the lawyer representing Chiygoz. Both were speaking before the adoption in its first reading of a terrifyingly repressive package of laws in Russia which would increase all such sentences.

The criminalization of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis has so far resulted in protest from all democratic countries but no threats of further sanctions. This is presumably what Russia expected, as it might from the reaction to the criminal charges against Chiygoz and the others.

A recent UNHHR monitoring mission report confined itself to recommending only that the de facto authorities and Russia “ensure due process and fair trial rights for Crimean Tatars detained in relation to the February 2014 demonstration”.

The Council of Europe’s report by Ambassador Gérard Stoudmann was released the same day that the de facto prosecutor announced that she was ‘suspending’ the Mejlis without a court ruling. The report mentions only that they visited Chiygoz at his request, and that Chiygoz “questioned the lawfulness of his arrest”.

There are undoubtedly cases where it is appropriate to await a court ruling before offering any comment. This is categorically not one of them, as the authors of the reports must have been aware.

From a demonstration held today in Ankara, Turkey
They mention, after all, that the men are charged over alleged ‘mass disturbances’ on Feb 26, 2014, yet do not point out that this makes any prosecution illegal under Russia’s own legislation. Chiygoz and the other Ukrainian nationals are charged under Russian legislation over a pre-annexation demonstration in Ukrainian Crimea over which Russia has no jurisdiction.

According to Russia’s Criminal Code (Article 12 § 3), a criminal prosecution can only be initiated against foreign nationals who committed an offence on the territory of another country if “the crime was directed against the interests of the Russian Federation or a citizen of the Russian Federation.”

It is deeply frustrating that international observers from the UN and Council of Europe should be ignoring this. The Council of Europe also claimed that there was no evidence of any particular persecution of Crimean Tatars. Just this case alone is typical in targeting only Crimean Tatars.

The reasons for questioning the lawfulness of Russia’s actions over this case are legion, and are not ignored by the Russian Memorial Human Rights Centre. In their statement on Feb 15, 2016, they point to the clear lack of jurisdiction and dismiss the formal excuse presented that two of the alleged ‘victims’ are Russian nationals. Neither sought medical treatment at the time, and Memorial says that in their case, as in those of over half the ‘victims’, there are doubts over whether the alleged injuries were genuinely sustained. Memorial specifically notes that the political motivation is demonstrated by the fact that only Crimean Tatars have been targeted.

This prosecution is already a record-breaker in lawlessness. Novaya Gazeta reported in late February 2015, a month after Chiygoz’s arrest, that the Russian Investigative Committee had been short of ‘victims’ and witnesses, and on February 2, 4 days after Chiygoz’s arrest and 11 months after the events, invited Simferopol residents to come forward “even in the absence of bodily injuries”.

If new charges are brought against the men, it can only be by backdating over two years a court ruling issued in April 2016. Western countries need to come up with more than surreal demands that the men “receive a fair trial”?

See also:

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Persecution of Crimean Tatars needs sanctions response

Hoardings on the border. Left: On your way to Crimean Tatar Autonomy. Right: On your way from Crimea to Free Ukraine. Via Olga Klymenko

It is way past time for action by the West against the persecutors of the Crimean Tartar people. As human rights activist Halya Cornash puts it:
Two years after invading and annexing Ukrainian territory, Russia has effectively declared war against the Crimean Tatar people.  More words of concern, without real punitive sanctions, would be frighteningly inadequate.
Russia has demonstrated time and again that it does respond to strength, it ignores weakness, it will butt against the limits of any Western 'tolerance' of its actions.

Its latest action, in banning the Tatars' Parliament, demonstrate just how outrageously they will behave.

The Executive Board of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, in a recent declaration, called for:
1) That the European Union, the European Parliament and all national parliaments of the world respecting human rights, freedoms, peace and democracy recognize that the Crimean Tatars are the indigenous people of the Crimea and the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People is the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar People, and develop cooperation mechanisms with the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People,

2) That, to convict the crimes committed against the Crimean Tatar People in the conscience of humanity and history, the big deportation of the Crimean Tatar People on 18 May 1944 be recognized as a genocide by the European Parliament, all national parliaments and institutions,
This is the least that must happen. What is most likely to make Russia think twice in its actions is targeted sanctions that make clear to Russia that they must stop the repression of Crimea's indigenous people.

