Old flags, new meanings


August 21, 2014 by AK

Twenty-three years and two days ago, on August 19, 1991, people started flowing to the square by Moscow’s “White House”, the seat of Yeltsin’s Russian government, to show support for the recently elected president and prevent the Communist hardliners who had seized power in the Kremlin from storming the building. Three defenders died on the night of August 20-21 trying to block tanks around the White House. By August 22, the restorationist coup d’état had been defeated, clearing the way to a dismantling of the Communist party dictatorship and the USSR.

At that time, the old Russian tricolor was a symbol of a new, free, post-Communist Russia. The flag was apparently used by Russian merchants in pre-Petrine times, in the 17th century, and Tsar Peter flew it as early as 1693 during his voyage to Solovki in the White Sea. It was the flag of the short-lived Russian Republic (March-November 1917) and the Volunteer White Army in 1917-1920.

Fast forward to 2014. The official Russian flag represents Putinism while the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag has come to symbolize anti-Putinist resistance. Yesterday morning, Russian activists hoisted a Ukrainian flag on one of the seven “Stalin” towers in Moscow, painted the top blue to make it look like the Ukrainian flag, and parachuted (!) down. Police have detained two men and two women aged 25-35, who could be charged with “vandalism”, which carries up to three years in prison.

Putin as a reader


August 17, 2014 by AK

David Remnick writes about the trials and tribulations of the Russian scholar and former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and about the evolution of Putin’s, hmmm, philosophy. I would recommend this long article to anyone, whether a novice or a sophisticated Russianist. I’m going to discuss a minor detail, peripheral perhaps to the puzzle of the tyrant’s thought process. According to Remnick,

An avid reader about tsarist Russia, Putin was forming a more coherent view of history and his place within it. More and more, he identified personally with the destiny of Russia. Even if he was not a genuine ideologue, he became an opportunistic one, quoting Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Nikolai Berdyayev, and other conservative philosophers to give his own pronouncements a sense of continuity.

Leaving aside Leontiev, a 19th century thinker, I feel uneasy at the mention of Ilyin and Berdyayev in one breath as “conservative philosophers”. As far as their politics, both were anti-Communist, unsurprisingly as both were exiled from Russia for their views in 1922 on the same “philosophers’ steamboat”.

That’s where the similarity ends. Ilyin was a proponent of Mussolinian fascism even after 1945 and showed appreciation for National Socialism in the early years of Hitler’s dictatorship. Berdyayev’s philosophy of freedom and creativity never expressed itself in a coherent political ideal. He was critical of liberal democracies, or more specifically the French Third Republic, for not being conducive to human development, but as he deeply appreciated both Marx and de Maistre as moral thinkers, he did not find much to admire about the actual political regimes and movements of interwar Europe. At any rate, he was no supporter of Action Française or a similar “conservative” or “patriotic” movement.

What was Ilyin’s philosophy? Honestly, I don’t really know because I don’t have the requisite training in philosophy. All I know is that Ilyin received a law degree from the St. Petersburg University in 1906 and focused in his postgraduate studies, in Russia as well as Germany and France, on the philosophy of law. In 1918, he defended a well-received dissertation on Hegel and was granted a chair in his alma mater, although not in philosophy but in legal theory. From the age of 40, when he was expelled from Red Russia in 1922, until his death in 1953, Ilyin’s public persona was more of an ideologue than a philosopher.

Ilyin is sometimes called the principal ideologue of the émigré White movement; of a major faction within it, I would say. After WWII, he wrote articles that read like tedious instructions, e.g. on how to hold the first election in Russia after the fall of communism. His advice was sensible except for one detail: it would only work if Russia were occupied by anti-Communists much like Germany was occupied by the Allies. I wonder if Putin paid any attention to what Ilyin had to say about former security agents. Also, has Putin compared the quality of his Leningrad University law degree to Ilyin’s? Has he wondered what Ilyin meant by “honor” and how the KGB code of conduct measured up to that old-fashioned notion?

Some of Ilyin’s “practical” plans read like General Weyrother’s reading the Austerlitz battle disposition in War and Peace: “Die erste Kolonne marschiert… die zweite Kolonne marschiert… die dritte Kolonne marschiert…” (Kutuzov slept through the reading, to Weyrother’s relief.) As a cheap shot, I’ll mention that Ilyin’s mother was German. Berdyayev had French ancestry and looked parodically French in some photos.

But the principal difference is that Berdyayev was above all a thinker, not a politician or an ideologue.

I don’t recall Moscow protesters looting stores


August 14, 2014 by AK

Julia Ioffe expects Russian propagandists to capitalize on the excessive force that cops have used against protesters in Ferguson, MO.

The arrests of two reporters and an alderman will certainly gladden the cynical hearts of Kremlinophiles. But there’s one big difference between the protesters in Missouri and in Moscow/Kyiv. There was no looting and very limited vandalism not only on the Maidan but even during the xenophobic soccer fans’ 2010 protests on Manezhnaya square – to say nothing of the more recent Bolotnaya rallies.

The anti-immigrant, xenophobic rioting in Biryulevo in 2013 did result in a retail complex and a vegetable warehouse getting seriously damaged, but the mob was motivated by anger or hatred rather than greed, and the incident was not advertised as an act of “protest” by Russian media, except its ethnonationalist fringe.

Using rubber bullets on protesters may have been a horrible idea but after three nights of looting, the cops may have grown desperate. A backdrop of violence can make all the difference.

Import bans: Russia’s new macro policy?


August 7, 2014 by AK

Some smart people have suggested to me that the EU/US foods import ban is a crude way to increase the current account surplus, providing extra euros and US dollars for Russian corporates to service and repay their short-term debt. The government may expect some of the import gap to be closed by domestic producers and some by imports of cheaper and/or lower-quality goods from Latin America or Asia. In simple terms, they don’t want Russians to spend on expensive foreign food.

I would buy this theory if the ban were limited to high-end cheese and exotic vegetables (and the fact that it does not cover alcohol is baffling). From USDA data (direct pdf link), I can see that Russia imported 26% of the cheese it consumed in 2013 from the EU and 6% from Ukraine. Most of that import was not Brie or Camembert but value-for-money stuff. The Netherlands topped the list of 2013 exporters to Russia, and to the best of my knowledge it mostly sells modestly priced types like Gouda, Maasdam and Edam. Poland and Lithuania offered even more affordable produce, Polish cheeses lately becoming rather varied in type and taste.

From the same USDA report, it appears that Russia does not import much milk from anywhere besIdes Belarus, so the question of import substitution for cheese (ignoring quality for the time being) could be reduced to logistics and spare capacity. I doubt that Russian and Belarusian producers have the spare capacity to boost cheese production by 30% within two-four months.

Even a hint at a specter of food shortages from the late 1980s would be extremely undesirable for the Russian authorities. It’s not hard to imagine prices shooting through the roof in supermarkets, local authorities trying to put a cap on them, empty shelves, panic, angry serpentine queues on chilly November mornings… an occasional riot. This is why I feel that Dutch (but not Polish) cheese may make a speedy comeback.

Update. Streetwise Professor discusses the Russian food ban; I add my 2¢.

Bomb Voronezh in response: a sequel


August 7, 2014 by AK

In December 2012, the Russian parliament reacted to the US Magnitsky bill by outlawing the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Let the disabled kids pay, said the Russian MPs and voted for “Herod’s law“. As some Russians joked bitterly then, if NATO were to hit Syria, Putin would bomb Voronezh in response.

This time, Moscow’s response to US and EU sanctions is less cannibalistic but the Kremlin has once again applied its general principle of making Russians pay for the regime’s adventures. This time it’s a blanket ban on imports of meat and dairy products, fruit and vegetables from the US, EU, Norway, Canada and Australia. Mercifully, baby food is exempted.

