sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

March 19, 2015

Trials And Tribulations of Mr. Russian Frank Sinatra

Filed under: politics, Russia, Soviet Union, Ukraine — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:58 am

The West vowed sanctions for the Russian annexation of Crimea, but because we like to think of ourselves as nice people, ordinary Russians had to be spared.  Instead sanctions targeted a limited number of individuals deemed to be able to influence the Kremlin’s policy making.  Or maybe we just wanted the measures to be full of loopholes for our own insiders because if the goal was to punish those who support Putin’s policy, that would be two fifths of the population of the Russian Federation.

Since then Russian economy suffered from declining fossil fuel prices which many Russians attributed to the wicked ways of uncle Sam and stood by Putin as predicted.  If anything, the economic downturn accompanied by the sharp decline in relations with the West gave meaning to their suffering.  The way Russians see it, NATO wants them on their knees, and they are more than ready to tighten their belts for the glory of the Motherland.

From time to time the West finds it necessary to further expand punitive measures.  For instance, the US and Canada banned Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves biker gang who took part in operation Crimea.  Said individual, a Putin buddy and some kind of Russian Orthodox (hopefully he attends church more than once a year), welcomed the news:

I would very much like to thank [U.S. President Barack] Obama for recognizing my modest services to the motherland. And I promise that I will do all I can so that his concern for me only grows.

The crooner Iosif Kobzon, a native of Donetsk recently banned from entering EU for entertaining the pro-Russian forces in breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk, would very much like to travel to Europe. So much so that he suggested that Russia, in the old Soviet manner, should refuse exit to the continent to celebrities on the other end of political spectrum.  The cancer-stricken 77-year-old is banned in the US, too, but for a different reason.

Kobzon during the cringe-inducing performance of Donetsk People’s Republic’s anthem with DNR “Prime Minister” Alexander Zakharchenko. A few months later Zakharchenko’s statement that Ukraine is run by “miserable Jews” made headlines in the West

Kobzon is often billed as the Russian answer to Frank Sinatra, a rather odd comparison.  He is without a doubt an accomplished vocalist, and his style has a mid-century vibe to it, but he couldn’t make it swing if his life depended on it.  The classic Kobzon fare bellow called Журавли (Cranes), recorded in 1970 at a Militiaman Day celebration, is a quazi-religious memorialization of the fallen soldiers [of the Great Patriotic War or WW2]:

1970 Is a bit late for this kind of aesthetic, but Russia is typically slow to catch up; their riot grrrls made a splash in 2012, for instance.  Outdatedness was Kobzon’s blessing.  The singer was born a few years prior to WW2, but his chief admirers were people who lived their adult lives through it, his parents’ generation.  In the late Soviet days the younger audiences were craving the forbidden rock-n-roll.  Kobzon’s performances, void of any hint of a cutting edge aesthetic and in concert with the party line, were featured on state television so often, they came to represent the creative slump of the Brezhnev era.  Looking back at it, I can appreciate the subject matter of at least some of his songs, and I can see what moved my grandparents, but I feel no nostalgia.  I prefer the real Sinatra.

Where Kobzon is most like the icon of American cool is mafia connections, which is what got him banned from the US.  The crooner himself vehemently denies involvement in any illegal activity.  He admits h’d been friendly with the crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov who was gunned down in 2009, but, as Kobzon explains:

“I have many gay friends. But does that mean that I am gay? I know many artists who know the same group of people,”

Speaking of which, Kobzon’s second wife, also a native of eastern Ukraine, was a Soviet diva Lyudmila Gurchenko (above) who, in the post-Soviet days, turned up as a darling of Russian gays

If the mafia myth makes Kobzon interesting, he has other things working for him in that department.  He is, without a doubt a brave man.  The singer toured frequently, making many stops in Soviet and Russian war zones.  He was the first Soviet celebrity to entertain soldiers performing nuclear clean up in Chernobyl.  He made a reputation for himself for standing up to anti-Semitism:

One of the most prominent Jews to succeed in the Soviet Union, he refused to join a state-sponsored Anti-Zionist Committee in the early 1980’s. When a rabid Russian nationalist, Gen. Albert Makashov, stood in Parliament and denounced ”the Zhids,” a derogatory term for Jews, Mr. Kobzon walked out.

