Friday, July 10, 2009

Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, Churchill and the secret history of the Second World War

When do you think the Second World War ended? In August 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese? Well, it depends how you look at it. If you believe that the end of the war was supposed to have brought “freedom” to the countries which had suffered under Nazi occupation, then for millions of people the war did not really end until the fall of Communism less than 20 years ago; because in the summer of 1945 the people of Poland, of the Baltic States and of a number of other countries in Eastern Europe simply swapped the rule of one tyrant – Adolf Hitler – for another – Joseph Stalin. It was in order to demonstrate this unpleasant reality that the presidents of both Estonia and Lithuania refused to visit Moscow in 2005 to participate in “celebrations” marking the 60th anniversary of the “end of the war” in Europe.

How did this injustice happen? That’s one of the questions posed in my six-part BBC2 series World War Two: Behind Closed Doors – Stalin, the Nazis and the West, which uses fresh evidence to illuminate the complex relationships Stalin had with his allies. It is a history that can only be told since the fall of Communism. Not just because the many eyewitnesses I met in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would never have been able to speak frankly under Communist rule, but also because only recently has key archival material been made available that successive Soviet governments did all they could to hide.

Only since the collapse of the Soviet empire have we learnt the full truth, for example, about the horrors of Katyn – when Stalin in the spring of 1940 authorised the murder of thousands of members of the Polish elite. Indeed, the crime of Katyn runs like a cancer through this history, as we see how the Western leaders helped suppress the truth about the murders during the war. “We should none of us ever speak a word about it,” wrote Winston Churchill on a memo in 1943, referring to a secret Foreign Office investigation that was to show that the Soviets had most likely committed the crime. The American President, Franklin D Roosevelt, went further. When a functionary threatened to go to the press revealing that Stalin had almost certainly ordered these murders, Roosevelt promptly had him sent off to what was effectively exile – to work as a government official on the other side of the world in Samoa.

It’s not hard to see why, during the conflict, Churchill and Roosevelt felt they had to prevent the full truth about Stalin getting out. The reality was that the Soviet Union was a vital ally and the West needed to keep the Red Army fighting the Germans. Indeed, the relative scale of sacrifice between the Allies is still not as known here in the West as it should be. The British and Americans, between them, lost about 800,000 dead, soldiers and civilians, in the Second World War. The Soviet Union suffered a death toll of 27 million.

Behind Closed Doors reveals this untold, behind-the-scenes history in a fresh way. Not only do we employ the traditional techniques of newsreel archive and eyewitness testimony, but we also use minutes of meetings and diaries to dramatically reconstruct – as far as we can judge – precisely what was said at the key secret encounters; when Stalin met the Nazi Foreign Secretary or when the Soviets dealt with Churchill and Roosevelt. The words spoken in these reconstructions are not fiction but – within the limits set by the available material – fact. And, at least in my view, the portrayal of Stalin by the Russian film star Alexei Petrenko is particularly effective...

Pride of Da Vinci's genius walks again after 500 years

It lives. It lives! After almost five centuries, a legendary, artificial monster, which has intrigued scientists and art historians for decades, cranked back into life in central France this week.

The monster in question is a friendly-looking, curly-maned, almost life-sized, mechanical lion, which can walk, and move its head and shake its tail and open its jaws. The original was designed in 1517 by a 16th-century special effects man, who later achieved fame as a painter (but was also musician, philosopher, engineer, architect, scientist, mathematician, anatomist, inventor, architect and botanist).

Leonardo da Vinci left only a rudimentary sketch of his robot lion but it has been reconstructed in full-size for the first time by a French-based, Venetian-born designer of automatons, Renato Boaretto. Using contemporary accounts and the other mechanical sketches left by the great artist, the 66-year-old has built a spectacular clockwork toy over 6ft long and four feet high, which can walk and wag its tail and simulate roaring movements of its head.

Leo's lion was created to demonstrate an old man's prowess and to flatter and amuse a French king. Even in the technology-sated early 21st century, it is impressive. In the early 16th century, it was the highest of hi-tech, up to 300 years ahead of its time.

The Da Vinci cat prowls again this summer – and until 31 January next year – as part of an exhibition on the many links between Leonardo and France. The exhibition is at the beautiful Château du Clos Lucé, in Amboise, beside the River Loire, where Da Vinci passed the last three years of his life and died in 1519.

François Saint Bris, president of the Château du Clos Lucé and Parc Leonardo da Vinci, has plans to turn the house and grounds into a cultural theme park, devoted not to just Leonardo but all the achievements and figures of the Renaissance from Shakespeare to Machiavelli. M. Saint Bris commissioned the robot lion from Mr Boaretto as a way of explaining the range and versatility of the artist's talents.

"Leonardo was, as well as everything else, a kind of George Lucas of the early 16th century," M. Saint Bris said in an interview. "His special effects were legendary."

The Leonardo da Vinci and France exhibition at Clos Lucé has brought off another coup. Four original Leonardo sketches, drawn at the château in the artist's final years, have been allowed out of the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice for the first time and have returned to the place where they were created. There are also reproductions of other celebrated Da Vinci drawings from the Royal collection in Britain, including a sketch of the royal château at Amboise seen from the artist's bedroom at Clos Lucé...

Michael Jackson ... Why He's More Adored than Shakespeare

The first remarkable episode of global celebrity adoration, as we know it today, comes to us courtesy of the silent film era and Rudolph Valentino, a.k.a The Sheik. (While prodigious talents like Mozart, Michelangelo, and Charles Dickens enjoyed recognition in their lifetimes, twentieth-century inventions like radio, film and television revolutionized the meaning of fame, culminating in the modern phenomenon of super stardom.) When the Italian Hollywood star died in 1926, fans wept, women fainted, and more than 100,000 people marched in his New York funeral. 83 years after his death, his name remains a moniker for the swashbuckling ladies man meets the hopeless romantic.

The first entertainer to uncork a cult-like fan craze of the sort later enjoyed by the Beatles and Michael Jackson was Elvis Presley. Elvis epitomized the vivacious, youthful spirit of his times, becoming a globally recognized icon of, not just American art and entertainment, but of America itself. His burial grounds at Graceland remain one of the most visited anywhere in the nation, and Elvis himself has become the most impersonated figure in history.

The notion of superstardom is not limited to the US or the West. When legendary Egyptian singer and Arab icon, Umm Kulthum, died in 1976, her funeral became the most attended in modern recorded history, with over four million mourners crowding Cairo's streets. Though a classical singer, "the lady," as she was dubbed by French president Charles De Gaul, had left an indelible mark on the social, cultural, and political consciousness of the Middle East and the Arab world. To this day, she is known affectionately as Egypt's fourth pyramid.

So where does Michael Jackson's legacy fit in?

No entertainer in history has offered as much excitement and enjoyment to as many fans around the world as Michael has for as long as he has; it is likely that no one ever will.

Despite the wealth of competition in a world in which millions dance and sing, he danced and sang better than anyone in the world.

As a starry-eyed child from Gary, Indiana he stunned audiences with his soaring voice, crooning ballads, and composure beyond his years. As an adult, he excited millions with a never-before-seen brand of electrifying entertainment that combined pulsating energy and studied suave.

His trademark infectious beats and moves left him in an uncontested league of his own, much like Pele in soccer and Michael Jordan in basketball.

No entertainer has left the music world with as many popular singles that defined the essence of their times as he has. His album Thriller was the most commercially and critically successful non-anthological album in history, and is expected to remain that way in the future.

Michael Jackson's fan base extends from Morocco to Japan, and from Iceland to Australia. Though it has dimmed in recent years due to a series of bizarre lifestyle choices, most notable of which is a metamorphous plastic face, his gargantuan talent and musical body of work will likely prove enough to secure him a glowing post-mortem legacy.

As I watch the ongoing TV coverage of reactions to Michael's death that pour in from celebrities, politicians, and average people on the street, I am reminded of the same display of emotion shown for Elvis, John Lennon, and Umm Kulthum. This leaves me wondering, what is it about entertainers that so captivates the emotions of people and commands a broad outpouring of love seldom offered to others.

After all, one would think that mass adoration of the highest order would be better reserved for the liberator of the free world, the discoverer of a cure for cancer, or the inventor of a bank that systematically alleviates poverty.

But it is not, it is almost always reserved for entertainers.

The secret to this conundrum lies not in those entertainers, but in us and our narcissist tendencies. Our love for them is but a reflection of how deeply we cherish our personal memories, fleeting moments that we value more than mounds of gold, moments played against a soundtrack provided by those we then grow to love.

Sure, you may love Shakespeare or Hemingway, and you may appreciate your elected officials. But it is highly unlikely that your favorite author or elected official will occupy the same space in your sentimental bank of memories as the folks who provided the score for those special times in your childhood, adolescence, youth, etc. Naturally, love is a sentimental affair.

Ironically, he did not benefit as greatly from what we offered him in turn. Michael's personal life was defined by a constant struggle to cope with a larger-than-life fame that burdened him to his core, causing him deep pain, sadness, and solitude. Robbed of his childhood, the eternal boy could never fully come to terms with his manhood, unleashing the odd behavior that only earned him more public scorn, perpetuating the cycle of pain. No one explains it better than Juan Cole whose thoughtful tribute to Michael I highly recommend.

What is the Codex Sinaiticus, and what does it reveal about the Bible?

Why are we asking this now?

It is the oldest Bible in the world. The 4th-century book is considered to be one of the most important texts in existence. Until this week, no one alive has seen all its 800 pages together in one place because in the 19th century the document was split into sections and is now in four different locations – London, St Petersburg, Leipzig and Egypt. But the creation of an online virtual Codex Sinaiticus permits anyone to see the manuscript in its entirety at

Where did the Codex Sinaiticus come from?

No one is sure but it was handwritten in Greek uncial letters at about the time of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great more than 1,600 years ago. The work of four scribes, it was written on vellum parchment made from the skins of donkeys or antelopes. It was preserved for centuries by the dry desert air at the 4th century Monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery, which has the greatest library of early manuscripts outside the Vatican City. The Codex was discovered at the monastery in 1844 by the German biblical scholar and archaeologist Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-74), who brought sections of it back to Europe on three separate trips. Von Tischendorf claimed to have found pages of it in a wastepaper basket but the monks deny this. There is a dispute too about whether he stole it or was given it. Von Tischendorf had a deed of gift dated 11 September 1868 signed by one of its archbishops. The biggest portion of the codex ended up in St Petersburg, where it was bought by the British Museum in the 1930s out of fear that the Communist regime might destroy it.

Why is the Codex so important?

To secular scholars it represents the turning point in literary history when the scroll gave way to the book. The parchment was arranged in little multi-page booklets called quires, which were then numbered in sequence. It is thought to be the oldest, large, bound book to have survived. "The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world's greatest written treasures," says Scot McKendrick, head of Western manuscripts at the British Library. To Christian scholars, it offers key insights into which ancient religious texts were brought together in the unit we now know as the Bible. In earlier centuries there were all manner of documents in scroll form of gospels, epistles and other Christian writings. As time went by, some were judged to be authoritative and included in the canon; others were deemed to be apocryphal or errant. The Codex Sinaiticus as it survives is incomplete – originally it would have been about 1,460 pages long – but it includes half of the Old Testament, all the New Testament, and two early Christian texts not found in modern Bibles. It offers the first evidence of the content and the arrangement of the Bible, and includes numerous revisions, additions and corrections made to the text between the 4th and 12th centuries, making it one of the most corrected manuscripts in existence, showing how the text of the Bible was transmitted from generation to generation down through the ages.

Why has it never been reunited before?

Partly because the holders of the various bits were covetous of their prized pages, and partly because the pages are too delicate to be moved. So the work of digitising the pages had to be carried out in all four locations. Leaves of the Codex were first treated by conservation experts to ensure they were sufficiently stable to undergo the photographic process. Each page had to be photographed from several different angles to get a strong, readable image of the text but also to convey the natural undulation of the parchment. The result is so accurate that high-resolution digital images even show up insect bites in the skin of the animal made before the creature was slaughtered to make the vellum...

McNamara in Purgatory: Setting the War Record Straight

.. The notion that for too long McNamara hid his doubts about the war rather than fighting against it has been aired anew in the wake of his death this week. This indictment was articulated most famously -- and eloquently -- in an editorial issued by the New York Times in 1995, when the former Whiz Kid came out with his memoir. "In Retrospect" was McNamara's confessional: He realized he was wrong on Vietnam.

"At the time," the Times editorialized, "he appeared to be helping an obsessed President prosecute a war of no real consequence to the security of the United States. Millions of loyal citizens concluded that the war was a militarily unnecessary and politically futile effort to prop up a corrupt government that could neither reform nor defend itself."

What the Times failed to say was that there were millions of loyal citizens who thought the war could be won. And in the years after McNamara left the Pentagon it was won, at least in the field if not in Congress, by American and South Vietnamese soldiers. These citizens believed the right thing to do in Vietnam was stick with the fight, the way we did in other wars that had early reverses, like Korea, World War II, and the Civil War.