This measure is going to fuel inflation more than Putin’s pet economists would have us believe. My feeling is by early 2015, year-on-year inflation is going to break into the double digits from 7-8% now, with the Central Bank targeting 6.5% for 2014. If the government merely hints at introducing price ceilings, expect food shortages and enormous, 1991-length lines.

I suspect that the cabinet may loosen some of the restrictions when Russian kids across the income spectrum get unhappy about missing German-made Kinder chocolate – but Polish and Lithuanian food is unlikely to get any breaks. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kremlin’s primary target are those two countries with their firm pro-Ukrainian stance, since they critically depend on Russia for their agricultural exports.

A tricky question for the Kremlin must be how to deal with Belarus and Kazakhstan, members of the same customs union as Russia. It’s naive to expect its dictators, Lukashenko and Nazarbaev, to ban EU or US imports on Russia’s whim. These countries could only attempt, on Putin’s request, to stop imported goods from being re-exported to Russia, but that would mean continued customs controls within the union and would undermine its purpose. And why waste an excellent opportunity? Russian consumers would be thankful for Belarusian olives and Kazakh salmon. In practical terms, Belarus and Kazakhstan would have to be handsomely rewarded for any cooperation in enforcing the imports ban.

A Russian protester at the mercy of Italian “justice”


August 1, 2014 by AK

Oleg Vorotnikov of the Voina art group has been arrested in Italy on a Russian Interpol warrant and could be extradited to Russia.

I hope he gets the best Italian lawyer specializing in extradition and immigration. A strong case can be made that no member of Voina can expect a fair trial in Russia, as made clear by the sham trial of another performance group, Pussy Riot, in 2013.

Unfortunately, Vorotnikov could be classified an anarchist of sorts, and Italy’s military police, the Carabinieri, as well as its prosecutors and generally prosecutor-friendly judges, seem to wholeheartedly hate anarchists. I don’t know if it is related to the bloody 2001 anti-globalization protests in Genoa or some earlier excesses, but here’s a recent example.

In 2007, the Carabinieri arrested six anarchists active in the environmental movement in Spoleto in Umbria. (Alexander Blok’s poem, A Girl from Spoleto, comes to mind for a split second.) They were accused of forming a subversive (i.e., terrorist) association, held without charge for many months (even Russian laws do not allow that, but precautionary detention is routinely overused in Italy), sentenced to prison terms by a first-instance court and acquitted of some but not all charges by an appellate court, whose ruling has been recently finalized by Italy’s supreme court.

It means that the alleged leader of the “subversive organization”, Michele Fabiani, although acquitted of terrorism, is now in prison serving a term of two years and four months for spraying graffiti and damaging the windshield wipers of a bulldozer.

Interestingly, the Carabinieri sting against the “terrorists” – none of whom owned any arms at all – was not only indecently named “Operation Brushwood” but was led by General Gianpaolo Ganzer, later convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 14 and five (on appeal) years in prison but never suspended from active duty during his trials and appeals.

I learned about the case accidentally, from this thread on Injustice Anywhere Forum. It turned out that two actors in the Fabiani case had covered themselves in infamy in the Knox-Sollecito Prozess. Manuela Comodi, Fabiani’s prosecutor, played an active role as a co-prosecutor in the Knox-Sollecito trials in 2009-11. Judge Giancarlo Massei, who sentenced Fabiani to 28 months in prison, authored the absurd “motivations report” against Knox and Sollecito in 2010. Nina Burleigh devoted some space to Fabiani in her book on Knox, The Fatal Gift of Beauty.

It gets even better. There are reasons to believe that Rudy Guede, the sole killer of British student Meredith Kercher, was a police informant and broke into the office of Paolo Brocchi in October 2007 (the break-in is a well-documented fact) to steal not just something of value, but specifically files relevant to Michele Fabiani’s defense. Nina Burleigh wrote it off as a conspiracy theory but I wouldn’t be so sure.