Iosif Kobzon (middle) at the Wailing Wall

In Soviet times he played godfather to Moscow bohemians.  In the country where blat (or connections) were more important than money, with a few calls to friends in high places he took care of fellow actors.  In most cases it involved procuring apartments — not an easy task in the Soviet Union — but he took care of other needs as well, for instance, he helped to organize the funeral of underground singer songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky.

Kobzon was a Communist and is a Duma member and a friend of Putin’s.  AND he’s a known smooth operator who never turns down a call to resolve a crisis.  When in 2002 Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater, he, together with another politician, was able to negotiate release of a woman and three children.

Ready for something surreal?

(The unkempt figure in the audience that appears at about 5:20 marks looks oddly familiar.  I can’t quite place him, but I want to say he’s St. Petersburg rock scene fixture.)

Yes, that’s “My Way” translated into Russian as “My Journey”, not “My Choice”, sung before the sprawling map of the Russian Federation and by the man who launched his carrier by winning a Joseph Stalin competition.  Yes, he is accompanied by a Russian Army choir (in the old days Kobzon was frequently accompanied by the Soviet Army Choir).  This is not the Russian answer to Frank Sinatra; this is Russian answer to Sid Vicious.  The latter might sing “My Way” all he wants, but the only adequate response to his squealing is to schedule an intervention.

It’s not that Kobzon didn’t do it his way.  He didn’t have to stick up for Israel or his artist friends or the doomed soldiers, and if he parroted the party line, it’s probably because he believed it.  But here lies the difference between a citizen and a subject. If citizen is free to make his decisions and build his destiny, a subject gets his way by cozying up to the regime.  Kobzon owns his accomplishments to being friendly with the regime more than to his talents and hard work.  His admirers know his history, and when he performs the song, they think “What an admirable gentleman!”  Sinatra is different.  In Bono’s famous description:

You know his story ’cause it’s your story
Frank walks like America — cock-sure

For comparison’s sake, Kobzon was interviewed in 2002 by the NYT which observed:

Yet the 64-year-old crooner with the obvious dark wig and heavily tinted eyebrows knows nothing if not his place. Circumspection is second nature to anyone who survived the Soviet system, let alone thrived […]

Cock-sure.  Circumspection.  Case closed.

Russians took the Kobzon ban personally, starting an Je Suis Kobzon twitter campaign.  They too are circumspect, trying to carve out lives within the space made available by the power.  They also know that although Kobzon is a member of Putin’s inner circle, he, just like them, doesn’t make any key policy decisions.  He’d been banned from the US for nearly two decades, and he’s gone public with his dissatisfaction with Russian officials who, in his opinion, could do more for him.  Did anything change?  No.

Sanctions didn’t change anything either — other than to get a whole bunch of people angry.  The Russian opinion of the United States stands at the all-time low and popular anti-Americanism is nothing like I remember from the 1980’s.  As the Russian economy is slowly righting itself from unrelated damage, we are talking more about “targeted sanctions”.  Is there a there there in American foreign policy?

P.S. Curiously enough internationally renown soprano Anna Netrebko who donated money to Donetsk opera posing with the Novorossian flag and a separatist leader last December, managed to evade sanctions.  Makes me suspect that Kobzon’s real sins are aesthetic.

March 16, 2015

Crime Mysteries of Eastern Europe

Filed under: politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:23 pm

It’s not just who killed Nemtsov, which, as we all know, has to be Putin, but nobody can prove it.

1.  Where or where was the chief suspect?  Was he recuperating from the common cold?  Or bonding with his newborn son?  Such a sentimental sovereign…

Both death and palace coup scenarios were thrown around.  I heard some Ukrainian nationalists were already having second thoughts about wishing death of their nemesis — because who’s going to come in his place?

Another possibility is that the strongman wanted the world to note his absence:

He might be not quite Ivan the Terrible, but he is a master manipulator.  My guess is that he wanted the world to pay attention to the saber-rattling which he put on upon his reemergence.

2. Putin is believed to be annihilating his critics at the rate of about one man a year.  A reptilian in charge of a country with major baggage, Vlad knows he’s being watched; plus he doesn’t quite have the will to go full-on gullag.  Even before Stalin assumed the duties of General Secretary in 1922, he already had a great many massacres under his belt.  Putin has now been in charge for a full 15 years, and while he successfully thwarted whatever moves towards democracy Russia had made in previous decade, his reign pales in comparison to that of his Bolshevik predecessor’s.

But what about Ukraine?  Their SBU (Slavic acronym for Служба безопастноти Украины) is former KGB, and their oligarchs perfected the art of the hostile takeover.  In the last month and a half a suicide epidemic swept the former Party of Regions functionaries.  Three days ago BBC reported:

Oleksandr Peklushenko, former head of Zaporizhzhya, suffered a gunshot wound to the neck and authorities said initial inquiries pointed to suicide.

A member of Ukraine’s Party of the Regions, he was being investigated over the dispersal of protesters last year.

Five other officials also died in mysterious circumstances this year.

All of them supposedly took their own lives in the past six weeks

  • Stanislav Melnyk, 53, an ex-MP was found shot dead in his bathroom on 9 March
  • Mykhaylo Chechetov, former party deputy chairman, died after apparently jumping from a window in his 17th-floor flat on 28 February; he had been accused of abuse of office and fraud
  • Serhiy Valter, a mayor in the south-eastern city of Melitopol, was found hanged on 25 February; he too had been accused of abuse of office
  • Oleksandr Bordyuh, a former police deputy chief in Melitopol linked to Mr Valter, was found dead at his home on 26 February
  • Oleksiy Kolesnyk, ex-head of Kharkiv’s regional government was found hanged on 29 January

An interior ministry source told Interfax Ukraine news agency Mr Peklushenko, 60, had committed suicide in the village of Sonyachne, near Zaporizhzhya city.

However officials said other theories were being investigated including murder.

Since then an opposition party prosecutor in the Southern port city of Odessa jumped out of the window.  I suppose at some point the panic will set in and a great exodus of PoR officials to Russian Federation will commence.

Although this wave of suicides is a new phenomenon, in March last year, Sashko Bily, aka Alexander Muzychko, an Ukrainian militant with a Neo-Nazi background and experience fighting for Chechnya against Russia in the 1990’s, died under mysterious circumstances in the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne. Bily was an ardent Maidan activist who generated a great deal of unwanted attention immediately after his comrades’ victory in Kiev when videos of him threatening local Rivne officials were posted on youtube.  According to the official version, this veteran Ukrainian fighter shot himself.  Two or three times.  Ukrainian interior ministry closed the case, but Pravy Sektor demanded further investigation.

Then there is the case of Kharkov mayor Gennady Kernes who survived assassination attempt in May 2014.  Although, like much of the rest of Ukrainian political elite, Kernes shifted his loyalties multiple times throughout his carrier, he was a lifelong member of Yanukovish’s Party of Regions.  During the winter riots of 2013-2014 he is widely believed to had organized anti-Maidan activities and anti-Maidan street thugs.  After the overthrow he appeared to be sincerely outraged and believed that Russia will take eastern Ukraine under its wing.  After the assassination attempt he started signing a different tune.

Gennady Kernes (middle) speaking at a meeting shortly after the overthrow of Yanukovich.  Quite a few Ukrainians despise Putin for not sending in the tanks

I’m sure Ukrainian investigators have their hands full even without this suicide epidemic.  My parents recently wanted to send some money to friends in Kharkov, which seemed like a good deal with hryvnya, the Ukrainian currency going through the floor.  Turns out, this is not an easy task because money wired to Ukraine is known to not reach its destination.

3. Crimea referendum.  Putin recently admitted that the decision to annex Crimea was made in the Kremlin, not on the streets of Yalta or Simpheropol.  If the poll was conducted in a totally bogus manner, the results probably reflect the genuine sentiment of Crimeans.  A Gallup survey of Ukrainians conducted in April last year showed the population of the peninsula looking forward to being Russian.  British journalist Shaun Walker recently visited the region.  He  reports:

[A]ll memory of the region’s Ukrainian past is being erased, and a harsh crackdown on voices of dissent is under way.

But at the same time, Russia’s police, judicial and civil servant corpus on the peninsula is almost entirely made up of those who used to serve Ukraine.

[…]

“Perhaps a few dozen top leaders have come in, but everywhere else, the structures which were Ukrainian before simply became Russian,” said Ilmi Umerov, who was the head of Bakhchisarai region before resigning in September because he did not want to work with the Russian authorities.

“In my region about 80% of the Ukrainian soldiers joined the Russian army, about 90% of the prosecutors’ office have gone over, and 100% of the SBU [security services] and police. I don’t know a single case of anyone from the SBU not going over to the FSB.”

Walker concludes that the ease with which Russia assumed control of the peninsula points to a lack of resistance and is perhaps indicative of loyalties of the Crimean population.

Crackdown on dissent in Ukraine is not going so smoothly.  Looks like the revolutionaries will have to break some eggs.

March 3, 2015

Boris Nemtsov Joins An Elite Club

Filed under: Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:02 am

I was slightly embarrassed to read Western headlines about the recently assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.  “KILLED ON THE EVE OF A RALLY!” “PREPARED A REPORT ABOUT RUSSIANS FIGHTING IN UKRAINE!” “MODERN AGE KIROV!”and, oh “WAS IN A COMPANY OF A UKRAINIAN WOMAN”.  Peter Hitchens has a good rundown of Western misconceptions about the murder.

Truth is, there was little obvious reason for Vladimir Putin to kill his former comrade and rival.  Putin is very popular with Russians, and Nemtsov, was not.  That rally scheduled for March 1 was not going to be well attended; even with the leader dead maybe 50,000 (20K by official estimates) assembled in Moscow on that day.

Boris Nemtsov, gunned down downtown Moscow on February 27, was, that Ukrainian woman notwithstanding, a decent man. Unfortunately, most of his countrymen associate him with the failures of the 1990s when he was President Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister and heir apparent. Lawlessness and corruption, something that he fought all his life, and failed, are, however, on Russia, not Nemtsov

The report compiled by Nemtsov was not going to tell us anything we didn’t already know — or anything Kremlin is not going to deny.  Plus, the report didn’t die with him, and killing its author would accomplish little other than pointing a finger to it.

As for comrade Kirov, I really resent sloppy Stalin comparisons.  Like sloppy Hitler comparisons (and Putin gets compared to that dictator as well) diminish significance of the Holocaust, sloppy Stalin comparisons diminish the significance of the gulags.  Maybe the Russian public would very much like another Stalin, but I don’t think Putin’s got it in him.

The Russkie bear-rider had so little motive to go after Nemtsov that Russian conspiracy theories pop up like fly amanita after rain.  Most Russians, naturally think it’s some sort of a false flag operation.  Did Putin order the murder of a has-been politician to blame the West?  He didn’t need to — the anti-Western sentiment in the Russian Federation is running strong.  Similarly, current Ukrainian regime is thoroughly despised.

Some among the intelligentsia blame “the climate of hate” created by Putin.  The Guardian’s Shawn Walker explains:

Nemtsov frequently appeared on lists of “traitors” published online by extremist groups, and given that many radical Russian nationalists have been fighting a war in east Ukraine for the past six months, there have long been fears that the bloodshed could at some point move to the streets of Moscow.

The well-organised hit, in one of the most closely watched parts of Moscow, of a man who was undoubtedly under state surveillance just two days before a major opposition march, does not smack of an amateur job. Assuming a jealous lover or angry fellow liberal would not be able to organise a drive-by shooting in the shadows of the Kremlin towers, the remaining options are disturbing.

If, as Peskov says, it was senseless for the Kremlin to kill someone who posed very little threat, that leaves another option that is perhaps even more terrifying: that the campaign of hate that has erupted over the past year is spiralling out of the control of those who manufactured it.

There is another possibility.  Nemtsov was not the only opposition figure who found himself killed.  As in all other cases, it was not too terribly necessary for Putin (presuming it was him) to eliminate any one of them.  And yet, from time to time Kremlin critics find themselves offed.  We can rack our pretty heads trying to figure out why would Putin need to do it, which might just be the point of it all.  Maybe it’s just the VVP style: everyone *knows* it’s him, but nobody can prove it.  Russia gets the message: Don’t even try.

January 30, 2015

Where Putin Doesn’t Go (And More About WW2 Ukraine)

When the Cold War was coming to a close, it became customary for both the West and the Eastern block to note how similar we are — we wear blue jeans, fall in love with attractive people, our youths are charmingly decadent — and so on.  Too bad we no longer feel this kinship because similarities still abound.  For instance, the Presidents of our two countries didn’t show up for both the Paris Unity March following Charlie Hebdo terror attack and the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Unlike our own Leader of the Free World, Putin, who had been run out of Europe, now avoids uncomfortable situations like that G20 summit in Brisbane.  So he sent foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to the Paris Unity March, and Lavrov was put in a back row, while jovial Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko marched in the front.  I guess Poroshenko is now an indispensable in our war against Islamism.

At some point, probably around the time of Pussy Riot affair, Russians decided that a state’s proper functions extend to the protection of subjects’ religious feelings, no matter how shallow they run.  According to a recently released poll, while only a small minority of Russians justifies the terrorists, a majority blame either the cartoonists themselves for provoking the attack or the government for allowing freedom of expression.  So when he ditched the March, Putin didn’t exactly let his countrymen down.

I don’t think he let them down when he skipped the Auschwitz ceremony either.  The Soviet Army liberated the camp seventy years ago, but Putin, who was not personally invited by the Poles, the nation entrusted with preserving the memory of the Holocaust for reasons of geography.  The Russian strongman opted for a Holocaust Remembrance Day in Moscow.  As a descendant of people who worked and fought for the World War Two victory on the Soviet side, I’d rather see him swallow his pride and go to Poland, but I have a feeling that most Russians support their leadership in their decision to stay put, and had those who died liberating the camp been alive, they’d get Putin’s position too.

In the week before the observance Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna produced another triumph of Western diplomacy:

In a radio interview Wednesday, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna was challenged over what the journalist called the “pettiness” of not inviting Putin, given that he is the inheritor of the Soviet Union and that the Red Army freed Auschwitz.

Schetyna replied that “maybe it’s better to say … that the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians liberated (Auschwitz), because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day, and they opened the gates of the camp and they liberated the camp.”

Which gave Mr. Lavrov an opening to lecture the world about Soviet internationalism:

“It’s common knowledge that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, in which all nationalities heroically served,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We believe that the mockery of history needs to be stopped.”

The group of forces involved in the liberation of Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front after it pushed the Nazis back across the territory of then-Soviet Ukraine before moving into Poland.

It should be noted, that the war was more or less a stalemate until Soviets pushed back into Ukraine and began conscripting men from the newly liberated lands.  This, however, is Soviet Ukrainian history, the one that New Ukraine turned its back on last year.  In fact Ukraine now celebrates Defender of Fatherland Day once known as Soviet Army Day, on the anniversary of establishment by the Nazi Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist of Ukrainian Insurgent Army.  As I’ve said before, Ukraine has some soul-searching to do, and they have to come up with something better than unfolding of the Ukrainian flag at Auschwitz. Was it in honor of the victims or the guards, by the way?

The man who opened the gates of the concentration camp is said to be major Anatoliy Shapiro.  Goosebumps.  He was a Jew born in a town near Poltava in the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement, now Ukraine.  Shapiro, who died in 2005 in Long Island, New York, didn’t learn about the Holocaust until he immigrated to the United States in 1992.  Shortly before his death Shapiro recalled Auschwitz liberation in an interview to Jerusalem Post:

“When I saw the people, it was skin and bones. They had no shoes, and it was freezing. They couldn’t even turn their heads, they stood like dead people.

“I told them, ‘The Russian army liberates you!’ They couldn’t understand. A few who could touched our arms and said, ‘Is it true? Is it real?'”

As a commanding officer, his task was to direct his men. Half his battalion, originally 900 men, had died in battle. But nothing they had endured had prepared them for what they found inside Auschwitz.

His men pleaded with him to let them leave.

“The general told me, ‘Have the soldiers go from barrack to barrack. Let them see what happened to the people,'” he says.

Although this is not how he tells the story, I would expect him to have said “the Soviet Army liberates you”. Anyhow, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseni Yatsenyuk out-clowned himself proclaiming that Ukrainian soldiers from western cities of Lvov and Zhitomir liberated Auschwitz.  Looking on the positive side, Russians and Ukrainians actually talk about the Holocaust in the post-Soviet days.

Everyone is wrong about everything.  The monument on the grave of Anatoliy Shapiro's lists his multiple honors, including the title of Hero of Ukraine.  On top is the title of his book, Sinister marathon, written in Russian

Everyone is wrong about everything. The monument on the grave of Anatoliy Shapiro’s lists his multiple honors, including Hero of Ukraine. On top is the Russian title of his book, Sinister marathon

The kind of gal I am, I’d rather have the West remember the Holocaust as the ultimate evil and stand strong against Islamic expansion.  Russia is an autocracy, no question about it, and yet it’s also our natural ally against Islamism.  Unified pro-Western democratic Ukraine is a pipe dream, but if Russia crumbles, which appears to be our goal as far as I can decipher, Islamists are certain to make gains in Central Asia, the Caucuses and arguably Crimea.

Incidentally, the First Ukrainian Front, composed primarily of ethnic Russians, was marched to Prague after the fall of Berlin.  My high school math teacher, a Jew, was a part of that operation, but that’s a whole other story.

Update: many thanks to Mad Jewess for linking.  Read her timely update on escalation of the conflict between NATO and Russia.

January 9, 2015

CNN And LifeNews: Kindred Spirits?

Filed under: politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:53 am

Russia kind of sort of won its war on terror.  During the two Chechen wars they bombed out the capital of Grozny, and the total number of killed ran up to 150K, most of them ethnic Russians.  At the end the Kremlin bought off the Chechen Kadyrov clan, rebuilt Grozny and payed a tribute of $30 bil over 10 years.  Loyal Kadyrovites went on to fight in Ukraine (their Chechens opponents are fighting on Ukies’ side) and recently repelled an ISIS attack in Chechnya.  And note, there were no terror attacks during the Olympics last year.  If this doesn’t seem like much of a victory, ask yourself how much money we sunk into Iraq.

Chechens celebrate Putin’s birthday October last year. According to Kadyrov, 100K assembled at a square in Grozny

This history is worth keeping in mind in re Russian reaction to Charlie Hebdo terror attack, which, for the most part, runs from “the West had it coming” to “what about the Donbass children?”  Some are more conspiratorial.  For instance, Shamsail Saraliev, a Duma deputee from Putin’s United Russia party, opined that the terror attack is an American conspiracy:

“Smelling kind outlooks of [French President] Hollande on Russia, the terrorist state of USA organized the slaughter under the cover of religion” opined one proud Chechen

Meantime, Kremlin’s LifeNews channel produced Alexei Martynov, a political scientist who, after briefly reassuring us that he’s no conspiracy theorist, said that the terrorist attack was an American false flag operation.  You see, it’s “ridiculous” to think that people will kill for a cartoon.  Ridiculous it is.

Russia is our enemy (recently upgraded from number 1 geo-political adversary), but would you believe that our very own CNN employs a man who goes on conspiratorial tirades on Twitter?  The amusing thing about Putin is that he plastered half of Manhattan with advertising of his television channel.  Why should Americans watch it?  The ads insist that if we’d had a second opinion about Iraq, we’d never got into a war there.  No thank you, Putty; we have CNN.

For the sake of balance, Ukrainians push their own conspiracies, which, of course, propagate the idea that Moscow is somehow behind the terrorist act.  A chief proponent here is Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Djemilev, a Special Council to Ukrainian President for Crimean Tatar Affairs and a People’s Deputee of Ukraine.  Here is an exert from his interview to Ukrainian publication Depo:

This tragedy can be used in an anti-Islamic direction, which was the calculation.  To this moment, here is no concrete proof of Russian hand.  However, many analysts agree that Moscow is interested in diverting the French foreign policy from  from opposing the Russian aggression in Ukraine in anti-Islamic direction, and possibly to break up of the EU.

Puty does stand to gain from the attack in as much as his GF Marine Le Pen of National Front stand to gain from it.  Which is not to say that he’s somehow behind it.

January 6, 2015

Statism Wrapped in Statism Inside Statism

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:07 am

UPDATE 01/10/15: Many thanks to Professor Jacobson for linking.

As goes California, so goes Russia?  As of January 1, 2015 Russia has banned indoor smoking:

The strictest part of Russia’s anti-tobacco law comes into force on June 1, making it illegal to smoke cigarettes in cafés and restaurants.

The smoking ban also spreads across to hotels and marketplaces, as well as long distance trains, train stations, and ships.

From now on, smoking areas will cease to exist in eating establishments across Russia, with special rooms for tobacco lovers also forbidden.

In the US liberty dies the death of a thousand papercuts — now the governments tell supermarkets how to bag our groceries, and now parents are obligated to sign in when they volunteer in schools.  Putin, who’s now been in power a full 15 years, didn’t bother with such nonsense — he went after the free press and abolished the elections of regional governors.  No fascism with a smiley face there: while Russia has been a playground of the autocrats, its social problems are notoriously intractable.  The state tried and failed to fix the behavior of ordinary people.

When, back in my wasted youth, California prohibited smoking in bars my friends were swearing to defy the law, which I found fabulous, and some bars stubbornly offered ash trays.  I should note, that while I never made a habit out of smoking, I did enjoy a cigarette or two with a drink, and I usually got them off of other people.  Soon after the ban went into effect cigarettes became hard to come by, and within a couple of years everyone quit.  I mean everyone.  Now I mostly hang out with parents who consider smoking some sort of a high crime on par with gun ownership.

Will Russians quit too?  Americans quit because Americans are law-abiding people, and Russians are not.  In Soviet days, everyday life required conducting black market deals of some sort, and living outside the law was the norm.  Corruption remains a pervasive trait of post-Soviet society in both Russia and Ukraine (as well as, I’m sure, in other “republics”).  In this light:

A violation of the ban will result in significant fines – which must be paid by both the smoker and the owner of the establishment.

An individual owner will be forced to part with 30,000-40,000 rubles (around US$870-1,150) if one of his customers is caught puffing a cigarette. Meanwhile, a chain-run corporate business must pay a larger penalty of 60,000-90,000 rubles (around $1,700-2,600) for the same crime.

Which leaves a restaurateur some space to bribe a policeman.

Will Russians quit?  They are no civil libertarians, but perhaps their cafe owners have some common sense:

Eighty-two percent of Russian restaurateurs believe the smoking ban is a “direct discrimination of smokers” and expect a huge outflow of visitors starting from June 1.