Most people who take this view do not -- and do not have to -- gainsay the patriotism of the doves. But they do dispute the notion that the doves turned out to be right in the end. They see McNamara's default on Vietnam as a failure to support his military commanders during the years when they were seeking a greater commitment of troops and the authority to use overwhelming force.

One historian of the war, Mark Moyar, spoke in a radio broadcast this week about how McNamara maneuvered against the generals. He blocked their access to the political leadership in an effort to protect his own strategy, which was to escalate gradually in the hope that the enemy would take a hint. Another point Mr. Moyar made is that the Vietnam War, which went poorly between 1963 and 1968 when McNamara was defense secretary, improved from 1969 onward.

McNamara's great failure, in short, was not that he continued to front for a war he had concluded was wrong and had decided we would lose. It was that he collapsed in a war that he should have known we could win -- and then derided its very purpose. A central tenet of the left, after all, is that all the dying in the Vietnam War was without purpose. Here is how that famous New York Times editorial put it about McNamara: "Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose."...

Central Asia's Rulers Follow Familiar Recipe For Longevity

By Farangis Najibullah

Turkmenistan celebrated its annual Turkmen Carpet Day on May 31, with many traditional handmade carpets put on display in an Ashgabat exhibition. And the largest and most colorful of all featured the country's president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Turkmen citizens were long used to seeing the image of their previous leader, Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi, or "the father of all Turkmens," who actively cultivated a personality cult) nearly everywhere. And little has changed since Berdymukhamedov came to power.

Turkmen newspapers and magazines regularly feature Berdymukhamedov's image on their front-page covers. All state-owned transportation -- buses, trolleys, and trucks -- feature a portrait of the president behind their windshield.

Such presidential tributes are a traditional elsewhere in Central Asia as well.

The region's presidents traditionally enjoy astonishing political longevity, and the boundless number of photographs, statues, and books promoting their image only seems to reinforce their staying power.

Has the presidential personality cult become an integral part of political culture in Central Asia?

Here, There, And Everywhere

Throughout the region, news bulletins on state-run channels begin with reports on the latest meetings, trips, or speeches of that country's president.

Placards bearing presidential quotes hang everywhere from hospital wards to bus stops in remote villages.

Government officials -- from rural community leaders to high-ranking executives -- place presidents' portraits on office walls and fill their bookshelves with presidential books, most of them published in expensive hardback.

A gilded imprint of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's hand at a handcraft museum in Astana
Residents of the Kazakh capital Astana say they feel as through President Nursultan Nazarbaev looks down at you from every corner of the city.

Residents of the capital might be excused for thinking that every other billboard features Nazarbaev's image or excerpts from his books and speeches.

In Tajikistan, an excess of presidential appreciation seemed to overwhelm even the president himself. Emomali Rahmon -- whom Tajik officials refer to as "His Excellency" -- recently ordered all government officials to strip their offices of his portraits and carpets bearing his image.

A mass of empty billboards were seen throughout the capital Dushanbe as officials raced to enact the president's order.

Neither Here 'Nur' There

Kironshoh Sharif, a journalist based in the Tajik capital, believes that it won't be long until the presidential images stage a return. This, he explains, is how ministers and officials "try to demonstrate their loyalty" to Rahmon.

"It's not the first time the Tajik president has addressed this issue," Sharif says. "He's officially called on people not to misuse the president's name, images, and quotes in the past. I'm afraid the president's latest order will be forgotten again within the next five years."

Nazarbaev's first name has taken on brand status in Kazakhstan, where banks, businesses and clubs have begun to add the "Nur" prefix to their name. According to, a regional news website, more than 2,000 businesses have adopted the trend, with names like the Nur-gul Cafe, Nur-Basa, and the Nur-Doorphone Company.

The fad -- dubbed "Nurization" -- seems to follow in the footsteps of the presidential political party, Nur-Otan.

With so many gestures of presidential respect in Kazakhstan, it now takes extra effort to stand out from the crowd of ordinary admirers.

In an attempt to go the extra mile, a group of Kazakh officials and businessmen have proposed to name an airport after the sitting president. A privately run foundation called Kazakh Khanate is planning to erect a $330,000 monument in honor of Nazarbaev's 70th birthday next year.

Kinda Bookish

In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov is known for his literary ambition, and has more than 30 million copies of his books in circulation.

The presidential books are compulsory reading for students and professors. But among ordinary people, they are better known as "books that won't be read."

A giant poster of President Islam Karimov in Tashkent
Hikmatulloh Saifullozoda, a Tajik political expert, said the Central Asian presidential personality cults have become a permanent part of the region's political culture, and that the presidents themselves are to blame for "tolerating these undue commendations and flattering remarks."

Still, Saifullozoda concedes it isn't clear that the extravagant billboards, books, and media coverage have helped improve the reputations of Central Asian presidents among their electorate.

"When I travel with colleagues and parliamentarians to the provinces, people frequently mention this issue," Saifullozoda says. "People say the message has to be passed to the leader of the country that this trend doesn't boost his image. On the contrary, it damages his reputation among certain parts of society."

"Presidents have to stop this frenzy if they want any genuine admiration from people," he says. "It is going out of proportion, and people simply make fun of them."

Kazakh Atomic Kingpin Suddenly Radioactive

By Bruce Pannier
What a difference a few days can make.

Mukhtar Dzhakishev was once considered one of the richest and most powerful men in Kazakhstan: the head of a company with access to the world's second-largest reserves of uranium, with lucrative contracts with Russia, China, and India.

Until last week, Dzhakishev headed the strategically vital KazAtomProm, one of Kazakhstan's most lucrative state companies. But now, Dzhakishev finds himself under arrest and possibly in line to join other fallen executives who have landed in Kazakh jails with lengthy prison sentences.

Dzhakishev faces charges of embezzlement of state property after the trail of an investigation of a major bank reportedly led authorities to him.

At KazAtomProm, Dzhakishev oversaw Kazakhstan's huge production of uranium and negotiated agreements for its export, while playing a crucial role in efforts to construct nuclear power plants at home and abroad.

From Rags...

When he took over KazAtomProm in 1998, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Now it is an international powerhouse that has aspirations to be the world's leading uranium exporter within the next few years.

This year alone, Dzhakishev brokered deals with Beijing to help build nuclear power plants in China. In return, Kazakhstan was to receive Chinese expertise in building two nuclear power plants on Kazakh soil. Similar deals were worked out with India. Combined, the agreements were worth tens of millions of dollars plus, and provided Kazakhstan access to lucrative technological knowledge.

Nevertheless, the ax fell on May 21 when he was dismissed from his post and embezzlement charges were filed against him. Apparently he never saw it coming.

Just days earlier, Dzhakishev had spoken to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service about KazAtomProm's success under his leadership and optimistically outlined plans for the future.

"We already have a strategy for geological exploration through the year 2030," Dzhakishev said, "and in accordance with these plans we have determined the deposits we will be developing and have preliminary forecasts for the output [of uranium] from these areas that will help us expand output and this strategy will allow Kazakhstan to continue producing large volumes up until 2090 or 2100."

...To Investigations

Reports indicate that Dzhakishev's ouster and charges against him came after an investigation of the head of Kazakhstan's BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, that was carried out by the Prosecutor-General's Office uncovered links to Jakishev.

Ablyazov is accused of defrauding the government and is believed to have fled the country, reportedly to Russia.

Three KazAtomProm vice presidents were also said to have been arrested, joining the ranks of recently fallen executives at key state companies.

In March this year, the former head of the state oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz, Serik Burkitbaev, was jailed for six years for "economic crimes."

In November, the head of the national railway company, Zhaksybek Kulekeev, was sentenced to prison for taking bribes.

KazAtomProm has been under scrutiny in the past in relation to Kazakhstan's apparent shortcomings in keeping track of nuclear materials.

Radioactive Trouble

In the second half of the 1990s, there were several reported incidents of radioactive material vanishing, and there were cases in which Kazakh citizens were caught trying to sell uranium and even plutonium.

Among the more alarming reports were of a truck from Kazakhstan being stopped at the Uzbek border in April 2000, where a search uncovered radioactive substances bound for Quetta, Pakistan.

In 2002, the South Korean newspaper "Seoul Segye Ilbo" reported that North Korea had purchased uranium from Kazakhstan's Ulba Metallurgical Plant, which is owned by KazAtomProm.

Kazakhstan's Nazarbaev Marks 20 Years In Power

By Farangis Najibullah
Aidar, a 19-year-old Almaty resident, has only known one leader in his lifetime: Nursultan Nazarbaev, who became Kazakh president a year before Aidar was born.

Like many young people secure in the impression that a president, like a parent, never changes, Aidar is complacent about his country's leadership. "I don't care about politics," he says.

It has been 20 years since Nursultan Nazarbaev came to power in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest and richest country. For some, Nazarbaev is an autocrat who has suppressed freedom and democracy, for others he is a guarantor of prosperity and stability in the country.

More interesting than politics, for Aidar, is the country's financial future. As a university graduate with a comfortable starting salary of $350 a month and enough extra time to pursue a master's degree in business, things look bright.

"In terms of the economy and development, our country has advanced in comparison to other countries in the region," Aidar said.

"Living standards have gone up considerably. Education standards have improved. We have a better economic situation and job opportunities."
The way that elections are conducted here, and the way that the propaganda machine works and public opinion is manipulated, Nazarbaev automatically wins 60-70 percent of the vote

There are millions of young people in Kazakhstan who, like Aidar, see no problem with Nazarbaev's prolonged stay in power.

To them, Nazarbaev is a man who has delivered to the energy-rich country a level of stability and prosperity unheard of elsewhere in Central Asia. Why risk losing all that with someone new and untested?

But other Kazakhs look beyond the country's economic well-being to a leader they say has sought to entrench his regime at any cost.

As Nazarbaev marks two decades as president on June 22, many say there is little that separates him from the other Soviet-style autocrats who have ruled Central Asia, almost without interruption, since the collapse of the USSR.

Shepherd's Son

Born in 1940, Nazarbaev, the son of a shepherd, began his rise through the ranks of the Communist Party while still a steel worker in northern Kazakhstan.

In 1989, Nazarbaev came to power as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, and was elected president the following year. Together with Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Nazarbaev was a privileged member of the inner circle of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Before his rise to power, Nazarbaev had been a vocal critic of extended political terms, saying no leader should be allowed to stay in office for a long period of time. The comments were an apparent dig at Dinmuhamed Kunaev, a former Kazakh Communist Party boss.

But within years, Nazarbaev would seek to extend his own mandate. In 1995, Nazarbaev dissolved parliament before quickly arranging a national referendum that would extend his term in office by several years.
An undated photo of Nazarbaev with his mother

Shortly afterward, Nazarbaev ordered another referendum on constitutional amendments stripping the parliament of some of its powers and dissolving other checks on his authority like the Constitutional Court.

In 1999, Nazarbaev ran for reelection in an early ballot, winning handily with 89 percent of the vote after his main rival, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was disqualified after attending an unsanctioned opposition rally. By then, the pliant parliament had extended the presidential term from five to seven years.

In 2005, Nazarbaev scored another massive win with 91 percent of the vote. Opposition and international observers criticized the vote as failing to meet international standards for democratic elections.

Unfazed, Nazarbaev once again sought a constitutional amendment allowing him to pursue unlimited terms in office -- following Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov's path toward president-for-life status.

Corruption Allegations

Nazarbaev's critics say his political immortality has created a crisis of widespread corruption, nepotism, and suppression of the opponents in the media and political spheres.

Pyotr Svoik, a Kazakh opposition politician, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Nazarbaev and his circle have put a clamp hold on the entire country.

"Kazakhstan doesn't have any independent institutions, and the parliament, courts, prosecutors' office and government serve only one particular person. The future of political system in Kazakhstan is very dark and very worrying," Svoik said.

A number of journalists and high-profile opposition leaders have been arrested, beaten, and killed under Nazarbaev's rule.

The most sensational case was the murder, in 2006, of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, the cochair of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol party. Five officers from Kazakhstan's KNB security service were arrested in connection with the killing.

Media rights groups increasingly criticize the Kazakh government for suppressing freedom of speech, trying to control the Internet, and showing little tolerance for independent media.

Sergei Duvanov, an independent Kazakh journalist, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that while vote-rigging may have taken place in the past, Nazarbaev has been so successful at eliminating any opposition that he no longer has any viable competition.

Books written by the president in the Nazarbaev museum in Astana
"The way that elections are conducted here, and the way that the propaganda machine works and public opinion is manipulated, Nazarbaev automatically wins 60-70 percent of the vote," Duvanov said.

Such opinions, however, have done little to dim Nazarbaev's reputation at home or abroad. Kazakhstan's energy wealth and relative stability have raised it above the criticism leveled at more autocratic Central Asian regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Next year, it is set to assume the presidency of the OSCE, becoming the first post-Soviet state to assume that post.

It is a momentous opportunity for Kazakhstan to boost its reputation and legitimacy abroad. But Human Rights Watch recently warned that the chairmanship could backfire if it "fails to abide by the democratic standards it is supposed to be upholding."

