Sweeping Gypsies Out in Europe the Beginning of Next Wave of Euro-Fascism?

Gypsies or Roma: Europe’s “Most Persecuted Minority”

POSTED BY SWARAAJ CHAUHAN, INTERNATIONAL COLUMNIST

After an eviction, Paris

After an eviction, Paris

 

Today is an important day for Gypsies, also known as Romani (estimated population 6-11 million worldwide). A group of academics, government advisers and gypsy representatives are meeting in Strasbourg to discuss the next steps in a pan-European project entitled “The Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005 to 2015″. The Independent describes Gypsies/Roma as “Europe’s most persecuted minority that has become the subject of increasingly draconian laws.” (Photo above shows Romanies evicted from their homes in Paris.)

“Now President Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy would have us believe that the Roma community as a group represents a security threat so grave that it demands the removal of its members en masse. One is reminded of the Criminal Tribes Act passed by the British in India in 1871, which stigmatised 161 communities there as ‘born criminals’. A recent study concluded that the Act was a result of ‘profound ignorance of India’s social structure and cultural institutions.”

In 1885 the United States outlawed the entry of the Roma. The persecution of the Romanies reached a peak during World War II. In 1935, the Nuremberg laws stripped the Romani people living in Nazi Germany of their citizenship, after which they were subjected to violence, imprisonment in concentration camps and later genocide in extermination camps. More here…

The Independent continues: “Gypsies have been at the margin of European affairs ever since they arrived from India nearly a millennium ago. They have no claims on territory, have never started a war, are far from homogeneous and have produced few figures who bulk large in our history books. In the past they were usually in motion, trundling around the edges of European history, earning a living in the nooks and crannies of society, fortune telling, basket weaving, horse trading, dealing in scrap metal.

“They might be seen as people of doubtful honesty, capable of sly tricks, or seductively wild, depending on circumstance, but whatever they were it was of fleeting importance. They had their world, we, the gaje (non-Romanies), had ours…”

“‘The Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005 to 2015′, according to its authors, is to ‘improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma’. The next phase will see Romanies stepping forward in museums and other institutions in Britain, Greece, Germany and Slovenia and talking about their culture, ‘getting people to talk to them and get to know them, to get rid of some of the fear,’ as one of the organisers puts it…

 

After an eviction, Paris

[ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW]

Part of the European community? Bulgarian Roma after an eviction last month

Part of the European community? Bulgarian Roma after an eviction last month

A Slovak Roma woman and child

A Slovak Roma woman and child

An elderly woman in a camp on the outskirts of Rome

An elderly woman in a camp on the outskirts of Rome

Outsiders: The trouble with the Roma

Europe’s most persecuted minority has become the subject of increasingly draconian laws. But recent treatment of the Roma shames our continent, argues Peter Popham

This Thursday, in a hall in the Council of Europe’s headquarters in Strasbourg, a group of academics, government advisers and gypsy representatives will get together to discuss the next steps in a pan-European project entitled “The Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005 to 2015″.

The idea of the “decade”, according to its authors, is to “improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of Roma”. The next phase will see Romanies stepping forward in museums and other institutions in Britain, Greece, Germany and Slovenia and talking about their culture, “getting people to talk to them and get to know them, to get rid of some of the fear,” as one of the organisers puts it.

It’s a low-key initiative, very modestly funded – but it has attained a new importance. Thanks to France’s President Sarkozy and his policy of targeting their communities for repatriation, gypsies suddenly find themselves at the centre of European debate. How did this come about?

Gypsies have been at the margin of European affairs ever since they arrived from India nearly a millennium ago. They have no claims on territory, have never started a war, are far from homogeneous and have produced few figures who bulk large in our history books. In the past they were usually in motion, trundling around the edges of European history, earning a living in the nooks and crannies of society, fortune telling, basket weaving, horse trading, dealing in scrap metal. They might be seen as people of doubtful honesty, capable of sly tricks, or seductively wild, depending on circumstance, but whatever they were it was of fleeting importance. They had their world, we, the gaje (non-Romanies), had ours.

Just as only a few Romanies have been feted as culture heroes in the gaje world, few have become notorious. Their crimes were of a scale with the rest of their low-key, inconspicuous lives, picking pockets being the most obvious. But now Sarkozy in France and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy would have us believe that the Roma community as a group represents a security threat so grave that it demands the removal of its members en masse. One is reminded of the Criminal Tribes Act passed by the British in India in 1871, which stigmatised 161 communities there as “born criminals”. A recent study concluded that the Act was a result of “profound ignorance of India’s social structure and cultural institutions”.

Are the French and Italian governments, by targeting gypsy communities en masse and demanding their removal, doing something similar today? And if so, what lies behind it?

While it was President Sarkozy’s policy which brought the assault on the Roma to the world’s attention, it was in Italy that the policy of treating gypsies en masse as criminals was first put into place – paradoxically, by a leading politician of the left, a former Communist.

Gypsies have been emigrating to Italy from the Balkans since the 15th century. Today, the Romany population of Italy is thought to be around 180,000, perhaps twice that of Britain. Most of them have been sedentary for centuries. As elsewhere, what has kept them distinct from the majority population is their language, culture and folkways.

What has changed over the past 20 years is the arrival in the West of relatively large numbers of Romany immigrants from eastern Europe: from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, fleeing the wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early Nineties; and from Romania following the death of Ceausescu, the fall of the Communist regime, and the opening of the borders around the same time.

The single most critical moment was the entry of Romania into the EU on 1 January 2007, which enabled Romanian citizens to move around the EU at will. Hundreds of thousands of migrants poured into Italy as a result, more than into any other country. The panicky realisation that they could not easily be removed led to a mood of crisis. A small but very visible fraction of them – no one knows how many – were Romanies.

As in Italy, the Romany populations of Romania and Yugoslavia had been settled for hundreds of years. “We lived in our own villages,” says Dijana Pavlovic, a Romany born and raised in Serbia who now lives in Milan. “One of my grandfathers was a blacksmith, the other was a carpenter. They were illiterate, but they were settled people: the only time they went travelling was when they had to look for work.”

But while Italy’s Romanies remained socially marginal and relatively deprived, Tito and Communism had given those in Yugoslavia the opportunity to improve their lives. “It was Communism that gave my parents the chance to go to school,” says Pavlovic. “Education in Tito’s Yugoslavia was free and compulsory, and after school they got jobs: my father in a warehouse, my mother in a factory.” Dijana was the family’s first university graduate. Today, Romanies in Serbia have TV and radio news programmes and newspapers in their own language, and are represented by Romany politicians.

In Romania, too, most of the community led settled lives for centuries, though their conditions of life were much worse than in Yugoslavia: Romania’s gypsies were slaves until the mid-19th century; most are still very poor, and they still suffer from the prejudices of the majority community. This, as well as the arrival of mass unemployment, explains why many chose to go west.

Reaching Italy, they found the affluent land they had heard about – but became victims of their new country’s prejudices. Eighty-four per cent of Italians still believe gypsies to be nomads, and it was as such that they were treated. “Very few of the Romanies who arrived from Bosnia and Kosovo, fleeing the war, were recognised as refugees,” says Pavlovic. “You weren’t entitled to the status of refugee, precisely because you were a gypsy. And that’s the crux of the problem.”

Because the Italian authorities decided that nomadism was their natural condition, they made no steps to settle the new migrants in houses like other refugees, but instead created camps for them. The press still calls these campi nomadi, nomad camps. It was a way to sidestep the challenge of integrating the Roma into local communities.

The result was ghettoes. And they did what ghettoes always do: they prevented their inmates from developing in step with the rest of society, gave the majority a distinctive, defenceless scapegoat for their problems, and became the focus of tensions that flared up fiercely in times of economic trouble – like now.

At first glance, the gypsy camp in Milan’s Via Idro looks nothing like a ghetto. There is abundant greenery, the caravans and campers and small wooden houses are interspersed with grass and shrubs, and small dogs and chickens and children run about unimpeded. But this is land nobody else would deign to live on. Penned in by the River Lambro on one side, a canal on the other, and the city’s ring road on the third, it is fetid and plagued by flies and mosquitoes. Many of the 110 residents have been here for more than 20 years.

They have by now achieved a sort of normality. The numerous children go to school. The parents work at casual labouring jobs. In a corner of the camp, the oldest residents keep the flame of gypsy tradition going with a stable of horses that they rear to sell. Unwholesome and isolated as it is, Via Idro has an atmosphere of relative calm and stability, and many of its residents, most of them Italian citizens of long standing, seemed fairly cheerful about their lot. But that is about to change – due to what happened in Rome in November 2007.

The Italian capital was dramatically unprepared for the influx of new migrants from Romania after1 January 2007. Informal camps sprang up around the city, including many along the banks of the Tiber, to the consternation of locals. The subway trains swarmed with beggars and accordionists, windscreen cleaners popped up at every intersection. Small, dark-skinned strangers gathered by communal rubbish bins outside apartment blocks, expertly gutting them for anything of value. The city government looked on and did next to nothing.

As elections approached towards the end of that year, a mood of hysterical anger towards the new arrivals took hold. Then, in November, the wife of a naval captain was mugged and murdered in a dark lane on the city outskirts. The murder, it was alleged, was committed by a Romany who lived in a nearby camp.

That was all it took: a single ugly crime, and a possible Romany culprit. The city mayor, Walter Veltroni, a former Communist, a novelist and a man who has declared his intention of working for the relief of poverty in Africa when he retires from politics, wasted no time. He ordered the immediate demolition of the city’s informal camps, and rammed through an emergency law mandating the expulsion of foreigners, including EU citizens, who were a “security threat”. The target was the Romanies. “I am always on the side of the weakest,” said Mr Veltroni, “and for me the weakest are those who suffer violence.”

But Veltroni’s post-Fascist opponents upped the anti-Roma rhetoric even further and stole the election. By the spring 2008, sicurezza (“security”) – code for expulsion – had become Italy’s populist cure-all. Taken up by Berlusconi and his allies, the chauvinistic and separatist Northern League in particular, the crusade against the gypsies was the single biggest factor in giving the centre-right a landslide victory in the general election.

Two years on, with the economic crisis raging, the contagion of hatred had leapt over the Alps to infect France, where another star-struck politician facing electoral meltdown took the same lesson from it as Veltroni in Rome. And when Sarkozy decided to turn the expulsion of Romanies into a test of wills at the European level, suddenly the issue was everywhere. And a great human tragedy was in the making.

Today the urge to kick the gypsies out has reached as far as the placid camp at Via Idro. Although this place has been home to Romanies for nearly a generation, today the mood is anxious and unhappy: all the residents have been given notice to quit. Ahead of local elections next spring, Milan’s city government has promised to solve what they call the “Roma emergency” by the simple expedient of closing all camps in the city, the legal ones as well as the informal ones. Via Idro is to become a transit camp; no one will be allowed to stay for more than three months. Where will its residents go? “We have no idea,” said a man identifying himself as Giovanni, an Italian Romany with family roots in Croatia. “They say they are going to put other people here, the Romanians. It’s all in the council’s hands…”

“The Romanians” are the 600 Romanian gypsies who live in a far worse official camp a few miles away in Via Triboniano, behind the city’s biggest cemetery. No greenery here: only high fences, stark, tight-packed containers to live in, guarded night and day by police. After an outbreak of violence two years ago, the inmates were obliged to sign a “Pact of Sociality and Legality”, swearing not to steal, not to beg, not to have house guests overnight. They did so as the only way to stay in the camp – but now this camp, too, is to be closed as part of the ruling coalition’s drive to rid the city of Romanies. Like Veltroni’s expulsion drive, Milan’s policy is powered by election fever, and the competition between parties on right and left to be the toughest on the Romanies, who are identified – absurdly, seeing as they account for a mere 1,300 people, more than half of them women and children, in a city of more than 4 million – as the source of the city’s problems.

But this is not a policy, just a slogan: gypsies out! Every few days the press announces new sgomberi, the demolition of illegal camps. But once Via Idro and Via Triboniano and all Milan’s other camps are closed, their occupants will not simply vanish into thin air. Some will be induced by bribes to return to Romania. But given the high unemployment and discrimination there, they will be back in Italy as soon as they can. The rest will take to the road and build new shanties as soon as they are out of sight.

Against heavy odds, the gypsies in these camps in Milan have been doing what they could to improve their lives: putting their children through school, learning skills, saving money to buy homes. But as the Italian state forces them to adopt a roving lifestyle which their ancestors have not followed for centuries, all that effort goes up in smoke. And the “Decade of Roma Inclusion” is turning into quite the opposite.

Pakistan arrests 7 militants, foil plot to kill PM

Pakistan arrests 7 militants, foil plot to kill PM

By KHALID TANVEER (AP)

MULTAN, Pakistan — Pakistani police arrested a group of Islamist militants who were plotting to kill the prime minister and other top government officials, a top officer said Thursday.

The conspiracy against Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was “almost complete,” said Abid Qadri, a regional police chief. He said the militants were planning to attack Gilani when he traveled to his hometown of Multan, but gave no more details.

Militants in Pakistan have frequently attacked government officials, security officers and political leaders as part of a campaign to destabilize the U.S.-allied government and take over the state. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun-and-bomb attack near Islamabad in 2007.

Like other top officials, Gilani does not publicize his movements ahead of time and travels with extensive security.

Qadri did not offer any evidence to back up his allegations.

He said authorities learned about the plot during an initial interrogation of the seven militants, who were arrested late Wednesday after a shootout near a village in central Pakistan.

The militants opened fire when police tried to pull their car over for a routine check, Qadri said. Nobody was wounded in the shooting, but two men managed to escape, he said.

The men are members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned Sunni Muslim militant group linked to both the Taliban and al-Qaida, Qadri said. The group has been blamed for attacking minority Shiite worship places as well as assaults on security forces and other targets.

Some of the suspects are believed to have taken part in an attack last year on the offices of Pakistan’s main spy agency in Multan, which is in Punjab province in central Pakistan, Qadri said.

The men were also conspiring to kill Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, also a Multan native, and the minister for religious affairs, who last year survived an assassination attempt in Islamabad, Qadri said. He said the suspects also had plans to attack a dam, a bridge and military installations.

Europe the Intolerant

[SEE: Camp_of_the_Saints.pdf]

Europe the Intolerant

The continent’s progressive image is a fabrication of the American liberal mind.

By JAMES KIRCHICK

Prague

‘The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” So said Tom Wolfe in 1965, and so it is today.

Various commentators have argued recently that opposition by many Americans to a proposed Islamic center two blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Center represents deep-seated religious bigotry and paranoia. But if any place is plagued by increasing bigotry, it’s not America but Europe, the continent whose welfare states and pacifism are so admired by American liberals.

Last year, nearly 60% of Swiss voted to ban the construction of minarets—all minarets, everywhere, not just near the sites of world-historical terrorist attacks committed by Muslim radicals.

In Belgium, the lower house of parliament passed a burqa ban this year that now awaits Senate approval. In France such a ban became the law of the land last week, having been upheld by the country’s top court. Although there are legitimate reasons for such bans, some support for them certainly arises from anti-Muslim bigotry.

In recent years far-right, anti-immigrant parties have done alarmingly well across Europe. In Sweden, the nationalist Sweden Democrats entered parliament last month for the first time since the party’s founding in 1988. In the United Kingdom, the far-right British National Party won nearly three times as many votes (563,000) in this year’s parliamentary elections as in 2005; last year it won two seats in the European Parliament.

In Austria, the Freedom Party—formerly led by Joerg Haider, who had kind things to say of the Nazis—earned 17.5% of the vote in 2008. In France, the National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who questioned the existence of the Nazi gas chambers before conceding that they were a “detail” of World War II, came in second in the 2002 presidential election, earning a spot in a runoff with then-President Jacques Chirac.

And now the far right may be rising again in Germany, where stringent speech laws and parliamentary thresholds have long kept it out of the Bundestag. Recent polls cited by the German Press Agency estimate support for an anti-Muslim party at 20%, which would be enough to enter parliament.

“The fall of parliamentary seats into extremist hands represents the biggest shake-up in European politics since the disappearance of communism,” wrote Denis MacShane recently in Newsweek. Mr. MacShane is a Labour member of the British Parliament who previously served as minister of state for Europe.

Europeans are leery not just of Muslim immigrants but of Jews, nearly exterminated on the continent 60 years ago. A recent Pew Global Attitudes poll found that nearly 50% of Spaniards have either a “very” or “somewhat unfavorable” opinion of Jews. The figures are 25% for Germans, 20% for French and 10% for British. This anti- Semitism was underscored by the recent assertion of European Union Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht that “it is not easy to have, even with moderate Jews, a rational discussion about what is actually happening in the Middle East.”

So when American liberals decry their conservative counterparts as bigots seeking to impose fascism on the U.S. (having failed to do so during two terms of the Bush administration), they ignore that part of the West where genuine nostalgia for fascism endures.

Anyone who has traveled throughout Europe knows that its image as an exemplar of progressivism, and ethnic and religious diversity, is a fabrication of the American liberal mind.

American liberals who ignore European bigotry while considering opposition to the Ground Zero mosque inexcusable bring to mind the mocking suggestion of German communist playwright Bertolt Brecht: “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”

Throughout the mosque debate, the vast majority of Americans showed themselves to be capable of respectful disagreement. It is Europeans, again, whose darker impulses we have to fear.

Mr. Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague, and a contributing editor of the New Republic.

Two deaths and four years in Putin’s “Sovereign Democracy”

Witness: Two deaths and four years in Putin’s Russia

By Michael Stott

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Two deaths framed my four years in Moscow.

The first was the murder of crusading political journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in her apartment building on then-President Vladimir Putin’s 54th birthday, a month after my arrival in Russia.

I had read Politkovskaya’s essays “Putin’s Russia” before starting my assignment, struck by the bleakness of the picture they painted but encouraged by her boldness.

Surely a government that tolerates such journalists could not be as bad as she made it out to be?

Politkovskaya’s death was a harbinger. The succeeding four years in Moscow were punctuated with the violent deaths of investigative journalists and human rights workers.

Defense correspondent Ivan Safronov fell from a fourth floor window after researching Russian arms sales to the Middle East. Although he was still alive after hitting the street and neighbors called an ambulance immediately, help only arrived once he had died. Investigators returned a verdict of suicide.

Anastasia Baburova, a young reporter with the opposition Novaya Gazeta, found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time: walking along a central Moscow street in broad daylight after a news conference with Stanislav Markelov, a rights lawyer appealing against the release of a jailed army killer and rapist. Both were shot dead.

The killings largely achieved their aim of silencing critical, independent voices in the Russian media. Alexei Venediktov, editor of Ekho Moskvy radio, says that many journalists have left the profession altogether or emigrated to freer neighboring states such as Ukraine.

Despite the bloodshed, Western media depictions of Putin’s Russia as a totalitarian police state or a rebirth of the Soviet Union are wide of the mark.

Russians have retained the biggest freedom they won with the demise of the Soviet Union, the right to travel freely abroad. The Russian Internet remains largely free and foreign journalists have far more freedom to travel, interview and write than in China or much of the Middle East.

Today’s Russians — especially those in the elite — are far too fond of consumerism and Western comforts to want a return to the shortages, queues and austerity of the Soviet era.

Much more striking about Putin’s Russia are two other aspects: its corruption and its old-fashionedness.

Corruption in Russia is as old as the tsars and bribe-taking is widespread across much of the emerging market world.

Yet the scale of it in Russia is staggering. The government itself estimates that $300 billion a year is paid in bribes. Unlike other countries, much of the cash is not handed over to secure lucrative contracts — though that also happens.

Instead, officials charge protection money in return for not closing down your business, not imprisoning you on a trumped-up charge or not confiscating your assets on a pretext of a tax investigation. It is not bribery. It is extortion.

A Moscow restaurateur says bribes are her main business expense each month, amounting to more than salaries, rent or food. The officials who visit her to collect their money work in rotation — one month the tax police visit, the next the labor inspector, then the hygiene and sanitary service, the fire inspector and so on.

And then there is the young graduate who joined the traffic police. Five years on, he holds a humble post handing out license plates — yet he owns two apartments and a Mercedes.

When Putin put many of his former KGB associates into key positions of power back in 2000, he believed that their professionalism, patriotism and experience would make them trusted and loyal administrators of a new Russia.

Instead, many of what former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev termed “the new nobility” started behaving like the old Tsarist aristocracy — using their positions to amass huge personal fortunes and live astoundingly sybaritic lives.

Stand outside one of Moscow’s more expensive nightclubs at night and see how many of the black Mercedes S-Classes and Bentleys disgorging expensively clad young men and their under-dressed girlfriends bear special passes in their windscreens from the Presidential Administration or the FSB.

No surprise then, that ambitious Russian students say their top career preference is a job with the government. As the joke goes, you live like an oligarch but the job security is better.

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared a war on corruption but Russians’ expectations are low: after all, this is a leader who has spent nearly two decades inside the system and who knows perfectly well how high corruption reaches.

In contrast to an emerging market competitor like Brazil, where a vigorous free press campaigns against abuses of power, Russia’s intimidation of investigative journalists and civil society activists dooms any campaign to name and shame corrupt officials to failure.

And the other death which framed my time in Moscow?

The political death last month of Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s veteran mayor. Fired summarily by Medvedev, Luzhkov embodied both those hallmarks of the Putin era: old-fashionedness and corruption.

Popularly elected in the 1990s and originally praised as a dynamic leader who restyled Soviet central Moscow into a ritzy 21st century capital, Luzhkov drew increasing fire as he stayed at the helm of Europe’s largest city for 18 unbroken years.

Eventually it was his public criticism of Medvedev that led to his downfall, though the fortune of his billionaire property developer wife Yelena Baturina did not help.

Luzkhkov’s strident, old fashioned political views sat ill with Medvedev’s Russia. Gay pride marches were “satanic” and Stalin’s contribution to victory in World War Two was honored with posters displayed around the city.

But far from being a maverick exception, Luzhkov was in many ways a typical example of the type of politician who has flourished under Putin.

When President Barack Obama criticised Putin before his first visit to Moscow for having one foot stuck in the past, some commentators felt his criticism had merit.

Famous for his phrase that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, Putin has at times looked awkward in a 21st century where soft power and knowledge economies trump tanks and torpedoes.

Russia’s brief war with Georgia in 2008 was an example. The Kremlin responded to Georgia’s attack on the pro-Russia breakaway region of South Ossetia by launching an all-out air and land invasion of its tiny neighbor.

Such Great Power military moves were de rigueur in the 19th century and still popular in the 20th.

But in the 21st century they helped trigger a catastrophic meltdown of the Russian stock market, a flight by investors and serious damage to Moscow’s standing among key emerging market nations. Even the country’s closest allies shunned the move.

Perhaps the root of Russia’s problems lies in its seat of power. Nestled next to the river in central Moscow and occupying 68 acres of prime land enclosed by fairytale high red walls, the Moscow Kremlin is a beautiful, mystical world unto itself.

Tread the creaking wooden parquet floors of its long, carpeted corridors under dim clusters of light bulbs enclosed in Soviet-era shades and you walk back in time.

The large office suites on the fourth floor, home to top officials, boast armies of secretaries, banks of old-fashioned white secure telephones and an eerie, tomb-like silence where the 21st century barely intrudes.

Ensconced in what Putin’s former private secretary Igor Sechin described as a “holy and deeply significant” place, would any Russian ruler worry about the rapid rise of neighboring China, the explosive growth of India’s technology industry or the risk that Russia might be getting left behind?

Returning for a moment to the theme of death, if Putinism faces a mortal threat over the long term, it is unlikely to come from the familiar bogeymen he evokes: the West or the political opposition.

It is much more likely to come from corruption or old-fashionedness.

(Editing by Janet McBride)

Luzhkov’s no-show after court summons

© RIA Novosti. Mikhail Fomichev

Luzhkov’s no-show after court summons

Fallen mayor Yury Luzhkov has been summoned to court for bribery and electoral fraud – but rather than face the legal system he helped to create, Luzhkov has failed to show.

The ex-mayor, along with local United Russia bosses, has been called to answer charges of fiddling election results in the 2009 Moscow Duma poll.

Opposition leader Nikolai Levichev, of A Just Russia, filed a suit with Moscow City Court calling for Luzhkov’s indictment over bribery and abuse of his official position during the campaign last autumn.

“We have counted numerous instances of bribery, which have prevented the real will of voters in these elections being expressed, and we would like to see Luzhkov in court for these violations. We hope that now he is an ordinary citizen…he will be answerable before the law,” Levichev told gzt.ru.

Ordinary or not, Luzhkov chose not to appear in court yesterday and is now set to be handed a summons for the next hearing on Oct. 25, Kommersant reported.

 

Turning tides

“He used to be no ordinary citizen and you would try to hand him a court summons,” Levichev said but at this point, gzt.ru reported, democracy would grind to a halt. The ex mayor should remember that he is no longer anyone important and should behave humbly, Levichev warns. “There are sanctions for those who behave disrespectfully towards the court.”

This is the first time that Luzhkov will have appeared in the dock.

“I am absolutely sure that a precedent is close this time…Luzhkov will soon appear personally in court, not his lawyers or the legal department of the mayor’s office, but him personally,” said Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Reform. “This time the judge has set herself up to be very tough.”

Prominent Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov says it is time for Luzhkov to experience all the charm of the judicial system he created in Moscow. “I think that both he and his wife will appear in the courts.”

But Yabloko leader Sergey Mitrokhin has his doubts, and thinks that Luzhkov is unlikely to appear in court any time soon. “It simply can’t be, not unless they bring him in handcuffs.”

Comrade Putin’s Russia: more vulnerable than it seems?

Analysis: Putin’s Russia: more vulnerable than it seems?

By Michael Stott

MOSCOW | Thu Oct 14, 2010 6:05am EDT

(Reuters) – Large photographs of happy young children playing against brightly colored backgrounds decorate a hoarding blocking off a central Moscow square.

Behind the innocent-looking billboards, critics say, lies a hint of the fear stalking Russia‘s rulers. Their worry? That the strong state they cherish is more vulnerable than it looks.

Outwardly Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a tower of strength. The country’s undisputed ruler has spent the past 10 years — first as president, then as prime minister — consolidating power, beefing up the state and building prosperity.

Opinion polls show that Putin remains far more popular than any other politician. Russia’s opposition parties are marginalized, fragmented and weak. Critical voices are few. The mainstream media are relentlessly loyal.

Putin’s press chief Dmitry Peskov says the prime minister inherited a country in ruins when he became president in 2000 and has presided over a steady build-up in incomes.

“WORKAHOLIC” PRIME MINISTER

“The Prime Minister continues to be a workaholic,” he said. “He feels responsible for all the processes he launched…he uses the potential of the premiership 100 percent.”

Though he avoids commenting on the issue, Putin is widely expected to return to the presidency at elections in 2012 for a fresh six-year term.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on the Russian elite and member of the ruling United Russia party, estimates the odds of a third Putin presidency at 70 percent.

Aided by supportive media, the benefits of office and a lack of credible opponents, the former KGB agent is likely to win an overwhelming victory, shunting aside his loyal junior partner in the ruling “tandem,” President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russian business leaders and officials already describe the 2012 election as “completely predictable” — in their eyes a positive thing, because they fear sudden change.

Stability is the mantra repeated time and again by the prime minister and his supporters.

