Saturday, December 31, 2011

January 1, a renewing time

January 1 is a renewing time--a time for new beginnings. The old year has gone and a new one has started. This month is named, appropriately, after the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces—one looking forward and the other backward.

We look backward at the old year, perhaps with a dash of regret for what we should have done, perhaps with sorrow for the loss of loved ones, perhaps with joy and thankfulness, or perhaps with a sigh of relief that we survived the year.

A further retrospective is not necessary--the litany would be too long and unbearable. That we have been able to survive is due to grace--God's grace, which also comforts us as we look back on 2011.

Thus we look forward to the new year. Some of us, however, may be afraid of what the new year may bring. If it brings more of the same as last year, we don’t want it. We don't need more fighting, more violence, more death than in an already turbulent 2011. That was more than enough, thank you!

Many of us want change, starting with ourselves. In North America, people make New Year’s resolutions,  although most of them probably will not survive the first 24 hours. But all of us are waiting for a better world.

We want a new world that is marked with new beginnings. We eagerly anticipate it now already. In fact, we are ready to leap there, if only we could. January 1 is such a new beginning--an entrance to a new world. Let us make use of it, and celebrate the occasion.

But how should we celebrate January 1? Should we look backwards, or forwards, or both? What sort of celebration is appropriate? Obviously not a drunken party, as some tragically assume.

What about God: if you are a believer, what role will you allow him to play in your hopes and plans for the new year? And what part does he play in your celebration?

The first day of the seventh month was the Jewish New Year. Jews call that day “Rosh Hoshanah” or “Head of the Year.” It was a harvest festival that marked the start of the civil year. It marked the new year for people, animals and legal contracts, and was set aside for calculating the calendar, sabbatical and jubilee years.

According to the Jews, this was also the day that God created humanity, as well as “the day of judgment” when the fate of the wicked and the righteous would be determined and the names of the righteous inscribed in the book of life. It was a day of rest, marked by the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn.

In Old Testament times, animal sacrifices were regularly made to atone for sin, but in later Judaism this was replaced with prayers, often near a stream of water, which included the symbolic throwing of one’s sins into the water. Although this day was never expressly called New Year’s Day in the Old Testament, evidently it was regarded as such by Jews from a very early date.

The Hijri or Islamic new year (Arabic: رأس السنة الهجريةRas as-Sanah al-Hijriyah) is the day that marks the beginning of a new Islamic calendar year, and is the day on which the year count is incremented. This day moves throughout the Gregorian calendar year that most of us use.

There are too many other new years, including of course the Chinese, that I don't have time to mention now.

January 1 universally marks the beginning of the new calendar year. This continues an old Roman practice. But this date was not widely accepted in Europe until the 16th century, while Britain and the British Empire did not accept it until 1752. 

The ecclesiastical year begins on the first day of Advent in many Christian churches; while for the Eastern Orthodox it begins on September 1, and for some churches, especially in North America, it seems to begin when school opens in September.

The first of January is a good time to reflect on what God is doing. This is indeed a renewing time, when he is renewing all of creation. Just as January marks the beginning of the new calendar year, it is also a sign of God’s renewal of his creation.

Revelation 21 reveals God’s plan for this renewal. The old world with all its evils will be gone--gone forever. The Lord of the universe explains what he is doing until then: “I am making all things new!”

Everything is being made new. God will not destroy everything that he has made, including people, but he is renewing his creation. That means the environment, for example.

Global warming is not a hoax. God has appointed humans as stewards of creation, which means that we are to take care of this world. It is a garden; thus we must not treat it as a place to dump our industrial waste.

This renewal also means bringing an end to warfare. In the nuclear age, wars are no longer justifiable. The just war theory is not relevant any more, if it ever was entirely. Whether in Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, the Middle East, or wherever, non-violence is the only viable alternative.