Economic Boom

Still, Kazakhstan is undeniably the most prosperous and stable country in Central Asia, and has become so under Nazarbaev's rule.

Nazarbaev's critics say the economic boom is due not to presidential strategy and skill but the country's enormous natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, as well as vast farmlands that have made the country one of the world's leading grain exporters.

But even those critics concede that living standards in Kazakhstan have improved at a far faster rate than those in other energy-rich countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan is a destination for hundreds of thousands of people from other countries in the region, who come in search of better lives and income opportunities.

Nazarbaev has also proven to be a master at juggling Kazakhstan's relations with big powers like Russia, China, and the United States. Firms from all three countries have invested collective billions into Kazakhstan.

Unlike its Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan has provided a favorable climate to small- and medium-size businesses. The government has generously invested oil revenues in the country's health care, pension, and social-security systems.

While older generations in other Central Asian countries have to cope with insufficient pensions, often paid late, Kazakh pensioners receive their relatively high, regularly paid retirement money from ATM machines.

Many Kazakhs credit Nazarbaev with using the country's energy wealth to improve living standards.

Nazarbaev is also known for investing in younger generation's education. In 1993, he set up a special program -- Bolashak, or "Future" -- that annually gives 2,000 students the opportunity to study in foreign countries. The students' expenses are fully covered by the government.

Aidar, the 19-year-old Almaty native, says his sister, Narina, is currently studying finance in Britain under the Bolashak program. Rather than looking for future opportunity abroad, Aidar says Narina is eager to return to Kazakhstan after completing her studies to find a well-paying job at home.

Both Aidar and Narina are looking forward to their future. Both see their career in business and finance, and aren't remotely interested in getting involved in politics or questioning the government's work.

After all, says Aidar, if you don't interfere in politics, "you'll be fine." There is the sense that many Kazakhs share the same view.

North Korea Suspected In Cyberoffensive Against U.S., South Korea

By Ron Synovitz

Computer security experts in the United States say dozens of U.S. government websites have been targeted in a coordinated cyberattack that also has struck key websites in South Korea since July 4-5.

The so-called denial-of-service (DOS) attacks are being called the most widespread cyberoffensive in recent years. They began on July 4 when 14 major websites in the United States were targeted -- including those of the White House, the U.S. State Department, and the New York Stock Exchange.

Since the night of July 7, access to at least 11 major South Korean websites has been cut or slowed dramatically by the cyberattacks -- including the websites of the presidential Blue House, the Defense Ministry, the National Assembly, Shinhan Bank, the daily newspaper "Chosun Ilbo." and the top Internet portal

Although it stopped short of specifically identifying any suspected culprits, South Korea's National Intelligence Service has implicated North Korea or pro-North Korea groups.

The impact of the attacks is seen as negligible so far. There has not been an actual security breach. Nor has there been damage to the online infrastructure in the United States or South Korea. But experts say the attacks serve as a reminder that Pyongyang has been planning for cyberwarfare.

Kwon Tae-shin, chief of the office of South Korea's prime minister, told reporters in Seoul on July 9 that the government has had emergency talks on how to deter possible cyberattacks in the near future.

"Especially, there is some speculation that North Korea or its followers may be engaged in this cyberterror, and that a second, a third cyberattack can occur. Therefore, I think the government should establish overall cybersecurity measures for national security," he said.

'Botnet' Attacks

U.S. authorities have described the latest cyberoffensive as a series of "botnet" attacks -- a method similar to the DOS attacks that targeted Estonia in 2007 during a dispute with the Kremlin, and against Georgia last year during its conflict with Russia over South Ossetia.

Despite widespread allegations that the Kremlin had a direct role in those attacks on Estonia and Georgia, the allegations have never been proven.

Cyberwarfare expert Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, says it would be difficult to confirm that any hostile government is the source of a botnet attack.

That's because a botnet is created by a virus that can infiltrate millions of computers around the world before ordering them to send out a flood of simultaneous requests to view targeted websites.

"A botnet is usually composed of computers whose users are not aware that they are volunteering their computer power for the attack," Morozov says.

"The whole point of a botnet is to have, [for example,] 10 million computers send their signals to the target server all at once. This scale is crucial if you really want to take down a website. That's what happens in a typical cyberattack. It is much less glamorous than having hackers break into a server, deface it, and then steal data. What happens is just this overloading of their capacity with bogus requests."

Northern Defiance

North Korea has been working for the past decade to improve its computer-warfare capabilities. The technology to create a botnet attack is within the capabilities of North Korean computer experts.

And unlike cyberattacks blamed on Russian or Chinese state hackers -- where there may have been collusion with nongovernment computer experts -- it is assumed that computer activities coming out of North Korea are much more closely controlled by the government in Pyongyang.

Another detail that has raised suspicions about North Korea is the fact that the attacks on South Korea proliferated on July 8, the 15th anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's death.

Last month, North Korea also warned of "high-tech war" against the South for spreading what it said was false information about its involvement in cyberattacks.

In fact, North Korea has been defiant in the face of international criticism over nuclear and missile tests that it is conducting in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Some analysts speculate that a cyberoffensive could be part of Pyongyang's hard line of resistance to such criticism.

On July 4, as the cyberattacks were first surfacing in the United States, North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.

Last month, the UN Security Council passed a resolution expanding sanctions against North Korea in response to a May 25 nuclear test carried out by Pyongyang. A UN sanctions committee could blacklist more North Korean companies and individuals for supporting Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. That committee is due to complete its work by July 10.

Preparing Defenses

South Korean computer experts who have examined the latest botnet offensive say they expect attacks to focus on more South Korean targets ahead of that UN committee's deadline.

Ahnlab, South Korea's leading online security firm, is among several private companies in Seoul whose websites have been under attack. Cho Joo-bong, a senior researcher at Ahnlab, says it is difficult to know who is coordinating the attacks.

"In fact, nobody can figure out the attacker at this moment," Cho says. "All the assumptions are not verified yet. These attackers are continuously updating lists and ordering followers to attack cyberspace behind the scenes. So, nobody can say who is maneuvering all this."

Some analysts raise doubts about North Korea's involvement, saying it may instead be the work of industrial spies or pranksters. But that hasn't eased concerns in Washington.

U.S. and NATO defense officials have launched efforts to create a defensive system to protect their computer infrastructure from future cyberattacks. That effort includes a gathering of cyberwarfare experts in Estonia last month under the auspices of a NATO cyberdefense task force.

