Thursday, January 29, 2009

Russian soldier deserts to Georgia

Russian news sources report of a soldier from the Russian army positions in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia deserting his post and escaping to Georgia proper. He is apparently seeking asylum, citing horrid conditions in the army - lack of food and bathing facilities and physical abuse.

The latter is interesting because the soldier in question, Aleksander Glukhov, was due to end his stint in the spring. (Incidentally, the NewsRu report talks about the Russian MoD's initial claim that the expeditionary force in South Ossetia and Abkhasia is completely made up of contract soldiers; even though the law forbids sending conscripts like Glukhov into a war zone abroad, they were indeed used in the Georgian conflict, which the MoD eventually had to admit - after long denials.) It is known that the Russian national service has a highly abusive hierarchy, where conscripts move up depending on how much time they've served, and then use violence against their juniors. Glukhov, a young man from the Udmurtia region of Russia, was ostensibly at the top of the food chain, with less than six months before his discharge - and still chose to desert his army and his country.

Reuters caught up with Glukhov in Tbilisi, and their reporter seems to be satisfied that the soldier is in good health and is not being kept against his will. The Russian authorities obviously beg to differ, saying that Glukhov was captured by Georgian special forces, and is being forced to say all these things under psychological pressure and threat of torture. Yet the Georgian authorities have apparently allowed Glukhov to phone his parents, and has invited them to come to Georgia and meet with their son.

Georgian TV channel Rustavi2 has a report on Glukhov, with a video of the man himself (starts at 1.30, in Russian, translation below):



My unit was moved to Tskhinval in June. My superiors said... officers, commanders... that you are going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people against Georgia. In June we started to dig trenches, firing positions. Also, the combat alerts started. We moved out to our positions. Stayed there for a week, returned - turned out they were drills. Then, after that, I was in Leningori - Akhalgori, on December 1st. Served there for a month, month and a half.

There are no normal conditions there. My relationship with the batallion commander, Major Fyodorov, became bad. Bad conditions. No washing facilities. The food situation is bad - we're fed very little. We also have combat vehicles - tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery units, aimed at Georgian villages... so I am asking the president of Georgia to leave me in Thbilisi.


It's interesting that Glukhov's mentioning of being in South Ossetia in June confirms what was suggested by an earlier slip-up from Russian army captain Denis Sidristy - that Russian army forces were in South Ossetia before the Georgian attack began. If true, it would mean that the war in Georgia was deliberately provoked by Russia.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Isamaa Veteran Rescues Nightwatch Martyr

This is how amusing historical footnotes happen.

Comments on BL, please. Would you have done the same?

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Monday, October 20, 2008

December Test

My review of Detsembrikuumus.

Comments on Baltlantis, if you please.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Not Nearly the Same

The first article I've ever published on Baltlantis completely on my own. (The CMS there is a bit eccentric.)

I think I'm just gonna disable comments on posts mirroring BL, since it will get a lot more out of extra pageviews than me...

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Monday, September 01, 2008

No, It Really Is Your Fault

There is an old saying: every people end up with the leader they deserve. In Russian, it is the basis for a moderately clever wordplay, making the point that every people get buggered by their leader.

As the West's prime ideologue for the New Cold War, Edward Lucas is the natural pointman for Europe's backlash over the Georgia war. On his blog this weekend is a ready reckoner for the powers-that-be to express their disapproval. I draw your attention to point six:
Stop talking about "Russia" (except where journalistic convention demands it). These guys aren't Russia. They are criminal gang of bullies, crooks and murderers who have hijacked Russia.
This is a widely held opinion. It is also absolutely, inexcusably wrong. This assertion is so wrong, in fact, that it is past misguided - it is actively harmful.

I've said this before: the Russian mentality does not include a sense of immediate responsibility. The Western model of society is founded on the concept of citizens delegating their power to representatives; there is an implied obligation by the citizen to watch whom he hands over his power to. This is a very basic idea, and the entire philosophy of democracy and civil liberty is no more than guidelines to applying it in typical situations. And yes, this idea is applicable to Russia, because it is a country with a strong and proud revolutionary history. Russians have proven that when they are propery unhappy with their rulers, the rulers are going down.

Many Russians feel uncomfortable with the actions of their state, and they excuse themselves by imploring others not to equate the Russian people with the Russian government. I am disappointed in Edward Lucas for perpetuating this intellectual farce. They would have us believe that all the evil and injustice of Russia is down to the Chekists, or the Bolsheviks, or the Jews. But the bastards are only in the Kremlin because the common Russian people put them there. Every bullet through the brain of a journalist, every conscript beaten into a bloody pulp by his sergeant, every mortar round fired at a North Caucasus village, is the responsibility of every single Russian who did not march on Red Square and stay there until the thugs were hauled out of the government offices by the scruffs of their necks.

Only when individual Russians learn to take personal responsibility for actions taken on their behalf will Russia be a country that can be approached with Western terms.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Intermission: Oh for fuck's sake, just deal with it.

Looked at the front page of Baltlantis today, and saw this hapless jeremiad. This has been such a staple of American bitching stereotypes that it's not even amusing any more, just annoying.

(The following is best read to a background of German outfit H-Blockx's seminal punk anthem, "This is not America".)

Water parks in Estonia, like pretty much everywhere in Europe, frown upon swimming shorts. There are, historically, some valid reasons for it. Swimming shorts seem to have been designed in California, with the express purpose of wearing them as swimmable outerwear; you get out of the ocean, they dry out very quickly, and you can be on your way. I have a pair that I got at an Orange County Target a few years ago. They have both external pockets, big enough to fit, say, a wallet, and a conveniently secure inner pocket, which can store, say, a car key. By their very design, swimming shorts encourage being worn about town, to the drinks vendor, to the corner shop, etc. In the summer - and yes, Estonian summers do get hot enough to warrant this, however briefly and occasionally - it is not unreasonable to expect people to get out of their apartments in swim shorts and a T-shirt (or not), walk down to the beach or pool, and have a dip. If we're talking about Anne Kanal here, it's a perfectly legitimate and pleasant passtime.

This, however, has gotten some of the more sun-soaked European countries riled up about possible hygiene issues. The thinking is that shorts worn on the street are likely to bring bacteria or other contaminants into the swimming pools (especially ones less enthusiastic with the chlorine than Kalev). There is also the chance that you will forget some keys or coins in the pockets of your shirts, and they will end up fucking with the pumps and filters. So while I'm not sure if there is an actual EU directive proscribing swimming shorts, there is certainly a prevailing opinion.

For what it's worth, I've worn my Target shorts to the Aura swimming pool in Tartu and have never seen anyone take up issue with them; not for me, not for my friends, not for the stable minority of swimmers who choose to come to Aura in non-speedo gear. I'm fairly sure though that I would be stopped if I wore the shorts to the actual water park bit of it, the bit with the slides. People have been given a legitimate, sensible reason for this limitation: swimming shorts often have metal rivets, almost always have exposed seams, and without fail have loose legs. All of these could potentially generate friction and/or snagging on a water slide; however small the chance, the water park does not want the liability, and that's their right.

What's really annoying though is Mrs. Gonzalez's proud, militant, American ignorance. First of all, there is nothing wrong with Speedos: they are a superior choice for swimming, because they provide far less resistance than flappy shorts - the reason why even in genitalia-shy America, they are the choice of professional athletes. The assertion that she is unduly stressed by the vague outlines of male reproductive organs is, frankly, ludicrous. She mentions a husband in the article, so being married, presumably she has indeed seen what a penis looks like and what it can do. Dear Dana: this is not Utah. It is Estonia, a country with a sauna culture, where children grow up knowing that it is perfectly possible for people of opposite sexes to be naked in the same room without an orgy ensuing. Oh, and our age of consent is 14. Doesn't that just shock you?

We are human males, Mrs. Gonzalez. Near enough all of us do indeed possess both penises and testicles. Even, believe it or not, the President of America. If you can't stand the wienerfest, get out of the water.

And for fuck's sake, stop complaining about pool staff doing their jobs. Oh, you say they should rummage through your bags and/or require you to present swimming gear at the counter? How about, instead, and this is just a thought, you follow the fucking rules that you are perfectly well aware of, and stop expecting people to accomodate you just because you're American?

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dissecting the Crisis

Everyone knows Estonia is in the middle of an economic crisis. Prices are really high, labour efficiency is really low, the government isn't getting enough taxes, the economy isn't growing, there's inflation, and generally everything is really, really bad.

But what does it actually mean?

I'm not an economist, so you'll have to bear with me; I am simply going on the premise that if there is an answer to give, it must be an answer that can be reached through common sense. I am also trying to use hard numbers from the hypnotic stat.ee database. Lies, damn lies, and search engines. Correct me if I'm wrong, and read the comments to see if someone already has.

First, the inflation. As we know already, the Estonian kroon is pegged to the Euro, and that rate is holding - so the actual value of the kroon in worldwide terms is not changing significantly. The Euro's inflation is at an all-time high as well, pushing 4%. The kroon's is at 10% or more, year-on-year. The latest figures available are for April 2008, and put the overall price index at 168.36. The same index for April 2007 was 151.12, showing an increase of 11.35%. This is supposedly the average increase in an average Estonian household's spending, I guess.

At the same time, the average salary before taxes has grown year-on-year; a rise of 19.5% when the first quarter of 2008 is compared to the first quarter of 2007. Now look: the salaries and benefits of parliament members are outrageous, but there's only 101 of them, and this county isn't that small.

(All comparative salary numbers are not taking into account the changes in income tax. Brute salary numbers are before income tax, which has been falling steadily from 26%; it's 21% in 2008 and will drop to 18% eventually. At the same time, the untaxable minimum - the basic income amount that is free of tax - is growing. So, everyone in Estonia gets slightly more cash in January than they did in December.)

If I'm looking at the numbers right, then despite the crisis and stalling economy (which had been stalling for most of last year, especially in the wake of Russian transit being pulled after April), the people of Estonia can now buy, on average, 8.15% more stuff.

The big numbers are percentages against a baseline of 1997. So 168.36 means that we're now spending 68% more real kroons on the same amount of stuff as we would have 11 years ago. I was curious, so I went and looked up the average brute salary for 1997, and guess what: it was 3 573 EEK. Honestly, I don't remember salaries being that small in '97, but I was thirteen years old, so you're welcome to go to the Statistics Department's website and check that I got the right table. But if so, then for an increase of 68% in spending, we got a 345% increase in earnings!

So, despite the rising prices, Estonians are actually still doing progressively better all the time. But this is where the labour efficiency argument comes in. Bolstered by years of massive economic growth, Estonians are asking for ever-higher salaries. They're getting them, but now the employers are complaining: people want more cash just because the economy in general is growing, not because they're working harder and doing more. So the employer's labour costs are rising faster than the revenues. For whatever reasons, the employer isn't moving the company to China. To be entirely honest, I don't feel too badly for the employers: every worker is worth as much as they manage to get someone to pay them. By definition, a worker's value to a company far outweighs the costs. Rising salaries are a problem, but there is no way Estonia could compete on labour costs alone. We're not a country of cheap labour; we're a country of relatively cheap and very good labour. If employers want low salaries, they can go to China or India; if you got a 19.5% raise during an economic crisis, you obviously deserve it. On a more general level, we should be proud that Estonia's workforce is good enough to pull this off.

So if people are earning more, and spending not quite as much more, then what's the problem? Look at Iceland - it's had massive inflation for ages. OK, so we won't be joining the Eurozone any time soon, but that's a matter of pride rather than any actual difference to anyone's lives.

The most noise being made about it right now is the budget shortfall. Estonia's budget must be balanced, by law; the government cannot spend less money than it has. So when the government sees that the taxes are not coming in at the rate it's expecting, it has to cut spending. All the big news with the coalition parties barking at each other and the opposition sniggering are around cutting spending, and which programs will be left out. Again, let's be clear about what's happening: the budget, and government spending, are still bigger than last year - and will remain bigger than last year - but not as big as they thought last year. The rate at which the amount of government money is growing is falling rapidly.

Excuse me if I don't cower in fear.

Still, it is a problem, and one that nobody seems to know how to fix. If people's incomes are increasing, it must be corporate revenues that are falling. Remember, Estonia doesn't have corporate income tax: if the budget shortfall is due to the economic slowdown, it must be because the government isn't getting as much revenue tax and excise. (It could be that it's getting income tax from less people, but unemployment is down year-on-year, from 4.7% to 4.2%.)

So where is the shortfall, exactly? Conventional wisdom suggests that when prices are rising rapidly and people are scared for the economy, they buy less stuff. Stat.ee conveniently provides very fresh data on retail:



OK, I think that might contribute. The government gets 18% of every sale in VAT; with a fall like that, it's gonna miss a few kroons here and there.

The other industry in trouble is real estate, obviously. People have no confidence for long-term commitments, interest rates on mortgages have risen along with the EURIBOR, and property is still fairly expensive (as I explained before, if you've actually paid a high price for an apartment once, you're going to want to recoup it when you sell it on; foreclosures are still exceedingly rare in Estonia). Stat.ee conveniently provides a table of property sales numbers:



Of course the problem here is that construction is a major industry in Estonia. It's always been a great source of high income for industrious youth without a higher education; the great hope of the working class, if you will. (Just because no AnTyx blog post would be complete without a reference to nationality - a disproportionate number of young Russian men work in construction.) So if real estate transactions are in freefall, the construction industry must be dead in the water as well. Right?

Wrong.



This table doesn't show a total number of constructed floor space, remember - it shows the number of new floor space per quarter. Construction has naturally trailed off, but it's not fallen, in fact it's still growing - just not as quickly. And builders' salaries are still growing year-on-year, slightly exceeding the national average.

Stat.ee doesn't have data for 2008 for all sectors of the economy, unfortunately, but let's just look at another one: industrial production (which includes energy production). Estonia's industrial sector is often thought of as frail and unimpressive, but it's still very important. That's why we have some nice, fresh stats to look at:



Again: not growing as quickly as it used to, but it seems that the dearth of qualified hands and the increase in labour costs has not had a massively troubling effect on industrial production. (Click on the picture for a page with more details, including a breakdown by type of industry. Energy and building materials are down; metalwork, machinery and electronic equipment are up.)

The relative health of industrial production, and the massive issues of retail, have had an interesting effect: import is down, export is up. (Remember: Estonia's IT sector largely doesn't figure in export calculations, because the local wholly-owned subsidiaries don't actually sell anything to anyone.) We're still importing more stuff than exporting, but it's a step in the right direction as far as the balance of trade is concerned.

CONCLUSION


The crisis could get far worse, and I'm not going to claim that we're at the lowest point right now; but if it continues to develop in the same way, then I believe this is what they meant when they talked about a soft landing. The biggest real issue is the budget shortfall, and that's more of an inconvenience than a disaster. The retail sector is hurting, but a cooldown in consumerism might do the country good - as long as the salaries are growing and unemployment is kept low, nobody I care about is seriously hurt by it. Same with real estate: people hold on to their property rather than flipping it, construction is still puttering along, and real estate developers must die.

Economy is cyclical. Now, what do we do when we get to the other side of the crisis?

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tallinn Motorshow

Here.

Photos are a bit odd, there should be a gallery of excellent shots by the improbably-named Roar later today.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Debriefing

It is unlikely that Medvedev is entirely Putin’s creature, or will remain so for long. Yes, Putin is not quite letting go, and there is a legal loophole that would allow him to run for President again in 2008, but even in a situation as unprecedented as the one we have now, it would be disingenuous to suppose that a leader of Russia will give up the power willingly. The top job is not one fit for a puppet, and Dmitri Medvedev is decidedly not a fool.

Full text at Baltlantis.

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