Why the West Loves Vladmir Putin

A political analysis of Russia’s recent involvement in Chechnya and the reaction of West, written on 27th March 2000

“there are terrorists who kidnap innocent people by the hundreds and keep them in cellars, torture and execute them… Bandits of this kind — are they any better than Nazi criminals?”

—- Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

“Russian forces went on a killing spree in the Aldi district of Grozny, shooting at least sixty-two and possibly many more civilians who were waiting in the street and their yards for soldiers to check their documents. These were entirely preventable deaths, not unavoidable casualties of war. They were acts of murder, plain and simple…And most disturbing of all, there is no evidence that the killing spree has stopped.”

—- Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher

Russia’s presidential elections are over. With most of the vote counted, Vladimir Putin has so far accumulated more than the 50% needed to clinch the Presidency of Russia. Many Western leaders are treating this news with relief. A News Analysis piece in today’s New York Times by correspondent Michael R. Gordon is entitled, “Washington Bites its Nails as Russian Votes are Tallied.” Writing from Russia, Gordon explains why he thinks “The Clinton Administration has a lot riding on a Putin victory.” For one thing, “Mr. Putin and his top aides have talked about overhauling the tax code, protecting the rights of shareholders, phasing out subsidies to money-losing enterprises and tackling politically dicey issues such as establishing the right to own land.” Such talk of economic reforms has so impressed US officials that “Clinton administration officials are already discusing” ways to reward Putin’s efforts to help out foreign investors. Suggestions include, “expanding assistance by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, rescheduling Russian debt and having the United States Export-Import Bank step up its efforts to encourage investment in Russia.”

Unfortunately, things are not entirely rosy for US policy makers, because, “There is also Chechnya.” Putin’s war is making it difficult for administration officials to wholeheartedly embrace him in public. What of Chechnya? In Gordon’s words, “The brutal war has been temporarily pushed out of the news by the Russian election, but it is still raging.”

Extensive investigations by Human Rights Watch continue to reveal a pattern of brutal terror in Chechnya, including war crimes, carried out by the Russian forces. Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher, made it clear that the targets of Russia’s Chechnya campaign were not simply the rebels. In March 1 testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bouckaert called attention to the Russian forces, who “indiscriminately and disproportionately bombed and shelled civilian objects, causing heavy civilian casualties,” in violation of the Geneva Convention which limits attacks to combatants. “The bombing campaign has turned many parts of Chechnya to a wasteland: even the most experienced war reporters I have spoken to told me they have never seen anything in their careers like the destruction of the capital Grozny.” Human Rights watch has documented at least three large-scale massacres by Russian forces in Chechen villages. And there is a tremendous refugee crisis. More than 200,000 Chechens have fled the fighting into neighboring Ingushetia, which has a population of only 300,000.

Bouckaert concluded his testimony by urging the US to call for a suspension of World Bank and International Monetary Fund loan payments pending to Russia. He proposed that “the creation of a Commission of Inquiry should be a prominent item for discussion at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting, and the U.S. must insist on a discussion of the Chechen conflict at the U.N. Security Council, because the conflict in Chechnya has major implications for international peace and security.” (See the Human Rights Watch web site for more information; http://www.hrw.org/hrw/campaigns/russia/chechnya/).

The Senate was shocked by Boukaert’s testimony. Jesse Helms said, “I am ashamed of our government and its comments made in defense of Russia.” But the US has done practically nothing to stop the assault. To some, criticism of Putin’s campaign in Chechnya is considered “skepticism” (“Some Skeptics See Iron Hand in Putin’s Glove”, NYT, 2 Mar 2000).

The US State Department seems to share this point of view. “Instead of using its relationship with Russia to bring an end to the abuses in Chechnya, the Clinton administration has focused on cementing its relationship with acting President Putin, the prime architect of the abusive campaign in Chechnya,” Bouckaert lamented. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Russia for a conference on the Middle East in early February, and was “encouraged” by her long talk with Putin (“A 3-Hour Talk With Putin Leaves Albright Encouraged”, NYT, 3 Feb 2000). She may have warned Putin, but not of loan suspensions or the formation of a Commission of Inquiry. “We did not mince words, either of us, on Chechnya…I said to him…that he’s riding a tiger.” These are not words of anger, excoriating a war criminal. Rather, Albright was warning Putin, for his own sake, to be careful of the political consequences of his war. She also appeared frustrated that the US was powerless to stop the war, “I do not think we are any closer to a political solution in Chechnya.” Today’s New York Times news analysis of the Russian vote reiterates this seeming frustration: “The West has denounced the indiscriminate attacks against civilians [in Chechnya] but has been careful not to link the issue with the question of assistance from the monetary fund or other policy objectives.”

This is strange, since last year Albright did make strong statements regarding foreign aid to Russia after allegations in August that over $4.2 billion had been laundered out of Russia by organized crime. “We have made clear that we will not support further multilateral assistance to Russia unless fully adequate safeguards are in place. President Yeltsin’s Government needs at last to make fighting corruption a priority.” (“Albright Warns the Russians to Battle Corruption, Or Else”, NYT, 17 Sep 1999). Why is the US suddenly careful about making “Or Else” statements to Russia when it comes to the army’s conduct in Chechnya?

Albright’s stance mirrors that of major business interests in the West, which says that so long as Russia’s climate for foreign investment is “transparent” and stable, other issues, such as human rights, are of negligible importance. In a speech to the US-Russia Business Council in April 1998, Michael Camdessus, then Managing Director of the IMF, enunciated the importance of investors. He stressed the need for economic growth in Russia to “gain strength without financial disruption caused by loss of investor confidence,” which requires “firm resolution, commitment, and implementation on the government side, which has not always been there in the past.”

The Clinton administration considers Vladimir Putin “a man we can do business with.” Perhaps it believes that Putin has the “firm resolution” and “commitment” necessary to enact policies which will restore “investor confidence.” “Mr. Putin has regularly argued that foreign investment is essential to economic growth…Western business interests praise his recognition…of the importance of free trade and open markets” (NYT, 22 Mar 2000). His 1997 dissertation from the Mining Institute of St Petersburg was entitled, “Strategic Planning of the Renewal of the Minerals – Raw Materials Base of the Region in Conditions of the Formation of Market Relations.” The title may be obscure, but those who have read the thesis, such as Professor Mikhail Mednikov of St. Petersburg Technical University, one of Putin’s examiners, recognize that “It’s a paper written by a market-oriented person.” (Incidentally, the Mining Institute refuses to allow reporters to view the manuscript, therefore few people outside Putin’s examining committee have read it.) Putin has many times shown himself to be on the side of foreign investors, and not just in words. He worked for six years as deputy to Anatoly Sobchak, the Mayor of Moscow, where his job was to attract foreign investment to the port city of St. Petersburg. By 1993, Putin managed to create 6,000 joint ventures with foreign companies, half of Russia’s total at the time.

In an interview with Ted Koppel which aired last Friday night, Putin made clear his continued support for investors. He proclaimed the first priorities of his goverment, if elected. “First, we will focus on guaranteeing the full rights of owners and investors. The right of ownership must become a priority in Russia. We will strive to make the position of the state crystal clear in its legislation. We will need to make the state strong enough to guarantee implementation of these rights. And finally, we will do our best to ensure equal opportunity for all the participants of the market.”

It would seem that Secretary Albright’s threat to Boris Yeltsin’s government was taken to heart when Yeltsin picked Putin as his acting successor. Many criticize Putin’s history as a KGB agent, his apologetics for the Stalin era purges, his defense of the KGB, and his continued glossing over of the Russian assault of Chechnya. But it is likely that, so long as he promotes the interests of business, Putin’s “authoritarian streak” will not be questioned by Western leaders. Indeed, it may come to their aid — Putin said he will use friends from his days as a KGB agent, and as director of its successor agency the FSB, to help root out corruption and money laundering, which to him is only “a passing phase” (NYT, 24 March 2000).

On February 5, three days after Madeleine Albright left Moscow, the Aldi district of Grozny saw a glimpse of Putin’s authoritarianism. At least sixty-two civilians waiting in the streets to have their papers checked were shot down by Russian security forces. So far no threats to withold foreign aid have been forthcoming. Instead, Washington “bites its nails” waiting for Putin to be elected, as “the Russian longing for a strong hand” is used in the media as a metaphor for Washington’s own longing for the same.

Proposition 21: Further Degrading a Flawed System

Published in the California Tech on March 3rd 2000

What is Proposition 21?

Proposition 21 is the “Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Initiative” on the ballot for California this March. This 25 page initiative details new laws that are all aimed at Californian teenagers between the ages of 14-16, specifically to allow teenagers charges with crimes to be treated as adults within the legal system. It also expands the targeting of “gangs” and increases penalties for felonies. Despite it’s “tough on crime” appeal to Californians, Proposition 21 is a dangerous initiative which would further degrade a flawed justice system.

Top 10 Reasons Why YOU Should Vote NO on Proposition 21

10. Proposition 21 could increase your taxes. The California Department of Corrections estimated that this initiative requires 22,000 new prison spaces over the next 30 years at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. The Initiative provides no resources to pay for these prisons, and the burden will ultimately be borne by taxpayers.

9. Proposition 21 has been undemocratic from its inception. This initiative has NOT been the result of grass-roots campaigning. Rather it has been bankrolled and sponsored by former Governor Pete Wilson who spent $1 million (from a remaining presidential campaign fund) on professional signature gatherers to qualify this Initiative after the state legislature rejected his initial juvenile crime package.

8. Proposition 21 pledges more jails than schools. 20 years ago California pledged to be a leader in public education but today it is ranked 41 out of 50 states in education spending. Since 1984, the state has added 21 prisons and only one university campus, and is the #1 state in prison spending in the country.

7. Proposition 21 strengthens an out-of-control incarceration rampage. In February 2000, the prison population of the United States reached 2 million (more than any country in the world). While US prisoners comprise 25% of the world’s prison population, Americans comprise only 4.5% of the world. Proposition 21 is in the spirit of California’s existing draconian Three Strikes Law which requires citizens to serve life sentences upon their third conviction, most of which are non-violent offenses, better addressed by rehabilitation.

6. Proposition 21 will strengthen the corporate-sponsored prison labor industry. In addition to state-owned enterprises, private corporations have begun taking advantage of the low-production costs of prison labor. “Currently more than 90,000 state and federal convicts work in a variety of public and private enterprises while serving time.” (Washington Times, April 96). Those private corporations include Boeing, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood, etc,who hire a non-unionized work force for a tiny fraction of normal wages. It is no surprise then than some of the sources of funding for Proposition 21 include huge corporations like Chevron, Union Oil, TransAmerica, etc (California Online Voter Guide) in whose interests it is to expand cost-cutting prison labor by increasing the prison population.

5. Proposition 21 will destroy the lives of convicted Californian youth. If Proposition 21 passes, 14 year-olds will be tried as adults subject to the death penalty and sent to adult prisons where youth are 5 times more likely to be raped and 8 times more likely to commit suicide than adults. Proposition 21 will eradicate due process for juveniles and weaken confidentiality rules making it more difficult for reformed juveniles to acquire jobs after serving prison sentences.

4. Proposition 21 gives police more power. Proposition 21 requires youth to be tried in adult courts if the prosecutor CHARGES the youngster with certain crimes and prosecutors will rely on the police to determine those charges. Proposition 21 will extend the three-strikes law, grossly expand wiretapping rights, and allow police units such as the corruption-ridden LAPD CRASH unit to identify any group of youth from the same ethnic background and wearing similar clothing to be labeled a “gang” (This definition will not extend to mostly white college campuses such as Caltech).

3. Proposition 21 will support an already racist justice system. 2/3 of the two million imprisoned Americans are black or latino Americans who comprise less than 1/4 of the US population. If this is not enough evidence that the justice system has a racist bias, a recent Color of Justice study in California shows that after transfer to the adult system, black youth are 18.4 times more likely, Asian youth are 4.5 times more likely, and Latino youth are 7.3 times more likely than white youth to be sentenced by an adult court for similar crimes.

2. Proposition 21 just isn’t necessary. Crimes by minors in California declined 30% over the last decade and 7% in 1998 alone, while adult offenses dropped by 6% in 1998. Yet news reporting of crime stories has steadily gone up. For example, while homicides declined by 13 % between 1990 and 1995, on the network news during the same period, coverage of murders increased by 326 % (Center for Media and Public Affairs).

1. Proposition 21 is relying on Californians to blindly vote yes. The Proposition 21 initiative is one of the longest ever proposed. Its framers are confident that Californians will not read through the tedious details and will blindly vote yes. Exercise your democratic powers and send a message to the likes of ex-governor Wilson that you don’t believe in creating a future of hopelessness to California’s youth. Vote NO on Proposition 21!