Reblogged with permission.


By Halya Cornash

A Crimean court has formally completed its criminalization of the Mejlis, or self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people. There have been no serious threats of sanctions or other measures from European structures and western countries although this is a direct attack on the main indigenous people of Crimea carried out by a country which breached international law through its annexation of Ukrainian Crimea.

The banning of the Mejlis as ‘extremist’ has come in stages, with feelers doubtless out to see how the West responded. Beyond statements of ‘concern’ or condemnation, it did not. Russia therefore moved from vague threats to specific action, with the ‘court application’ first lodged in February. The ban was then made a fait accompli on April 13 when the de facto prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya announced that she was ‘suspending’ the Mejlis without a court ruling. Russia’s justice ministry then also saw no need to await a court ruling and on April 18 added the Crimean Tatar Mejlis to its list of “civic or religious organizations whose activities have been suspended due to their extremist activities.”

The Council of Europe’s disturbingly weak report on a fact-finding visit to Russian-occupied Crimea did acknowledge that a court ban on the Mejlis “would indicate a new level of repression targeting the Crimean Tatar community as a whole”.

There can be no understating how serious this move is. Oliver Loode, a member of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, has stressed that “if a representative body is banned, this is not just a hostile act towards a particular organization, in this case the Mejlis. It’s really an attack against the people, in this case Crimean Tatars.” A recent resolution from the European Parliament recognized the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Crimea whose right to self-government is protected under the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Mejlis as “the legitimate representation of the Crimean Tatar community”.

Russia through its puppet prosecutor and court called the Mejlis a ‘civic organization’ and has now banned it, claiming it to be ‘extremist’.

Nobody is in any doubt of the real reasons for this move, namely the implacable opposition of the Mejlis to Russian occupation. Should any further confirmation be required, this was effectively provided by a chilling suggestion just made by Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee. He proposes that the provisions outlawing what the current regime deems ‘extremism’ should be supplemented with provisions criminalizing ‘denial’ of, for example, the pseudo-referendum which Russia used in an attempt to give legitimacy of its annexation of Crimea. The Mejlis had called on Crimean Tatars and all other Ukrainians to boycott this event.

On Monday the ‘proof’ presented to the court of the Mejlis’ ‘extremism’ was crowned by a document published back in Soviet times (1988) by veteran Crimean Tatar leader and former Soviet political prisoner Mustafa Dzhemiliev. Other material includes an extremely questionable ‘warning’ from Poklonskaya to Refat Chubarov, Head of the Mejlis against supposed ‘extremist activities”; the notification of criminal proceedings lodged against Mustafa Dzhemiliev for having tried to enter his homeland; and against Refat Chubarov, for “encroaching upon Russia’s territory”, that is, opposing Russia’s occupation of his native Crimea; the documents about the legally nihilistic charges against the Deputy Head of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz regarding a demonstration over which Russia has no jurisdiction; the Mejlis’ founding documents which also far pre-date annexation and whose ‘extremism’ is deemed to lied in their stated aim, namely the reinstatement of the Crimean Tatar people’s national and political rights as part of Ukraine.

During the ‘court debate’ on Tuesday, Nariman Dzhelyal, First Deputy Head of the Mejlis demonstrated that the Mejlis is not a civic organization, but a representative assembly and also an international structure with representatives in many other countries. The Mejlis takes part in OSCE and UN activities and is planning to open official representative offices in Brussels and Washington.

Poklonskaya demanded that the Mejlis be banned claiming, for example, that the call from one Turkish organization for the Mejlis to not be outlawed was proof that the Mejlis was an extremist organization. Zair Smedlyaev, Qurultay [Crimean Tatar National Congress] official points out that by the same ‘logic’, the UN, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, European Parliament and a whole range of other international bodies should be considered ‘extremist’.

As reported, it was quite unclear throughout the so-called court proceedings what exactly the prosecutor was trying to ban since there are a large number of regional mejlis which act as autonomous bodies. While the level of knowledge of the de facto prosecutor is certainly pitiful, it is likely that the lack of clarity is quite deliberate. Why explain who is at risk of arrest if you can leave that unknown and therefore particularly frightening? Mustafa Dzhemiliev recently suggested that around 2, 300 people involved in all structures of Crimean Tatar self-government could be immediately at risk.

This court hearing was a farce with the outcome known from the beginning. The only chance of averting the criminalization of a body representing the Crimean Tatar people was a real threat of punitive measures. Aider Mudzhabayev wrote recently that statements in defence of Crimeans facing persecution, in condemnation of repression, are undoubtedly needed, but are still useless – like trying to cure cancer with words.

Cancer spreads.  How far is Russia to be allowed to go?

Refat Chubarov
Edited to add: Today Refat Chubarov, Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, ordered that the Mejlis is to perform its activities in an emergency modus operandi for the duration of Russian occupation of Crimea.

Oliver Loode, a member of the Minority Rights Group and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, described the Mejlis' banning as "a new low in Russia’s treatment of indigenous peoples worldwide, and merits the strongest condemnation from the international community, including the UN system, states and indigenous peoples’ organizations."

He said:
The key to understanding the severity of the situation is the fact that the Crimean Tatar Mejlis is not just another NGO, but a representative institution of Crimean Tatar people who self-identify as indigenous people of Crimea, and who have been acknowledged as such by their home country Ukraine and a growing number of states and institutions around the world, including the European Parliament. As such, the decision to ban the Mejlis directly violates Article 5 of the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

See also


Saturday, 23 April 2016

Boris' 'Kenyan ancestry' slur has UK roots

When Boris Johnston's Sun column appeared earlier today attacking President Obama and a storm blew up I assumed one thing - he'd got the idea from the American kook-o-sphere.

After all, there were plenty of snake oil salesmen making money off the US right from the exact same, well, racist premise.

I was wrong. Steve M, who blogs at No More Mister (and is IMO the best blogger on the US Presidential race) found otherwise. Reblogged with permission.


The Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has dredged up a couple of old slurs against President Obama in an opinion piece calling for a British exit from the European Union:

Boris Johnson has criticised the US president Barack Obama and suggested his attitude to Britain might be based on his “part-Kenyan” heritage and “ancestral dislike of the British empire”.

Writing a column for The Sun newspaper the outgoing Mayor of London recounted a story about a bust of Winston Churchill purportedly being removed from White House.

“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire -- of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” he wrote.
In fact, the Churchill story is Johnson's lede:
Something mysterious happened when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009.

Something vanished from that room, and no one could quite explain why.

It was a bust of Winston Churchill -- the great British war time leader. It was a fine goggle-eyed object, done by the brilliant sculptor Jacob Epstein, and it had sat there for almost ten years.

But on day one of the Obama administration it was returned, without ceremony, to the British embassy in Washington.

No one was sure whether the President had himself been involved in the decision.

Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire -- of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.
Actually, plenty of people could "explain why" the bust "vanished from that room." Here's a fact check Glenn Kessler wrote for The Washington Post early last year, when Ted Cruz brought up the subject:
The Winston Churchill bust in question was originally provided in July 2001 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair as a loan to President George W. Bush. The bust, now almost 70 years old, was made by English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and Bush said he would keep it in the Oval Office. Various news reports at the time said the bust will be returned once Bush left office.

The White House residence, meanwhile, has another bust of Churchill, also sculpted by Epstein, which was given to President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 6, 1965, (Here’s Lady Bird Johnson’s diary entry about the gift, which was facilitated by Churchill’s wartime friends, including Averell Harriman.)
Following along so far? There were two Churchill busts. One was always scheduled to be returned at the end of George W. Bush's term.

It's not completely clear why it was given to Bush in the first place:
In 2012, the Obama White House said the gift in 2001 occurred when the residence bust “was being worked on at the time” but The Fact Checker did not find a reference to that in news reports. Still, at the news conference accepting the gift, Bush told reporters it came about because he lamented to the British ambassador that “that there was not a proper bust of Winston Churchill for me to put in the Oval Office.” So one could wonder why the president would say that when he already had virtually the same bust sitting in the residence.
In any case, the bust given to President Johnson remains in the White House. Here's a photo of President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron -- Johnson's fellow Tory and political frenemy -- examining the bust in July 2010:

But what's up with that bit in Johnson's op-ed about "the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire"? Is Johnson channeling Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D'Souza?

