sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

October 26, 2015

Incubating National Bolsheviks

Filed under: immigration, politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:37 pm

National Bolsheviks were not on the radar of most Americans until, in the fallout of Ukraine’s Euromaidan, the Kremlin warmed up to the fascist Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin.  Dugin was one of the founders of the political party, although by then he left his comrades and, in any event, the party was banned in 2007 (regrouping as The Other Russia).  Recently they were allowed, flaunting Russian law, to set up booths to recruit combat volunteers for Eastern Ukraine off the streets of Moscow.  Those volunteers fight the central government the United States supports militarily and financially.

Still many NazBols can legitimately claim prosecution, and they most certainly were vocal in opposing Putin in 2010.  It’s no surprise that at least two of them found themselves seeking refuge on American shores.

Among them Mikhail Gangan:

He became a member of the banned National Bolshevists [sic] Party when he turned 15. Later, he led its branch in Samara (the sixth largest city in Russia). In 2004 he took part in a local anti-government movement called “A Peaceful Takeover of the Reception Office of the Presidential Administration.” About 40 activists walked into the office of Putin’s representative in Samara and presented a list of 12 complaints. Among the accusations were elimination of political freedoms, destruction of independent media in Russia, the lack of autonomous judiciary system, and punitive actions against the opposition.

All protesters were arrested and accused of taking a deliberate action to take control of the government. If these charges were pressed, they would spend up to 20 years in prison. The charge was later changed to a lesser allegation of mass rioting. While under investigation, Gangan spent a year in Butyrka, a prison known for its poor living conditions that became known internationally after the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Finally the Court sentenced Gangan to 3 years probation and he was released.

Forcing themselves into government buildings is a popular tactic of National Bolsheviks.  In 2006, 50 of them were arrested at State Duma following one such direct action designed to test the boundary between the legal and the illegal.

In 2007 Gangan led another anti-government action called “March of Protesters” during the Russia-EU Summit and he was accused of violating his probation. Before he was arrested, Gangan fled to the Ukraine. It was the only country that he could enter while on probation.

Later, he was captured and was about to be deported to Russia. Ukrainian and Russian human rights activists asked Ukrainian authorities not to give up Gangan but to grant him the status of a political refugee. In the summer of 2008, he got asylum in the Ukraine. The UN Refugee Agency offered Gangan political asylum in America, where he moved in 2009. A year later he was given the official status of political refugee in the U.S.

“I had no problems with assimilation in Ukraine. There is no language barrier, same mentality; Ukrainian life just slightly differs from Russian. Here [in the U.S.] everything is different and adaption has been quite difficult for me. I still can’t figure out what is what here. But it’s obvious that if you really want to make it here, it’s possible. All refugees get good benefits. The U.S. government provides us with an apartment for the first 6 months and even covers the cost of college education. For now, I got a job as a cook,” said Gangan.

Mikhail Gangan in customary National Bolshevik red and black garb

Good thing he got the benefits because, as one of his comrades explained:

Misha lived a life of a professional revolutionary, ridiculing the common busywork of work and study.  Often times he didn’t have the change to take public transport, but when money wondrously appeared, he, like a true hussar, blew it with friends in some kind of cafe.

Congratulations to the American taxpayer on adding a National Bolshevik variety to his collection of dependents!

Another NazBol fleeing for the US via Ukraine is Anna Ploskonosova.  Ploskonosova’s comrade and fiancée died after a beating administered, according to his friends and family, by Moscow militsia.  When in 2007 Ploskonosova left Russia, she was facing charges of vandalism and, rather unbelievably, assaulting a cop.

Anna Ploskonosova. National Bolshevik flags in the foreground

Settling in Ukraine, the young woman quickly found an outlet: she was arrested and fined 204 hrivnias for insulting then-president Yushenko.  What constitutes the insult?  Evidently, she participated in a May Day demonstration during which she chanted “Yushenko out!”   With Yushenko was voted out in short time and the now-deposed Yanukovich taking the oath of office, Ploskonosova though it was prudent to ask for asylum in the United States.

I have no idea what she and Gangan are up to these days, or even if they are still in the country –Gangan said he wasn’t interested in staying.  National Bolshevik founder Eduard Limonov once lived in the US; he hated it with a passion. So maybe the next generation of NazBols didn’t take to us either.

Gangan and Ploskonosova were still very young at the time they arrived to the US, so it’s possible that they matured and outgrew their specific Russian delinquencies.  Maybe they are now upstanding individuals.  But maybe they found Occupy, and maybe they found white nationalists. I have no doubt that their fear of prosecution was real, but I just don’t see why my country needs to take a chance on individuals of questionable moral character.