An interesting coincidence


July 30, 2014 by AK

The permanent court of arbitration in the Hague has ruled that Russia is to pay $50 billion in damages in the Yukos case. The company that gobbled up most of Yukos’ assets is Rosneft but the defendant in the case is Russia, which owns about 70% of Rosneft stock.

This puts the current market value of Russia’s share of Rosneft at slightly less than $47 billion, (un)surprisingly close to the $50-billion award. Note that this assumes a share price (1 GDR stands for one share) of $6.30 while Rosneft’s IPO price in 2006 was $7.55. At that level, the state’s share would be worth $56 billion so the Hague judgment world still make up 90% of it.

As a side note, BP owns 19.75% in Rosneft and the Russian government had planned to sell down to 50% plus one share, privatizing over 19% of the company.

Updated July 31. Bloomberg has noted the obvious, too, but I think I beat them to it.

Russian media’s brief happy hour


July 29, 2014 by AK

Plenty of other evidence has been submitted to the court of public opinion since the Flight MH17 disaster, but early on, there were two facts that made it clear enough to me which side was directly responsible. For now, I’m leaving out the distinction between the separatists and the Russians, and the issue of preemptive responsibility for any harm caused by the fighting.

About an hour after the crash, and probably earlier, several Russian media sites, including RIA Novosti and MK, reported that a Ukrainian military transport turboprop, an An-26, had been shot down by the rebels. Strelkov-Girkin’s Facebook account – hastily and unconvincingly repudiated later – claimed the same, adding “also possibly a Su”. A picture of what later turned out to be smoke from the MH17 was attached to one of the media reports. There were no downed Ans or Sus that evening, it soon turned out.

The second fact is the LifeNews team arriving at the scene of the crash a quarter of an hour after the fact. I have little doubt they were invited by the separatists to film what they thought was debris from a Ukrainian military plane. Russian state TV has a weakness for such gloating reports.

A few days later, the Russian defense ministry came forward with a bunch of unconvincing theories and “28 questions” to Ukraine. When I see a long list of “questions to” someone – rather than “theses against something” – I expect to look up at the interrogator and recognize a conspiracy theorist or a propagandist. I’ve seen so-called “guilters” offering 100 (or 200, or 300) “questions to Amanda Knox”, and the principal argument of 9/11 truthers is a list of “suspicious facts”. The “if you’re innocent, how can you explain this” approach is a near-certain sign of a bad-faith debater.

Three links on Donbass


July 20, 2014 by AK

The Panic in Red Square by Tom Nichols:

The only question, really, is how far Putin wants to go toward a trade war, economic collapse, further status as a pariah, maybe even open war, only in order to save face.

Bodies from Malaysia Airlines Crash Left In Deserted Train Station by Max Seddon. The title gives the gist. The pictures are grim.

News from the front: reports that separatists have received orders from Moscow to shell Luhansk, ostensibly to blame resulting civilian deaths on the Ukrainian military. Hard to believe it, but the respected journalist Oleg Kashin, now out of Russia, has tweeted the same.

Draw your own conclusions


July 17, 2014 by AK

CNN reports:

A Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, crashed Thursday in eastern Ukraine.

Now consider this:

- The separatists seized a Ukrainian air defense base late in June. A Buk missile system has been photographed in a separatist-controlled area. The caption explains that this is a Buk captured by DNR special forces and used to shoot down a Ukrainian plane. (More photos.)

- The DNR/LNR forces downed several Ukrainian military aircraft in June and July. The Ukrainian army has not shot at any aircraft, apparently because DNR/LNR have none.

- Minutes after the 777 crash, the DNR “defense minister” Strelkov announced that his fighters had just shot down another An-26 and a second plane, apparently a Su. The tweet has since been deleted but multiple copies exist.

- News of the crash was broken by the Russian news agency Interfax, which said from the start the plane had been shot down – how did they know? LifeNews journos were at the crash site suspiciously swiftly. Which side let them know? What did they expect to find? Here’s their original footage, later deleted from their channel. Stomach-turning.



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

Join 4 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: