Any good to come out of this?


November 27, 2015 by AK

The Russian government seems to be overreacting to the Su24 crisis, threatening wide-scale economic sanctions against Turkey that are certain to hurt Russian consumers. (Bombing Voronezh in response, again.) Is this Putin taking personal offense – an ego contest between the two authoritarians, Putin and Erdogan?

Putin has complained that Ankara did not contact him first thing after shooting down the Russian plane, running for cover to its NATO partners instead. Erdogan replied that he tried calling Putin but could not contact him, an amusingly Putinesque response.

At the other end of the hypothesis range, the economic sanctions drawn up by the Russian cabinet in just two days may have been prepared well in advance, a strategic move waiting to be made when a suitable pretext arrives.

If the latter, another round of “import substitution,” that is more expensive food and clothes for Russian consumers, is in the offing. The way Russian authorities have behaved towards Turkish citizens (arresting three dozen Turkish businessmen at a conference in Krasnodar) and Turkish businesses (finding germs in tomatoes and poison in detergent) is the essence of arbitrariness (proizvol) – the opposite of rule of law – the chronic scourge of the Russian private sector.

Anything good to come out of this? Well yes – if it’s a strategy, not a hissy fit – cooperation with Ukraine, after all. Gazprom’s Turk Stream project has gone the way of South Stream: dead and buried. It was apparently intended in part to reroute the gas now flowing to Turkey through Ukraine, and in part to fill growing Turkish demand over the next 10-15 years. This leaves Russia stuck with gas transit through Ukraine, even after Nord Stream’s capacity is doubled.

Cheating by default


November 25, 2015 by AK

This detailed map by the BBC tells the story. When I first saw a map of the area, at The Guardian, I could almost hear the pilot saying: “I’m not going to change course – it’s only five kilometers, man – avos’ pronesyot.” Doing the Russian thing, taking shortcuts.

The BBC’s map is more detailed than The Guardian‘s and shows the direction of the plane and the location of its fall. The map alone seems to show the Turkish attack was unnecessary if legal. On the other hand, it invites the obvious question, “What was the Russian plane doing up north?”

Instead of RTing the truth, the Kremlin had better tell it like it is. Ankara seems to be doing just that:

The Turkish government said the Russian plane had been warned 10 times to turn back as it approached the border, but had still flown into Turkish airspace for a few seconds.

They are almost flaunting the flimsiness of the substantial, as opposed to legalistic, justification for the attack on the Russian plane, which only spent “a few seconds” over Turkey.

And here’s Erdogan:

But everyone should respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders.

It’s as if Erdogan and Putin both spent their childhood getting mercilessly bullied: they are both insanely big on

Over to Turkey’s allies:

Turkmen militiamen in Syria claimed to have shot the pilots as they descended on parachutes from the stricken Su-24 bomber… The rebels also posted footage appearing to show one of their missiles destroying a helicopter while it was on the ground, which they said was a Russian aircraft sent to rescue the downed Su-24 crew…

Shooting a parachutist and firing at a rescue mission: natural-born gentlemen. But then the Turkmens seem like Turkey’s own DNR so it’s all hardly surprising.

Too bad the Kremlin always behaves like a rotten brat who feels he’s done something awfully bad (again) and needs to lie about it (as usual). (There’s also the Russian defense ministry’s habitual lying.) Even on those rare occasions when it does the right thing, the Kremlin is like that – or like a pickpocket who’s just won a million dollars in a lottery: he can’t help pulling a Lincoln out a stranger’s purse, on autopilot. It’s lost on these KGB minds that telling the truth may have practical value.

Turkey downs fighter jet over Syrian border


November 24, 2015 by AK

It appears that Turkish jets have just shot down a military plane that allegedly violated Turkey’s airspace. The plane crashed in Syria; two pilots ejected themselves, reportedly. (All the info so far is from Turkish sources.) PM Davutoglu has spoken to his chief of staff and plans to appeal to NATO and the UN.

Was it a Russian plane? Is Turkey going to use this as a pretext to invade Syria to raze the de-facto Kurdish state in the north of the country (Rojava)? Or does it look like something bigger and more ominous?

Update. Erdogan’s office says it was a Russian plane.

Update 2. The Russian defense ministry says a Su-24 has been shot down over Syria, presumably from the ground.

The youth’s flight from freedom


November 23, 2015 by AK

I’m a free speech absolutist. The First Amendment is one of America’s most valuable assets and admirable achievements. Unfortunately, 40% of US residents aged 18-34 (“Millennials”) support the right of the government to curb political speech if it is offensive to minorities. Not a disaster yet but a sign of malaise: the young in favor of governmental gagging. Unnatural.

On the other hand:

In contrast with American Millennials, those ages 18 to 34 in Germany and Spain are more likely to say people should be able to say things offensive to minorities compared with those ages 35 and older. On the other hand, in the UK, the younger generation follows the lead of American Millennials by being… more willing to allow government restrictions.