Having said that, letting NazBols settle here is nothing compared to giving refugee status to the Tsarnaevs.  It’s not obvious what either group has to add to our culture apart from diversity, but back in Russia they can one day ferment a revolution. Our immigration policy should not be designed to release the internal pressure on Putin.

October 21, 2015

The Last Crusader

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:01 am

Last October, as the West piled layer after layer of “targeted sanctions” on Russia, Senator John McCain thought it’s prime time for insults:

Look, Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country,” McCain said. “It’s kleptocracy. It’s corruption. It’s a nation that’s really only dependent upon oil and gas for their economy, and so economic sanctions are important.

The bit about kleptocracy and corruption is just as true about our newest ally Ukraine (or most other blotches of solid color outlined on a political map) as it is about Russia.  Still, Russian exports are dominated by the energy sector and the largest employer in the country is the state energy magnate Gazprom.  Yet the former US presidential candidate and Amnesty proponent might want to entertain a thought that there is something more that goes into being a country than an solid economy.

Thus after we bailed out of Mesopotamia, Russia moved in, propping up their SOB Assad and building an alliance that includes both Iran and Iraq.  And if the Kremlin reasserted its power in that region, it’s because they got Ukraine exactly where they want it to be — in frozen war.

Its economy is very much second world, demographically Russia looks doomed, and yet its performance on world stage today defies expectations.  Perhaps “[not] a country” is a silly thing to say about a country in the midst of imperial revival.  Russians today are not shy to admire Stalin who expended their sphere of influence across Europe and made the USSR feared worldwide.  Putin’s challenge is to live up to the expectations of resurgence.  That the youth of the Russian Federation, the least ethnically Russian age-group, are his biggest fans should give us something to think about.

How’s Russia managing it?  With confidence and resolve.  Russians seem awfully sure of who they are and what’s good about their country.  Look at the Sochi Olympics, for instance.  Staged in the explosive Caucuses, it ended without a terrorist incident, defying critics and demonstrating Russian will.

At the Olympic ceremonies Russians paraded their contributions to civilization, sometimes inflating them (but, hey, at least they value civilization enough to inflate their contributions) — they showed us their cannon — ballerinas, space flight and famous writers.  Our answer to ballerinas, space flight and famous writers is open borders.  We have no cannon.  Our children are taught that diversity is our strength; recycling replaced civics.  Political power is derived through passive-aggressive mind games.

Last year, amidst sanctions, pundits laughed that economic weapon is our best weapon — because what else do we have the nerve for? What they forgot is that Russians, who are not averse to suffering to begin with, had lived through much harder times in the 90’s.  They are not the kind of people whose vice presidents tell them to go shopping in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack.

In terms of affecting Putin’s behavior, sanctions achieved results the opposite of intended.  Russians, 40% of whom have relatives in Ukraine, saw their worst suspicions confirmed when the West supported the overthrow of Yanukovich. They rallied around Putin, and the popular opinion of the United States reached the all-time low.  Anti-Americanism in Russia today is like nothing I remember.

Having failed with sanctions and realizing that Russian quagmire in Syria is unlikely, our best bet is that Saudi Arabia will flood the market with oil hurting Russian energy exports.  Only it’s doubtful that the Saudis, themselves besieged by economic troubles, will go on very long, especially considering that the Saudi pet project ISIS is poised to be obliterated.  Once it is, what is the rational for the use the oil weapon?  Anyhow, it’s a sad state of affairs when our leverage in the Middle East is all but gone and we are reduced to hoping that Al Qaida will destroy Russia there.

Meantime, a participant in a recent state TV talk show opined (to some laughs) that Syria is Russian land because Orthodox Christianity traces its roots to Syria:

Now, that takes guts.  I wonder who is the intended audience for that crusading outburst.  Was it for domestic consumption because or to show the world just how far is “Putin’s” Russia from Merkel’s Germany or Obama’s America?  If, under Putin, Stalin or Nicolas, the Russian idea is self-sacrifice for the state, the West no longer broadcasts rule of law, freedom and prosperity.  Our ideas are dwindling economies and vanishing national identities.

Amazing to watch pundits, all in agreement that Putin is the personification of evil, scramble as to how to appropriately save face vis-a-vis the Kremlin.  The first step, it seams to me, should be to acknowledge that with each passing day we are looking less and less like a country and more like a collection of uncertain loyalties.

We’ve grown wobbly over the last quarter century.  When our so-called hawks went to Iraq for the second time, they thought it was necessary to first ask the UN for permission.  Putin also went to the UN, but only after his coalition-building work was already done behind the scenes, and to admonish us.  His is a common sense approach, and the results are predictable.  Over 70% of Britons support his Syria campaign.  When I look at number like that I wonder if, in a purely hypothetical scenario of NATO bombing ISIS, 70% of Britons would support it — or would they flood the streets of London in protest and somehow deduce that it’s all Israel’s fault.


There is a shade of McCaine’s “gas station” comment in Kissinger’s assessment that the West’s involvement in Ukraine was an attempt to break up Russia.  Ordinary Americans balk at this type of geo-political pronouncements, but Russians and Ukrainians readily discuss which one of their countries is going down first and how it will be carved out.  Having lived through the break up of the USSR a mere quarter century ago, they don’t shy away from geopolitical macabre.

“Country 404”: “Country is not found”. Because Russian-leaning Donbas produced a good chunk of Ukraine’s GDP, the meme above became popular in the wake of Donbas’s vote for independence in 2014. Number 404 superimposed against the Ukrainian flag, resembles the country’s insignia, the trident

What is it about Western self-hate?  It seems to me, the answer to resurgent Russia starts not in Syria, but in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.  We need to rethink our immigration policy, rediscover our founding principles, fall back in love with American culture because only then will we be in a position to revamp our posture in the world.  If not –I remember Soviet Union going 404, quickly and unexpectedly.  Russia might just have the last laugh.

August 14, 2015

Ukraine: You Can Take A “Republic” out of The Soviet Union…

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:41 am

Ukraine’s been off the headlines lately,* which is exactly how Vladimir Putin wants it.  Not because he’s prepping a major invasion but because he’s counting on a steady deterioration of normal life, and Ukrainians are his best allies in that endeavor.

In the year and a half since the ouster of Yanukovich, the country’s economy crumbled and the Soviet mentality asserted itself.  I’m not just talking about the Novorossia faithful, who imagine themselves refighting the Great Patriotic War,  but the fire-breathing nationalists and the scarredy population.

Since the ouster Ukraine went through several bouts of political repression aimed at dissociating itself from Russia.  Ukraine was formed as a result of confrontation between Russia and Poland and the periodic take over the land from Poland (and the Ottomans) by Russian Empire.  Throughout the 20th century ethnic Ukrainians contributed their talents to Soviet life and culture, which was, in broad terms, Russian life and culture.  The break up of the Soviet Union left Ukrainian state in search for its own identity, something they are now executing in the best Soviet traditions.

Ukraine went through bouts of censorship, banning Russian TV channels and airing of Russian miniseries and film and establishing the ministry of truth to comb through Ukrainian programming. To “combat separatism”, Ukraine banned several publications including one titled Russian Rock and several that had the word “Russian” in it and were dedicated to pedagogy.  Presumably all, at one time or another, included Russian nationalist materials of sorts.

Then there is the law concerning “everyday” separatism, a thoughtcrime punishable by 7-12 years of penitentiary. SBU (former KGB) organized what they call an “information campaign” throughout the South-East urging their countrymen to turn each other in in case they “see something” or “hear something”.  Ukrianian media laughed: Russians are “standing on their ears”, but Ukrainians don’t snitch; they just need to be informed about the consequences.

This poster in Kharkov urges citizens to turn each other in for “everyday separatism”, a crime involving desecration of national symbols or awaiting the return of the “Russian world”

At the time this was happening American Libertarians were concerned with the fate of Ukrainian journalist avoiding draft.

What made the most noise in the West, deservingly, was the law banning communist and the Nazi ideology and symbolism, while simultaneously forbidding the questioning of the legacy of “fighters for Ukrainian statehood”.  The “fighters” in question being, notably, the Ukrainian Nazis of OUN-UPA.  OUN was a standard-issue Fascist organization which originated in the 1920’s and went on to collaborate with the Nazis, participating in the Holocaust and incineration of Belorussian villages.  Their greatest crime against humanity, however, was the massacre of ethnic Poles in Volynya and Galicia.

For reasons mysterious to this blogger Western journalists keep inserting the bit about the UPA (or Banderovites, as they are known in Russian and Ukrainian) fighting both the Soviets and the Nazis in their reports.  I suspect that the journalists are simply lifting from each other’s pieces because most of the literature on the subject is in Russian, which makes it immediately suspect.  But here’s Marc Solonin, a Russian supporter of EuroMaidan, on how there is no reference whatsoever on Banderavites fighting the Wehrmacht.  To the contrary, Solonin says, Banderovites were nothing but obedient German lackeys, fascists and murderers.

Anyhow, the above-referenced Ukrainian law stipulates the removal of all Soviet symbols everywhere, including every red star.  Think Holden Caulfield.

That will pacify the fire-breathing nationalist, right?  Wrong.  The Right Sektor faithful, who always had a rather uneasy relationship with the establishment, marched on Kiev.  The reason behind the stand off was decidedly non-ideological; it followed the division of protection customs area in Zakarpatia, along Ukraine’s Western border.  At the time Zakarpatia governor Vasil Gubal opined that “The distribution of revenues from smuggling should proceed in accordance with the law”.

In the light of all that Poroshenko, who multiplied his wealth since taking the office, popped up in Wall Street Journal to remind us:

“We aren’t demanding that British, American or French soldiers come here and fight for us,” Mr. Poroshenko says. “We’re doing this ourselves, paying the most difficult price”—here his voice breaks momentarily—“the lives of my soldiers. We need just solidarity.”

What he meant by “solidarity” is lethal aid.  That he will need more loans co-signed by the US to keep the country afloat was left unmentioned.

The fact that many Ukrainian soldiers and militiamen paid with their life and limb for the war in the East should not be mistaken for resolve of the country as a whole.  I touched on the subject of Ukrainian draft dodging before; it’s massive. And yet with whatever forces both sides can mount, the war in Donbass can go on for a long time — and this is just like Putin.

At the same time, the war is not about the territorial status of Donbass, a run-down industrial region/buffer zone with an epic Soviet past.  Truth is, nobody needs Donbass, at least not in and of itself, which is why Kremlin signed of on it having a special autonomy status within Ukraine.  The southern port of Odessa, on the other hand, has strategic value.  This third largest Ukrainian city is a destination for our non-lethal military aid.  Its governor and fugitive former Georgia president Mikhail Saakashvili boasted that the US is paying the salaries of his team — the US immediately denied it.

Another problematic area is the highly nationalistic Galicia, or the three westernmost regions which contributed the majority of protesters to Maidan and vote enthusiastically in the post-Maidan elections.  The area is majority Catholic and its economy and culture is more integrated with Poland than the rest of the country.  So what’s the problem?  Russians insist, and I think they might be just right about it, that in the event that Ukraine will be denied EU membership, the area will demand independence, stressing their central European roots, and try to join the EU without the rest of the country.  A Galician autonomy demonstration did take place recently in Lviv.  Putin is known to support separatist movements everywhere.

Anyhow, in the interview above Poroshenko channeled neo-con:

Are you together with the barbarian or together with the Free World?

But Petenka, who are you calling a barbarian? I am a bit of a Rusophobe myself, and I can say lots of unpleasant things about Russia, but Afghan cave-dwellers Russians are not (and Porosh is no Bibi).

Beloved Russian actor Mikhail Tabakov (who is no tool, mind you) recently found himself in hot water after airing of his private telephone conversation in which he called Ukrainians “shabby”.  A song was immediately dedicated to the scandal (say what you want about Ruskies, but they know how to do sarcasm):

Tabakov was compelled to explain himself, and his explanation was by no means original.  Ukraine is cutting its cultural ties to Russia and, as a result, is risking to be left with nothing but peasant blouses.  Ukrainians are quite proud of their peasant blouses, actually; those became a symbol of independence.  In the days following the Maidan victory half the country paraded in peasant blouses.  At that very time Russia staged the closing ceremony of Sochi Olympics during which they flashed the portraits of famous Russians, many of them with ethnic and/or biographical connections to Ukraine.

A shot from Sochi closing ceremony. Front row middle portrait of Kiev-born Mihkail Bulgakov, far left — ethnic Ukrainian Vladimir Mayakovsky

This brings me back to the point about Ukrainians and Russian culture.  Ukraine is a large and diverse country — linguistic diversity only begins to describe it.  What ties together cities as different as Kharkov and Odessa is Russian high culture. And residual Stalinism.

How can Ukraine keep itself in one piece?  If they are lucky, they will get somebody like Pinochet; a dictator to usher in free market reforms, but I doubt this will happen.  Most likely they’ll experience petty oligarchs and petty tyrannies before getting back into Russia’s embrace.

OK, it took me about a month to finish this post (mom’s life) so Ukraine is back in news with speculations of a major DNR/LNR offensive.

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.

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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