Actor Mikhail Boyarsky, here as d’Artagnan, one of his most famous film appearances, is a leader of All-Russian Movement for Smokers’ Rights. Boyarsky is an early Putin supporter

With Europe going tobacco-free, Russian looks like the last outpost of lung destruction freedom.  One would hope that the Ruskies will stick up for personal liberties, but here is the thing:

The law “On protection of citizens’ health from tobacco smoke and the consequences of tobacco consumption” was signed by President Putin in February last year and fully came into effect on June 1, 2013.

However, the restrictions were introduced gradually. Smoking was first outlawed in certain public places – including educational, healthcare, and sports facilities, as well as airports, state administration buildings, and lifts and stairways of apartment blocks.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Health Ministry announced that the anti-tobacco law is working and the number of smokers in Russia has decreased 16-17 percent since it started being introduced. (Emphasis mine.)

If Russians vote in presidential elections in which any competitive candidate is eliminated years in advance, is it really big deal if the state will ride shirtless atop a bear to rescue them from ugly cancer death?  Or, more specifically, of lung cancer because liver ailments are a whole different story.  The Russian economy collapsed late last year, and inflation is in full swing.  To help his countrymen in hard times Putin ordered a cap on liquor prices.  A reminder: many Russians never get to develop lung cancer because 25% of Russian men die before 55, and alcohol is to blame.

Speaking of uncompetitive elections, Putin put his sights on Alexei Navalny who generally presents as a liberal, if not a classic liberal, while taking positions, such as deportation of ethnic Georgians, that Western press bashfully describes as “nationalist”.  Navalny once made a video, ostensibly in defense of gun rights, comparing immigrants to cockroaches.  His nationalism is not of a popular Russian variety because true Russian nationalists are also statists and imperialists.  Navalny would rather rid of parts of the empire — he supports cutting subsidies to the Caucuses, for instance.  True Russian nationalists smell fowl; in their typical fashion they accuse this Moscow lad of being a Jew.

That a thirty-something loudmouth and a failed mayoral candidate with hardly a real following outside the country’s capital is Putin’s arch-nemesis says something about Kremlin’s ability to destroy opposition.

In any event, Navalny and his brother were tried for embezzlement, and two days shy of the New Year Alexei was sentenced to house arrest and Oleg, the brother, to 3,5 year prison term.  This is a first for Putin (family members used to be off limits in the post-Soviet days) and a further proof, if one needs any, that Russia is moving in the direction of restricting freedoms.  On the bright side, unlike our generous creditors, Russians are not harvesting organs.  Yet at the rate they are going, there might not be a liver left in the country in a few year’s time.  Lungs, on the other hand…

Could Putin have miscalculated? This is made for daytime TV: Oleg Navalny (left) possibly the hottest political prisoner today. Meantime his wife (center) is pregnant with their third baby.  Alexei Navalny is pictured center right

The title of this post is referencing this quip by Winston Churchill.

December 18, 2014

Why Normalization of Relationships With Cuba MAY Be A Good Move

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 4:05 pm

Russian opposition leader (unlikely to ever be elected to the highest office) Alexey Navalny tweets:

Cuba wrote off its $32 billion debt, and a half a year down the road normalized relations with the US. Once again, Putin outwits everyone.

Why would Putin write off Cuba’s debt?  In July it was said that Russia plans to reopen its Soviet-era spy base on the island.  If that’s not bad enough, now that Russo-US ties are deteriorating rapidly, they might find other use for “The Isle of Freedom”, as it was called in the Soviet days.

And yes, Castro operates a nice little Gulag, and Cuban Americans are aghast.  But the Castro brothers are ailing and Russia, with or without Putin, is capable of threatening our security to far greater extent than Cuba, and they are grinding an axe.  Drawing a wedge between Russia and Cuba is obviously in our interest.

Normalizing relations with Cuba was in the works for a while — it’s one of those things that makes Obamka think he’s historic.  But he could had accidentally done something positive for his country, provided that we insist on the Castros breaking up with Putin.

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