Probably not. In fact, it's likely that this idea originated with the British. Here's a Telegraph story about the return of the Bush-Blair Churchill bust, written when Obama had been in office less than a month:
Churchill has less happy connotations for Mr Obama than those American politicians who celebrate his wartime leadership. It was during Churchill's second premiership that Britain suppressed Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion. Among Kenyans allegedly tortured by the colonial regime included one Hussein Onyango Obama, the President's grandfather.
In a 2010 New Republic article, James Mann stated flatly that this was a British idea:
... the idea started with the British, those former colonialists, who have repeatedly invoked Kenya to explain every perceived slight from the Obama administration.

... I first ran across the Kenya paranoia a few weeks after Obama was sworn in. Gordon Brown, then the British prime minister, was coming to Washington, and a British television reporter asked to interview me about Obama’s views of the world. “He has different roots than all other presidents,” the reporter said. “He doesn’t have ties to Europe.”

... “Revealed: Why Obama Loathes the British” screamed one article in the Daily Mail a few months ago. The article rehashed the history of British colonials and the Mau Mau rebellion.

... You can’t get more exalted than Sir David Manning, who was Britain’s ambassador to Washington from 2003 to 2007. Yet earlier this year, in testimony to a House of Commons foreign affairs committee, he reached low by warning that Obama “comes with a very different perspective” from other presidents.

“He is an American who grew up in Hawaii, whose foreign experience was of Indonesia, and who had a Kenyan father,” Manning said. “We now have a Democrat who is not familiar with us.”
The reference to the Mau Mau is particularly absurd, according to David Anderson, an Oxford professor and author of Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire.
To portray the Obama family as being part of Mau Mau is stir-fry crazy. Let me explain why: The Obama family come from western Kenya, which is about as different from Nairobi and the Kikuyu area as Utah is from New York City. And it’s almost as far way. They come from an area where there was no rebellion, there was no Mau Mau. So while his father and his grandmother may well have been nationalists -- I’m sure they were -- they weren’t directly involved in the Mau Mau rebellion.

The other thing is, if you’ve read anything about Churchill, you’d know that, although he was the head of the government at the time of the Mau Mau rebellion, he was trying as best he could to get the British in Kenya to negotiate and to end the fighting. Churchill was not supporting or condoning the violence. He is actually one of the few British politicians who comes out of this smelling of roses.
James Mann notes that the Daily Mail story (“Revealed: Why Obama Loathes the British”) actually raised the question of whether Obama's anger at the BP oil spill was the result of familial contempt for the British -- as if a massive oil spill isn't reason enough for anger. A Kenyan relative of the president was actually asked about this. She assured the Mail interviewer that Anglophobia wasn't the source of Obama's anger. The quote was buried near the end of the story.

So, no, Johnson is unlikely to be echoing American bigots. He's far more likely to be echoing British bigots.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Crimean referendum second anniversary myths exposed

Reblogged with permission.


By Halya Cornash

It is exactly two years since the so-called ‘referendum’ in Crimea which Russia cites as justification of its annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory. The anniversary comes as Russia looks set to criminalize the Crimean Tatar Mejlis or elected representative body of the main indigenous people of Crimea which in 2014 called on all Crimean Tatars and others to boycott the event. Since it also comes at a time when the West is pushing Ukraine to agree to ‘elections’ in the Kremlin-controlled areas of Donbas, it seems worth recalling that supposed ‘expression of the people’s will’ and the motley crowd of far-right, neo-Nazi or extreme left-wing politicians who were invited to oversee it.

The ‘referendum’

This was announced on March 6, and held ten days later, on March 16, 2014.

There were two questions. No. 1 asked: Are you for the Crimea re-uniting with Russia, as a subject of the Russian Federation? No. 2: Are you for the reinstatement of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of the Crimea and for the status of the Crimea as part of Ukraine? Neither question allowed for Crimeans to opt for the status quo. Since the second alternative required more knowledge of a largely theoretical constitution in force for only around 13 days in 1992, it was relatively unlikely that anybody would choose that option (more details here).


The ‘observers’

Far-right Belgian politician Luc Michel presented by pro-Kremlin TV Rossiya 24 as from the OSCE (which did not observe or recognize the ’referendum’ on Crimea

The event was in clear breach of Ukraine’s Constitution which stipulates that any decision changing Ukraine’s territory must be put to a nationwide vote. It was declared illegitimate not only by the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, but by the USA, EU countries, the European Parliament, the OSCE and Ukraine’s two main election watchdogs - the Committee of Voters of Ukraine and OPORA.

The Kremlin therefore turned to its friends. The team was led by Mateusz Piskorski. He once had links with the Polish far-right, but his main focus, and that of the new Zmiana Party which he headed early in 2015 seems to be an aggressively pro-Russian position on everything, including Ukraine. Piskorski himself has for years now faithfully served as a mouthpiece in support of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with this including rubber stamping Russia’s ‘electoral’ stunts in, for example St. Petersburg, Moldova, Crimea and Donbas. He claims that he does not receive any funding from Moscow.

At least some of the Crimean ‘observers’ were financed by the Russian-based Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections headed by Luc Michel and Jean-Pierre Vandersmissen, both supporters of the neo-Nazi Jean-François Thiriart and members of the extreme right Parti Communautaire National-Européen (PCN-NCP). The list of supposedly 135 observers included representatives of the far-right parties Jobbik (Hungary); Ataka (Bulgaria); Vlaams Belang (Belgium); Freedom Party (Austria) and others. There were also members of neo-Stalinist or extreme left-wing parties, including Germany’s Die Linke. Two Bundestag deputies from this German party have since twice visited militant-controlled Donbas, providing propaganda stunts for the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’.

Anton Shekhovtsov reports that according to his sources, the ‘observers’ were paid USD 1600 for a 4-day trip to Crimea, as well as USD 250 per diem. Whether the reason lay in remuneration or elsewhere, it is certainly clear that the observers were there to praise everything. Some seemed in something of a hurry to demonstrate their willingness to serve. In a report on March 15, over a day before the event, the Kremlin-funded Russia Today quoted “an American foreign affairs analyst of Serbian origin, Srdja Trifkovic” as describing it as “legal and legitimate, democratic and right”. Trifković, Shekhovtsov notes, was a member of Radovan Karadžić’s wartime Republika and spoke in his defence during the war crimes trial in the Hague.

All these guests were effusive in their admiration. Far-right Catalonian politician Enrique Ravello called the event “an example for us all”.

It should be stressed that despite all of the Kremlin’s claims that it was ‘saving Crimea’ (and Donbas) from far-right anti-Semitic hordes, those invited to act as observers in Crimea – and militant-controlled Donbas, and to visit since have often been from notoriously anti-Semitic parties, such as the Hungarian far-right Jobbik Party.

Fiddled vote-count

The event was widely criticized and it is only Russia and the Kremlin’s friends who seriously call it a real referendum. Even Putin’s own Human Rights Council confirmed, after a visit to Crimea, that the turnout had been much lower than reported, and the results far less overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia. The report found that while a large majority of residents of Sevastopol (where the Russian Black Sea Fleet was based) had voted for ‘joining Russia’ (turnout of 50-80%), the turnout for all of Crimea was from 30-50% and only 50-60% of those voted for joining Russia.

The authors also noted that Crimean residents had voted less for joining Russia, than for what they called an end to corrupt lawlessness and thieving rule of people brought in from Donetsk (where Viktor Yanukovych and most of his people were from). It was only in Sevastopol, they say, that people genuinely voted for joining Russia. The report was prepared by Council member Yevgeny Bobrov; together with prominent human rights defender Svetlana Gannushkina and lawyer Olga Tsetlina, following a visit to Simferopol and Sevastopol from April 15-18.

Retribution against Crimean Tatars who opposed annexation and refused to take part in the farcical referendum was swift. It has since intensified, and the Mejlis’ leaders are now exiled or imprisoned. Those few still at liberty may not be for long if the Mejlis is outlawed.

See also:

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Moldova: A mouse, roaring a truth

Pic of recent massive demonstration outside Moldovan Parliament.

This story might appear obscure but it reflects a bigger issue - about how Russian revanchism is reported back through democratic Europe's free media.  The issues it describes have also often been the story in Ukraine. How solid, liberal ideas like 'balance' and reporting 'both sides' can become a failure to tell the truth. How inserted reporters don't pay attention to the locals. How the messy 'European ideal' needs much closer reporting if we're to truly live up to any democratic ideal.

In the 1959 British comedy The Mouse That Roared a tiny, obscure European country ends up through comedic slight-of-hand being feted by both sides in the Cold War. In comedy, it showed how much of Europe is to the British 'Ruritania', an inexplicable country whose peoples and cultures all mess into one. As the article explains this approach lives on with today's lens of geo-politics and ideas of 'colour revolution' (via Russian infowar) muddying the coverage yet more.

Reblogged with permission from Open Democracy Russia.


By Mihai Popșoi  
There’s more to Moldova's protests than “pro-European” versus “pro-Russian”.

Moldova’s image as the poorest country in Europe is rivaled only by its obscurity. In rare outbursts of international media coverage — often related to human trafficking, arms smuggling or mass protests — Moldova is depicted as a pawn on the regional chessboard, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the west. There is no denying that, in a world of realpolitik, Moldova is indeed a playground.

Yet there is more to this intellectual inertia than meets the eye. The sheer lack of nuance and insight displayed by the international media with regards to the latest developments in Moldova is as disappointing as it is predictable. 
Much in the way of confirmation bias is at work here — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. People are usually unwilling and, at times, admittedly unable to comprehend complex phenomena, especially when simple mental shortcuts are readily available.

Professional journalists and political analysts pride themselves on preventing or minimising the influence of such biases on their work. This is easier said than done, particularly in today’s world of ubiquitous geopolitical expediency. Moldova is a case in point.

Perils of European integration

Since the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation — or so everyone thought. The post-revolutionary government took on a rather inspirational name, the Alliance for European Integration, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Generous western financial assistance and political support locked the United States and European Union into the costly self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘success story’. But the success failed to materialise, despite promising beginnings. Five pro-European governments succeeded each other faster than the public could keep up with, and they spared no effort in building an elaborate discourse of European integration both at home and abroad. One could not help but be mesmerised by the audacity of Moldova’s leadership that promised to bring the country into the EU by 2020.

Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Moldova's capital in September 2015 to protest the ‘stolen billion’. Photo courtesy of Maria Levcenco.

Naturally, high hopes developed among more gullible Moldovans and international development partners alike. But the signs of trouble appeared early on.

As early as 2011, there have been hostile takeovers of privately held shares in several leading banks, known as the raider attacks. Then came the infamous ‘Huntigate’ scandal of 2013 — a cover-up of a fatal accident during a lavish hunting spree attended by the top brass of the country’s judiciary, including the Prosecutor General. Finally, ‘the billion dollar bank heist’ left the country perplexed as to how one could steal the equivalent of 15 percent of GDP from three banks with impunity.

Once a poster child of Moldova’s European Integration, Vlad Filat, former prime minister and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, ended up a scapegoat for the missing billion. Meanwhile, Filat’s archenemy the oligarch and senior vice president of the Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, became the sole decision maker in the country.

By hook or by crook, Plahotniuc was able to create a majority coalition (which oddly bears no name). It was rushed to a vote in parliament as protesters gathered outside and soon started demanding early elections. This clearly begs the question: how can international media refer to the current reincarnation of previous governments as pro-European?

Monstrous coalition

Reports from Euronews, BBC, New York Times as well as Russia Today all described the new government as ‘pro-European’ — much to the bewilderment of Moldovan civil society. In a very heartfelt piece on his personal page, Dumitru Alaiba, a former economic and financial advisor to two prime ministers, urged international media and western politicians: “Do what you must, just don’t call this government ‘pro-European’. It is not Europe that they represent. And don’t call us, the people, pro-Russian either.”

Well-respected media institutions used a default template for covering Moldova, relying mainly on the fact that the new government presented itself as pro-European. A more astute analysis would indicate that the new government is ‘pro-European’ in name only.

After numerous Moldovan activists wrote public letters calling upon western media to take a more mindful view of the ongoing protests, a change of tone occurred. There is now a broad acknowledgement that protesters were, and are, a distinctly heterogeneous group.

Admittedly, many of them are pro-Russian, yet a lot are as pro-European as they come. What unites them all is a genuine frustration with an ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” government and a desire for a more democratic and prosperous future.

This is largely missing from the international media discourse, caught in the cross fire between Russia and the west. Russia has capitalised on the growing anti-European sentiment in Moldova, and by supporting these ruling elites, western media and western politicians have only vindicated Kremlin’s propaganda.

Another piece of the puzzle

Russia’s postimperial syndrome is built on the belief that the west is containing its resurgence by creating a belt of instability in south-east Europe — a mantra that rarely departs from Russian TV screens. Moldova is seen as just another piece of the puzzle.

Moscow has a clear agenda of trying to bring Moldova back into its orbit and does not shy away from making its intentions known either.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to broker a coalition deal between the Communists and the Democrats. In the 2014 campaign, Russia openly supported the Socialist Party.

Russian media, which still holds a lot of sway over Moldovan public opinion, has been an indispensable tool in this process. Interestingly though, the rebroadcasting rights in Moldova for the most popular Russian federal TV channels are owned by so called ‘pro-European’ politicians, primarily Vlad Plahotniuc. He owns, among a few others, the Moldovan license for Russia’s flagship Channel One. Russian media coverage of protests in Moldova paints the EU in a negative tone, while reinforcing the message of Eurasian Economic Union as a better alternative. The aim of these reports may be as much to appeal Russia's domestic audience as it is to influence public perceptions in Moldova.
This sort of nuance is helpful in understanding the complexity of the Moldovan political landscape, which cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy.

The same is true for the protest movement. Many things that politicians had kept to themselves, such as allegations of blackmail and corruption, came to light only after mass protests erupted. However, for a long time, protesters could not set their differences aside in order to pursue a common goal: early elections.

Even when they finally did, the much heralded unity of protesters across ethnic, linguistic, ideological and party lines proved too good to be true. The nascent movement is constantly being undermined by infighting.

Besides, there have always been doubts about the independence of such political players as the socialist leader Igor Dodon, Our Party head Renato Usatii, and front man of the civic platform turned political party, Andrei Năstase. Hence, the real tragedy is that genuine popular protests are led by less than candid individuals.

Bridging the divide

Instead of helping to bridge this divide, both media and politicians have contributed to the increased polarisation of public opinion by presenting just one side of the debate, reinforcing the ever-present confirmation bias.

This development is particularly visible when it comes to Romanian or Russian news reports, as well as political commentary on developments in Moldova. Self-proclaimed leader of the Moldovan diaspora in Russia, Aleksandr Kalinin, posted a Facebook video calling upon Vladimir Putin to come and rescue the Moldovans from what he saw as an imminent takeover by Romanian and Ukrainian special forces.

The response came in a leading Romanian newspaper from none other than a prominent Romanian analyst and former adviser to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, Iulian Chifu, who called the video an “official request” to Putin. To his credit, Chifu went on to debunk Kalinin’s bogus allegations, but the latter was afforded much more attention than he deserved even in the aftermath of Crimea and Donbas.

The EU's former enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle is perfectly right when he says that: “We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova.”

Undeniably, Russian media will continue to produce characteristically biased reports about Moldova, but if western media want to have any claim to a higher moral ground they have to give up using simple shortcuts and produce accurate accounts no matter how tedious or inconvenient that may be.

Max Seddon’s recent article in the Financial Times, for example, does just that. He reports that “In private, some European diplomats say they would welcome a pro-Russian government — if only so that the current coalition cannot further tarnish the EU. Says one: ‘Asking them to do reforms is like asking turkeys to prepare Christmas dinner.’” 

Who are the pro-Europeans now?

No matter how ironic it may sound, a pro-Russian government is likely to be the only thing that can rehabilitate the European Union’s image in Moldova. The risks of a new government changing Moldova’s foreign policy course are minimal: it would be economically irrational and politically suicidal, since most of the burden of adjusting to the new EU-Moldova Association Agreement has been incurred, while the benefits are only kicking in. 

The new government cannot be called pro-European and, to its credit, it does not use the term. The coalition that Plahotniuc has put together literally has no name nor a coalition agreement. It relies on the program of the previous government despite being a “coalition of the willing”. Namely, the will of the 57 lawmakers being to preclude early elections and stay in power for another three years despite the sheer collapse of public trust after the infamous bank heist and the utter refusal to accept any blame either by the government or the parliament.

Moldova is a case study for state capture, though perhaps had Moldova been an EU candidate country, things would have been different via conditionality. The West has sacrificed democracy for geopolitical interests, which is usually a recipe for disaster down the road.

The sole threat of an imminent pro-Russian government is likely to galvanise and reboot the political system, albeit incrementally, with a new breed of upstanding young professionals exiting their comfort zones and entering the public domain to the benefit of their communities and their country — the alternative being a drift away from the values of democracy and the rule of law, all under the watchful eye of the international media.

See also:

Saturday, 20 February 2016

When Soviet hipsters risked jail for Jazz

Cross post from Little Green Footballs.

Here's a fantastic little documentary on the time when Jazz, Rock'n'Roll, anything sung by an emigre, even 'gypsy' music was illicit in the USSR. How people managed to distribute music is extraordinary - they used x-rays.

Writes Kim Kelly:
X Ray Audio: The Documentary explores the curious, sometimes fantastical story behind Soviet Russia's strangest cultural exports, and is part of a larger project which has seen Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield publish a book and host muitple live events (the next of which will take place at Rough Trade East in London on March 9). As their website explains, "Giving blood every week to earn enough money to buy a recording lathe, one bootlegger Rudy Fuchs cuts banned music onto such discarded x-rays to be sold on street corners by shady dealers. It was ultimate act of punk resistance, a two-fingered salute to the repressive regime that gave a generation of young Soviets access to forbidden Western and Russian music, an act for which Rudy and his fellow bootleggers would pay a heavy price."
Take a trip back to a time and place it's nearly impossible to imagine with X Ray Audio: The Documentary.
Watch the documentary and four examples of groovy, Soviet-era music after the jump.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Russia: punishment psychiatry back in vogue

Reblogged with permission from People & Nature.


By Gabriel Levy

The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him.

On 9 November Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous federal security services (FSB) building at Lubyanka square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat [Ugroza]: friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no-one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.

The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.
Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred”, whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky district court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.

Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.

Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, “Freedom” (“Svoboda”). In February 2014, days after the removal  of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, he went with collaborators he went to Malyi Koniushennyi bridge in St Petersburg, setting light to car tyres and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.

Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo from the Calvert journal site
Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo from the Calvert journal site

Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (27 January) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.

Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.

On 3 February, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky court extended his detention to 5 March. His wife expressed fears for his health in a facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”

Meanwhile artists are protesting about a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s “Innovation” prize.

His action at the Lubyanka was included after an on-line vote by critics. But on 15 February, the organisers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organisers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”

Clearly, the organisers have taken a step back. In 2010 the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near the security services headquarters in St Petersburg.
Punishment psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.
In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky centre declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.

Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry: in October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. Then, he wrote:
“Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”
But punishment psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky Centre that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia”, which was widely applied to political dissidents.

Not only were internationally-known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organiser Vladimir Klebanov and the second world war general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg”. It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants”: “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control”. Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)

An early – and typical – case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s youth league, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league!

His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J who drew that to my attention!)
Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo from the Chronicle of Current Events archive
Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo from the Chronicle of Current Events archive

Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?

In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest – but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.

If you are a western leftie thinking “well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression”, give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage – by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what … it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of the same process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.

For me, this is about the reality with which my friends – activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine – have to deal.

If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter-writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor … and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live?

See also:
Edited to add: On February 23 Pavlensky was transferred back to prison from the psychiatric facility. His wife said on Facebook that doctors tried to isolate him but other 'patients' backed him and "the blockade was broken".

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

If Labour Moderates Were Football Fans ...

[Click for larger version]

Reblogged with permission from my mate Jake Goretzki, who is a self-described 'September the Twelfther' (one of those who left the Labour Party on the day that Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader). 

Jake says that the idea behind his cartoon is that "while I get the idea of a party being its members, when the boss and staff and objectives go rogue (and the tokens of success and trophies are disdained), it becomes almost impossible to support. I increasingly compare Corbyn Labour to Wimbledon [football club] when it was franchised to Milton Keynes - the 'club' and heritage and place effectively hijacked, and the grinning horror of  Pete Winkleman an impossible prospect to 'carry on' with."