Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Putin ejects Kremlin "puppet master" after protests

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The architect of Vladimir Putin's tightly controlled political system became one of its most senior victims on Tuesday when he was shunted out of the Kremlin in the wake of the biggest opposition protests of Putin's 12-year rule.
The sacrifice of Vladislav Surkov, branded the Kremlin's 'puppet master' by enemies and friends alike, is also a rare admission of failure for Russia's 'alpha dog' leader: Surkov's system was Putin's system.
With irony worthy of Surkov's cynical novels, the Kremlin's 47-year-old political mastermind was shown grinning on state television when told by President Dmitry Medvedev that he would oversee modernization as a deputy prime minister.
When asked why he was leaving the Kremlin, Surkov deliberately misquoted a slogan from the French Revolution, saying: "Stabilization is eating up its children."
Almost in passing, Surkov told Interfax news agency he would not be running domestic politics after nearly 13 years doing exactly that from the corridors of the Kremlin.
Why? "I am too notorious for the brave new world."
His post will be taken by Putin's chief of staff and Surkov's arch enemy, Vyacheslav Volodin, a wealthy former lawyer who hails from Putin's ruling United Russia party. Anton Vaino, a 39-year-old former diplomat, becomes Putin's chief of staff.
By ejecting Surkov from the Kremlin just two months before the presidential election, Putin is betting that he can neutralize some of the anger against his rule by projecting the impression of a brave new world of political reform.
"What happened today is nothing more than shuffling people from one office into another," Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third richest man who demanded Surkov be sacked in September, said through a spokesman. "Little will change from these shifts."
Though Surkov's exit may not usher in a vast political change, it is the end of an era for one of Putin's most powerful aides. And at Putin's court, personalities count for everything.
PUTIN'S ARTIST
Described as Russia's answer to France's Cardinal Richelieu or a modern-day Machiavelli, Surkov was one of the creators of the system Putin crafted since he rose to power in 1999.
To admirers, "Slava" Surkov is the most flamboyant mind in Putin's court: a writer of fiction who recited poets such as Allen Ginsberg but also strong enough to hold his own against the KGB spies and oligarchs in the infighting of the Kremlin.
To enemies, Surkov is a dangerous artist who used his brains to expand Putin's power and whose intellectual snobbery made Russian citizens beads in a grand political experiment called "Vladimir Putin."
Fond of black ties and sometimes unshaven, Surkov survived many turf wars but he could not survive the biggest protests of Putin's rule or Putin's need to find someone to blame for them.
As the manager of United Russia, the Kremlin's point man on elections and ultimately the day-to-day manager of Putin's political system, Surkov bore direct responsibility for the protests which have pitted Russia's urban youth against Putin.
He did not answer requests for comment.
Brought into the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin in 1999 to serve as an aide to then chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, Surkov helped ease the handover of power to Putin.
He then worked with Putin and then President Medvedev to consolidate power, repeatedly using the specter of the chaotic 1990s to warn against swift change.
PUTIN'S SYSTEM
In practice, Surkov's rule meant centralizing power in Putin's hands: Surkov moved regional decision-making to the Kremlin, struck down any attempt at autonomy and directed party politics.
Such was his power that Russia's top party officials, journalists and cultural leaders would visit him in the Kremlin for 'direction' on how to present events to the public.
"He is considered one of the architects of the system," Putin's former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, told Kommersant FM radio.
"Now this system is being revised. New organizers are needed with different views on the political system," said Kudrin, who has offered to lead dialogue between the opposition and the authorities.
Signs of trouble for Surkov appeared in May when Volodin -the man who eventually took his job - helped Putin create a new movement, or popular front, that would compete with the United Russia party for Putin's patronage.
Volodin, a dollar millionaire fond of ducking reporters questions with irony or personal needling, presented thereporters' popular front to Putin as a way to revive the ruling party.
Volodin's stock rose after securing 65 percent of the vote for Putin's party in Saratov, a region where he was born.
Then in September, the main scriptwriter of Russian politics became the focus of an intriguing unscripted conflict with Prokhorov - the whizz kid of Russian finance - over the fate of a minor opposition party which was crippled by the Kremlin.
"There is a puppet master in this country who long ago privatized the political system and has for a long time misinformed the leadership of the country," Prokhorov, whose fortune Forbes put at $18 billion, said at the time.
"His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov," said Prokhorov, who demanded Putin sack Surkov. Putin had to personally calm down the two sides in the row, two sources said.
But after mass protests in major Russian cities against the parliamentary election and against Putin himself, Surkov's analysis differed to that of his boss.
Putin has dismissed the protesters as chattering monkeys or a motley crew of leaderless opponents bent on sowing chaos, but Surkov gave a more refined view: he said they were among the best people in Russian society.
"You cannot simply swipe away their opinions in an arrogant way," said Surkov, who will now have to move his portrait of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara from his Kremlin office.
Kreaative Kennels

Missing Ind. girl found dead, babysitter charged

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — The neighbor who was babysitting a 9-year-old Indiana girl when she went missing last week will be formally charged with murder Tuesday, a heartbreaking turn for the girl's relatives who considered him a family friend.
Authorities said Monday night that Aliahna Lemmon had been found dead and Mike Plumadore, who was watching Aliahna and her two sisters when she went missing Friday, was being held on a murder charge. He and Aliahna's family lived in the same mobile home park in Fort Wayne.
"He was a trusted family friend," Aliahna's step-grandfather, David Story, told The Associated Press late Monday, saying he was surprised by the arrest.
Plumadore, 39, is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday morning.
Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries said Plumadore told investigators on Monday where the girl's body could be found, ending the hopes of authorities that Aliahna would be found safe.
"It did come to a horrible conclusion," Fries told WANE-TV. "We have somebody in custody now who can pay the price for it."
Investigators said Aliahna's body was found in the northeastern Indiana county, but no details were released.
On Monday, FBI agents descended on the rundown mobile home park where Aliahna lived and was last seen. It's a known haven for registered sex offenders, though Plumadore is not on Indiana's registered sex offenders list. He has a criminal record in Florida and North Carolina that includes convictions for trespassing and assault.
No active search was done Sunday for Aliahna, though more than 100 emergency workers searched for her Saturday around the mobile home park. Allen County sheriff's spokesman Cpl. Jeremy Tinkel said the same size search could not be sustained because of the Christmas holiday.
Aliahna's mother, Tarah Souders, told The Journal Gazette on Sunday that her daughter had vision, hearing and emotional problems and suffered from attention deficit disorder. Aliahna and her sisters were staying with Plumadore because their mother had been sick with the flu and Aliahna's stepfather works at night and sleeps during the day.
Plumadore told the newspaper Sunday that he left the three girls in his mobile home about 6 a.m. Friday and went to a gas station about a mile away to buy a cigar. Authorities have said the store's surveillance video shows him there about that time.
"I had dead-bolted the door," he said. "When I got back, all the girls was here."
He said he smoked his cigar and went back to sleep, then woke up about 10 a.m. when Aliahna's mother called. After that call, he realized the door to the home was unlocked and that Aliahna was gone. He said Aliahna's 6-year-old sisters told him Aliahna had left with her mother.
Plumadore said it wasn't until he talked with Aliahna's mother about 8:30 p.m. that they realized she was missing and police were notified. Souders said the miscommunication caused the delay in determining that Aliahna had vanished.
"She's never wandered off," she said Sunday.
The sheriff said Plumadore was arrested after being interviewed by detectives for several hours Monday — and was also questioned Friday and Saturday.
"The story just didn't make sense to our investigators or to me when I first heard it," Fries said. "I thought this is the guy we needed to focus on. If we are going to find her, he's going to be the one who has the answers for us."
Elizabeth Watkins, who lives nearby, said residents are cautious and keep to themselves in part because of the number of sex offenders living in the mobile home park. According to a state website, 15 registered sex offenders live in the park that numbers about two dozen homes. Watkins and she didn't know Plumadore and was shocked when told of the girl's death.
"I'm numb, I'm totally numb. I don't know what to think," she said.

Alan Gross not part of Cuban prisoner amnesty

HAVANA (AP) — An American government subcontractor jailed in Cuba for crimes against the state is not among nearly 3,000 prisoners granted amnesty by President Raul Castro on Friday, said a senior Foreign Ministry official.
"Alan Gross is not on the list," Josefina Vidal told The Associated Press, dashing the hopes of Gross' supporters in the United States, who have been pleading with Cuban authorities to release the 62-year-old Maryland native on humanitarian grounds. Vidal heads the Foreign Ministry's North American affairs division.
In a speech to lawmakers, Castro said his country would pardon 2,900 prisoners, including some convicted of political crimes. Castro cited an upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI among the reasons for the amnesty, saying the humanitarian act was "a demonstration of the generosity and strength of the revolution."
He said 86 foreign prisoners from 25 countries would be freed, and that diplomats would be notified shortly.
The Cuban leader said the list is filled with inmates who, like Gross, are more than 60 years old or are ailing. Others included in the amnesty are many female inmates and young people who don't have long criminal records.
Those convicted of serious crimes like murder, espionage or drug trafficking are not be part of the amnesty.
Gross was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for crimes against the state. The case has frozen already icy relations between Washington and Havana.
Gross's family concedes he was on a USAID-funded democracy building program, but insists his goal was simply to help the island's tiny Jewish community gain better access to the Internet. They say he spoke almost no Spanish and came to Havana repeatedly, hardly the stuff of a master spy.
Cuban officials say the USAID programs seek to overthrow the government.
Gross's supporters have appealed to Castro for a humanitarian release. They say Gross — who was obese when he was arrested — has lost more than 100 pounds in jail and is now gaunt and increasingly depressed. Meanwhile, his daughter and elderly mother have both been diagnosed with cancer.
American Jewish leaders have also appealed for Gross's release, saying Hanukkah festivities which began this week were a perfect opportunity.
Other high-profile inmates include two El Salvadoran men convicted of taking part in a bombing spree against Havana tourist hotels in the 1990s that killed an Italian tourist. The men were originally sentenced to death, but had their sentences reduced to life in prison earlier this year.
Cuba this year freed the last of some 75 political prisoners arrested in a notorious 2003 sweep. While others remain jailed for politically motivated crimes, most of those were involved in acts of violence like hijacking.
Rights group Amnesty International no longer includes any Cuban prisoners among its list of "prisoners of conscience" around the world.
Benedict is due to arrive in Cuba in March, though exact dates have not been announced. His visit will be the first by a pontiff since Pope John Paul II's historic tour in 1998.
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Paul Haven can be reached at www.twitter.com/paulhaven/

                        

So Much For Cuban Economic Reform

The Communist Party affirms that 'central planning and not the market will be supreme.'

With his characteristic intellectual wit, Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner defines communism as "the time countries waste between capitalism and capitalism." By this account, the Cuban government is now in its 52nd year of wasted time waiting for prosperity.
Much has been made of economic reforms promised by Raúl Castro, including by the Cuban president himself. "We can either rectify the situation," Gen. Castro recently stated, "or we will run out of time walking on the edge of the abyss, and we will sink." But one look at the economic platform for the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, now scheduled for April 2011, and it's clear nothing much will change.
The "Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy"—a 32-page document that proposes to chart Cuba's economic future—affirms that "the new economic policy will correspond with the principle that only socialism [i.e., Cuban communism] is capable of conquering the difficulties."
The document persistently emphasizes Gen. Castro's militaristic themes of increased efficiency, discipline and control. It insists, for example, on setting prices according to the dictates of central planning. It also insists that any new "nonstate" (private sector) economic activities not be allowed to lead to the "concentration of property" (that is, the accumulation of wealth). There is no interest in introducing the market socialism of a Deng Xiaoping, who famously told China's people in 1984 that "to get rich is glorious."
It is not surprising that Raúl and his fellow generals are more comfortable with the chain of command of a centrally planned economy than with the vicissitudes of a market economy. More baffling is their failure to understand core principles of economic development.


Raul Castro, president of Cuba, and commander of its armed forces, will affirm that "central planning and not the market will be supreme."
After much debate and with trepidation, the Cuban economic "reformers" have decided to permit the 500,000 to 1,300,000 Cubans being fired from state jobs to solicit permits to become self-employed in certain activities. It is instructive to examine a handful of the 178 trades and professions that are supposed to help rescue the economy.
Trade No. 23 will be the purchase and sale of used books. Trade 29 is an attendant of public bathrooms (presumably for tips); 34 is a palm-tree pruner (apparently other trees will still be pruned by the state). Trade 49 is covering buttons with fabric; 61 is shining shoes; 62 is cleaning spark plugs; 69 is a typist; 110 is the repair of box springs (not to be confused with 116, the repair of mattresses). Trade 124 is umbrella repairs; 125 is refilling of disposable cigarette lighters; 150 is fortune-telling with tarot cards; 156 is being a dandy (technical definition unknown, maybe a male escort?); 158 is peeling natural fruit (separate from 142, selling fruit in kiosks).
This bizarre list of permitted private-sector activities will not drive economic development. But it does reveal the regime's totalitarian mindset. Here Cuban technocrats foreshadow the degree of control they intend to impose by listing the legal activities with specificity. These are not reforms to unleash the market's "invisible hand" but to reaffirm the Castros' clenched fist. One does not have to be an economist to appreciate that the refilling of disposable cigarette lighters, for example, will not contribute in any measure to economic development.
In his economic dream land of surrealist juxtapositions, Raúl believes that improved state management is the way to save the communist system. The desire for control by the military and the Communist Party of every aspect of Cuban life is antithetical to the individual liberty and empowerment necessary to bring about an economic renaissance.
Mr. Azel, a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, is author of "Mañana in Cuba" (Authorhouse, 2010).
                                                                       

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