They hail the stability Putin has given Russia, the order he has imposed on its once-turbulent politics and its economy, which crashed in 1998 but limped through the 2008/9 crisis without a currency collapse, a run on banks or mass unemployment.

NO “UKRAINIAN SCENARIO” IN RUSSIA

Putin justifies his political legacy — the scrapping of elected mayors and governors, the democratic opposition pushed out of parliament and curbs on the media — as necessary to avoid a “Ukrainian scenario” — Kremlin code for chaos.

State news channel Rossiya 24 runs a regular item at the end of news bulletins called “Without Commentary,” often featuring footage of riots, disasters, misery or disorder in a foreign land. The subliminal message: life is better in Russia.

But if Russia is so stable, critics ask, why did Moscow authorities erect the hoarding featuring the young children — allegedly for the construction of a previously unannounced underground car park — and block off the Mayakovsky square which was a venue for monthly protests by rights activists?

Why, opposition journalists ask, do phalanxes of Moscow riot police supported by dogs regularly break up small opposition demonstrations and drag participants off to waiting vans, even though only a few hundred people turn up?

Why does the Kremlin’s political mastermind, deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, ensure overwhelming victories for Putin’s United Russia party in almost every municipal, regional and national election, even when it damages Russia’s image?

Why is Putin’s image so carefully burnished by his minders, with the premier appearing in tightly scripted and amply broadcast encounters with rappers, intellectuals, car workers, fire-fighters, Pacific grey whales and Arctic Polar bears?

Peskov says that Putin wants to be a “socially oriented Prime Minister with a socially oriented budget” but there are other ways of explaining Putin’s populism.

PUTIN’S HIGH RATING

“Putin’s high rating doesn’t mean there is such a great love for him,” Lev Gudkov, the head of Russia’s leading independent opinion pollster Levada Center said. “It’s more a lack of alternatives and a general indifference.”

Russia has other worries too. Constant official boasting about military might hides, analysts say, the reality: the country’s Soviet-era military remains woefully under-trained and under-equipped for modern warfare.

The economy, despite constant pronouncements about the need for diversification and modernization, still depends almost entirely on volatile raw material prices. The same goes for government revenues.

Ironically, Putin’s obsession with stability and his tight control of Russia may have created a blind alley from which the country cannot easily escape.

“Putin is the ultimate arbiter and the whole system depends on him,” one Western ambassador says. “It cannot function properly without him and that is a major risk in the long term.”

Russia’s business elite feel the same way.

“Putin is an enormously skilful operator,” one oligarch said, speaking on condition he was not identified. “You always leave a meeting with him feeling completely satisfied, feeling he is totally on your side. Later you find out how far he actually agreed with you.”

MEDVEDEV — JUST GOOD INTENTIONS?

Many believe Putin’s choice in 2008 of his long-term ally Medvedev as his successor was a deliberate attempt to set Russia on a path to faster economic reform, more efficient government and to make the country more appealing to foreign investors.

But although he has achieved a “reset” of relations with the United States, at home Medvedev has so far failed to deliver much more than good intentions, critics say.

And if Putin returns to the Kremlin in 2012 for up to two six-year terms, detractors say Russia‘s political system could ossify to a point where an orderly handover of power in 2024 — when Putin will turn 72 — becomes almost impossible.

Comparisons with the “era of stagnation” in the 1970s under aging former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev are already multiplying in Russian opposition media.

What are the alternatives?

The main officially tolerated opposition, the Communists, are gradually dying out and there is virtually no constituency in Russia for Western-style liberal democracy.

This leads observers such as author Dmitry Bykov to conclude that if Putin’s system is unable to reform itself from the top down, then the country could fall prey to far-right extremism.

As the editor of one major state broadcaster puts it: “The only political force in Russia today which has the strength and the national organization to challenge Putin is the far right.”

A former ambassador in Moscow from a Western power sums it up: “You may think Putin is anti-Western and hostile to free markets. But he is far more liberal than a lot of the people who stand behind him. Be careful for what you wish for.”

(Editing by Janet McBride)