God is also working in people like you and me, making us more able to love others and thus to love him better. That is not easy, as I can testify by looking at myself. Improvements are sorely needed, as my own list of New Year's resolutions mutely testifies.

My hope and prayer is that 2012 may be a better year for all of us. May this new year indeed be a time of new beginnings, and may it be truly peaceful as well as filled with countless blessings for you and your family.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Our violent world and the Prince of Peace

On Christmas Day there were several bombings in Nigeria of at least three churches. These bombings are a sad commentary on the world where we live -- a world that is filled with violence. These bombs punctuated the worship of people, some of whom were just leaving church.

In a town near Abuja several families were entirely wiped out. While in Jos, where I lived for many years, another bomb exploded, but no one was killed. Another church in Damaturu, about five hours northeast of Jos, was also attacked. It is sad to think that so many people who only wanted to worship on Christmas morning have lost their lives through needless violence.

St. Theresa's Catholic Church near Abuja was the scene of the first bombing

Yet Christmas is the day that Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is the Prince of Peace that Isaiah had prophesied many centuries before. He lists many impressive titles, of which this is the final and perhaps greatest one. Peace on earth was the song of the angels who first announced the birth of Christ. Christ came into this world to bring peace: peace among all peoples and nations.

Violence is not something new today; on the contrary, it has been with us since the very beginnings of human history. We have become inured to violence, it seems. Violence sells newspapers and it dominates our TV screens. We witness multiple killings and beatings on news programs on a daily basis, and are fed murders and stabbings as entertainment, with only a brief warning beforehand that this may be offensive to some viewers. Many of the computer games that are so popular today involve violence.

Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for these bombings. This tiny militant group that has ties to Al-Qaeda has attacked police stations, banks and churches for many years. Since 2009, when its leader was captured and summarily executed, it has intensified its violence.

Boko Haram, whose name in Hausa means "Western education is forbidden or sinful," wants to implement a radical form of Islam in Nigeria. By settings off bombs, it is seeking to spark a war between Christians and Muslims,  knowing that Christians are likely to retaliate. But its use of violence has increasingly alienated it from most Muslims, so now Muslims and Christians are on the same side.

Christians have not retaliated for a long time, unlike some occasions in the past. This peaceful response is due in part to the hard work that is being done by a number of peace organizations. Muslims and Christians are working side-by-side for peace. This is as it should be.
An attitude of active non-violence has produced amazing fruit for many years, as I experienced personally in the Philippines in 1986, with the "People's Revolution," where virtually no deaths were recorded. There have been many more examples since then, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even the Arab Spring, in spite of some deaths, is part of this fruit.

The Nigerian government has used military force against Boko Haram, but that is doomed  to failure. Peace cannot be ushered in at the point of a gun. Only negotiations will be able to accomplish that. The only weapons that Christians may rightfully use is the power of God.

As the following graph illustrates, the number of deaths world-wide has declined for many decades. There have been many wars, but the deaths have less numerous. There have been very few so far during the 21st century. But this does not mean that violence has ended.

Violence still installs fear in many people. Even though war has become increasingly rare, violence has not. There is violence everywhere, even in our homes, though it is not necessarily on the increase. In fact, nearly everywhere the crime rate is dropping, especially violent crime.

Sometimes governments seek to use that fear to gain political advantage. In Canada, a new bill in Parliament proposes building more prisons and implementing stiffer sentences. People should not live in terror, but this is not the way to do it. Such legislation does not bring about peace.

A friend in Nigeria, who wrote about these bombings, reminded me: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

In his note he added: "The people who perpetuate these and other horrible atrocities around the world are as much victims as others—deceived by the one who is the liar and the father of liars. They are not to be hated but to be pitied and prayed for that God will open their blinded eyes to the truth."

Peace comes from knowing that our lives are in God's hands. Peace is God's gift to us, through the activity of the Holy Spirit. As Christ promised: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27).
Thus we should not let Boko Haram or other groups that use violence to achieve their goals of making us afraid. The US experienced such fear during 9/11, and the consequences are still with us today. The wars in Iran and Afghanistan are now officially ended, but peace has not yet come to that troubled region.

Peace is more than the absence of war. Thus military means will never be able to achieve peace, whether in Nigeria, Iran, Afghanistan, or any other part of the world. That will only be possible through the work of the Prince of Peace.

As this year quickly draws to a close, let us pray for peace throughout the world for the new year 2012. May each one of you experience that peace in your own life and that of your families.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The deification of dictators

Kim Jong-il was a dictator. His death was unexpected, although he had a history of health problems, and was not announced until two days later. In the first reports that I heard, sorrowful cries could be discerned in the background.

Kim was 69, although there is some dispute about the year of his birth. It is expected that his youngest son, Kim Jong-un will succeed him. He has already been labeled the "Great Successor."

This mournful reaction was not surprising, since Kim Jong-il had been treated as a demigod immediately after taking over as supreme leader of North Korea upon the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, on 8 July 1994.

Kim Jong-il was revered. He was called the "Supreme Leader" in the constitution. He was also referred to as the "Dear Leader," "our Father," "the General" and "Generalissimo." The cult of personality that he inherited from his father involved their deification. It is claimed that through his moods he could control the weather, and that through his distinctive style of clothing he set world-wide fashion trends.

His cult, however, was probably attributable more to the respect that the nation had for his father and for fear of punishment than for any genuine hero worship, as government officials claim. They point to a song, "No Motherland Without You," that was specially created for him.

His photo, along with that of his father, who was revered even more, was omnipresent, also during elections. It is expected that after the funeral service on 28 December Kim Jong-il will be buried beside his father in the enormous palace that serves as a mausoleum.

My purpose in this posting is not to dwell too long on the details of the lives of Kim Jong-il or his father. Rather I want to reflect on how political leaders have been deified, especially during the 20th century.

Kim often appeared with other political leaders who enjoyed a cult of personality. Vladimir Putin is one example. While Putin's star is diminishing lately, for many years he projected a style of leadership that accented his machismo.

Putin, however, was never able to achieve the deification that some other Communist leaders have enjoyed, especially Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. The reason for this, as will become apparent in a moment, is the resurgence of organized religion, specifically the Russian Orthodox Church, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cult of personality in his case has not been as successful.

Chairman Mao, deified. Xinyi Temple, Shandong, China

Chairman Mao was treated as larger than life even before his death. The forged photo of him swimming the Yellow river is classic. After death he was deified, just as Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, and many others before him.

Lenin merited a mausoleum in Red Square, which I have visited several times. Unfortunately, his corpse encased in its glass coffin does not make him very god-like. In fact, it is rather pathetic. The debate about whether his body should be moved to St.Petersburg to lie beside that of his mother has still not been resolved. Maybe there is a bit of supposed deity left in the old man.

Stalin when he died in 1953 was briefly buried beside Lenin, but his body was moved to a grave in the wall of the Kremlin. But during his life he wanted to be deified. The propaganda machinery complied, although not everyone accepted his deification.

An elderly Jewish couple in Moscow, whom my wife and I knew very well, told us that on the day Stalin died they practiced in front of a mirror putting on a sad face rather than the joyful one they preferred, otherwise they would have been arrested. They were not the only ones who were happy that day.

George Orwell, in Animal Farm, satirizes Stalin's deification in his description of "our Leader, Comrade Napoleon." In the officially atheistic state, the leader replaced Czar and Patriarch. Huge portraits of Stalin were hung on walls and banners throughout the Soviet Union, much like those for Lenin before him, and after him for Mao in China.

In Animal Farm, Moses, who represents religion, is driven out, just as Stalin had done. Stalin promoted atheism. Like Lenin, he regarded religion as the opiate of the people. In 1939, he could have abolished the Russian Orthodox Church, when only four bishops were left. But he relented, and later in order to get ROC support for the war effort he made an agreement that spared it and led to its official recognition of the government.

Why do dictators want to be deified? They realize that people need to worship something or someone. When an official religion is oppressed or even abolished, a substitute is needed. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does religion. God created human beings to be religious. We are thus inherently religious.

Not everyone will agree with the positive role that I assign to religion. It assumes a much wider definition than is often used. For me, religion is as wide as all of life. This will resonate with many Africans and Asians. Religion is not restricted to only the organized forms thereof but it also includes the motivation for everything we do. Sometimes we may not be aware of our motivation, yet it functions as part of our world view and can thus be described as religious. Even secularism is a religion.

When political leaders want to be deified, that process of deification can proceed much faster if organized religion is weak or non-functioning. Our innate religious nature makes us search for something to worship. As Augustine expressed, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee [God]."

Dictators may try to drive out our religion, but their efforts are less successful when organized religion is strong and even stronger when that is matched with an awareness of the extensive nature of religion. Then we are most sensitive to these efforts to displace the true God with false gods.

Deification is idolatry and needs to be exposed as such. But only those who worship the true God will be fully conscious of the pernicious nature of idolatry and will be able to expose it.

Kin Il-sung, the father of Kim Jong-il, was raised in a Presbyterian home. This makes the idolatrous nature of deification that much more evil. He turned against the true God and put an idol, himself, in God's place. That sin has carried over to the next generation, and future generations as well, if the past is any indication.

Tertullian (AD 150-220), the North African theologian and philosopher, described idolatry as the chief sin from which all other sins stem. This is how serious he regarded idolatry. So should we.

That is why we must always be ready to expose and condemn deification, whether intended by politicians or others. As Christians we must not tolerate it, even in distant countries like North Korea. The sins of the Kim's, both father and son, extend far beyond starving their own people and other heinous crimes. They have committed idolatry and for that they stand condemned.

I am not so naive as to think that accusing the Kims of idolatry is enough to stop this practice in North Korea, now that the third generation of that family has been appointed as successor. I am only doing this to indicate the source of the enormous crimes this family has committed over the years. By exposing the source, we are much better prepared to understand their behavior and the awful consequences that resulted.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Was the Durban climate change conference a success?

     The Durban climate change conference is finally over. A 36-hour marathon extension was necessary before an agreement was hammered out and signed by the 194 nations that attended this conference, which is properly called the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol. This is a mouthful, which I prefer to label instead as the Durban conference.
   It was originally scheduled to meet 28 November-9 December 2011, but by the final days it became clear that an extension would be required; otherwise there would have been no result at all.
   The Durham agreement, however, is less than it seems on the surface. It is actually an agreement to make an agreement by 2015. It is too little too late to help deal effectively with climate change.
   Durban was not the success that many delegates tout it to be. Environmentalists are very disappointed.
   This agreement will probably not be sufficient to prevent a global temperature rise of more than 2°C, and might easily allow a 4°C rise. Yet the deal was as much as could have been expected from Durban.

Applause greeted the finalization of the agreement

   The deal renews the Kyoto Protocol, the fraying 1997 emissions agreement that sets different terms for advanced and developing countries, for several more years. But it also begins a process for replacing the Kyoto agreement with something that treats all countries, including the economic powerhouses China, India and Brazil, equally.
   The delegates also agreed on the creation of a fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change, although the precise sources of the money have yet to be determined. The fund will also enable these countries to take pay for the preservation of tropical forests and the development of clean-energy technology.
   The reserve, called the Green Climate Fund, would help mobilize a promised $100 billion a year in public and private financing by 2020 to assist developing countries in adapting to climate change and converting to clean energy sources.
  Further details are available in your daily newspaper, so I will not elaborate, except to raise some questions about the supposed success of the conference.
   Many nations left the conference feeling that they had won, but the real losers are the developing nations who have contributed very little to global warming in the past, but are now being asked to help fight climate change.
   The Green Climate Fund, even if all the promised money were forthcoming, would still not be enough to defray the costs to these largely poor countries. According to this agreement. China and India will be treated equally with the more developed countries. They now contribute to climate change in a major way, but claim they are not yet ready to bear the burden. Thus they got an exemption until 2020.

Skepticism about climate change continues, especially in the US

  The US played a quiet role at Durban, which is understandable in the run-up to next year's elections. For the US it was thus a good meeting. President Barack Obama could only lose through having his delegation in the public eye. Give too much away, and the president would be pilloried for being soft, especially if the parties being favored included China.
   But to stand out against a tide of other countries trying to move forward on climate change, as happened at the UN meeting in Bali four years ago, Obama would have risked alienating more of the supporters, who reportedly are already too disillusioned to bother volunteering for his campaign this time round.
   The "quiet man" tactics worked perfectly. Canada took most of the heat early on. After the ministers arrived, the US was barely visible, and if anyone appeared "hard-line," it was India and China.
   Canada, instead, got much of the blame, and deservedly so. Because of the Alberta tar sands, it has much to lose if it were to try to meet the commitments that it made in Kyoto.

  According to some critics, the expectations of what the Durban talks would achieve were already low, but what was achieved was even less. Canada contributed to this by its irrelevance.
   The critics said that Peter Kent, the Canadian Minister of the Environment, played little role in the talks. He did not take the floor in the final session, and he was not a member of the select group of ministers who did the final preparatory work on Saturday. Instead, in the last day of meetings, he was seen repeatedly in discussions with US negotiators.
  “It shows that Canada has become irrelevant on the international scene,” said Canadian environmentalist Steven Guilbeault. “We’re not a player any more. The US is the only country we’re talking to and listening to.”
   Mr. Kent said he “didn’t want to be a distraction” by speaking publicly in the final session. The Canadian negotiators were “deeply involved” in many key issues at the Durban talks, and were talking to many countries, he explained.
  Thus Canada rightly deserves a large share of the blame for the lack of success of the Durban conference.

    Canada did not help its cause by its decision the day after the conference to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, which Mr. Kent announced as soon as his plane arrived back in Ottawa.
   The decision to do so will save the government an estimated $14 billion in penalties, Kent said. The Conservative government says it has no choice given the economic situation.  "Kyoto for Canada is in the past. As such, we are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw," Kent explained.
   The Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year, committed major industrial economies to reducing their annual CO2 emissions to below 1990 levels, while providing financial supports to developing nations to encourage them to follow suit eventually. Canada ratified the accord in 1997 but was not on track to meet its legally binding targets.

   The reaction of many countries to Canada's decision was overwhelmingly negative, with the notable exception of Australia, another resource-rich country, which had already argued at Durban that it would not be part of a second commitment period under Kyoto until a broader agreement was reached covering all major emitters including both developed and developing countries.
   Durban confirms in the minds of many people in the world that most nations are only interested in pursuing their own narrow interests on the world stage, rather than help to save the planet. 
   These nations are doing everything they can to avoid telling the truth about the sad state of the world which we share. Their actions therefore deserve the label that I am assigning to it: "Climate Gate."
   Thus it is incumbent upon us to speak the truth in love and denounce these lies and distortions. The Durban conference was not the success that many nations tout it to be. Seen from the perspective of our suffering globe, it was a failure. Durban, I repeat, is too little to late.
   Another conference is sorely needed to help rescue our planet.