Let’s wait and see where it gets us ten years from now. I guess Germany won’t be 70-30 in favor of censorship but rather 60-40 or 55-45: at least some progress. As for the UK, free speech might very well go the way of double jeopardy and unanimous jury verdicts. In the name of a righteous cause, people will chuck away their ancient privileges and protections with a smile of complete moral satisfaction.

Death of a patriot


November 23, 2015 by AK

The only thing to be regretted about the demise of this man, at 57, is that it happened at a posh D.C. hotel rather than at a high-security federal facility or, better yet, a Guantánamo.

Mikhail Lesin played a leading part in the destruction of NTV, Russia’s only private, independent, nationwide TV channel. He was not above blacklisting independent reporters. In 2014, he launched an attack on the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy but shortly resigned his position at Gazprom-Media and left for the US. Lesin settled in Los Angeles, where he owned real estate worth at least $28 million, suspected to be financed with illegal gains.

Few Russian journalists had anything good to say about the deceased: rather, the death of Putin’s media bulldog, or bulldozer, triggered a lively Facebook discussion whether aut bene, aut nihil should equally apply to all cadavers, no matter how excellent at villainy.

In the midst of the discussion, a new question arose: what was the LA-based retiree doing in Washington, DC? Meeting pro-Kremlin politicians? Recruiting lobbyists? Negotiating the terms of his defection? Conspiracy theories sprung up like weeds: the man knew too much about the workings of the Kremlin’s media empire. The cause of his death remains undetermined.

On a side note, the late “mogul” had a son, known as Anton Lessine, currently a movie producer living in California, married to a Swiss woman. He’s being sued by his children’s former nanny for religious discrimination and failure to pay her wages in full.

Policy concerns vs. ethical imperatives


November 22, 2015 by AK

In a Foreign Policy article (free registration required) published this last September, Julia Ioffe drew parallels, inadvertent perhaps, between her family’s entry in the US and the potential entry of refugees from the war in Syria.

Ms. Ioffe was fortunate and privileged to grow up in the US. Her parents made the right choice in the late 1980s: to move from the decaying USSR across the Atlantic while the opportunity lasted. I strongly doubt, however, that they were fleeing perils remotely comparable to what Syrians trapped in war zones have to face.

One of the principal distinctions refugee-accepting countries have to make is that between people seeking better lives and people running for their lives. Ioffe’s parents belonged with the former: they were socioeconomic immigrants.*

Looking back, letting in Soviet Jews and their families seems good policy now. Letting in all the Syrian applicants looks like horrible policy. But the principal argument for doing so is that it’s the only ethical thing to do, whatever the long-term consequences. It’s this argument that should be accepted or rejected. Hoping that the Syrians will turn out as loyal, grateful, law-abiding, and education-focused as the Soviet Jews is as delusional as it is – we are told – irrelevant.

* From Stalin’s death up to the late 1980s, Soviet Jews faced ethnic discrimination on top of the oppression suffered by most Soviet citizens regardless of ethnicity (for Soviet authorities viewed Jewishness as an ethnic, partially biological, characteristic). In particular, unwritten “Jewish quotas” (sometimes close to zero) at the best universities mangled the lives of thousands of talented Jewish youths. However, the post-Stalin USSR was not a war zone and state repression was nowhere as brutal as under Assad’s or Saddam Hussein’s rule.

All that started to change with the perestroika. Pretty much all the dissidents, including Jewish activists, were released in 1986-87. An Israeli consular group arrived in Moscow in 1988 helping re-establish diplomatic ties. Independent Jewish organizations started to appear, as well as Jewish schools, kindergartens, summer camps and Hebrew study groups. In December 1989, a congress of Jewish organizations was held in Moscow: about 300 groups sent their delegates, setting up a new, all-Soviet confederation of Jewish organizations and communities, Va’ad.

It was a time of great hopes but also of great instability. Along with liberally-minded political groupings, ethno-nationalists and crypto-Nazis were forming their own units. There was talk of an impending famine and civil war. There was an armed conflict unfolding in Karabakh and dangerous tension in Georgia and Turkmenistan, where brutal internecine wars were waiting to begin. The risks to a Moscow family with a female child were still rather low, whether looking forward from 1990 or backward from 2015.

How deadly is Islamic originalism?


November 15, 2015 by AK

The literal meaning of Islamophobia is fear of Islam and its adherents, and with every act of terror committed by Islamists this fear appears more understandable, if not justified. Neither ISIS nor Al-Qaeda is representative of all Islam of course, but ISIS’ doctrine as well the slightly less extreme Saudi version seem to be typical of the “back to the roots,” “true,” “pure” Islam.

The finest fruit of Islamic culture belong in the “impure” category. More often than not, calls for purity are calls for Puritanism or something similarly stiff-necked and simplistic.* Casting away all sophisticated interpretations of a religion’s foundational texts or myths leaves but the most straightforward interpretation.

Some American evangelicals manage to read the Gospels as a bigot’s little red book. By the reasonable person’s standard, it is hardly possible to ignore the Gospels’ emphasis on forgiveness and non-violence.**

Christianity started out as a much-maligned Jewish sect, continuing as an interethnic religion of non-violent martyrs until its gained widespread acceptance and become the empire’s state creed. Its foundational myth is the opposite of violent conquest.

