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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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Oh, I suppose I need to talk about it.

So the Estonian courts have found Klenski, Linter, Reva and Sirõk not guilty of organizing the April riots.

Good riddance.

A lot of public figures, as well as pro-Estonian commenters, have called it a travesty and voiced their disappointment quite loudly. It was, they said, necessary to punish these four, to send a message that this kind of activity would not be tolerated.

In truth, it will be, and the country will be all the healthier for it. Those responsible for the damage and destruction - the local equivalent of white trash - have long since gotten their convictions and minor sentences. Some of them, who imagined themselves political figureheads in the making, tried to appeal and go all the way to Brussels, where nobody cared to listen to them. Which is as it ought to be.

As for these four, they are only of any interest to anyone as martyrs. There is nothing we (and I mean we as a society) could have done to destroy and humiliate them more than to provide a well-reasoned and impartial judiciary ruling of their utter irrelevance. They were on trial for organizing the most politically significant action to ever be carried out by Estonia's Russian community, or indeed by any opposition fraction whatsoever. And the court found them not credibly competent enough to have pulled it off.

We can afford to be magnanimous. We have nothing to gain from putting these men in jail. But we have certainly gained a lot from releasing them.

I do not make a habit of feeding the trolls outside a controlled environment, but observing them in the wild produces valuable insight. The court ruling produced a stunned reaction in the most hysterical corners of the Russian Internet. Oh, they still played their roles, but even those who kept regurgitating accusations of fascism on autopilot could not help but remark that such insolence against authority would never be so tolerated in the Motherland. The cognitive dissonance incurred by witnessing an application of impartial justice in what they still consider part of their mindscape was much-needed, though rare.

Of course, for the desired effect to be attained, all parties involved had to stick to their script. The fury and indignation of the coalition ensured that the court's ruling carried the necessary force. Still, I wish our politicians spent more time thinking about what they say.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Vladivostok 2008



Providing that you still have a stable income, you've probably seen mostly good things from the global financial crisis. The most obvious benefit is the price of oil, which has lost two thirds of its peak value. It's a good thing for us, but it's been playing havoc in Russia, where the state suddenly no longer has near-unlimited disposable income to pacify discontent. The Russian budget is designed with a market price of $70/barrel in mind; I've seen numbers that suggest a fall to $30 in 2009 would create a budget deficit big enough to swallow up all of Russia's foreign-exchange reserves. Even with oil at $40-45, and a fundamentally uncompetitive industrial base, the Russian economy is screeching to a halt. People are already quite unhappy.

One of the things that the Kremlin has done is try to protect the car industry. The VAZ factory, one of the biggest integrated manufacturing facilities in the world, has only survived on lasting demand in the domestic market because of trade tariffs. Importing a three-year-old family hatchback into Russia will cost several thousand Euro just in excise fees. Anything older than seven years old is prohibitively expensive - and yet a VW Golf that's spent a decade trundling along the autobahns and villages of Westfalia is still immeasurably superior to a factory-fresh Lada.

Still, not everyone in Russia buys Russian cars. A number of assembly plants have opened inside the country, some - like the Ford factory - providing not only jobs but subcontracts to local parts suppliers, others simply attaching bumpers and seats to semi-knocked-down vehicles to satisfy a loophole. But there is another source of cars in Russia: Japanese imports.

Russia's a ridiculously big place, and a lot of it is quite remote, but probably the most isolated city is Vladivostok. Established largely as a base for imperial Russia's Pacific fleet, it is located in the southeastern corner of the country, closer to China, North Korea and Japan than any other significant Russian enclave. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of infrastructure, Vladivostok turned out to be of little interest to anyone out west. The population, some half a million people, survived through a single revenue stream. Vladivostok became the staging area for used Japanese cars, popular throughout Siberia, but as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg as well. Japanese tax laws mean that keeping cars past a certain age is more expensive than replacing them, so there is a steady stream of perfectly serviceable vehicles that need to be taken off the island. China and Korea have their own auto manufacturing industries, Australia is too far for shipping, but Vladivostok is right there - and a five-year-old Toyota that was a salaryman's pride and joy beats the hell out of a domestic deathtrap, even if the wheel is on the wrong side.

One way or the other, everyone in Vladivostok earns a living from the steady stream of cars being loaded onto freight trains and shipped westwards. So when new tariffs were announced, to be introduced from the beginning of 2009 and shutting down the nearly-new import business almost completely, the city would not have it. When Putin and Medvedev said they'd replace the Russian East's Nipponese fleet with discount Ladas, it was received as an insult.

People took to the streets. As a response, Moscow sent its crack troops: the Ministry of the Interior's own, personal SWAT team. On December 20th, after earlier protests, the people of Vladivostok assembled in a central square, around a Christmas tree, and sang carols. Understanding the rules of the game, they did not bring anti-government banners or bullhorns. As long as the crowd didn't get overtly hostile or political, the local law enforcement would not stop them; everyone in the city was equally worried.

Except the federal government could not tolerate any organization, any large mass of people standing up for their rights. On December 20th, the cops on scene were not locals, but OMON Zubr. This was Moscow SWAT, the same group used to guard international summits and crack the skulls of marching skinheads.

When, shortly after the Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn, the Kremlin roughly shut down opposition protests in its big cities, it was an ironic contrast to their accusations against Estonia. But I said back then that we should not be complaining too loudly about the treatment of the Marches of the Dissenters, as they were called; most of the people involved were decidedly unpleasant characters, with whom we emphatically did not need to align ourselves. The actions of the federal police at that point showed simply that Russia had no moral right to complain about anyone else; they were no better.

But the protesters in Vladivostok were not neonazis or anarchist radicals, nor even people with a deep-seated hate of the Putin administration. These were apolitical folks, enraged not by propaganda, but by a howlingly terrible decision that would rob them of their livelihood. It wasn't even the result of incompetence or mismanagement, nor the loss of windfall oil profits, that was going to do them in, but a conscious decision by the ruling clique to protect a rotten industry that is spewing inferior product, which nobody in their right mind would buy, given a choice. The people of Vladivostok had every right to take to the streets; and the central government's reaction proved that they aren't just no better than us - they are, self-evidently, far, far worse.



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Photo source, video source. Bonus story: the moderator of Russian LiveJournal's biggest car community apparently was contacted by the FSB and asked nicely to delete any posts about the import tariff protests.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pinball

A few thoughts on Giustino's article on spheres of influence.

"How is it that membership in a security alliance founded in 1949 is seen as the only way a state bordering the Russian Federation can survive?"

Because NATO is a codification of the military component of a Western alliance. The world is no longer separated into the spheres of superpowers, but it certainly is separated into spheres of value systems, and for all the differences that Provence might have with Alabama, the democratic West (involving Australia and Japan) would far rather stick together than take their chances with China, Russia or Iran. As the US continues its misguided imperialist adventures, Europe continues its 60-year policy of avoiding war at all costs, bar the surrender of its values (which is why there are German troops in Afghanistan and Swedish troops in Kosovo). Global diplomacy is a dance around the elephant of war, not talking about it outright, but letting the other guys know you're carrying a ten-gauge. In this situation, NATO is not so much an alliance as a statement of intent. NATO membership is an indication that the country has chosen a side, should an all-out conflict erupt. History may not be completely cyclical, but the war in Georgia has proven empirically that Russia is willing and able to attack, with military force, a country within its imagined sphere of influence. That the country in question poses no credible threat to Russia is irrelevant.

"Why should those pesky Estonians continue to poke the Russians in the eye, when they can just be good boys like Pekka up north?"

Because Pekka was in bed with Adolph. Yes, anyone who's studied history understands that it was a forced measure after the West abandoned Finland in the Winter War, and yes, the Finnish section of the siege of Leningrad was the one that let vital supplies through. But the independence of Finland is no proof whatsoever of Russia's ability to play nice with its neighbours. The Soviet Union did invade Finland, and it did win that war, albeit with a massive loss of life and resource! After the peace treaty, the Finns were under no illusion whatsoever that Stalin had a continued intention to fold Finland back into the Russian Empire, and only delayed this project because he had bigger problems to deal with, down south. Which is why they turned for assistance to the only force that seemed capable of stopping Russia - no matter how evil that force was. Just because Finland broke her alliance with the Third Reich at the first sign of Allied competence, early enough to be claimed by the West in return for abandoning most of the Austro-Hungarian empire, does not excuse the exceptional Norsemen's behaviour.

So we can either deny the Finnish model, and throw our lot in with America and Britain, and hope that there will be an Admiral Cowan around for the next blowout; or we can adopt the Finnish model, and open up a class at the Tartu Flight College dedicated to plowing Sukhoi Superjets into the Gazprom tower.

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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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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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Friday, February 22, 2008

Foot, meet mouth.

EDIT: This now available at Baltlantis.

I have spoken before about the need to apply Occam's Razor to Russia - more specifically, the Heinlein conjecture, which states that one should never attribute anything to malice that can be adequately explained by stupidity. I never cease to be amazed by the ability of Russian institutions of greater or lesser officialdom to embarass themselves in spectacular ways. Really, it's a government full of Boris Johnsons.

I've stayed away from the whole Kosovo issue, because I don't have enough information to make a good judgement on it; I have the impression that the process happening now is more Kosovo's separation from Serbia rather than actual independence - since it'll be run by the EU (and even its flag is a version of the European one). But Serbia is pissed off.

Russia's reaction is mixed. On the one hand, it has been trying to use Serbia as a client state for ages - during the NATO bombings, I've heard rhetoric that Serbia is the only major nation in Europe that is both Slavic and Orthodox; Greece being the latter but not the former, and Poland the former but not the latter. So if Serbia is indignant, Russia is too. Especially since Kosovo is now the dominion of the West, so they get to trot out the old lines about imperialist pigs again.

On the other hand, they are gleefully pointing to Kosovo as a precedent, and demanding international recognition for Abkhasia, South Ossetia and Transdniestr. I've even heard a few local voices piping up again with the idea of an Independent Republic of Ida-Virumaa, which incidentally I would just love to see them try. So Russia finds itself in propaganda heaven, a win-win situation.

And then Russia's state-owned television channel puts out a news show where the anchor spews out the following:
Today the people of Belgrade surely remember other public gatherings. They remember the madness of the crowd that brought down old man Milosevic. The same football fans, by the way. How a country giddy with liberal promises cried at the funeral of the Western puppet Zoran Djindjic - the man who destroyed the legendary Serbian army and secret services, who sold the heroes of Serbian resistance out to The Hague for abstract economic assistance, and who got a well-deserved bullet for it.
Youtube link if you understand Russian. Zoran Djindjic was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Serbia after the end of Milosevic's regime, murdered in 2003.

Holy. Fucking. Shit. This is Russian state TV. Not just a media puppet - this is the official channel of the Kremlin.

The show in question went out at midnight Thursday/Friday. Naturally, the Serbian government is livid. The NewsRu article linked above has a quote from the former Balkan bureau chief of the Russian state newswire, Sergei Gryzunov, saying that this quote is a call for the murder the current Serbian president, Boris Tadic (who was a close supporter of Djindjic's).

So the main question now is, was this an authorized statement, or was the anchor overexcited and taking advantage of the poorly-censored midnight time slot? If it's the latter, we should see news of his dismissal shortly. I lean towards this explanation, because of the reason stated above, but then haven't we seen similar sort of preposterous spew out of the Russian state media directed towards Estonia or Georgia? The only difference now is that Serbia is, ostensibly, on Russia's side.

These people are hilarious, but occasionally their delusion can be scary.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

PR stands for Putin's Russia

An interesting point by Juri Maloverjan of BBC's Moscow bureau. He has been going around Russia (proper - not just Moscow and St. Petersburg) filing reports on preparations for the presidential elections, and has noticed a pattern.

Most of the people willing to go on record said largely the same thing: their lives personally are hard and unfair, but the situation in general has improved so much in Putin's time that they are definitely going to vote for Putin. Or, you know, Medvedev. Whatever.

The value of good PR?

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blatant


A letter to the managing director of a Siberian coal mining company, from the local office of United Russia. It reads:

I consider your refusal to provide financial assistance to the regional branch of the United Russia party for the campaign of the upcoming parliamentary elections as a refusal of support for President Putin and his formative course.

I consider it my duty to notify the Presidential Administration and the Governor of Kemerovo oblast about this.


From the Secretary of the Political Council of the local UR branch.

Are you scared yet?

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Georgia WTF

The pictures of riots in Georgia, being supressed by the police, cannot help but bring up comparisons with the Bronze Night in Tallinn. While our own April riots had a sequence of events building up to them, events that most TV viewers were not aware of, there was at least one cause that the anchors could mention: the unrest followed the relocation of a Soviet-era war memorial.

The Tbilisi riots are far more enigmatic. The official news sources could not quote anything except the opposition's general dissatisfaction with president Saakashvili and his political party. While my esteemed colleague has forfeited attempts to figure out what the hell is going on there, I have the advantage of speaking Russian. As usual with such things, LiveJournal is a good source of perspectives and links to relevant articles. Here's what I've got so far.

Mikhail Saakashvili was elected as president in January of 2004, following the Rose Revolution. Following a long reign of ex-Soviet bigwig Eduard Shevarnadze, he was a welcome Western-minded alternative. He had the support of the people, and some very important allies - the US took a particular interest in Georgia, since its location makes it a useful platform to project power into the Middle East and Central Asia.

The presidential elections were followed by parliamentary elections, which Saakashvili's coalition promptly won. Georgian law states that the President is elected for five years, and the Parliament for four. So Saakashvili's first term would've run out in the winter of 2009, and the cabinet's in the spring of 2008, in other words Any Day Now.

At the end of last year, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment rescheduling the elections. The government was reluctant to hold a campaign at the same time as Russia, which is having an election season extending into next spring as well. It was thought - not unreasonably - that Georgia would be used as a propaganda cause, and it would be a great temptation for the Kremlin to try and destabilize the small country, like it's done before by supporting the separatists in the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are still under the control of Russian peacekeepers. So the amendments, which were found to be legitimate, but iffy by the Council of Europe's constitutional monitoring authority, extended the term of the Parliament by six months. This would allow the elections to be held long after Russia had made its decisions, for better or for worse. Saakashvili bought this extra time by voluntarily giving up three months of his own term, thus having the Georgian parliamentary and presidential elections at the same time.

This is what pissed off the opposition. As it stands, Georgia's political system is fairly heavily tilted in favour of the President, and the rescheduling is also an obvious attempt to use Saakashvili's personal popularity to strengthen the position of his supporting coalition*. With a popular incumbent president currently supported by a loyal parliamentary majority, the opposition is completely out of the loop. It doesn't help that the opposition leaders appear to include the sons of Georgia's first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia*.

But the opposition alone couldn't make the riots happen. Why are the common people on the streets? Different sources put the number of protesters as high as 150,000 people, and in a country about twice the size of Estonia with almost three times the population, that's still a huge number. (To compare: the marauding crowds in Tallinn on the Bronze Night are estimated at being up to 3,000 strong, by the wildest counts.) What's got them all so riled up?

Georgia was one of the first Soviet republics to make a serious attempt at independence, and the only one except for the Baltics that is not a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (a mostly pointless virtual union established after the fall of the USSR to alleviate exposure shock in countries with little experience in self-rule). At the same time, its history has been infinitely more tragic. The early 90s were marred by extensive Balkans-style bloodshed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the corrupt government of Shevarnadze impeded the country's economic growth. Saakashvili was supposed to change all that. But Georgians are, for most intents and purposes, Mediterraneans. The country has a long history stretching back to the pre-Roman times - it's known to have been a trading partner of Ancient Greece, and it can be argued that it is part of the same civilization. As Mediterraneans often are, the Georgians are impulsive and impatient. In two and a half years of effective rule, Saakashvili has failed to produce an improvement in living standards as drastic as was expected of him. For all its new foreign markets - you can now buy genuine Georgian wines in Tartu, and they're quite good - the country remains relatively poor. When the people are disgruntled, they blame the leader.

So, this week the protesters took to the streets, and the situation rapidly dissolved into a riot. Police used water cannons and tear gas; in an unfortunate coincidence, the worst of the clashes took place in the same boulevard where the Soviet authorities once harshly suppressed a demonstration of Georgian independence activists, and people can't help but make the painful connection. The president declared a state of emergency, which included an information blockade: foreign TV channels were shut off, the local press was confined to quarters. That is finished now, and it seems that it might have had a point: given a bit of time to catch their breath without having to worry about the media, the government and opposition leaders were able to meet and agree on terms.

Stunned by the riots, Saakashvili has gathered up his bravery and gone all-in. He has proposed a shotgun election in January of 2008, less than two months away. Ideologically, the opposition has lost its footing: they cannot accuse Saakashvili of being a corrupt, power-hungry politician if he is volunteering to cut his own term by a full year to give the people a chance to express their distrust of their leader. At the same time, the president is effectively counteracting claims that the police suppression of the riots signalled an end of democracy in Georgia - in the wake of the crisis, he's doing the most democratic, absolutely textbook thing possible, by effectively resigning. Such a short campaign also leaves the Kremlin with precious little time to influence the elections, especially as the opposition has definitively proven its incompetence by failing to turn a 150,000-strong crowd into any sort of real political advantage.

At the end of the day, despite the sheer amount of balls it took Saakashvili to call an early election, it seems to be a safe move: for all the popular disillusionment with the supposed wonder boy, there does not seem to be any other Georgian politician with a viable chance to get the popular vote. Saakashvili will most likely be re-elected, in a free and democratic poll monitored by European observers and the US advisors already in the country, and the opposition will be silenced.

Most of this analysis is based on the conversations in Georgians' LiveJournals, as well as Russian news sources, including anti-Kremlin ones. I've tried to arrange the information and pick out the scenarios that seemed most plausible to me. We'll see what happens.

Now for the Western perspective. The US seems very interested in having Georgia as a satellite nation; it is at once fervently anti-Islam, having a very strong Orthodox tradition (in fact along with Armenia it is one of the oldest consistently Christian countries in existence), but it is also fervently anti-Russia. For the US's interests in the region, Georgia shows a potential of loyalty second only to Israel. America might be a bit busy with other things in the Middle East/Central Asia region right now, but Georgia would definitely be a very good ally to have. Which is why the Georgian army is re-tooling with US equipment and training with US military instructors, and the government lends an ear to US advisors. There is even persistent talk of Georgia getting NATO membership. If Estonia could join NATO without a border treaty with Russia, Georgia can join NATO without resolving the issue of its breakaway provinces - as long as the US wants it bad enough.

For the EU, Georgia is a sweet piece of property as well, and you only need to look at the map to see why. With the last round of expansion, Europe has the use of Bulgarian and Romanian ports on the western shore of the Black Sea; with Georgian ports on the eastern shore, the EU is only one short skip away from having access to the Kaspian oil reserves - completely bypassing Russia. Hell, if they can extend the pipework to Turkmenistan, it would render Nord Stream redundant!

At the same time, Georgia is a far easier mark than Turkey. The EU is more or less done in the north and its own immediate vicinity; like all the major powers today, it is most interested in Central Asia. If it has a serious interest in access to the Caspian - and it damn well has to - it will have a far easier time integrating little old Georgia, than the enormous, barely secular mess that is the former Ottoman Empire. If the Georgian people's main complaint with the Western-minded Saakashvili is that he's not making the economy grow quickly enough, well, that's easy. The EU has more than enough experience in pulling up destitute post-Soviet economies by the ears. Hell, let's not forget that Mart Laar held an official rank as Saakashvili's advisor!

Estonia could really use a new project, something to make us feel good about ourselves, make us feel relevant as a part of a single Europe, and also make us be seen as relevant, as a useful European force. For about a microsecond there, Estonia had an internal meme of becoming a world expert on Russia, the West's go-to guys on how to deal with our eastern neighbours. That didn't turn out well, but we can still become the world authority on rehabilitating downtrodden small countries, like we've done with ourselves. Estonia is in a good position for taking the lead on a project that has the attention and backing of the entire EU, proving our expertise and establishing ourselves as something more than just the homeland of Skype and cheap beer.

Georgia has a long way to go, but it's still on the right track. Let's see what happens.

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*There's a parallel to be drawn here with Putin and United Russia, or indeed Andrus Ansip and the Reform party. The key difference in the former case is that Putin is directly leading the candidate list for UR - in fact he is the party's only name in a traditionally three-strong federal component, the three candidates that the entire enormous country gets to elect, supplementing the individual lists in each constituency. Saakashvili is not being quite as obvious about it, it's more in the style of George Bush's personal popularity in 2004 helping out the Republicans in the simultaneous Senate/Congress elections. The difference in the latter case is that Ansip is a creature of the party; for all his personal vote record, he ran in a safe constituency, and people who agree with the platform tend to just vote for the top name in the Reform party list. Ansip may have personal ambitions, but he doesn't have the credentials or charisma to drag a party into parliament in the same way that Mart Laar or Marek Strandberg can.

*The opposition leaders seem to include Tzotneh and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, who seem to be brothers; there have been leaks of their phone conversations with Russian foreign intelligence officers. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's biographies mention that he had three sons, but I haven't found one that lists their names. Correct me if I'm wrong.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

So Much For Appeasement

It's November 7th, 2007, the 90th anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia.

News of the day:

1) Russia is demanding that Latvia make Russian a state language. Anyone still admiring the Latvians' ratification of the border treaty and generally playing nice with Moscow recently? This is a particularly excellent statement to make right now, when the country's economy is suspect and the government is on unsure footing. There's definitely someone in the Kremlin looking to repeat history and arrange for Russian military assistance to help maintain the peace in an embattled Latvia (for the next however many decades).

2) Russia is unilaterally pulling out of the European common arms limitation treaty. Now, one cool trick my high school history teacher showed us was to take a look at the orders of battle before the start of WWII, and then use that data to deduce which countries were actually intending to go to war. (Hint: it wasn't France.) A particularly cute statement is the head of the Army general staff going on record saying that Moscow is worried about a build-up of arms in the Baltic states.

Given that the chance of the Baltic Batallion invading Russia is fairly negligible, I come back to my theory that the Russian authorities aren't even bothering to lie any more - you just have to listen to what they're actually saying. They're not worried that the Baltics are a threat to Russia's security, they're worried that the Baltics might have a more formidable defense than they would like.

Scared yet?

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Monday, November 05, 2007

The English Estonian Blog Scene

Man, first thing I'll do when I become president of Russia? Sergei Ivanov is going to get a pink slip. "Dude, you're fired! You suck!
Giustino, some time after midnight on Saturday night, in Zavood, after about five A. Le Coqs.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Are you scared yet? 'Cause I am.

Mid-October saw an event in Russia that has probably gone mostly unnoticed outside, but I think it's significant. President Putin has reached an agreement with the big retail chains and the agricultural unions to freeze food prices ahead of the parliamentary elections.

It's been a bit of a topic in Russia recently, I understand. For all the money coming into the country, there's still a massive welfare divide, and a lot of people are still quite poor. At the same time, the rise in spending naturally leads to inflation* and rising prices. So when the price of milk increases by 10% in a month, people are pissed.

Remember how I said that Putin's plans - whatever they may be - depend on his personal popularity? To stay in the people's good graces, he needed to curb the price growth. The method that he chose, however, is at once very Russian and very disturbing. He went to the people who sell the food, and he asked them nicely to not raise the prices any more, no matter what capitalist theory suggests.

When the President of Russia, especially one such as Putin, asks you nicely - you know you'd better fucking comply.

The reason this scares me is because it's an indication of a mindset. For all his westerly aspirations, Putin is prepared to revert to the old Soviet scheme of keeping the people happy, no matter what the cost. The firehose of oil revenue still has enough pressure, and it's not implausible that it is being applied here somewhere - owners of retail chains quietly getting lucrative consessions on the side. That would actually be the slightly more preferable option. A corrupt capitalist country is at least predictable; there are rules which it follows, and you can use those rules to build up a strategy. Lots of people got rich in the ostensibly lawless 90s by understanding the rules.

The worse option is that Putin got the retailers and producers to freeze prices at an essentially arbitrary level or else. This would mean that Russian history is beginning to repeat itself. Since I live a hundred miles from the border, Russian history repeating itself scares me shitless.

In the context of the end of Putin's second term, and the inevitable tectonic shift in the Russian status quo, I can't help thinking about the true motivation for a lot of Estonia's foreign policy. Again, this is one of those things that people don't say aloud, because it makes them look bad, but everyone's thinking it. Though it may seem improbable and alarmist, we're always weary of the chance that Russia will pull another "cooperation pact", and the least we can do is to make the fallacy of any spin about Russian soldiers welcomed as liberators obvious.

Call me a coward, but come next spring, I'm keeping my gas tank filled up, and seeing if Tallink will sell me an open ticket to Stockholm.


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*Inflation has been a buzzword in Estonia - last year we were making an effort to push it that last bit down under 3%, so that we could join the Eurozone, this year it's spiked to as much as 7%. The newspapers are running scary articles. The word is deceiving though: the EEK is still pegged to the Euro, so the value of the money isn't decreasing (any more than the Euro is), but the cost of life in Estonia is rising. Which is kind of to be expected: you didn't really think we'd keep Eastern European prices while inching closer to Central European earnings, did you?

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

As Good a Version as Any

Chanced upon this article (in Russian) by one Dmitri Furman, a history professor with the Russian Academy of Sciences. The man has credentials.

He also has a good point to make. He starts out by reminding us all that there's a very good chance we've only seen part of Putin's eventual plan, and that we can well expect reality to turn out completely different from what any of us expect at this point. Having recently boasted of my predictions coming true, I would like to take a moment to wholeheartedly endorse this point. Don't take my ESP for granted. :)

Dr. Furman then goes on to speculate why Putin chose the path of formal legality to remain in power. It's a good question; his recent actions have stupefied observers far more than an all-out power grab would have. Putin chose not to modify the Constitution and proclaim himself President for life, but make no mistake - he could have. A direct quote from the article:
In an imitation democracy, adhering to a Constitution that acts as a facade can result in the destabilization of the true power system. Putin's retirement in the name of sticking to the Constitution is, in this sense, a very dangerous and risky move.
So why did he do it? Why didn't he take the option that the leaders of so many former Soviet republics took, the option that the postsoviet political evolution presents so temptingly?

Furman suggests that the difference between Russia and Kazakhstan is historic pride. The countries that now have absolute rulers do not have a history of statehood, at least not in reasonably modern times. For them, the opportunity to have a nation of their own is inherently satisfying; compared to that, democracy is a nice idea that they might want to consider at some future point, once things calm down a bit.

Russia, on the other hand, has been a European superpower even before the Cold War. Ever since Peter the Great, Russia has fancied itself a civilized, modern country, perhaps with a few kinks here and there in the way they do things, but essentially part of what is now the First World. One of the hallmarks of Western civilization is democracy; turning to an obvious autocracy would be an admission of fundamental inferiority. Not only are the Russian people unwilling to be a Third World country, but Putin himself is unwilling to be the ruler of a Third World country. A power grab would render him the equal of Chavez or Mugabe, not Brown or Sarkozy.

The upshot? Putin is retaining and enforcing the framework for regime change. A Russia without an evident master is an unstable Russia, but by establishing a precedent of respect for the Constitution - no matter how flawed the hyper-presidential Constitution may be - Putin is creating the opportunity for a soft landing once he himself is out of politics.

A token effort to keep up European appearances is a token chance to invoke a European process.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

US, France to PM Putin: "You wanna run that by me again?!"

France's Foreign Affairs minister Bernard Kouchner has joined Condolleezza (strike redundant letters by preference) Rice in expressing dismay at the Prime Minister Putin scenario. The AFP blurb mentions how he's actually breaking ranks, with the EU generally saying it's Russia's internal business.

Most relevant point: Germany is currently defining EU foreign policy, but we know for a fact that Britain under Gordon Brown isn't very happy with Putin, and now France is taking a position as well. Italy and Spain haven't been heard from; Poland is strictly anti-Russian. With Germany trying to keep Nord Stream alive (although there's reason to believe Angela Merkel isn't entirely enamoured by Putin), Brussels is going to be an interesting place quite soon.

Tangential point: Never in the history of Russia has a leader stepped down as long as he could help it. Tzars ruled for life, or abdicated, but not of their own free will. Khruschev and Yeltzin retired, but both were elderly and in poor health by that time. Gorbachov was still kicking, but his entire country disappeared from under him. Putin is still relatively young, and full of energy.

However, Russia has rarely been in such good shape at the moment of a significant power struggle. The flow of oil money has resulted in a booming economy, even as Moscow has become the world's most expensive city (bypassing Tokyo). While civil rights aren't in the best of shape and a lot of things are stil significantly broken, street crime doesn't seem quite as rampant, and people are feeling the economic benefits.

The upshot is that Putin probably still couldn't change the Constitution on a whim, that sort of martial law would require a crisis - and Putin's popularity rests on the country's stability and prosperity. At the same time, as long as he keeps up a semblance of legality, the electorate that naturally attributes the resurgence to Putin's rule, will welcome him back as an ascended President when the puppet Zubkov abdicates for health reasons.

As I said in the comments, this is starting to look sickeningly like 1939, down to the tenuous Russo-German alliance. Except it's Putin that has now raised a country from ruin to prosperity in a matter of years.

I'm getting somewhat uncomfortable here.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Fiction is taking a walk

Um, OK. This was beyond even my powers of prediction, mostly because it's so brazen as to be inconceivable.

President Putin is running for parliament.

He's Number One in the incumbent party's election list, with the intention of taking the prime minister's spot once his second presidential term runs out next spring.

I honestly don't know how to comment this. It's a move that I'd expect to see in Central America, or maybe a small Asian country like Nepal or Bangladesh (turns out Bangladesh is a republic, with 150 million people; holy shit). I'd said that they don't even seem to be bothering to lie any more, not even to keep up appearances. I didn't expect this, though.

Inconceivable!

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

It's September 22nd; not only is it the Day of Atonement, but also the day when Soviet forces entered Tallinn back in 1944. The day when shit is expected to hit the fan. Things seem to be quiet in Tallinn - the WWII veterans, along with Russian and Belorussian embassy officials attended a somber flower-laying ceremony at the military cemetery where the Bronze Soldier is now located. Ahead of today, Klenski was officially banned from - well, breathing, really. There's another Nashi protest in Moscow, but that's not news.

In a celebration of today's utter un-newsworthiness, here's a post about something completely apolitical.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, has a famous essay describing to Americans the proper way to make tea. Here's the article, if you haven't read it or don't remember it well. Master Adams makes a few very good points, the central of which is that people who don't think tea is a wonderful drink have simply not had a good cup of tea. However, he makes use of several cornerstones of the British understanding of tea which are utterly misguided and impede the proper enjoyment of the noble drink.

Earl Gray. It's very British - it is, after all, named after an earl - but it is not tea proper. Earl Gray is flavoured, the tea mixed with an aromatic oil. As the oil is natural, the result of some dignitary's experimentation centuries ago, Earl Gray is not treated with the same contempt as modern flavoured tea bags that come in caramel, strawberry, and other utterly chemical varieties. It is still a ruse, though.

Tea bags. The British like them, and have spent a lot of engineering effort (that would be better spent on a new Jaguar) making them behave in a particular manner. So far they have failed. My British friends have attempted to convince me using the finest of these contraptions, a vaguely pyramidal thing that comes in boxes (and isn't flat-packed), but even that deteriorates the taste far too much. Tea bags are convenient and I use them sometimes in the office, but if you're going for really good tea, they simply won't do.

Milk. If you only have enough gumption to challenge one aspect of British tea, challenge milk. While some people actually like the taste of Earl Gray (though I find it vile), and tea bags have the justification of convenience, putting milk in tea is absolutely inexcusable. A lot of milk in tea will produce a specific flavour, that you might find intriguing and worth a try at least, but that is not proper tea. A little milk, the way the Brits do it, completely strips away the flavour of tea, and you end up drinking something murky-brown. Tea with milk is liquefied cardboard.


There is a better way to make tea. If your intention is to sample the full flavour of the drink itself, unleash the sensation of the plant, then you will need what my father makes, that which is singularly responsible for my appreciation of the art: Russian tea.

The beauty of Russian tea is its purity; it carries exactly one unorthodox step, and otherwise sticks to the absolute basics. It thoroughly encompasses the nature of tea as a social drink, a stimulant, and a savoury treat.

Russian tea requires the following tableware:
  • A kettle*
  • A pot
  • Teacups** and teaspoons
  • A sugar basin
  • A small tray.

It also requires the proper kind of tea. There are two aspects here. First, it has to be free leaf. This is non-negotiable. But don't just grab something that doesn't come in bags! You might end up with crushed tea, and that's horrid. Crushed/broken/granulated tea is worse than even tea bags. It's a homogenous mass that has gone through pulverizing equipment, and this means that the tea leaves are cut with stems - if you're lucky - or with random biomass like wood chippings. The stems do actually have the same compounds as the rest of the plant, so crushed tea provides the strength and the color, and it's cheap. But it doesn't provide the taste, or the aroma. Be absolutely sure that what you have is actual free leaf tea. It has to have large, long, dry chunks, and be a bit crunchy.

The second aspect is what kind of tea to use. Black tea, obviously, and not Earl Gray. But even black tea has varieties. The simple answer is it doesn't matter: they all come from the same plant, it's just a matter of processing. Just grab a decent brand - Dilmah is a safe choice for a newbie. Your keywords otherwise are Darjeeling or Orange Pekoe. The latter doesn't have bits of oranges in it, that's just a reference to the color it has in TV commercials. Both these types are actually pure, unflavoured black tea - exactly what you want. Don't use English Breakfast Tea! It's black and unflavoured, but it's a cheap mixture designed to be drunk at the time of day when your sensory receptors haven't recalbrated to the physical universe yet.

Now, next up is the tricky part, that which makes the tea Russian. Whereas normally you would make all of the tea in a pot, then pour into a cup and drink, the right way here is to use the pot for zavarka - the concentrate. You mix your own tea in your own cup: put in a bit of the concentrate and add water by preference. This does not deteriorate the taste of the tea, because it's still drawn out of the leaves by boiling hot water right there and then; but it allows you to vary the strength of it. This is where the social aspect comes in. A pot of zavarka, along with a kettle, lets each person have the tea at the strength they enjoy most.

The ratio of free tea leaves to water for zavarka is the same as the ratio of coffee powder to water for regular drinking coffee. Remember, you're going to be diluting the tea a lot! Plus, I'm talking about dry volume: dried tea leaves have a lot of volume but little weight and density. Use teaspoons. If you use 4 tablespoons of coffee for a half-pint (quarter-liter) mug, put 4 tablespoons of tea in the pot and pour a half-pint of boiling water over them. (Use this ratio - 4 teaspoons of leaves per 250ml of water - as your default.)

An important point, one that Mr. Adams got right: the water has to be boiling when it hits the leaves. It's not just a matter of temperature; boiling is a process whereby bits of water turn to vapour, and this really helps to draw out the tea from the leaves. You can pre-warm the pot to make sure the water still boils for a few seconds once it's in; using a clay/china pot helps immensely. It's also useful to keep the water boiling in the kettle for a little bit before pouring. Go and put your kettle on: can you hear bubbling noises for about 5-10 seconds after it switches off? Excellent, that'll do.

(Note: you have to let the zavarka pot stand for a few minutes. This lets it become strong enough. In the meantime you can refill the kettle to have a lot of hot water for everyone, and call them to the table. The beauty of Russian tea is that you can drink it for a long time: the zavarka keeps the proper taste for a couple of hours, and as long as you have hot water on the table - not necessarily boiling - it still tastes good.)

Now you can go ahead and drink the tea. Experiment with the ratio of zavarka to water; start with 50/50 and adjust. (50/50 is actually a strong mixture, but you're doing this to fully feel the taste.)

Obviously you can't add milk to Russian tea, but you can add lemon. The canonical way is to cut a circular slice (use a half-circle if a full one doesn't fit in your cup, but really half-circles are for tequila), put it in the cup, and pour tea over it. Just like Mr. Adams with his milk - of course you can't scald lemon, but the pouring of strong, hot zavarka will draw our the juices better. Once you've put in the zavarka and water, feel free to poke the lemon with your spoon, press it against the bottom of the cup, crushing the individual cells. This is - again like Mr. Adams - socially unacceptable, but I learned about good tea from my parents when I was little, and I still like doing it. You can also take the butt end of a lemon and squeeze it over the cup. It doesn't have an adverse effect on the tea. In fact, when I get the flu, one of the best medicines I know is a nice, hot mug of tea with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it.

Actual lemons are best, of course, but I've had acceptable results from cooking-spec lemon juice. Not the sweetened drinkable stuff, and not the concentrate used for baking - just organic squeezed juice. I use it for convenience, along with my tea-making set: a kettle, and a glass pot that has a leaf-holder in the middle. The pot sits on a hotplate that keeps it from cooling down, and can be used to pre-heat it. That makes up slightly for it not being china.



If you just use a regular clay pot, you'll probably get a few loose leaves in your cup. There are devices to avoid this - little net things that clip onto the spout - but don't bother: it's part of the experience. Otherwise, add a bit of sugar if you want it, and you're ready to drink!

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* The more culturally curious of readers may be vaguely aware of the samovar, a massive copper keg with a place to start a small fire, and a spout at the bottom. There were electric samovars in the Soviet days, even. They're impressive-looking, but have very little to do with the taste of tea, so don't worry about it.

** Another classic Russian thing is to pour your tea into the saucer, then sip it from that. It's a way to cool down the tea quickly, since there's a lot of surface area to the water. Please don't try and do this. It's only for professionals, and rudimentary anyway. As far as I can tell, it's an artefact from the samovar, where water could actually end up superheated. For the full experience, you should still use fairly small clay cups with saucers. Or, to be exceedingly Russian, use a glass mug in a silver holder. You can find them in most Russian souvenier shops, just between the five-in-one dolls and the figurines of bears swigging vodka.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Steinbock House to Nord Stream: Stick That In Your Pipe and Smoke It

(UPD: Apologies for the bleeding obvious pun.)

So, the government has denied permission to Nord Stream AG to conduct exploration of the Baltic seabed, which was a prerequisite for laying down the Russian-German gas pipe. The official excuse is that such work would uncover information about the natural resources in Estonian economic and territorial waters, and the feasibility of their usage. As the government doesn't want that information public, the exploration is not allowed.

This was somewhat predictable. Ahead of today's decision, Reform was the only party saying it might be a good idea to let them dig - it seems that the whips are finally waking up to the idea that Ansip's bid to politicize the party's image is not in its best interests, long-term. IRL was decidedly against the permission, so were the Greens (obviously), and the Social Democrats seemed to have no obvious preference.

It's still a bit too early to tell what this decision means for the pipe - I'll report once something interesting comes up - but there's a significant point here for internal politics. Ever since the April riots, IRL has been on the sideline, mostly letting Ansip's gang take the heat (with the exception of Defense Minister Aaviksoo, whose domain was directly responsible for the monument). But this vote was the first time in recent memory when Estonia had an opportunity to actually poke the Kremlin in a way that would properly hurt - and neither Berlin nor Brussels could do anything about it.
Yesterday, Postimees published excerpts from reports by Finnish government agencies, saying that the pipework would disturb the silt that had absorbed lots of highly toxic stuff over the years (the Baltic is really an extremely dirty sea), and the construction is likely to result in massive environmental damage. This alone was an unassailable excuse for Estonia to deny permission, but even that was not necessary.
And the loudest voice was that of Mart Laar, who heads the IRL party, but has no position in the government. He's now seen as the driving force behind this jab at Putin, an active bit of foreign policy, and so far, a resounding success.

I keep saying he's in line for the PM job, and this only makes it that much more likely.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ready... Set...

So with the presidential elections looming, Putin needs [...] an official successor, a crown prince loyal to Putin himself. Inevitably this has to be someone ambitious, tough, but with no capability to succeed politically on his own merit. The man has to be lifted into the presidency by sheer power of Putin's endorsement.

Dare I say it... I was right?

Just the other day, Putin has fired one non-entity PM and installed another one. Master Lucas notes that this Zubkov fellow, while an old comrade of Putin's, does not seem to be part of the Petersburg spy clique. As Russian bloggers have pointed out, the man is 65 years old, and far less energetic than the other two probables, Ivanov (former Defense Minister who handled scandals of violence in Russia's conscript army with all the elegance and subtlety of Rick Santorum on antidepressants) and Medvedev.

One thing I was not aware of when I wrote the original article was that the Russian constitution does not limit a presidency to two terms in all - just two consecutive terms. It is entirely legal for Putin to run, and win, in 2012. In this case the candidacy of mr. Zubkov, an individual seemingly without serious political ambition, makes perfect sense; and so do suggestions that if he does win the elections, he will promptly abdicate under a good pretense so Putin can grab the seat again.

An interesting development is the old PM's stated reason for resigning. Fradkov said he wanted to give the president the freedom of staff decisions ahead of impending political events, and Putin accepted the resignation, agreeing that it is important for him to review the structure of power ahead of the elections. Notice anything odd?

Strip away the politic-speak that Fradkov, a career diplomat, cannot avoid if he wanted to, and you end up with something not often seen in politics, especially Russian politics: honesty. With no regard to appearances of democracy, Fradkov is saying he's going away so Putin can easily rearrange things in such a way as to make it easiest for him to get the result he needs from the parliamentary and presidential elections, and Putin thanks him for being so considerate as to not inconvenience the Prez.

They're not even trying any more.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back To School

Russia Today is a 24-hour news channel, the English-language arm of Kremlin wire service RIA Novosti. The channel's website boasts:
"Millions of viewers switch on to Russia Today to learn what other media are not likely to have".
Feel free to giggle.

The reason I'm mentioning it is this video, a segment about Estonia's school reform. According to the anchor, "Russian-speaking children in Estonia are in for big changes when the new school year starts next month. Fresh laws mean all lessons have to be taught in Estonian, the country's only official language."

This is, quite simply, not true. I've talked about this before: the current plan is to gradually introduce more and more classes taught in Estonian, up to 60% of the entire curriculum over the next few years. I've also talked about why it's a stupid idea and what would be the right way of doing it. But that's not the point today.

The point today is yet another tired effort at pointing out the Russian media's blatant lies about Estonia, and specifically about the "abuse" of Russian-speakers here. The partial transcript conveniently omits the part of the segment that talks about a gradual fade-out of Russian in schools, and the local citizen and mother of a small girl* saying she sent her daughter to an all-Estonian school because she, herself, was not confident in the quality of education that would be available in Russian schools in the future. Despite being a school history teacher herself. (Saw a statistic the other day, apparently some 17% of Russian-speaking kids are going to Estonian-speaking schools this year.)

Really, I'm only posting this because it was mentioned in my LiveJournal feed. Official Russian media lying through the teeth is not news. Nor is it surprising to see them make such an obvious blunder.

But it does still raise a chuckle.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Chronicle

Fall has arrived. Weeks of stuffy heat have ended, and Tartu is now in normal Estonian weather: +20C and overcast. To be honest, I'm relieved. It's nice to have a bit of warmth, but if you're born and raised around here, you can only stand so much of it. Somehow, the constant drizzle is comforting.

News of the day is an interview given by the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church. The elderly cleric has just returned from a trip to one of the remote regions of Russia settled by Finno-Ugric peoples, and in addition to talking about that, took a stab at the bullshit session that takes place today - a congress of Russian "compatriot" organizations. Apparently he was invited to attend, but the exact time of the congress is the same as the mass for an important chuch holiday. Nobody bothered to check. More importantly, the Metropolitan Cornelius mentioned that local Russians really ought to learn the Estonian language and make more of an effort to learn Estonian history and culture; that assimilation is not really a deadly sin. Masters Klenski and Zarenkov proceeded to accuse ETV, the public broadcasting authority and state TV channel, of twisting the Metropolitan's words. Which is a difficult charge to make stick when the entire interview is available online, as is the transcript. Then again Zarenkov might just get kicked out of the compatriots' congress. I'm not sure yet how much I want to dig into that whole mess.

(While the EOC submits to the Moscow Patriarch, and as such is mostly a Russian organization, there is a measurable number of Orthodox among Estonians. To the extent that you'd find religious, church-going Estonians, anyway.)

The other local news is that both the Chancellor of Justice and the State Controller (two very senior civil servants conducting oversight of government actions) are likely to be replaced. Postimees suggests that Taavi Veskimägi of IRL is liked for the Controller's position, and that Reform wouldn't mind making Rein Lang the Chancellor. Lang may be the party's most senior lawyer, but he's a bit too - let's say, colorful - for Estonian politics. The Chancellor of Justice is supposed to be a figure of authority. So I'm not sure that's going to work out very well.

Carry on...

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How It's Our Fault

Fancy a bit of spin fun?

Lost among the crap in Russia the last week or so was the Litvinenko spinoff story involving Pablo Miller, an MI-6 agent and apparently a bit of an expert on Russia. The man had been implicated in a couple of arrests in the Russian cloak & dagger circles, including a certain Valeri Ojamäe, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the FSB, who was later sentenced to seven years for treason. This particular recruitment took place in the late 90s in Tallinn, where Miller was working under diplomatic cover at the British embassy. According to FSB's statement, Miller was aided in his endavours by Kapo.

Now, what you have to understand is that Kaitsepolitsei is strictly an interior agency. Foreign intelligence is handled by the very quaintly named Teabetalitus, while Kapo is indeed responsible for keeping other countries' spies in Estonia in check.

Personally, I find the fact that the MI-6 station chief would enlist the help of the local counterintelligence for a job, actually quite flattering. Do you?

Meanwhile, the Russian government's newspaper of record - the one that publishes all new laws when they come into force - had an op-ed on the likely leads in the train bomb event. At the end of the article they mentioned that nearby Estonia was at the same time playing host to the Erna Raid, a war game recreating a WWII-time marine landing by assorted German forces. The Russian newspaper suggested that perhaps one of the international teams taking part in the raid got a bit carried away, crossed the border, and engaged in a bit of light sabotage to pass the time.

Cute.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

August Redux

You remember how I talked about nationalists?

Well, shit has just hit the fan.

Yesterday a video was posted on several Russian blogs and ultra-nationalist websites, showing the murders of two men - ostensibly one from Tajikistan and one from Dagestan*. One was shot in the back of the head, the other's head was cut off with a knife, all this with the Nazi German flag in the background.

A bit of looking around on LiveJournal's Russian segment reveals the usual range of opinions: from "good going" to "the FSB made the video to discredit the nationalist movement". Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular sentiment is "bad move". People who talk about white power and Russian supremacy online, usually anonymously, are actually scared to be associated with something so gruesome.

But not all of them.

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* Tajikistan is in Central Asia and is a former Soviet republic, now independent. Tajiks have a big presense in Moscow as construction workers. Dagestan is in the North Caucasus, and part of the Russian Federation.

** Full disclosure: I have not watched the video, but most of the reports say it does appear genuine. Whether it is or not is of marginal significance: a double murder is of course tragic, but the video serves as a lithmus test for the attitudes of various groups in Russia.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Well, That Was Predictable...

When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, they were being very clever: on this holy day, both soldiers and the army brass would've been at home with their families, not ready to fight back. (As it was, the national slowdown made the troop recall a lot more effective, since the HQ knew where to look for the people, and the empty roads meant that the reserves did not have to fight traffic on their way to the rally points.)

August is usually a slow news month: most folks are on vacation, and nobody can be particularly bothered to do anything. But not in Russia, where traditionally August means a tragedy of some sort. Whether a terrorist attack (like the explosions of residential buildings and subway crossings), a random disaster (like the fire on the Ostankino TV transmission tower or the sinking of the Kursk submarine) or an economic crash (like the government default of '98), people have learned to dread August in Russia. At the start of it, one cannot help but guess at what's going to happen this time.

Well, it happened last night: a terrorist IED caused the crash of a Moscow - St. Petersburg express train. The bomb, about 2 kilos of TNT in force, was planted just short of a railway bridge and exploded under the second carriage. The train was doing 180km/h at the time, and several of the cars were derailed. Fortunately, none of the 230 passengers and 20 crew have been killed; around 60 people have been injured, according to current reports. The intention was apparently to destroy the bridge and dump the train in the river, but this didn't happen.

All in all, a good-ish result. Nobody's dead, no permanent harm to infrastructure. Let's just hope this is the one thing to go wrong in Russia in August this year.

EDIT: They do say that history repeats itself thrice: once as a tragedy, again as a farce, and a third time for the benefit of the twits who didn't get it first two times around. It now appears that the helicopter of the chief investigator rushing to the crash site has landed on the satellite dish of state TV channel RTR. About half a million dollars' worth of equipment written off. Nobody's dead or injured, again, but it does make the tragedy look like something of a Monty Python sketch.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

There's life in the old horse yet

So might as well keep beating it.

Giustino presents talking points for arguing with Russian nationalists. By coincidence, I have spent all morning reading more LiveJournal stuff on Estonia and Russia, and I have a couple points to make.

1) As pointed out in the comments, your purpose is not to convince your opponents, because they are not rational and will not be swayed by reason or logic. Your target audience instead are the lurkers, the people who have not formed an opinion or are not locked into any side yet.

The upshot of this is that changing the topic does not accomplish your goal. If you show your opponent less knowledgeable than you are, or incapable of arguing his point in a chosen context, that certainly improves your own reputation within the forum, gives you a higher standing (the social dynamic of flame forums is a very exciting topic that I may touch upon later). It does not, however, convince the lurkers. They are there, and lurking, because they don't have sufficient information on the topic; they are more likely to identify with the loud simpletons who bring forth uncomplicated, if subtly false, points.

What you need to do is to debunk the opponents' arguments, specifically the ones they put to you, methodically, consistently and convincingly. Use your knowledge and your sources to make the loud simpleton appear a complete moron who doesn't know what the fuck he is talking about. If you perfect this technique, you will eventually reach a level of discourse skill where you can make your opponent's words to discredit him. The true zen master will not even need to respond for the audience to start seeing the weak and implausible points in the opponent's argument; the very act of attack on the zen master is what defeats the attacker.

(I will not claim to have reached enlightenment, however on at least one prominent political forum - a heavily moderated one, where the discourse does not deteriorate into feces-slinging - I had been used as a measure of convincingness. I.e. "your argument is so stupid, it convinces me to take the opposite stance more than ten Flasher T-s could.")

2) It is not fair to call our opponents nationalists. Whether they are Nashi comissars, or flamers of conviction, nationalists they are not. For the purpose of this argument, Russia is not a nation, it is a state. The Kremlin-jugend we are fighting in cyberspace is not representing the Russian nation, it is representing the Russian state and its government, which are for most intents and purposes a single entity.

Russian nationalists do exist, and they are something else entirely. Ostensibly they are our allies, because they have come out firmly on Estonia's side during the conflict. However, after having the opportunity to observe them more closely, I do wonder if they're the sort of allies we really want. Being juxtaposed to Russian cronies, Russian nationalists are professional rebels, continuing the fine tradition of Soviet dissidents: they will take any position that is against the Kremlin. They will stand for Estonia, or for Georgia, or for Juschenko, or for neonazis, or for gay rights - not necessarily all at once, for they are far from a cohesive organization, but as a group they have enough in common to focus on a single enemy. Their fight is difficult, long, and quite possibly hopeless.

However, their fight is not our fight, and it would be extremely foolish for us to get dragged into it.

The pro-Estonian contingent does have an endgame, a specific goal that it is trying to achieve: getting Russia to lay off. If Putin announced tomorrow that the Bronze Soldier is Estonia's private matter, that Russian-speakers in other countries are welcome in Russia if they choose to leave but otherwise are on their own, that Russian companies are encouraged to do business with Estonia; that Russia couldn't give a flying fuck about Estonia in general - we will be satisfied and grateful. These are the terms of armistice which we will accept. If Putin, or his heirs, then continue to tighten the screws on their own population and fuck with various former Soviet states, sell nuclear fuel to Iran, send submarines to place flags on the ocean floor; then we shall certainly be concerned, but we shall stand on the sidelines and shrug.

The ultimate fate of Russia is not our problem.

Russian nationalists are also not our problem, because in large part they are somewhat unpalatable characters. Concentrating on the Russian nation as juxtaposed to the Russian state has left them very hardcore; their principal objection is the massive number of immigrants, guest workers and traders from the North Caucausus, as well as the corrupt police force and civil service. Their ideology is based on the understanding that the Russian people are fundamentally competent, cultured and Good*. It is simply the foreigners, and the corrupt government, that are keeping great Russia down. The moderate element here might advocate a retreat into traditional Russian territories stretching to the Volga river**, while the more extreme contingent here push for absolute Russian dominance on all territories comprising the multinational Russian Federation; whether or not any of them have a point, this shit is far too heavy for us, as Estonians and Europeans, to get into. And at the end of the day it's none of our business.

Small nations cannot afford ideals.

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* Someone asked if presuming that Russians are by default incompetent and incapable of building a democracy is in fact a fascist assumption. It's a very good point, and I'll admit that the presumption itself is Evil, but I just can't escape the thought that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

** My personal opinion is that this might be the solution - Russia giving up territories which are not authentically Russian, territories which the Empire and then the Soviet Union conquered out of greed and were never able to satisfactorily control. A Russia that stretches from Novgorod to the Volga would be far more manageable and could eliminate the irritating factors that bring out the asshole in a Russian; and the worst case scenario then is that the Russians will only be hurting themselves. This leaves out Siberia of course, but the Russian bits of it - the ones that were previously populated by bears - are nationalist in their own way. The people who actually manage the natural resources that make Russia rich have a different attitude from the Moscow beltway wanks, and as they would gladly make Siberia an independent state given the chance, they would probably do well, and even build the model Russian community - sort of the Switzerland to Great Russia's Germany. Then all they have to do is fight off China.

Of course, none of this is actually in any way realistic.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Captor's Other Victim

Giustino's other good question is why Russia's attitude to Finland is so different from its attitude to Estonia.

An explanation can be made if we presume, as I've written before, that the Russian authorities don't have anything personal against Estonia, but rather just need a target for discontent among the population. Be it Estonia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, or Burkina Faso.

It's true that the argument of Estonia's successful democracy being a threatening contrast to Russia's totalitarianism doesn't hold water: Russia is far from caring what anyone else thinks of it. Russians will enjoy it if their country is feared, but don't especially need for their country to be liked.

Now, let's remember that when Georgia was under fire, it was far, far worse than the height of anti-Estonian sentiment. Deportation of Georgian citizens, registration of people with Georgian last names, a threat of interrment... All Georgia did was elect a new president who was publically Western-minded* and unfriendly to Moscow. The same thing happened in Ukraine. I'm not really sure what caused the ban on Moldovan wines - I'm just going to take my own advice there and presume it was the Russian Surgeon General's stupidity rather than anyone's malice.

But Estonia didn't go through such a major shift - it was clearly Westbound from the beginning. While it was never particularly friendly with Russia, most of the time it wasn't an important enemy. So the ire of Russians was not caused by a sense of betrayal (not that this isn't there, in a perverse form, but that's a topic for another article).

So what is the difference between Estonia and Finland?

The answer is: exit points. On an emotional level, Estonia is felt to have been lost recently, in '91; most of the population of Russia today remembers a time when Estonia was their own territory. On the other hand, very few people alive now remember Finland as a Russian province; while Russians may know factually that Finland was a province of the Empire, it has been a Western country for the entirety of their conscious existence.

And here's the interesting thing. Both Finland and Estonia gained their independence and then made good, grew their economy and living standards, have become distinctly better than Russia on an everyday, obvious level. The difference is that Finland escaped from the Tzar, whereas Estonia escaped from the Secretary General.

Thanks to Putin's bridge to Soviet propaganda, which was entrenched in the consciousness of regular Ivans, a massive chunk of the Russian population now enjoys a distinctly Soviet identity; they take the Soviet Union as their own. Meanwhile that same propaganda demonized Tzarist Russia, and nostalgia for the time of French-influenced nobility and triumphs against Napoleon is far, far weaker - especially among the working class, which can't really identify with the Hussars or Petersburg courtiers.

By escaping from the rule of a foreign power - foreign both geographically and ideologically - and then becoming (almost literally) a runaway success, the former province juxtaposes itself to the former metropoly.

Finland's success is an affront to a suppressed aspect of Russian identity. Estonia's success is an affrong to the dominant aspect.


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* In response to criticism in the last post's comments - here I'm not referring to "the West" as a single political entity, but as a single concept of values, based on free market economy, representative government and the primacy of the citizen's interests over those of the state. Therefore this refers mostly to continental Europe, although in a broader sense involves Japan and Australia, who are only the West to Californians and Argentinians respectively.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

G#

Giustino is wondering why Russia is in the G8 while Brazil isn't. To answer both him and my president, the reason why Russia is tolerated in the G8, and Brazil hasn't been invited, is because G8 membership is important to Russia, but irrelevant to pretty much everyone else.

G8 membership was Yeltzin's great public achievement. In the early 90s, G7 countries were the ones most intimately involved with introducing free market values this side of the Iron Curtain. Therefore G7 meetings were always on the news, the decisions made there always seemed pertinent; it was easy to believe that G7 was the club that mattered, the table from which the world was run. Joining the club was a boon for Russia's collective self-esteem, as it was now accepted as an equal to the US, UK, France, Germany... In Yeltzin's time, Russia did have industry - it was outdated, inefficient and crumbling, but it was there. And for all the corruption, violence and nepotism of the time, Yeltzin's Russia was - when it counted - democratic. In Yeltzin's Russia, professional clowns like Zhirinovski or the communist Shandybin could rise to political prominence; a stand-up comedian with a rustic, country farmer public image rode his fame to a governorship; and like so many great authoritarian leaders, Putin himself was elected legitimately*. To the G7, Yeltzin's Russia was a misguided, but promising partner, a project that they felt confident they could manage**. Letting Russia into an organization of large industrial democracies was not a big deal for the others, but it was a massive plus for Yeltzin and his nation.

Today, we live in a different time. The West's biggest issue is no longer incorporating Europe's lost half into an industrial democratic community. That job is by and large done. Most of Eastern Europe is either in the EU or well on its way there. The Balkans appear to have been sorted. Ukraine may still see scuffles between the revolutionary president and other major figures, but overall it has been realigned westwards. Belarus is irrelevant. Transdniester will eventually be sorted out by Moldova, which is to Romania as Estonia is to Finland. Chances are that if Georgia gets an EU invite on the condition that it drops Abhasia, that issue can be solved.

For the Golden Billion, both the major issues and the major weapons are now economic. Noblesse oblige has been re-targeted to emerging markets. Wars have outlived their usefulness; I won't claim that we've seen the last truly massive war, but at this point in time, there is no viable hostile force to challenge the West's domination. The issue is the availability of energy and access to markets.

And Russia aside, the Grand Number does not have a cohesive position in this effort. The EU's previous and early iterations were about establishing a common market; Europe as any sort of cohesive political force has only been around since the Iraq war, when the continent's big players either said no thanks, or made it very clear that they were only sending in a token mercenary force as a personal favor to Washington. If the G7 does not have a common approach to the Middle East, the organization itself does not hold any special significance. It's not really useless, as it's still a good excuse for world leaders to get together and talk about things, but the G8 is a far less important event than the World Economic Forum, let's say.

The reason why Brazil, or indeed China, have not been accepted into the G#, is because they haven't asked. They have nothing to gain from it except the ire of anti-globalist protesters. In terms of international politics, Brazil is naturally poised to assume the same sort of leading position for the non-Arabic Third World as Poland has for New Europe, and G8 membership would only hurt that, without providing any sort of real prestige.

The reason why Russia has not been kicked out of the G8, despite being increasingly totalitarian, is because nobody particularly gives a damn if it's there. Russia enjoys its G8 membership a lot more than the G7 minds it. Europe's attitude to Russian antics is the one Estonia should've taken up in a perfect world: that of confident bemusement. As I've written before, Russia needs Europe a lot more than Europe needs Russia; but that doesn't mean Europe is going to go around hitting the Kremlin in its collective face with a wet trout. While Estonia has the habit of calling Russia's bluff and allowing it to make a fool of itself, Europe simply ignores the pointless dick-waving and humors Putin in irrelevant cases.

Fair enough.

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* Russia's problem isn't that Putin crushes all viable competitors, it's that there are no viable competitors to consider. The tragedy is that Putin is actually the archetypal Russian leader; history tells us that the country functions under totalitarian rule and falls apart under democratic idealists.

** Remember, Putin came out of nowhere. In hindsight we know that he was involved in St. Petersburg mayoral politics, but shortly after Yeltzin's resignation there was a memorable moment at an international conference where some Western journalist asked, "But who exactly is Mr. Putin?". So the G7 actually had every reason to expect Russia to continue on a democratic path.

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Irony is delicious


A photo by Oleg Kabatov, published in the Russian edition of Esquire, of an OMON (SWAT equivalent) officer in full riot gear - including an SS logo painted on the helmet in white-out.

Preserved for posterity and easy reference whenever someone starts bitching about the swastika earring thing in Estonia way back.

It is incredible, really, how Russian propaganda is consistently undermined by Russians themselves.

Here's another one by Oleg Klimov.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

David Triumphant

Estonian foreign policy is inevitably a David & Goliath affair. From our position in the EU we do work with small countries that - well, want to be us, basically. But most of the really important things our diplomats do are relations with our allies, usually the US and the big EU countries, and the enemy-apparent, Russia.

Giustino mentions an idea which I think should be embraced - an Estonian version of the British Council or Goethe Institute or such; tasked not so much with promoting language study or cultural exports, but with generating public goodwill towards our country. There is already a tradition of Estonian Houses as community centres. If Hemingway was right, and indeed in every port in the world you will find an Estonian, the resource is ready to be called into public service.

Estonia would very much like to be like Switzerland - just friendly enough with its neighbors to not be involved in any of their conflicts, otherwise left alone; "we'll take your money, but please don't move here". Of course objectively this is impossible - Estonia will always and inevitably be aligned with some major force, and all it gets to do is choose the one it fancies more. Exporting counterpropaganda and actively developing goodwill around the world is an important task.

However, and in conjunction with the Russia crisis, I think people tend to underestimate the Estonian government's ability to manipulate others. The way to make Europe care about Estonia's security is to make Europe worry about Russia's aggression. Take the border treaty debacle: with the benefit of hindsight, we might come to the conclusion that it was a great diplomatic victory for Estonia, provoking Russia into a hysterical, unreasonable response. And it's the same with the Bronze Soldier mess: if we give in to the conspiracy theory, logical analysis suggests that Estonia pulled off a major coup, forcing Russia into a move necessitated by internal issues, which in turn left the EU with no choice but to call the Kremlin on it.

Estonian politics are small country politics; small countries cannot afford ideals. They have goals and purposes, and their primary purpose is preserving the nation. Ideals are something you sacrifice a lot of human lives to defend. In Estonian foreign policy, the ultimate goal of ensuring the security and prosperity of the country must be pursued by the sneakiest of means. The fact that Estonia is not a significant military power or economic contributor to the EU budget does not mean that Estonia's diplomats and policy chiefs are not successful. They just go about things in a slightly different way.

Russia is in the habit of making threats from a position of weakness; we must convince the EU and NATO that Russia must never be allowed to come into a position of strength.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Leaders Past and Future, Part I

May 7th wasn't just my birthday, it was significant for something else: marking the third anniversary of Putin's inauguration for his final term. This time next year, Russia is going to be ruled by someone else.

If we are to predict events, we must understand the mechanics and motivation behind them - this is what I've been trying to do with the political side of AnTyx. To understand the current political crisis between Russia and Estonia, you need to understand that it was severely escalated by Russian internal propaganda, which also affects a large part of the disenfranchised Russian-speakers in Estonia, who only watch Russian TV and read Russian newspapers. The myth of Estonia as a revisionist Nazi state was created by Team Putin for domestic consumption, just like earlier crises with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus... The Kremlin has been using foreign policy as a tool of home politics.

The reason why this is happening is because Putin is preparing his exit strategy. On New Year's Eve 1999, Boris Yeltzin announced his resignation, naming Putin as his official successor. Until gaining Yeltzin's favour, Putin was a political non-entity, whose most outstanding achievement was the dashing rescue of his boss and mentor, former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoli Sobchak. When Sobchak was hounded by federal prosecutors for corruption charges (in Yeltzin's Russia, a convenient standby that never really needed to be fabricated), his health was giving out, and Putin risked his own career by helping Sobchak leave the country. This impressed Yeltzin, who may have been an authoritarian drunk, but undeniably had a sense of nobility and a conceptual appreciation of loyalty.

Yeltzin also wasn't a fool. Putin as a political figure was created by Yeltzin's team, including Boris Berezovski, now residing in England - there's a warrant out for his arrest in Russia. Yeltzin's early resignation, and the virtually guaranteed success of Putin in the 2000 elections, was part of a deal that guaranteed security for Yeltzin himself and his core advisors, who at the time were colloquially known as the Family. Berezovski's feud with Putin is based on the fact that in this specific case, Putin did not honor the agreement. Berezovski and later Khodorkovski were made into an example, so that Russia's other oligarchs - most famously Roman Abramovich - would fall in line and not challenge the central government.

The upshot is that among people of power in Russia, there is a significant amount of resentment towards Putin. He does manage to keep a very high rate of popular approval, on the back of ensuring stability in post-Yeltzin Russia at the cost of some of the more ethereal civil liberties (like freedom of speech, or local elections for the heads of federal republics). But Russia has gone too far down the democratic path for Putin to be able to pull of a coup and remain in power past the end of his second term. This isn't Belarus.

So with the presidential elections looming, Putin needs an exit plan. You don't get to be leader of Russia without accumulating enemies; Putin's personal security depends on the state remaining stable, with a strong central government that is willing and able to protect him. This requires an official successor, a crown prince loyal to Putin himself. Inevitably this has to be someone ambitious, tough, but with no capability to succeed politically on his own merit. The man has to be lifted into the presidency by sheer power of Putin's endorsement.

And this requires utter, unquestioning support for Putin in the eyes of the people.

Hence the domestic propaganda, the preposterously clumsy handling of the Bronze Soldier debacle from a diplomatic perspective. Russia's involvement and escalation has done nothing to improve the position of Russian-speakers in Estonia, as it has turned a local minority issue into a battle against an external enemy. But it plays on Russian megalomania, inherited from WWII; any suggestion that the Soviet Union may not have been entirely in the right every step of the way generates a pavlovian response. The ghost of Russia's newfound greatness as an energy bully (overrated because Europe can get its fuel elsewhere, albeit at a higher price; Russia needs the money more than Gazprom clients need the gas) along with the ghost of enemies at the gates, will ensure that the majority of the electorate will do exactly as Putin says.

The upshot is that a few months from now, Estonia will have outlived its usefulness as a scary place where blond youths clad in SS uniforms walk the streets and poke old Russian veterans with cattle prods.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Estonica: Dead Men Travelling

In a feat of truly staggering timing, just as the newly formed Estonian government* was tooling up for the removal of the Bronze Soldier memorial ahead of the demonstrations planned for May 9th (the anniversary of Germany's capitulation in WWII), a grave of WWII soldiers was dug up in a Moscow satellite town. The area in question is apparently home to a cluster of megamalls, thanks to easy access via the metropolitan circle road. Most of the unoccupied real estate was apparently the property of a factory making space rocket components, so when the time came for a new shopping center, it was the memorial and six adjacent graves that had to go.

The gloating of the Estonian authorities has been relatively restrained, though there has been some talk of suspicions of foul play - that the whole Khimki debacle was orchestrated by agents in Estonian pay. (Does anyone recall what Estonia's foreign intelligence service is called? It was something ironically innocuous.) Of course, in this case we are obligated to invoke Occam's razor, more specifically the Heinlein corollary whereby one should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity; making something like this happen with such impeccable synchronicity would be a victory for the Estonian intelligence community to make Mossad weep with envy.

Of course, anyone watching Russian events even moderately closely will have long gained the habit of presuming stupidity.

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*I haven't been covering the government formation business, mostly because I didn't particularly care; but by far the funniest outcome is that our new Defense Minister, the person directly responsible for war memorials and military graves, is Jaak Aaviksoo - until recently the head of Tartu University (and a man with a gift of putting an audience to sleep that is outstanding even by the measure of Estonian politicians). This is specifically entertaining in light of the fact that the post - DM, not rector - has previously been held by Sven Mikser, a guy that was less than 30 years old at the time, and had been excused from Estonia's compulsory army service. He used to be a lecturer at Tartu University's English department, where I got my BA; I've heard stories of him doing improper things with a jack-o-lantern on Halloween, in the dark halls of the former departmental offices.

Still, we're a right military superpower compared to Iceland's 30-strong civil defense team...

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Just Say Nyet



Sorry, but this is hilarious.

Via

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Estonica: Sour Cream

Earlier today, Russia's deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov (scandalous former defense minister and apparently not related to Sergei Ivanov of the Estonian Reform Party) called for a boycott of Estonian goods. He remarked that a lot of Estonian processed dairy products are consumed in northwestern Russia, and suggested that the common folk stop buying the fascist yoghurt as a personal political statement.

This is not a new tactic in any way. Russia is currently blessed with a character by the name of Onischenko, who heads the agency responsible for quality control of food - the rough equivalent of what would be the FDA in America. The character has previously banned Georgian mineral water and wine; Kremlin's intention was supposedly to cripple the Western-minded Caucasus republic's export-oriented economy. That plan failed miserably - the supply was easily taken up by other markets, Estonia among them. This latest statement, from the man that was widely speculated to be Putin's successor until he grossly mishandled a scandal concerning the terrible treatment of Russian army conscripts by denying anything untoward was taking place, has no degree of plausibility as far as damaging the Estonian economy is concerned: thanks to double tariffs, Russia has not been a significant trade partner for Estonia for years. And the popularity of the deputy PM is such that Russian blogs are suggesting that people buy up every Estonian-made item they can find and send it to Ivanov. To quote one blog comment: "Estonian sour cream is awesome. And Ivanov is a fucktard."

The most ridiculous thing about this public statement is that by far the most widespread Estonian item, an item that millions of Russians have the opportunity to use on a daily basis, is a safety belt. The restraint systems in Ladas are manufactured at Estonia's Norma factory.

Of course, these things are being boycotted anyway.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Estonica: Interestinger

A couple of days ago, I asked what one would need 20 kilos of explosives to blow up in Estonia. Word on the street was the substance found by the cops was TNT. The Lasnamae bomber story from a few years back tells us that 200 grams of TNT is enough to bring down half of an apartment block.

Police are looking for two men in connection with the explosives raid. One is Aleksei Golubtsov, who was released from prison in the fall of last year after being convicted of murdering a police officer in 1994. The other is Vladimir Muraviov, who is connected to the Night Watch - the local pro-Russian group heavily involved in the Bronze Soldier mess. Both men have Russian citizenship.

I won't be so sensationalist as to claim that Night Watch was planning to blow up the Pronkssõdur, but this is disturbing. Explosives, cop-killers... that isn't supposed to be an issue in Estonia in 2007.

What we do know is that the North-Estonian police staged an unprecedented raid - cutting off traffic to a busy downtown street during Monday rush hour - in a country where the guy running the country doesn't merit so much as a squad car escort, and the national security forces had a press-conference last year to tell everyone how excited they were to finally get an armored limousine that can be used for foreign dignitaries; previously, if someone important didn't bring their own tank, we had to ask the Finns if we could borrow one.

What this does remind me of, is something that happened a few years ago - a wave of murders across Estonia by two cadets from a St. Petersburg military college. One of them was killed, the other wounded in a gunfight by a daring Polish border guard and brought to justice. The conspiracy theorists back then said that this was a sort of field training gone wrong, and that the cadets were being trained as covert agents by the Russian secret service; and that it may very well have been a test of the effectiveness of Estonian law enforcement.

Discovering 20 kilograms of TNT a week after the general elections that saw the major party playing to Russian interests driven out into opposition, a prime-minister openly hostile to the Russian interests getting an enormous vote of confidence, and a nationalist party looking like the obvious choice for a coalition partner - with its leader as likely the next foreign minister - makes one see a pattern of sorts. Russia's control apparatus is getting twitchy, faced with the end of Putin's second term next year. The EU has failed to bite on Russia's provocative behavior in regards to the Baltics, Poland, Moldova (a neighbor of new EU member Romania), the expressly pro-Western Georgia... And let's not forget the big new pipeline that is to be laid along the Baltic seabed, to pump natural gas from Russia into Central Europe, bypassing Ukraine and increasingly uncontrollable Belarus, seat of what has been described as Europe's last dictator - who, much like Tito to the Soviet Union, is refusing to fetch Putin's slippers any more.

I'm a skeptical person, and I tend to believe the simpler explanation first, but when you ask yourself not only what somebody would be doing with twenty kilos of trinitrotoluene in Estonia, but where that somebody would get it - even I start looking east with suspicion.

Interestinger and interestinger.

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