The great cover-up, aka "Climate Gate"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Elections in Russia

    Elections in Russia are not noted for being democratic, in spite of attempts by propagandists to argue the contrary. The elections for the State Duma (Gosudarstvennaja Duma), held on December 4, prove this once again. The Duma has 450 members, elected for five-year terms.
   The presidential election will be held on March 4, 2012, when it is expected that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be elected president again, after being out of office for four years. This time he is eligible for two six-year terms.
   These were the percentage results for each party when they first became available the next day:

   United Russia, the party of  Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, obtained 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma, down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007. United Russia only managed to win 49.35 per cent of the vote, down sharply from over 64 per cent in the previous election.
  Its biggest opposition will be the Communist Party with 92 seats. It was followed by the A Just Russia party with 64 seats and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with 56 mandates. Turnout was just over 60 per cent.
   A more detailed breakdown of the election results is as follows:
Summary of the 4 December 2011 State Duma election results
Parties and alliancesSeat compositionPopular vote%± pp
United Russia238decrease7752.88%32,331,24449.29%decrease15.01%
Communist Party92increase3520.46%12,594,23219.20%increase7.63%
A Just Russia64increase2614.21%8,689,14713.25%increase5.51%
Liberal Democratic Party56increase1612.45%7,659,65711.68%increase3.54%
Patriots of Russia0steady00%638,7350.97%increase0.08%
Right Cause0steady00%392,5070.60%new party
Valid ballot papers
Invalid ballot papers
Voter turnout60.20%
Preliminary outcome of the State Duma elections (6 December 2011) Central Election Commission
    The opposition claimed the results would have been even more dramatic in clean elections. They argue that the Kremlin controls the entire electoral structure. Moreover, they charge that the Duma is a tool of the executive.
    The country’s only independent elections watchdog, Golos, which means "vote" or "voice" in Russian, has come under an unprecedented attack from a Kremlin that fears losing its grip on power and was, once again, overreacting.
    On Friday night, the state-controlled NTV television channel aired a blistering report that depicted Golos as a US-funded group whose chief mission is to discredit and destabilize Russia.
    Golos, which openly accepts funding from USAID and the European Union, has not done anything remarkable this election cycle. As during previous elections, it has compiled reports of violations of election law--which topped 7,000 by Sunday--and dispatched scores of grassroots observers to polling stations across the country.
   When I lived in Russia during the nineties, NTV was noted for its independence, which is what its name means, until the Kremlin took it over several years ago to join the other government-controlled channels.

    Critics say the picture of a functioning multi-party democracy that the governing party has projected does not match the reality. Real opposition, they say, does not exist, claiming that Putin's notion of a "managed democracy" has also extended to "managing" the opposition.
   These critics charge that the opposition has been tamed by the Kremlin and it is only allowed to exist with its approval. They call the parliamentary parties in the Duma the "systemic opposition" or part of the system created by Putin. So they call themselves, the "non-systemic" or "the real opposition" in Russia.   

The slogan of the Communist Party was "It is time to change power"

      These critical voices include Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian prime minister and a co-leader of the Party of People's Freedom. In June this year, Russian election officials rejected the party's registration documents, effectively barring it from contesting the poll.
   All the parties that are allowed to participate in these elections are not independent, writes Nemtsov in his blog.
   His fellow opposition leader, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, agrees: "All these parties are 100 per cent under Kremlin control. We know these people, they are not newcomers, they have been around for 20 years. It is clear they are no longer in the position to challenge the Kremlin. Voting for them is to vote for puppets in this theatre of the absurd."
   Mikhail Gorbachev has now added his potent voice to the growing protest against this election. Because of the extensive fraud, he is calling for a new election.
   Amid growing international alarm, Gorbachev said the results of Sunday's poll should be invalidated and new elections held due to "numerous falsifications and rigging."
   "The results do not reflect the will of the people," stated Gorbachev, who was president when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago.
   "Therefore I think they (Russia's leaders) can only take one decision--annul the results of the election and hold new ones."

This anti-United Russia poster says, "Definitely come and cast your vote, and vote for any party except United Russia," which it describes "as the party of  swindlers and thieves"

   But Nemtsov and others say the strategy exemplified in this poster is naïve, and the only way to protest against Putin's United Russia is by spoiling ballot papers and actually putting a cross in boxes next to the titles of all seven parties.
    "To vote for any party--those who will get into the Duma and those who won't-- is to give legitimacy to the disgusting farce that these elections have become," writes Nemtsov.
   And as if to support these assertions, just three days before the vote, a high-ranking election official told the English-language daily The Moscow Times that United Russia had struck a deal under which the other three parliamentary parties (the Communists, the LDPR, and A Just Russia) are "pretending to play the opposition" in exchange for guarantees that they will secure seats in the next Duma.
   "They want to preserve the status quo," this official added. "And to achieve that they have agreed to play the roles the Kremlin has given them in this farce." The offical asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal.
    Nemtsov has even created a group, with other fellow opposition-minded liberals, that have even come up with a series of online cartoons, dubbed "Common Adverntures of the Piglet Nah-Nah in Putin's Russia". 
   One shows the piglet who goes to a polling station and sees Putin's face everywhere, even on the ballot paper. Engraged, the piglet puts a cross in all boxes next to all parties. "Put a cross on the crooks in power," urges a voice at the end of the clip. "Vote against all! Vote for Russia!"
   Another shows the piglet trying to get on a merry-go-round--with faces of the same Russian politicans, leaders of parliamentary parties, who simply change places as Putin sits atop the fairground ride.

This sign can be translated as "I am for Russia without Putin"

   The Russian opposition are not the only ones to charge electoral fraud.
   The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said that this election was not fair, but it refrained from blaming any party. OSCE monitors explained that the polls were slanted in favour of United Russia and marred by "frequent procedural violations" including ballot stuffing.
   Several thousand people took to the streets of central Moscow for several days to protest against alleged fraud and voting irregularities after Vladimir Putin's United Russia retained power, albeit with a greatly reduced share of the vote.
   The growing disillusionment of Russians with United Russia is concentrated among the country's intellectual elites, young professionals, urbanites and internet users. Their grievances vary from the stifling of freedoms to Putin's growing authoritarianism and the calcification of Russia's political life. 
   "Our votes have been stolen long time ago," writes Garry Kasparov. "They've been stolen together with our freedom of choice and with our right to express a point of view that is different from the one promoted by the official media."
   But a growing majority of Russians say they are unhappy with the ruling party because it has failed to lift their standard of living, despite years of high oil and gas prices, over which Putin presided.
   "Our pensions are still low and our roads are still bad," says one Moscow resident. 
   "The party of power could have done so much more in the ten years it's been in power," says another. 
   Low salaries, small pensions, soaring inflation, a crumbling infrastructure and unreliable healthcare are the main points of dissatisfaction for most Russians.
   As a result, Putin's popularity has plummeted. His approval rating is 61 per cent, his lowest rating since August 2000, when he was dogged by the sinking of the Kursk submarine, which killed all 118 crewmen aboard.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin

   One way that Putin may be able to survive is by fixing the blame for this election fiasco squarely on Medvedev, who headed the party list for United Russia. Since Putin and Medvedev have agreed to trade jobs again in March, the loss of Medvedev conveniently removes him as a rival to Putin. Of course, this is just a guess on my part. 
    For the record, I should disclose that I did not forecast Putin's meteoric rise to power in 1999. In my discussions with my political science students in the Faculty of Philosophy at Moscow State University at the time, Putin's name never came up. We did discuss many other potential candidates for the presidency.
   No one forecast his rise, to the best of my knowledge, in the year or two before it happened. 
  In the recent election, United Russia resorted to many administrative tactics to win. Whether they will be able to win in March does not seem in doubt as long as Putin has control of the levers of power in the Kremlin. 
   Putin is a strong leader. Precisely the sort of man Russians are fond of. A man in the mold of Stalin, the man of steel, who ruled Russia with in iron fist for many decades. Time will tell.