Orange sunset?

So, President Yanukovych. I don’t always agree with the folks at Foreign Policy, but I think they nail this one:

Ukrainians were absolutely correct to stand up and defend their democratic rights back in 2004. Yanukovych and his party were guilty of egregious election fraud. Moscow supported Yanukovych so openly, and so brutishly, that some Ukrainians presumably ended up voting for his opponent out of sheer spite.

But let’s face it. The record since then hasn’t exactly been an exercise in the glories of Ukrainian democracy. No sooner had Yushchenko and Tymoshenko achieved power (as president and prime minister, respectively) than they began to indulge in a feud that essentially paralyzed Ukrainian politics for the rest of Yushchenko’s term. The result was a long list of non-accomplishments. Kiev-based commentator Mykola Riabchuk, an ex-supporter, ticks off the list: “He failed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe,” thus frustrating one of the central demands of the Orange demonstrators. “He failed to separate business and politics” — another key disappointment for a country where a tiny group of business tycoons wields power constrained only by their competition among themselves. No sooner was the new president elected, Riabchuk notes, than he appointed several of his oligarch supporters to ministerial positions.

Small wonder, then, that Yushchenko didn’t make much headway against Ukraine’s fantastically stubborn culture of corruption. Last year global corruption watchdog Transparency International gave Ukraine a ranking of 146 on the group’s notorious “Corruption Perceptions Index.” To offer some context, that was the same rating achieved by Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, East Timor — and, oh yes, Russia. In 2004, when Yushchenko scored his great victory, Ukraine’s ranking was 122. “I don’t think that’s changed, and no one’s tried to change it,” says David Marples, a Ukraine-watching history professor at the University of Alberta. “In Ukraine the corruption goes right down to the village level.”

Yushchenko turned out to be a pretty big disappointment all around: stubborn, clumsy, tone-deaf, and obsessed with internal rivalries. He got eliminated in the first round this time. The runoff election was between Yanukovych — a former petty criminal who seems unable to string three coherent sentences together — and the equally horrible Julia Tymoshenko. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to blame the Ukrainians for choosing Yanukovych. (N.B., while the 2004 elections were marred by gross fraud, this year’s elections seem to have been pretty clean.)

So far, Yanukovych’s young administration is interesting for two things: what he’s done, and what he hasn’t.

What he’s done: Yanukovych has swerved Ukraine sharply closer to Russia. Continue reading

Russia on the rebound

Two interesting facts:

1) After sharply negative growth last year, Russia’s growth is predicted to exceed 6% this year. Okay, that’s just clawing back what they lost. But it’s still better than almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe.

2) For the first time in many, many years Russia’s population grew slightly: by a little over 20,000 people in 2009.

This growth is a combination of a slight downturn in the death rate, a noticeable uptick in the birth rate, and a sharp rise in immigration — it hit a ten year high, with about 240,000 people moving into Russia.

So: short-term blip, or sustainable? Continue reading

Gazprom in Serbia: How’s that working out?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about the sale of Serbia’s oil and gas company, NIS, to Russia’s Gazprom. Here were the high points:

– Gazprom was able to buy NIS for much, much less than its real value — 400 million euros for a company whose value was estimated to be more than 2 billion euros.

– The reasons for this have never been made clear. It may have involved corruption and/or a political quid pro quo for Russia’s support on Kosovo. Or perhaps the last Serbian government was just really bad at negotiating.

– The purchase was made without competitive bids, even several other large oil companies expressed interest, and two publicly stated that they would bid at least 2 billion euros.

– The deal gave Gazprom 51% ownership, but included provisions that ensured its total control. For instance, the Serbian government — which owns the other 49% — cannot sell its shares to anyone without Gazprom’s consent.

– Gazprom promised to assume NIS’s debts, which are about 600 million euros, mostly owed to the Serbian government, and also to invest about 500 million euros in NIS.

– Gazprom committed to building the South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia — giving Serbia transit fees — and also building a large gas storage facility at Banatski Dvor.

Okay, so. All that was a year ago. Since then, the deal has been signed and finalized. Gazprom formally took over NIS early this year; six of the ten members of the company’s board of directors are now Gazprom appointees, as are the Chairman of the Board and the company’s new general director. Although it was the last (Kostunica) government that negotiated the deal, the current (Cvetkovic) government has accepted it; three of the four Serbian board members are politicians involved with the current government.

So how’s it working out? Continue reading

Russian journalist killed in Chechnya

This woman may have had the most dangerous job in the world:

A prominent Russian human rights activist has been found dead hours after being kidnapped in the North Caucasus region.

Natalya Estemirova worked for Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations. She was bundled into a car early on July 15 as she left her home in the Chechen capital, Grozny, her Memorial colleague Aleksandr Cherkasov said.

[...]

Estemirova was a lawyer who documented abductions, torture, and other human rights abuses in Chechnya. She worked with reporters, including murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and other human rights groups.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said Estemirova’s work was vital to uncovering abuses in Chechnya. She said Estemirova “was one of the main people who documented the most terrible crimes during the second Chechen war: torture, extrajudicial executions, abductions.

“Natasha has until now remained one of the few people who have continued reporting crimes perpetrated by forces controlled by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.”

[...]

Estemirova was awarded the first Anna Politkovskaya Prize in 2007 by the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Speaking to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service shortly after, she said the authorities were doing nothing to investigate abuses documented by Memorial.

“Changes have happened, changes for the worse. As far as human rights go, it is worse because, first of all, nothing has been done to investigate the crimes that have been committed in Chechnya since 2000,” Estemirova said.

[...]

Estemirova is the latest of many prominent Kremlin critics to have been killed in what human rights groups say is an atmosphere of impunity. Lawyer Stanislav Markelov, another of those to have worked with Estemirova, was gunned down on a Moscow street in January.

Dangerous jobs: being a human rights investigator, human rights lawyer, or investigative journalist in Russia. Really dangerous jobs: being a human rights investigator in Chechnya.
Continue reading

Ingushetia, boom

So someone tried to blow up Yunus-Bek Yevkorov last week. Almost got him, too: they seem to have killed several members of his entourage, including his cousin, and Yevkorov himself is currently in a Moscow hospital with burns and a ruptured liver. He’s expected to live, though.

We wrote about Mr. Yevkorov a few months ago:

Yevkurov was appointed by Moscow late last year to replace the notoriously corrupt, unpopular, and none-too-competent incumbent. The timing was interesting: just a couple of months after the Georgia conflict. Ingushetia is next door to South Ossetia and just a short drive from Georgia. In retrospect it looks like Moscow decided it could no longer afford to have a loyal-but-hated tool running things in this strategic region, and decided to appoint the most plausible possible Ingush instead.

It’s damnably difficult to get straight news out of Ingushetia — the Russian authorities don’t encourage foreign journalists, while the local government is oppressive and pretty paranoid — but it looks like Yevkurov is trying to make a go of it. He’s much more popular than his predecessor (not hard), and he seems to be peripatetically competent.

Other than the President getting blown up? Not a lot has changed since then. Until last week, Yevkurov was still trying to set things right. And he was still severely handicapped by a moribund local economy — Ingushetia is the poorest republic in Russia; it produces, basically, nothing — and Moscow’s insistence on using federal security forces, who are universally feared and loathed, to “help” the situation there. Continue reading

History: The Durnovo Memorandum

I just discovered this amazing document recently. (h/t to Mr. David Tenner — thanks, David.)

Durnovo was Russian, and he was the Minister of the Interior for a while under Nicholas II. (His successor was the much more famous Stolypin.) He was a conservative who disliked democracy and was none too fond of capitalism either; his lodestars were Russia’s national interest and the monarchical principle. In early 1914, he was out of office, but still influential… and he was alarmed at the visible drift towards war all around him. So he wrote a 5,000 word memorandum, intended for the Czar’s inner circle, detailing just why this was a Really Bad Idea for Russia. (The text of the memorandum can be found on Google Books here, or as a .pdf over here.)

What’s striking about the memo is how, six months before World War One started, Durnovo absolutely nails it. Nature, conduct, likely outcomes — he’s eerily, astonishingly correct about all of them.

Check it out: Continue reading

Russia’s “Pillars of Strength”

Is Stratfor worth paying attention to? I’ve never been clear on this. Some of their articles seem pretty insightful, but on the other hand some of them seem like something a bright sophomore might come up with after half an hour with google.

This recent article about Russia seems closer to the latter category to me, but maybe I’m missing something. The article discusses six “pillars of Russian strength”:

Geography — Russia is adjacent or close to all the areas that are strategically important to Russia.

Politics — Russia has a stable authoritarian system. The government is securely in power and doesn’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks.

Social System — Russia’s population is docile .

Natural Resources — Lots!

Military — Getting better. Also, nukes.

Intelligence — Best in the world, and still has most of the “Near Abroad” wired for sound.

Well, hum. Continue reading

“One can lead a column to Prishtina every day”

Interesting when two hobbies cross-connect. One: that odd, isolated episode at the end of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when a Russian unit based in Bosnia suddenly rushed through Serbia and occupied Prishtina airport just ahead of the advancing NATO troops. — It ended up being an empty gesture, but only just; the Russians were ready to funnel thousands of soldiers into the airport, and would have if Hungary and Romania hadn’t stood firm and kept their airspace closed. And it wasn’t entirely without consequence: it re-established Russia as the Great Power Protector of choice for Serb nationalists, a position it still occupies today.

Two: Russia’s problems in Ingushetia. Ingushetia is a province in the northern Caucasus next to Chechnya, and it’s just a hell of a mess. It’s full of refugees, the economy has collapsed, bombings and shootings are a constant background drumbeat. Nobody pays much attention to the North Caucasus — it’s formally part of Russia; the Chechens are quiescent at the moment; Shamil Basayev is dead, and the Beslan atrocity didn’t seem to lead to anything — but Ingushetia is a bubbling low-intensity conflict with the potential to erupt into something nastier. Continue reading

A good/bad time to stop having babies

Here follows a bit of demographic speculation. It’s guesswork right now, but we’ll know in a year or two if I’m right.

Interesting Fact #1: birthrates tend to drop during recessions, and the drop tends to correlate with both the severity of the recession and the speed of its onset. The current recession is looking to be a bad one, and it happened pretty quickly, so we can reasonably expect a sharp drop in birth rates. I say “expect” because it hasn’t happened yet — human biology being what it is, we won’t see the first effects until nine months after most people became aware of the recession. This summer, more or less.

– Makes sense, right? Babies are expensive; more to the point, babies limit your options. They make it harder to move to a different city, change careers, stop working for a while. When times are hard and uncertain, babies become a luxury. For individuals and families, a recession is a good time to put childbearing on hold.

However…

Interesting Fact #2: all across Communist Eastern Europe, birth rates declined slowly through the 1970s and ’80s… and then crashed after 1990, dropping to very low levels and staying there through most of the decade. In some countries they bounced back a bit, in others not, but in almost all cases there’s a big “birth gap” from about 1991 until at least 1997, and often later. This is in contrast to, say, Germany or Italy or Greece, where birthrates declined more smoothly.

Put these two facts together, and there’s a problem. Continue reading

The face of Russian nationalism anno 2008

One of the top three faces that define Russia. By popular vote. Fair enough, I suppose:

The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governing of the country. In seeking to restore Russia’s standing, Mr. Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system’s horrors.

As a result, across Russia, many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off limits.

Bonus link (added 29th): the whitewashing of Stalin in the West and a nice quote by a reader of this BBC article:

I cannot help to think that the fact that Stalin was mostly bad to his own people and that his policies actually weakened his own country had something to do with the fact he is mildly looked upon in the West (compare this to Hitler who brought destruction to everyone else’s doorstep). No doubt that if Hitler was an ally of Britain and had restricted his genocide to within Germany, his crimes would have been swept under the carpet by the British press for the benefit of the greater good.