The Mythological Vertical Of Power

Back in February, the senior adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev rattled the Moscow political elite when he told the "New York Times" that Russia's implicit social contract -- in which citizens sacrificed political freedoms in exchange for rising living standards -- was being rendered null and void by the deepening economic crisis. Political liberalization, he said, was necessary if Russia was to emerge from the deepening recession.

Defenders of the current system wasted no time pushing back. Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist, ridiculed Yurgen's comments and insisted that "the system is working."

Gleb Pavlovsky, a pro-Kremlin analyst who heads the Effective Politics Foundation, went as far as to suggest that comments likeYurgen's were an indication that a small "pro-crisis party" is lurking inside the Russian elite and might be plotting "a new little coup.

Apparently the push back has not deterred Yurgens.

In an interview with Britain's "Daily Telegraph" published today, Yurgens took aim at the authoritarian system of "sovereign democracy," saying it was holding back Russia's development:

The present system shows signs of overextension. It shows signs of over centralization and fragility because it is based not on institutions but on the mythological vertical of power. The reform process stumbled halfway. We have to push very hard to restart those reforms otherwise we will not be ready to catch up with the G8. We will remain on the level of leading emerging nations.

Other officials have echoed Yurgen's views in recent months, including Arkady Dvorkovich, the head of the Kremlin's experts directorate.

The ongoing public debate has naturally raised questions about whether Medvedev is trying to break free from the influence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto ruler and the president's political mentor and patron. Those speaking out against the current system, after all, tend to be close to Medvedev, while those defending it are almost always members of Putin's inner circle.

Political scientist Yuri Chernyshov told Newsweek's Russian-language edition (the article was translated and re-printed in the English-language magazine as well) that "Medvedev was a puppet, but now he seems to be doing things that may not please Putin."

The question of whether or not there is a split between Putin and Medvedev has been the source of endless speculation on this blog and elsewhere. But what is becoming very clear is that there is a growing chasm between their respective teams.

Citing unidentified officials, Newsweek also reported that normal channels of bureaucratic communications between Medvedev's Kremlin and Putin's government have all but stalled:

Since last fall, the flow of documents has been completely separated between the Kremlin and the White House [government headquarters]. This means that work in both places is already running on an autonomous track. The risks of overlap are growing. Simply put, war has broken out between the bureaucracies, several sources assert, and instructions from the Russian White House and the Kremlin contradict each other with increasing frequency.

In his "Daily Telegraph" interview, Yurgens says it is clear to him that a battle is going on among the top strata of the elite, but that its true contours remain largely hidden. "There is a struggle under way, although it is not very clear what is going on," he said. "In a society that was more transparent, which had more democratic mechanisms and a viable opposition, we would have a better idea of what is going on."

The Punk Meets The Godfather

Did the Kremlin's chief ideologist just get punked by a regional leader whose political obituary was written months ago? Early signs seem to suggest that he did.

Murtaza Rakhimov, the president of Russia's Bashkortostan Republic, appeared to get himself in a bit of hot water a few weeks ago when he publicly compared the level of centralization in Russia today to that in the Soviet Union.

When the Kremlin sent its powerful First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov to Ufa for a little chat with Rakhimov on Friday, pundits were wondering whether the wayward regional boss would survive the weekend with his job intact.

Authorities in Moscow had been systematically undermining Rakhimov's authority for months. They removed Bashkortostan's FSB chief, Interior Minister, and the heads of region's Supreme and Arbitration Courts -- all of whom were loyal to Rakhimov -- and replaced them with figures obedient to the Kremlin.

But when Surkov arrived, there was no reckoning to be had. Instead, with a straight face he praised the level of democracy in the region and lauded the locals who had rallied to support their leader.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Moscow Carnegie Center, suggests that when faced with a potential backlash from Rakhimov's supporters and other regional barons, the Kremlin blinked:

Rakhimov took a big gamble by standing up against the Kremlin. But at the same time, he strengthened his position in Bashkortostan, where the people rallied in a united front for their leader.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin, after taking all the necessary steps to remove Rakhimov from office, turned out to be politically unprepared for such a move. This is because it would have had to take on not only Rakhimov, but simultaneously do battle with several of the most powerful governors who exercise control over their political machines in the largest regions of the country.

As Pavel Baev points out at the Eurasia Daily Monitor, as the economic crisis deepens, authorities in Moscow are facing an increasingly restive group of regional leaders who are increasingly adept at exploiting the widening schisms in the Moscow elite:

Among the worst hit by the recession are such important regions as Chelyabinsk and Volgograd oblast, Krasnoyarsk krai, Tatarstan and even Moscow oblast, and their governors resent the Kremlin attempts at scapegoating them for the deepening slump.

Rakhimov is 75-years-old and the Kremlin has had it out for him for sometime now. He could very well get the boot at some point in the near future.

But Paul Goble over at Window on Eurasia writes that his survival of this latest scare -- and how it played out -- is sure to "resonate with other regional leaders," and could represent a watershed in Moscow's relations with the regions:

Indeed, at least some [regional leaders] are likely to assume that in the current economic environment, they may be able to turn the tables on the central government, given the anger many Russians feel about Moscow’s policies and given the reluctance of the center to create even more problems for itself by removing longtime leaders like Rakhimov.

To the extent that some of the heads of the federal subjects do reach that conclusion, the Rakhimov affair could represent another turning point in Moscow’s relations with the Russian Federation’s various republics, krays and oblasts and open the way for a more open and intense debate on center-periphery relations...

By remaining in office and even more by forcing Moscow to dispatch the Kremlin’s Vladislav Surkov to Ufa rather than being called on the carpet at the center, Rakhimov demonstrated that at least some regional leaders may be able to speak and act more independently than even they had believed.

Just another sign that Vladimir Putin's vaunted power vertical is getting more and more wobbly.

The Intellectual And The Propagandist

Yevgeny Gontmakher

Yevgeny Gontmakher's war of words with Vladislav Surkov just won't let up.

Gontmakher, director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, published an article in "Vedomosti" back in March comparing Surkov to Leonid Brezhnev's chief ideologist, Mikhail Suslov.

One would think that Surkov would consider this a compliment. After all, as Kremlin first deputy chief of staff, Surkov has styled himself as the regime's semi-official ideologist, responsible for terms like "sovereign democracy" and the "power vertical."

But apparently he wasn't amused. In an article published last week in "Vedomisti," Gontmakher described the reaction (you can read the whole article in the original Russian here, or in the English-language version published by "The Moscow Times" here):

I became the target of a massive attack on the Internet. First, a group of bloggers and the web sites of United Russia's Young Guard attacked me, mocking my non-Russian surname, but none actually responded to the arguments I posited in my article. A few Kremlin-friendly newspapers even published long articles written by prominent political analysts, the content of which boiled down to the following: 'Gontmakher, keep your dirty paws off Surkov.'

This wasn't Gontmakher's first run in with the Kremlin.

Back in November, he published a provocative article -- again in "Vedomisti" -- warning that anti-government riots similar to those that took place in Novocherkassk back in 1962 were possible as workers in single-factory towns reeled from the economic crisis. This was when the Kremlin was twisting itself into knots trying to argue that the crisis was an American problem and wouldn't effect Russia.

Hoping to silence Gontmakher and his ilk, the authorities gave "Vedomosti" a prompt warning that the article could be considered an incitement to extremism. Instead, it led to more people reading the article, and probably encouraged more public intellectuals to come forward with criticisms of the regime.

In his article last week, Gontmakher wrote that he has learned four key lessons from his ongoing battle with Surkov:

1. The modern Russian propaganda machine permeates nearly every major media outlet and even extends to the blogosphere. But the machine breaks down under certain external factors. For example, the informational blockade of the situation in Pikalyovo was broken when state-controlled television stations were compelled to show Putin's visit there.

2. The informational and ideological lockdown is not quite as impervious as it might appear. In order to stir things up a bit, one has only to introduce some fresh and thought-provoking material into the media now and then.

3. The most important item on today's reform agenda should be a commitment to uphold the constitutional ban on state ideology. Otherwise, nothing will be achieved in the economic or social spheres, much less in politics.

4. The country has to break the habit of praising those who both brainwash the populace and defame those who oppose it. The elite controlling the propaganda machine should understand that their present positions of authority are temporary at best, and that the day will come with they will face political ostracism.

I've been giving these ongoing verbal sparring matches a disproportionate amount of space on this blog because I think something very important is happening in Russia right now.

Brave public intellectuals like Gontmakher and Igor Yurgens are risking their careers by chipping away at the philosophical justification for Russia's authoritarian regime. This may all come to nothing. But it could potentially change Russia's internal political narrative into something closer resembling the truth.

By Claire Bigg What is it with Vladislav Surkov? The reclusive presidential aide, widely known as the Kremlin's "gray cardinal" and a close ally of P

By Claire Bigg
What is it with Vladislav Surkov?

The reclusive presidential aide, widely known as the Kremlin's "gray cardinal" and a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has been making regular forays into the spotlight in recent weeks -- a telling sign that something is brewing in the Kremlin.

The flurry of activity has fueled speculation that the Kremlin's top ideologue is scrambling to restore faith in the regime amid a devastating economic crisis.

"Surkov is the architect of a political system that is coming undone at the seams," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

"When this process began following the [economic] crisis, Surkov said that there was no need for radical change, that all we needed to do was wait for everything to fall back into place. Now, it is becoming clear that things are not returning to normal on their own and that the system must be somehow reshaped."

End Of The Social Contract

The global economic downturn has hit Russia's energy-based economy particularly hard, bankrupting factories, stalling construction, and prompting angry citizens to take to the streets over lost jobs and unpaid wages.

Until now, the bulk of Russians had been happy to give up a measure of freedom in return for prosperity.

But the economic crisis, by unraveling this so-called social contract, has shaken the very foundations of the "power vertical," the top-down political system built by Surkov over the past decade at the behest of then-President Putin.

Surkov, whose official title is first deputy chief of staff of the president, for years operated largely behind the scenes. But he has recently emerged in a far more public role, and has surprised many by using his forays to openly advocate liberal reform.

It's a striking departure from his trademark concept of "sovereign democracy," which critics view as a set of Putin-era measures aimed at consolidating Kremlin control and undermining civil liberties.

It also raises question about where Surkov's allegiances now lie: with his former boss, the still powerful Putin, or with President Dmitry Medvedev, widely seen as more liberal than his predecessor?

Surkov's liberalization efforts certainly fit the mood of the moment, and not only in Russia. In an interview with the Associated Press on the eve of his visit to Russia this week, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared intent on driving a wedge through the Putin-Medvedev tandem, and made no secret of his preference for Medvedev -- praising the latter's openness while criticizing Putin's "outdated" Cold War rhetoric.

It was during Obama's visit that Surkov was appointed to a bilateral committee overseeing Russian-U.S. relations. He was named co-head of the commission's working group on civil society, sparking an outcry from Russian rights activists.

The New 'Liberal'

That appointment was just the latest step in what appears to be a professional makeover for Surkov. In April, he became the chairman of a Russian commission aimed at easing a tough law on nongovernmental organizations -- a law that he had himself helped draft.

In June, he hosted conciliatory talks with leaders of opposition parties.

Addressing young State Duma deputies just days later, Surkov urged the ruling United Russia party, which heavily dominates parliament and the broader political scene, to reach out to other parties.

In that speech, Surkov explained that Russia's political structure had matured, and that liberalization was the next logical step in the process of establishing a stable, democratic, multiparty system in Russia.

His seeming transformation may prove startling to Moscow's political elite.

Surkov oversaw a range of unpopular crackdowns on dissent during the Putin era -- most notoriously the Kremlin campaign to rein in regional leaders, whose popular election was scrapped in 2004, and the controversial legislation that placed the activities and funding of nongovernmental groups under strict state control.

Still, many Russians share his original notion that "Russian democracy" is best established step by step, from above.

"He is a clever man and he understands the situation; this can't be denied," says Sergei Filatov, the head of the presidential administration under Boris Yeltsin. "One can agree with him on a number of things because any national transformation comes at a huge price, which creates tensions and resistance."

Filatov suggests Surkov is "trying to perform this transformation gradually."

"Of course, what's happening is disgusting to watch because it's not democracy," he adds, "but on the other hand, democracy needs to be built. On its own, it will take many, many years to come."

Just A Facade?

Others, however, doubt the Kremlin's commitment to democracy.

Surkov's liberalization drive, they say, is nothing more than an attempt by Putin and his hard-line entourage to save its skin amid the most severe and sustained grassroots protest it has ever faced.

"The political system's liberalization is inevitable, it's already taking place," Petrov says. "But it's taking place as a reaction to the current changes [and] it's driven by the system's urge to survive, to meet the emerging challenges. If the system is unable to radically modernize, it will simply lose control and be replaced by another system."

Petrov says Surkov could end up making mere cosmetic changes instead of radically rethinking the political structure which he so meticulously assembled.

A sign of this may be Surkov's high-profile visit last month to the Russian region of Bashkortostan, just days after regional leader Murtaza Rakhimov -- himself a United Russia member -- publicly lamented the lack of political diversity in the country and blasted the level of centralization as "worse than in Soviet times."

Although Surkov insisted that the visit had been planned long ago, many saw it as a move to publicly chastise Rakhimov over his unprecedented show of disobedience and patch up the rifts emerging within United Russia over how to handle the economic crisis.

Kremlin critics say ousting Surkov is the only way to lift Russia out of its political impasse, given his role in shaping the now-embattled "power vertical."

"I think Surkov is a very dangerous man for the country, a man who manically tries to control all political and social processes taking place in the country," says Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarity opposition movement. "This is a very dangerous trait for a politician. Surkov plays a very tragic role in our country. He is largely responsible for the negative centralization of power in recent years. I think everyone will celebrate when this person is sacked."

Surkov has long been the bete noire of Russia's opposition.

He is seen as the man behind Nashi, the combative pro-Kremlin youth group, and is thought to wield huge influence over both houses of parliament as well as the country's judicial system.

Relatively young -- his official biography puts him at just 44 years -- Surkov has an impressive career behind him. He was a senior executive for former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and oligarch Mikhail Fridman throughout the 1990s, and briefly served as deputy director of a state-run television channel before being appointed presidential deputy chief of staff in 1999.

In 2005, Surkov watched silently as his former benefactor Khodorkovsky was sentenced to eight years in prison on fraud charges after a legal onslaught widely seen as politically motivated, earning him the reputation of a cynical opportunist in opposition circles.

'Prince Of Darkness'

"Surkov does everything he can to inflate his own role. In fact, he is a half-baked entertainer who thinks he is the prince of darkness and the creator of Russia's backstage politics," says political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. "Surkov is a relatively young man who has already betrayed many people and caused massive harm to the country. He has a long, sated, comfortable, and shameful life ahead of him."

The secrecy surrounding him has done little to foster trust in Surkov.

But the inscrutable spin doctor seems to enjoy the various rumors and speculation swirling around him.

Four years ago, he stunned Russia by declaring that his father was Chechen and that he himself was born and spent his early childhood in Chechnya.

According to the Kremlin's official website, Surkov was born near Lipetsk, a city some 400 kilometers south of Moscow.

His revelation at the time was followed by reports in the Russian media that he changed his name from Aslambek Dudayev to the more Slavic Vladislav Surkov when he and his mother left Chechnya.

Despite his epithet of "gray cardinal," Surkov has proved a lot more colorful than his generally dull Kremlin colleagues.

He has written two albums for the popular Russian rock band Agata Kristi, for instance. Rumor has it that Surkov also pens best-selling thrillers under the pseudonym of G. A. Zotov.

While oppositionists and rights campaigners continue to call for his head, others say his ouster would do little to break the political stalemate.

There are suggestions that Surkov, the virtuoso political architect, might instead be co-opted to help build another, more democratic political edifice.

Some commentators say that Surkov, regardless of his past, could even play a central role in ushering in the much-awaited "thaw."

"I would not demonize Surkov or exaggerate his influence," says political analyst Petrov. "It would be more logical to use him and his team in a more constructive manner, because I don't see any other team capable of handling these problems more efficiently. As a political manager, as a person who deals with the problems of ruling authorities, he is probably one of the most efficient."

China's Uyghurs -- A Minority In Their Own Land?

By Breffni O'Rourke
(RFE/RL) -- The Uyghurs of western China are an ethnic Turkic people who are by tradition Muslim, and who feel more kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese -- the communist state's dominant population.

The Uyghurs are an ancient race who have made their mark on Eastern and Central Asian history. For more than a hundred years, in the eighth and ninth centuries, they ruled an empire that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea.

Today, they are concentrated in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. But they also are sizeable minority populations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Pockets of Uyghur communities also are scattered widely elsewhere in Asia.

Originally a group of hill tribes from the Altai Mountains, the Uyghurs have their own distinctive culture and a Turkic language. Scientists say that genetically, Uyghurs are an admixture of Caucasian and East Asian blood. They say this is the reason many retain light-colored skin and hair. In terms of religion, they are primarily Sunni Muslims.

After a period of independence in the 1940s as East Turkestan, the Uyghur republic’s leadership agreed to form a confederation with the new Chinese communist state. But it was not long before Beijing maneuvered the republic into becoming the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region within China.

Rozimukhamet Abdulbakiev, the former head of a Uyghur nongovernmental organization in Kyrgyzstan called Ittipaq (Unity), tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the name of the province is a misnomer.

"Even though China gave Xinjiang the status of an autonomous Uyghur region, there is no sign of autonomy there. There are no rights for Uyghurs there. Nothing," Abdulbakiev says.

"This is a political and social [matter]. The Chinese totalitarian regime has oppressed all freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of personality, freedom of conscience -- that is why, of course, people have risen against it."

Swamped By Immigration

The rioting that took place on July 5 in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, started after reports arrived from southern China that at least two Uyghurs had been killed by ethnic Han Chinese workers in a dispute at a toy factory.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The fierceness of the rioting, in which by official count more than 150 people died, points to deeper wellsprings of discontent.

"Why they are so upset at the situation is because, every day, the government brings in hundreds, thousands, of [Han] Chinese into our motherland, East Turkestan -- the Xinjiang autonomous region -- but at the same time our people are sitting without jobs, suffering," says Nizam Sametov of the Uyghur U.K. Association in London.

Sametov asserts that Chinese policy is to offer jobs to Uyghurs elsewhere in China, outside the Xinjiang region, thus reducing the concentration of this ethnic group. On the other hand, in the last five decades, there has been heavy Han immigration, so that today, Uyghurs barely outnumber the immigrants.

But Sametov rejects the vision of Uyghurs becoming a minority in their own homeland.

"Because our land is very rich in minerals, oil, gas, they just keep coming, every day bringing people from inside China to our own land. They hope soon that we will be a small minority, but we won't," Sametov says. "It is our own land."

Blaming Separatists

There have been intermittent acts of violence by underground groups fighting for independence, but they seem to lack popular support.

However, the Chinese authorities have now blamed the separatists for the violence.

"You all know that this incident was caused by people who want to incite conflict, and its roots are deeply political," Chinese Minister for Public Security Meng Jianzhu said in an address to troops and riot police in Urumqi.

"This conflict is between separatists and antiseparatist forces, and is an ongoing political struggle."

Abdulbakiev blames Chinese inflexibility for provoking unrest.

"When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek states became independent, the Uyghurs became especially eager [to struggle] for their independence with a new strength. This is what we have seen today," Abdulbakiev says.

"If the Chinese government was democratic and if it carried out political reforms, then this kind of harsh resistance would disappear”.

Uyghur activist groups in exile have denied fomenting any trouble within Xinjiang.