Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s €250,000 pal

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Schröder and Putin – a special friendship

Among the surprisingly many members of the Western European political elite who’ve been remarkably steadfast in their, um, understanding for even the most brutal conduct by Vladimir Putin, one of the staunchest has been Gerhard Schröder, who served as chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005. Schröder, as it happens, sits on the board of Russia’s Gazprom, the giant government-owned natural-gas company, and is a longtime personal chum of the Kremlin thug (whom he’s called a “flawless democrat”). Putin once turned up at Schröder’s home in Hanover “with a Russian choir to celebrate his birthday.” Schröder has described Putin as having “a very close relationship to Germany” – noting that in the 1980s Putin was a KGB spy stationed in East Germany. (As we all know, of course, that’s the best way to develop a “very close relationship.”)  

Gerhard-Schroeder_2895463cAnd what a friend Schröder has been! When Putin invaded Ukraine, Schröder was quick to defend his buddy: Putin, he argued, was simply trying to keep Russia strong and on par with the U.S. Who could criticize that worthy goal? Putin, Schröder further explained was justly worried about “being encircled” – as if there were even the remotest possibility of a military incursion into Russia from Ukraine or Poland or one of the Baltic states. Schröder also made the point that Ukraine is “culturally divided,” with some Ukrainians identifying more with the West, others looking to Russia – so hey, why not let Putin seize some of the pro-Russian part of the country?

schroeder-wird-65_fullviewAt least Schröder acknowledged that the invasion constituted a clear violation of international law – but he hastened to add that the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia also violated international law. Never mind that Putin’s action was an aggressive, unprovoked land grab by a brutal dictator, and NATO’s bombing was a humanitarian effort to save the lives of people who were being targeted by a genocidal dictator.

Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, was outraged by Schröder’s support for Putin’s assault on Ukraine. Roland Nelles of Der Spiegel wasn’t impressed either. When Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in April of last year – hot on the heels of the Crimea invasion – Nelles accused him of “making a mockery of Berlin’s foreign policy.” Yes, the two guys are pals. But still, wrote Nelles,

russland-praesident-wladimir-putin-und-altkanzler-gerhard-schroederSchröder ought to know better. If the former German chancellor believes he can continue his friendship as if nothing has happened, it’s a mistake. Schröder’s own center-left Social Democratic Party is currently the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, which is frantically trying to prevent his friend Vladimir from carrying out the policies of a power-drunk hegemon in Eastern Europe. In difficult times like these, a former German leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin….as Germany’s former leader, he is still obliged to maintain a statesman-like responsibility for his country.

Thomas Holl of Frankfurter Allgemeine agreed. Reacting to photographs of Schröder hugging Putin, he called them “macabre.”

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The hug

One interesting detail about that 70th birthday party. It was hosted by Nord Stream AG, a Gazprom subsidiary that operates a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Guess who’s the chairman of Nord Stream’s advisory board, raking in €250,000 a year from the Russian government? None other than Gerhard Schröder. In fact, he took the job only weeks after his party lost the 2005 parliamentary elections, forcing him to hand over the chancellorship to Merkel. “Opponents,” recalled Reuters, “said the haste with which he took up the job was unseemly and the link to Russian interests too direct for a former chancellor.” In any event, the fundamental fact about Schröder now seems clear. As Bundestag member Manuel Sarrazi puts it, he’s “spreading the Kremlin’s propaganda” and is “now a paid spokesman for Russia.” 

Neil Clark’s “unpeople”

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Klaus with Putin, 2006

This week, we’ve been pondering the transformation of former Czech president Václav Klaus from a “champion of liberty” (to quote the head of the Cato Institute) into an apologist for Vladimir Putin. Many of Klaus’s former admirers have been dismayed by his seemingly inexplicable metamorphosis. One person who’s perfectly happy, however, is Neil Clark, a British journalist who’s written for many of that country’s major newspapers and political journals, including The Guardian, The Express, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The New Statesman, and The Spectator. He’s also, not irrelevantly, a regular talking head on Russia Today. 

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Neil Clark on Russia Today

In September of last year, The Spectator ran an admiring profile of Klaus by Clark, who called him “possibly the West’s last truly outspoken leader.” Forget the fact that Klaus’s star has dimmed in many quarters: Clark insisted that his outspokenness “doesn’t seem to have done him much harm in the popularity stakes.” As for Klaus’s current opinions, Clark liked what he heard: “Listen to Klaus in full flow on the absurdities of the EU and it’s hard to think why any sane individual — on left or right — would want their country to stay in it.”

But what about Ukraine? Klaus did mention to Clark his “reservations…about the Ukrainian crisis,” but Clark didn’t probe further. Instead, Clark readily agreed with Klaus that the discomfort some people in the West feel over Klaus’s Ukraine “reservations” is a “worrying trend,” a threat to Western freedom. This statement made no sense whatsoever, and Clark didn’t make any effort to explain what he meant.

vladimir-putin_416x416It’s hard not to wish him well,” Clark said in closing, calling Klaus a “conviction politician” – a “throwback to the days when our leaders did stand for something and weren’t afraid to speak their minds.” It didn’t seem to bother Clark at all that Klaus’s chief conviction, these days, is a slobbering loyalty to the thug of the Kremlin.

Which might be puzzling, if you didn’t know anything about Clark’s own politics. Not only is he a useful stooge; he seems to be doing his level best to become the #1 useful stooge of our time.  In a November article for Russia Today’s website that read like something out of The Onion, he spoke up for what he called “the unpeople” – whom he defined as “human beings whose views don’t matter to Western Democrats.” Among those who fall into this category, he explained, are the following – and we quote:

* The millions of Syrians – perhaps a majority – who support their government, or at least regard it as preferable to the alternatives.

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Ahmadinejad: his fans don’t get no respect

* Iranians who voted for Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Presidential election.

* Belarusians who support President Lukashenko.

* Libyans who did not support the violent NATO-backed “revolution” against Muammar Gaddafi.

* People who lived in communist countries in Eastern Europe and who thought there were positive aspects of life under communism.

* Ukrainian citizens who did not support “EuroMaidan.”

* Venezuelans who voted for Chavez and Maduro.

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According to Neil Clark, democracy apparently means giving a thumbs-up to this

* Russians who support United Russia or the Communist Party.

Get it? Supporters of tyranny and totalitarianism are today’s victims of intolerance. Clark explains: 

A belief in democracy should mean respecting the idea that all peoples’ views are equal. However, that’s not the way it works in today’s so-called “democracy.” Today, those who have the wrong views (i.e. views which don’t align with the interests of Western elites) are treated as if they don’t exist.

That’s a pretty interesting conception of democracy – that it obliges one to equate democratic ideas with non-democratic ones, such as Communism, Nazism, Juche thought, Baathism, jihadism, you name it. Speaking of Juche thought, how did Clark manage to leave enthusiasts for the North Korean regime out of his list of those who’ve been cruelly disrespected by Western democrats? How about the folks who cheered ISIS’s terror attacks in Paris? Aren’t they victims, too? 

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Václav Havel

Given his eagerness to defend supporters of the worst thugs on the planet, and his enthusiasm for the pro-Putin Václav Klaus, it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Václav Havel died four years ago, Clark rushed into print with a repulsive attack on that hero of freedom:

Havel’s anti-communist critique contained little if any acknowledgement of the positive achievements of the regimes of eastern Europe in the fields of employment, welfare provision, education and women’s rights. Or the fact that communism, for all its faults, was still a system which put the economic needs of the majority first.

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Cristina Odone

Cristina Odone, replying to Clark in the Telegraph, put it perfectly: “Havel above all would have enjoyed the irony that Clark, with his maverick views and pleasure in the sound of his own voice, would have been among the first to be taken out and shot (or maybe locked up in a mental institution) by the Soviet regimes he’s now an apologist for.”

Or, at one reader commented succinctly at Clark’s vile blog: “You really are a buffoon.”

 

The very model of a modern useful stooge

We’ve been exploring the evolution (or, more properly, devolution) of former Czech president Václav Klaus, who, hailed only a couple of years ago as a “champion of liberty,” has since become a “slavish defender” of Vladimir Putin – in particular, of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus smile as they shake hands during a meeting in Moscow's Kremlin on Friday, April 27, 2007. (AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
Klaus and Putin at the Kremlin

As we saw yesterday, Klaus – by way of making a case for Russia’s claim to Ukraine – called Ukraine an “artificial entity” with “no historical tradition of statehood.” Andrei Illarionov and Dalibor Rohac of the Cato Institute refuted this “most extraordinary claim” with ease, citing previous incarnations of the independent Ukrainian state, going back to the Kievan Rus (882–1240) and the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia (1199–1243).

But Klaus doubled down. “For Russia,” he maintained, “the Ukraine is more than just its closest foreign country, more than e.g. Estonia, Tajikistan, or Azerbaijan. It is the historic cradle of its statehood and culture.” To which Illarionov and Rohac pointed out that “England is also the cradle of the modern United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But…we doubt that Klaus would see that as a reason or a justification for any of those countries to claim English lands.”

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Anne Applebaum

Writing in the Washington Post on October 16 of this year, Anne Applebaum – the author of the definitive history of the Gulag – brought us up to date on the unsavory Klaus-Putin axis. Klaus, she noted, had spoken this year at the World Public Forum’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” – an event, sponsored by Putin intimate Vladimir Yakunin and featuring sizable contingents of Russian secret service agents, that annually brings together “people willing to endorse Russian views of the world.” At the forum, Klaus defended Putin’s actions in Syria, calling them “a logical step.”

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Klaus reviewing troops in Moscow, 2007

Noting that Klaus has “financial links to Moscow” (she didn’t go into detail), Applebaum compared the World Public Forum to the Soviet front groups of the Cold War era. Those groups, she recalled, “were run by ‘agents of influence’ — people who knowingly promoted the interests of the Soviet Union in the West — or ‘useful idiots,’ people who did the same thing, unconsciously, usually out of ideological naiveté.” But Klaus and other participants in the forum, she underscored, aren’t exactly idiots, spies, or traitors; they’re people who, for whatever reasons of their own, “seek openly to legitimize the anti-NATO, anti-European, anti-Western views of the Russian elite” and “to undermine Western security and support the spread of Russian authoritarianism in Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East.”

She concluded: “So what do we call them? We need a new vocabulary for a new era.” Which is precisely the reason why we coined the term “useful stooges.” How sad that Václav Klaus, once a hero of freedom, has become the very model of the modern useful stooge.

Not everybody is put off by the new Klaus. Tomorrow we’ll meet somebody who thinks his new political line is just plain terrific.

Václav Klaus: blaming Georgia, blaming Ukraine

Yesterday we began discussing former Czech president Václav Klaus‘s defense of Vladimir Putin – in particular, Klaus’s claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the fault of the US and EU. “Among former European statesmen,” wrote James Kirchick a year ago in the Daily Beast, Klaus has long been Putin’s most slavish defender, even more vociferous than ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” That’s saying a lot, given the extremely chummy relationships Putin enjoys with both of those men. (We examined Vlad’s “bromance” with Berlusconi not that long ago.)

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Klaus with his hero

The mutual respect between Putin and Klaus goes back a few years. As Kirchick pointed out, Putin awarded Klaus the Pushkin medal in 2007; in 2008, “Klaus was the only European leader to blame the Georgians” for Putin’s invasion of their country; in April of last year, Klaus and a former aide, Jiri Weigl, wrote an article defending Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

In an article for the World Affairs Journal, Andrei Illarionov and Dalibor Rohac of the Cato Institute took a close look at Klaus’s defense of that invasion. Saying that Klaus “might well be the most prominent foreign figure defending Russia’s annexation of Crimea and denying Kremlin’s complicity in the war unfolding in the East of Ukraine,” Illarionov and Rohac sum up – and respond to – his position as follows:

Ukraine's fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych gives a news conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Moscow, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. Making his first public appearance since fleeing Ukraine, fugitive Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych pledged Friday to fight for his country's future but said he will not ask for military assistance. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
Viktor Yanukovych

Klaus argues that the separation of Crimea from Ukraine resulted from genuine efforts of its people to attain independence. But he offers very little evidence for that claim. Crimea long enjoyed considerable autonomy within Ukraine, including its own constitution. The only openly separatist movement in Crimea…secured only three seats out 100 in the last election to the Crimean Parliament. And between 2011 and 2014, the publicly declared support for joining Russia among Crimean inhabitants was between 23 and 41 percent.

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Andrei Illarionov

Klaus also maintained that the pro-freedom demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan Square turned radical and that the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych chose to respond with “concessions” rather than “repressive action.” As Illarionov and Rohac pointed out, this claim is absurd. So is Klaus’s apparent belief that the Maidan protests were planned by people in Western Europe and the U.S. Ditto his bizarre description of Ukraine as largely an “artificial entity that did not turn into an independent state until the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.” Illarionov and Rohac had a definitive reply to that: “why should modern Ukraine seem any more ‘artificial’ than, say, the independent Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, with its sizeable German, Hungarian, Rusyn, and other populations?…Is Poland ‘an artificial entity’ because it includes territories of the former German, Austrian, or Russian empires?”

But Klaus reached even further. We’ll get around to that tomorrow.

Václav Klaus: “champion of liberty” turned Putinist

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Václav Havel

In its brief history, the Czech Republic has had two presidents in a row named Václav. Both have been men of extraordinary substance. Václav Havel was an eloquent playwright and courageous dissident who, in a single profoundly perceptive essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” written in 1978, explained to his people, then suffering under the yoke of Communism, how totalitarianism works – and how individuals who consider themselves weak, terrified, and alone can contribute to its overthrow and help bring about their own liberation. Millions of citizens of Czechoslovakia and other Soviet satellites who read Havel’s essay (circulated by samizdat) and took his words to heart played an active role in the fall of the Iron Curtain. When Czechoslovakia won its freedom in 1989, Havel was as inevitable a choice to become its first president as George Washington was to become the first president of the United States. (Indeed, the National Assembly selected Havel by a unanimous vote.) When Slovaks decided they wanted their own country, splitting Czechoslovakia in two, Havel ran for and was elected president of the Czech Republic, a position he held until 2003. (He died in 2011.)

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Václav Klaus

Internationally, his successor, Václav Klaus, has been overshadowed by Havel. But Klaus, who served as president from 2003 to 2013, was also admirable in many ways. Havel was a poet; Klaus is a trained economist – a student of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and admirer of Margaret Thatcher who knows how markets work. While Havel supported the European Union, which he viewed as a means of keeping the peace in Europe, Klaus considers it an all too Soviet-style superstate run by arrogant political elites who don’t understand economics, aren’t answerable to the electorate, and want to have their fingers in every pie – who are driven, that is, by a compulsion to control, to regulate, and to tax. Havel was sympathetic to Nordic-style “market socialism”; Klaus is a strong enthusiast for free markets, period. If Havel was a hero to liberals everywhere, Klaus made a worldwide name for himself as an outspoken libertarian.

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Klaus: from Thacherite…

After he left office, however, it didn’t take long for Klaus’s international luster to start fading. Named in March 2014 a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute – perhaps the most respected libertarian institution – he was cut loose by Cato only months later. “The alleged reason for the split,” wrote James Kirchick in a December 2014 article for the Daily Beast, “is the former Czech leader’s slavish defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, as well as his hostility to homosexuality and cozying up to figures on the European far right.”

Slavish defense of Putin? Could this “champion of liberty,” as Cato’s president had called him, really have thrown in his lot with the Russian thug?

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during his meeting with Armenian President Serge Sarksyan in Yerevan December 2, 2013. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (ARMENIA - Tags: POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
…to Putinite?

Alas, yes. On February 21 of last year, noted Kirchick, “Klaus took to the website of his foundation to question Ukraine’s very right to exist as a sovereign country.” He called it an “artificial entity.” In May, Klaus commemorated the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II victory by visiting the Russian Embassy in Prague with what Kirchick described as “a bevy of aging Czech communists and old KGB informants.” At a July conference, Klaus “railed against ‘unilateral pro-Western propaganda’ and offered to help divide Ukraine based upon his own experience in the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia.” In September, speaking to free-market economists at an event hosted by the Mont Pelerin Society, Klaus brought up the subject of Ukraine on his own, blaming the “Ukraine problem” on the US and EU and absolving Putin of blame. At a conference sponsored by the Russian Foreign Ministry, he said the following about the cold shoulder he’d gotten from Cato: “The US/EU propaganda against Russia is really ridiculous and I can’t accept it.”

More tomorrow.

Depardieu et ses amis

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Gérard Depardieu

Over the course of his long career, the veteran French actor Gérard Depardieu has been showered with numerous awards and nominations. He’s been nominated once for an Oscar and fifteen times for the César (France’s answer to the Oscar). He won the Golden Globe in 1991 for his role in Green Card as the unlikely love interest of Andie MacDowell. He’s also won best actor awards at the Cannes and Venice film festivals. He’s been named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

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Les Deux amis

And he’s won one other major prize – the friendship of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In June, we wrote about a Moscow event back in December 2010 at which Depardieu – along with a number of other screen idols, among them Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, and Mickey Rourkepartied into the night with Vladimir Putin. 

But Depardieu appears to be especially close to the Kremlin leader. And this relationship has already won him yet another prize: in 2013, after Depardieu criticized his homeland, the Republic of France, for its high tax rates, Putin arranged for him to have a Russian passport. Depardieu snapped it up gratefully – and gleefully. 

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Depardieu with his Russian passport

I adore my Russian passport,” he has said. “I feel very Russian inside.”

He’s been a good friend to Putin. For example, he made comments suggesting that he fully supported his pal’s annexation of Crimea. In July, Ivan Kirilenko, Ukraine’s culture minister, reacted to his remarks by  banning Depardieu from entering his country. 

Flash forward to early October, when Depardieu had what was apparently a wide-ranging interview with Russian journalists. True to form, he wasn’t shy. Among other things, he expressed remarkable contempt for American culture. (This, as pointed out by many Western reporters who’ve passed along bits of his disparaging rant, from an actor who in Peter Weir’s Green Card “played a man willing to do anything to live in the USA.”)

greencardOne excerpt of Depardieu’s wisdom: “I have never wanted to be a U.S. citizen. That’s totally out of the question. They have a very aggressive culture. And I don’t like U.S. films.” This from an actor who’s accepted generous paychecks for appearing in several of them.

Here’s more: “The U.S.? They’re a people who have constantly destroyed others. They fought each other, destroyed the Indians, after that they perpetrated slavery, then there was the Civil War.” Then “they were the first to use the atomic bomb. Everywhere they go, they cause shit.” This from a Frenchman who was born in 1948, three years after American soldiers liberated his country from the Nazis.

(There’s no indication, by the way, that he said anything to those Russian reporters about some of the rather questionable activities of Napoleon, Stalin, and other familiar names from French and Russian history.) 

Depardieu_2527989b“If the Europeans stopped listening to the Americans,” Depardieu concluded, “well, I’d be a lot happier.”

Depardieu also told his Russian interlocutors that he “prefers being Russian.” Not that he lives there. Some confusion seems to surround the question of where exactly he is currently domiciled. In September, he informed reporters that he planned to unload all his possessions in France – including a vineyard in the Loire Valley and a couple of restaurants in Paris. He’s now reportedly in Italy, although he’s also suggested that he might pack his things and relocate to Belarus. Why? One reason, he’s said, is that the vile autocrat who runs Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko – who is famously known as “Europe’s last dictator,” and who, if anything, is an even more transparent and unsavory thug than Putin – is a “nice guy.”

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Depardieu and Lusashenko out scything

Well, nice to Depardieu, anyway. This summer the two of them went out into the Belarusian countryside and scythed grass together. Pictures of their bucolic adventure, published in the Guardian, made them look like a chummy pair indeed. 

That friendship, as it happens, has also paid off handsomely for Depardieu. In late September, the Hollywood Reporter noted that Lukashenko was kicking in $2 million to help finance a World War II film, Normandie-Niemen, starring the French actor. It’s good to have friends, n’est-ce pas?

Did Oslo kowtow to Putin?

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Kirkenes

The Barents Observer is an online newspaper that’s published in English and Russian by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat (NBS), which is funded by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is under the authority of Norway’s three northernmost counties, Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark. The NBS’s official objective is to promote “good relations with Russia in a region where the two nations cooperate and compete over fishing, oil and military strategy.” The Observer, based in the town of Kirkenes, near Norway’s northern tip, is that country’s most important source of information on the Russian oil and gas industries and the major local news operation in its far north.

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The editors of the Barents Observer

Until recently, the editor of the Barents Observer was a man named Thomas Nilsen, who has worked for NBS for thirteen years and served as editor of the Observer for six of those years. According to NRK, the Norwegian national broadcasting corporation, he’s “one of Norway’s leading experts on Russian nuclear security and nuclear submarines.” During these years, Nilsen has written “many critical articles and commentaries about conditions in Russia.”

Mikhail Noskov

Inevitably, his work has come under fire from Russian officials. Last year, according to the Guardian, Mikhail Noskov, Russia’s consul-general in the far north of Norway, “made a speech in which he strongly criticised Nilsen’s writing and warned it may damage bilateral relations.” Noskov singled out Nilsen’s reporting about Putin, which he considered disrespectful.

This May, when the newspaper’s staff asked that it be allowed to formally adopt a set of official Norwegian journalistic guidelines known as the Rights and Duties of the Editor, the NBS rejected the request. Nilsen and his colleagues publicly criticized the NBS for this action, which, they said, restricted their ability to engage in the “free exchange of information and opinions.” Their statement continued: “In a time with a repressive press freedom environment in Russia, we find it deeply worrying that the political leaders of northern Norway want to limit Barents Observer’s role as a provider of news and opinions that can be considered critical to crackdowns on democratic voices.”

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Thomas Nilsen, holding his dismissal letter

The ax finally fell on September 28. Charging Nilsen with disloyalty, the NBS’s Stig Olsen fired him, effective immediately. In a press release, Nilsen’s colleagues said they were “shocked and outraged” and charged the Observer‘s owners with “doing what they can to destroy us and the news product which we have developed over the last 13 years.” Olsen refused comment.

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Knut Olav Åmås

Knut Olav Åmås, head of Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation that supports freedom of expression, described Nilsen’s firing as “a sad ending to an affair that we can only hope will not further cool down the climate of free speech in the northern regions….It is the opposite that is needed – more free media in an area where parts of the most important development in Norway will take place in the years to come.”

Putin Views Russian Arms On Display At ExpoBut Nilsen’s firing wasn’t the end of the story. On October 3, NRK came out with a report that was nothing short of sensational: Nilsen, maintained journalist Tormod Strand, had been fired because the FSB, Russia’s security agency, had “asked Norway’s government to silence the Observer.”

A Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesmen could neither confirm nor deny NRK’s report. Russia’s embassy in Oslo denied the charge. The head of the NSB refused an interview request by the Guardian. So did Noskov. As for Nilsen himself, he told NRK that the very idea was hard to wrap his mind around, but “if there is a connection here, that somebody on the Norwegian side has yielded to pressure, then the whole case is much more serious” than he’d thought.

occupied_nologo__130429101918Surprised though he was, Nilsen didn’t consider it unlikely that Norwegian officials might have kowtowed to Putin. Because of Norway’s reliance on North Sea oil, he told the Guardian, the Oslo government is obsessed with maintaining good relations with the Kremlin, despite the European Union’s Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia. The Norwegian government’s mantra when it comes to the Arctic, he said, is “high north, low tension.”

Meanwhile Geir Ramnefjell, culture editor of the newspaper Dagbladet, pointed out that this scandal came along at a time when the Kremlin had been complaining about a Norwegian miniseries, Occupied, which was about to begin airing on Norway’s TV2. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow claimed that the show’s premise – Russia, in the near future, invades Norway and seizes its oil fields – is ridiculous and offensive, bringing to mind the hatreds and suspicions of the Cold War and having no basis whatsoever in the reality of today’s Russia.     

The loveliness of Putin

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Sir Elton John

Some readers may have noticed a news story a few weeks back about Elton John and Vladimir Putin. Yes, that’s right, Elton John and Vladimir Putin.

In an interview, Elton had expressed concern about gay rights under Putin, whose 2013 law banning “propaganda about non-traditional sexual relations” helped spike gay-bashing in Russia. Elton has long been outspoken on gay rights, and last year, writing on his website, he discussed his latest visit to Russia, in December 2013: 

putin19On that trip I met with members of the LGBT community in Moscow. Although I was still welcomed as an openly gay foreigner, I wanted to really understand at first-hand what difference the legislation had made to Russian LGBT in their own country. What I heard reinforced all the media stories that have been circling since the propaganda bill became federal law: that vicious homophobia has been legitimised by this legislation and given extremists the cover to abuse people’s basic human rights.

The people I met in Moscow – gay men and lesbians in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s – told me stories about receiving threats from vigilante groups who would “cure” them of homosexuality by dousing them with urine or beating them up. One young man was stalked outside a gay club by someone posing as a taxi driver who tried to garrotte him with a guitar string because he was a “sodomite”. Everyone shared stories of verbal and physical abuse – at work, in bars and restaurants or in the street – since the legislation came into force last June. And, some of the vital work providing HIV prevention information to the gay community has been labelled “homosexual propaganda” and shut down.

In September of this year, while visiting the Ukraine and voicing support for LGBT rights in that country, Elton told the BBC that he wanted to talk LGBT rights with Putin himself: “It’s probably pie in the sky….He may laugh behind my back when he shuts the door, and call me an absolute idiot, but at least I can think I have the conscience to say I tried.”

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Vovan and Lexus

This statement caught the attention of a couple of Russian TV comedians, Vladimir “Vovan” Krasnov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, who are apparently famous in their country for pranking celebrities. They duped Elton with a phony phone call, pretending to be Putin and inviting the singer-songwriter to come to Moscow for a friendly chat. John accepted the invitation. Later, when he found out he’d been pranked, he took the news in good spirits.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In mid October, it was reported that Putin, after learning about the gag, actually did call Elton.

FILE - In this photo, Sir Elton John, left, and husband David Furnish attend the Ninth Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit 'An Enduring Vision' at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. John and Furnish have become parents to a 7-pound, 15-ounce baby boy born on Christmas Day. The news was first reported Monday night by USMagazine.com and confirmed to The Associated Press by John's Los Angeles-based publicist. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini, File)
Elton John and David Furnish

The source for this report was none other than John’s husband, film producer David Furnish. Appearing at an awards ceremony in London on Wednesday, Furnish said that John and Vlad had actually made plans to meet and discuss gay rights. Apparently they got off to a very friendly start. As the Daily Mail put it, Furnish “described the man who backed a civil war in Ukraine and sent forces to help Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, as ‘so polite and lovely.’” Furnish repeated: “He’s genuinely lovely.” And then he added this baffling remark: “Besides, this isn’t about politics – I’m not a politician – it’s about humanity.”

Meaning what, exactly? When a man’s “politics” are inhumane, not to say downright brutal, how to pry loose the concept of “politics” from the concept of “humanity”? Does Elton, whose devotion to LGBT rights is surely admirable, agree that Putin, who has imprisoned and murdered his political opponents, is lovely? Does it really take a simple phone call to make Furnish, and maybe Elton too, decide that a tyrant is perhaps actually not a tyrant at all? Or that a tyrant can remain a tyrant but still, somehow, be lovely? Does this fall into the same category as Hitler loving his pet dog?

With all due respect to Elton’s activism, we’re admittedly scratching our heads over that one.

“More pro-Kremlin” than Stephen F. Cohen

Yesterday we were introduced to the American Committee for East-West Accord (ACEWA), which is yet another brainchild of NYU Kremlinologist Stephen F. Cohen and his heiress wife Katrina vanden Heuvel, and which is obviously meant to be a vehicle for spreading pro-Putin propaganda far and wide. We also met Gilbert Doctorow, who, with Cohen, is listed as the group’s co-founder, and who, as it turns out, is even more fervent an apologist for Putin than Cohen.

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Gilbert Doctorow

Since November, Doctorow has been writing regularly for a website called Russia Insider. His contributions, not to put too fine a point on it, read like Kremlin press releases. Last November, for example, he attributed the European Parliament’s overwhelming vote in favor of two resolutions condemning Russia to “a Cold War mentality that never faded since 1989.”

A week later, Doctorow blamed anti-Putin attitudes among left-wing U.S. peace activists on “years of denigration and information warfare coming from Washington,” including “propaganda about an authoritarian regime that allegedly jails dissent, about homophobia and about conservative family values of Russia’s silent majority, not to mention about greedy, raw capitalism.” Doctorow argued that Putin has in fact promoted “peace and international cooperation, justice and indeed human rights,” and is the only head of government on the planet who’s “directly challeng[ing] American global hegemony.” For these reasons, he argued, Putin should be treated by sensible stateside peace-lovers not as a bad guy but as a hero.  

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Anne Applebaum

In January, Doctorow penned a column that was one long, drawn-out sneer. The topic: a book called Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha. He smeared Russia expert Anne Applebaum, author of the magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History, as a “blowhard” for the crime of favorably reviewing Dawisha’s book in the Washington Post. And he made a mocking reference to “the saintly Khodorkovsky” – meaning human-rights activist and former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin robbed of billions of dollars and then tossed into prison on trumped-up charges. Doctorow lamented that once reliably left-wing American media, such as the New York Review of Books and PBS, have now “join[ed] the jackals” who engage in “Putin bashing.” 

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Moscow Victory Day Parade, 9 May 2015

And on and on it goes. In May, after attending the Moscow parade marking the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, Doctorow gushed exuberantly over what he described as Putin’s ascent to the very “heights of statesmanship”: by allowing ordinary citizens to march in the parade while holding up photographs of their relatives who’d died in the war, the Russian leader had driven home “the point that this is a day for every Russian family and not just a pompous show of military capability for the high and mighty to strut on the stage.”

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Sochi Olympics opening ceremony, 7 February 2014

If at the Sochi Olympics, enthused Doctorow, Vlad had sent a message “that Russia has its own traditions of both popular and high culture but is open to the world and hospitable to all,” in Moscow, his people had pulled off the parade at “a supremely professional level” and shown “very great respect for the spectators, both those on the Square and the others watching it on their television as I did.”

Ugh. It’s the kind of cringeworthy bootlicking that’s rarely found outside of the propaganda organs of totalitarian states. And it raises certain questions. Such as: can this guy really be such a convinced disciple of Putin? Or is he on the payroll? Have Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, her rich dad, Bill Bradley, and others in fact chosen to hitch their wagons to a paid Kremlin operative?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we can say one thing, for which we’ll provide more evidence tomorrow: when it comes to propagandizing for Putin, Doctorow churns it out as naturally as a slug leaves a slime trail.

Poisonous Waters

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Hilary Swank collecting her paycheck in Grozny

It’s a weird, upside-down planet we live on. Consider this. Around the globe, there are almost too many savage, monstrous regimes to keep track of. They steal their people blind. They employ death squads. They imprison, torture, and murder members of the political opposition. They harass and kill independent journalists. They execute gays and persecute Christians. And so on.

And world-famous stars clamor to entertain them and eulogize them. As we’ve seen on this site, Hollywood actors like Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme have traveled to Chechnya to praise and perform for Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet president.  Jermaine Jackson has fawned all over Yahya Jammeh, the brutal dictator of Gambia.  A boatload of luminaries – among them Steven Seagal, Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke – have partied with Putin himself. Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte palled around with Hugo Chávez. And soccer great Lionel Messi has cozied up to Gabon’s child-murdering dictator, Ali Bongo. 

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Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified child

And yet which country on earth is the sole target of an organized campaign to pressure show-business figures into turning down invitations to perform within its borders? Israel, of course – the only democracy in the Middle East.

The BDS movement – the letters stand for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” – has a wide reach. It’s not just concerned with entertainers. It’s out to cut off Israel as fully as possible, in every way possible, from the rest of the world. But the effort to break cultural ties is particularly high-profile – and alarmingly successful. In February, several hundred British artists signed a statement announcing that they would “not engage in business-as-usual cultural relations with Israel,” meaning that they would “accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government. Among the artists were Palme d’Or-winning film director Ken Loach; Mike Leigh, the Oscar-nominated director of the 2004 movie Vera Drake; and musician Brian Eno.

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Roger Waters

A number of entertainers have been outspoken in their support of the BDS movement. But few of them are as ardent as musician Roger Waters, formerly of the band Pink Floyd. For Waters, there are apparently no gray areas when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: consistently, he not only condemns Israel but also defends terrorists. He’s called the Israeli government a “racist apartheid regime” and accused it of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” He’s slammed what he calls the “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. and Israel’s “propaganda machine.” He’s accused Israel’s rabbis of viewing Arabs as “sub-human.” And he’s mocked Israeli concern about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, calling it a “diversionary tactic.”

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Waters’s pig balloon

In the summer of 2013, his concerts featured “a pig-shaped balloon adorned with Jewish symbols, including a Star of David.” In December of that year, he explicitly compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Nazi treatment of Jews. “The parallels with what went on in the 1930s in Germany are so crushingly obvious,” he told an interviewer. Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, a noted American author and public speaker, offered a memorable reply to these remarks. We’ll get around to that tomorrow.