In contrast, a “pure” Islam is bound to appeal to the experience of its first decades, to which violent conquest is pivotal.

* Simplistic despite Milton being a Puritan – but it’s unthinkable that a present-day Milton would join ISIS. There is something amusing about a Christian sect’s conceit that it is able to live by the literal meaning of both the Gospel and Deuteronomy when Jewish religious thought had abandoned literal interpretation by the time of Christ.

** But see two stories by Borges, The Gospel According to Mark and Three Versions of Judas.

What’s next? Nothing.


November 6, 2015 by AK

It only took the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) a week after the Lockerbie crash to find residue of explosives among the debris and conclude that the plane had been brought down by a bomb. Tomorrow morning, it will have been one week since the Kogalymavia/Metrojet crash in Sinai. I’m not holding my breath for definitive announcements this weekend either from the Egyptians or the Russians.

I should add that the Dec. 28, 1988, announcement by the AAIB is probably the only finding of fact in the Lockerbie case that has not been challenged and remains universally accepted. The weakest link in the official version is the claim that the bomb was brought on board another flight in Malta and transferred to the PanAm plane in Frankfurt. On the balance of probabilities, Heathrow is where the suitcase bomb was planted.

In the Sinai crash, clear evidence of a terror attack would make the Egypt government deeply unhappy without pleasing Moscow, either – and it’s these two countries that are investigating. On the other hand, if the US and UK have such evidence, Egypt will probably have to accept it. So will Moscow – eventually. The most likely outcome for the next few weeks, however, is no outcome.

Mother tongue and ancestral language in Belarus


November 4, 2015 by AK

Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker three weeks ago:

A Belarusian-language literature has been developing, and Alexievich has expressed regret that she cannot write in the language of her country.

At present, the language of Belarus appears to be Russian. Belarusian was spoken by the (mostly peasant) ancestors of most of the country’s residents, who often feel it is the “genuine” language of the land and the nation even if they are native Russian speakers.

There exists a considerable body of literature in Belarusian, including Vasil Bykov’s prose (most of which he translated into Russian). But, according to my Belarusian acquaintances and to their regret, it is no longer a developing, fully living language.

I have met and worked with a few educated urban Belarusians. All of them speak Russian natively and use it as the primary language but none identifies as Russian. All of them know Belarusian, some very well, some at a reading-comprehension level, and regret that the language is underdeveloped and underused. None, however, wishes to force out or stop using Russian: they don’t see it as a threat to their Belarusian identity, to which they cling steadfastly but without a hint of chest-thumping.

According to the 2009 census, 84% of Belarus residents self-identify as Belarusians: even in Minsk, the percent is as high as 79%. However, over 70% of the total population and about 70% of the ethnic Belarusians use Russian as the home language. This 2011 study by Hentschel (a linguist at Oldenburg) and Kittel (now head of Department of Economic Sociology at the University of Vienna) found that 55% of respondents used Russian and 41%, a mixture of Belarusian and Russian, in everyday speech, while only 4% used Belarusian.

In sharp contrast to this, 61% of the ethnic Belarusians named Belarusian as their mother tongue in 2009. This number stood at a mind-boggling 86% in 1999, when 59% of this ethnic group used Russian at home. Most respondents apparently understood “mother tongue” not as the language spoken by their parents but rather the language of their ancestors.

Flight 92-68


November 1, 2015 by AK

Transaero has one of the best safety records and Aeroflot has one of the youngest fleets in the world. But when a Russian family takes a vacation in Egypt, they have to turn to one of the smaller operators with an older fleet and – possibly – an avos’-based safety policy. Short-distance internal flights also appear relatively unsafe.

By itself, a 18-year-old Airbus A320 is not a recipe for disaster but only if it is properly maintained. That one had changed too many hands – once owned by a Malaysian, a Turkish and a Saudi company – which, I have heard, is a red flag. I have also read somewhere that even good old Transaero is not above suspicion, since it has been close to bankruptcy for months and may have skipped some essential repairs.

Update 1. Kommersant names “explosive decompression” as the most likely reason for the aircraft’s collapse. The paper’s sources name three possible triggers: a small bomb in the luggage compartment; parts of the engine that became loose and detached; cracks in the body caused by metal fatigue. (The plane “suffered a tail strike” in 2001.) Naturally, the airline is blaming “external impact.”

Update 2. Both the Egyptians and the Russians would prefer “natural causes”, as it were, to get the blame for Kogalymavia/Metrojet crash. There’s the idea that a Lockerbie-type bomb may have caused the plane to disintegrate up in the air but it’s not only speculative at this point but also unpalatable to the authorities in both countries. It would imply that the resorts of Sinai are unsafe, a disastrous implication for Egypt’s economy. It might also get interpreted as ISIS’ revenge on Russia, making Russians question the cost-benefit balance of the country’s intervention in Syria. Finding fault with the airline could be a pretext for more government interference in the sector.


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: