What outcome would be perfect for Moscow?


October 5, 2015 by AK

I mostly agree with what Streetwise Professor has to say about Russia’s involvement in Syria but I propose a conspiracy-theoretical addendum.

First, why did Russia consent to the nuclear deal with Iran despite the downward pressure it would exert on the oil price? Were there any rewards promised for its cooperation?

Second, what is the Kremlin’s maximum set of goals in this Middle Eastern campaign? Does it include large-scale destabilization in the Middle East, especially of certain Sunni autocracies?

Update on a Ukraine-related trial in Grozny


October 4, 2015 by AK

The fast-track trial of Alexander Malofeyev ended on September 30th. This month, the court will probably issue a “motivated ruling” raising the status of the defendant’s statements to that of a judicially established “truth.” All sorts of outlandish claims could be so legitimized.

As expected, Malofeyev was found guilty of playing a part in killing and torturing Russian POWs in Chechnya in 1994-5 and sentenced to 14 years in a maximum security labor camp. However the new prison term will be partly concurrent with the 23-year term he has been serving since 2009 or earlier for his role in a robbery that left two women with throats slit. His new sentence is 24.5 years, but it has not been reported if it will be counted from 2009 or 2015. Depending on that, his additional term could be one and a half to approximately eight years – for crimes including murder and attempted murder of servicemen on duty, and an attempt on the life of military personnel.

According to Malofeyev’s lawyer, he is HIV-positive and has hepatitis C. The average life expectancy of a Russian HIV-infected prisoner is probably less than Malofeyev’s term. The time added to his sentence must be less important to him than the medical treatment and prison conditions in the next few years. He is a convenient witness for the state.

“Kto kogo?” revisited


September 29, 2015 by AK

Kto kogo? (no comma), from Lenin’s 1921 speech, is often cited in various political contexts. It is often translated as “Who Whom?” (with or without a comma), which is neither technically incorrect nor particularly helpful. In old times, “Kto kogo?” was a question spectators would ask while watching an A vs. B contest, such as a wrestling match, a sports game, or a fistfight. “Which of the two do you think is going to win?”

It’s much simpler than “who can do what to whom?” or “who plans whom, who directs and dominates whom, who assigns to other people their station in life, and who is to have his due allotted by others?” If “we” are fighting, or have a stake in the fight – and since it’s politics rather than political science, “we” always are and always have – it’s a binary choice: either we beat them or they beat us.

In 1921, Lenin supported the “new economic policy,” or the NEP. The Bolsheviks had to let capitalism back in, he explained, because there was no other way out of the postwar devastation. Russia did not even have the proletariat (!) – according to Lenin – because heavy industry had been destroyed. The principal risk, however, was that the bourgeoisie could regain political power. Preventing it would be harder than winning the Civil War. In my not-so-literal translation:

The whole question is, which will overtake the other? If the capitalists manage to organize themselves first, they will drive out the communists and there will be no further discussion about it. We need to look at these things soberly: which will come out on top? Will the proletarian state power prove able, relying on the peasantry, to keep messrs. capitalists properly bridled, in order to direct capitalism into a state estuary and to create a capitalism subordinated to the state and serving it?

Stalin simplified this in 1929 to a little-red-book format:

The fact is, we are living according to Lenin’s formula, “who whom”: either we pin down the capitalists and fight – as Lenin used to put it – the last decisive battle against them, or they will pinfall us.

As usual, the (soon-to-be) great leader was being less interesting than his teacher.

As a reminder, “Kto kogo?” is pronounced with a “v,” ktaw kuh-VAW, in modern Russian.

Wishful thinking is not what you expect from George Soros


September 25, 2015 by AK

I was puzzled by George Soros’ explanation why Moscow seems unlikely to break the Minsk agreement and launch a large-scale military operation against Ukraine:

The weakness of oil prices and the further downward slide of the ruble have put renewed pressure on the Russian economy. But the decisive factor has been the decline in Russian oil production. Output has been falling year over year, and for the first time, both the quantity and quality of the petroleum output fell this year between the months of June and July.

The problem with this claim is that Russian oil (crude and condensate) output has not been falling year over year lately. The Russian ministry of energy has monthly production and year-over-year growth rates (main page with links to monthly data; e.g. for August 2015) on its site. All the y-o-y growth rates for monthly output have been positive in 2015. Production growth was a meager 0.2% in January but accelerated to 1.6% in May and June and to 2.5% in July before slowing down to 1.5% in August. No decline so far.

Perhaps Soros is seeing a short-term trend that others cannot see. I’ve calculated average daily rates (assuming 7.3 barrels per ton) for January through August: 10.61, 10.62, 10.65, 10.63, 10.66, 10.68, 10.62, 10.65 million barrels per day (mmbpd). September data is not yet available from the ministry, but daily output for at least 12 days in September has been reported. The September average is 10.66 mmbpd, roughly the same as August 2015 and 0.6% above September 2014. Sure, there were days in May 2015 when production exceeded 10.7 mmbpd, but no one should lose sleep over such minor fluctuations.

In other words, I don’t see signs of an imminent decline in Russian oil output right now, judging by the productions statistics alone. Besides, the decline should be obvious and steep enough to have any impact on the Kremlin’s thinking. George Soros also comments:

This means that the sanctions are biting and the lack of spare parts is accelerating the depletion of existing oil fields. …[T]he only way he [Putin] can arrest a general decline of the oil industry is by having some of the Western sanctions lifted.

The sanctions are biting, but not (yet) in the way described above. The remark about the quality of output is also puzzling.

Ofcom on RT


September 24, 2015 by AK

As reported in its latest bulletin (PDF), the UK media regulator Ofcom has found RT (formerly Russia Today) in violation of rule 5.5 of the 2003 Communications Act, which requires “due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy.” The first of the offending programs to be aired was The Truthseeker: Genocide of Eastern Ukraine on July 13-14, 2014 (p. 5-21). It was only 14 minutes long according to Ofcom – 14 minutes of uninterrupted delirium, judging by the quotes amply provided by the regulator. It’s the Russian First Channel translated into English at the highest fever pitch of summer 2014:

Bombing the wheat fields to make sure there’s famine. Kiev’s leaders repeat Hitler’s genocidal oath. And Ukraine’s kids taught to occupy Western Europe.

The other program in breach of rule 5.5 (p. 49-60) was more subtle by orders of magnitude, mostly featuring interviews with refugees from Donbass to Russia. Supposing all of them were genuine, it’s understandable that people fleeing a war zone would sometimes only blame one side for their suffering. Nevertheless reporters should allowed for a rebuttal from the side accused of wrongdoing, which the RT limited to a six-second caption. Predictably, Ofcom did not agree it was fair play.

Better yet, in March 2014, RT accused the BBC of fabricating a story from Syria and of habitual lying (p. 22-48, 89-124). Coming from RT, the blackest pot in the battery, it must be a severe case of projection. I cannot claim that faking footage is below the BBC (regrettably), but having RT as the chief accuser effectively gets the BBC off the hook. If you’re serious about proving the BBC’s dishonesty, don’t try it under the RT logo, and don’t invite George Galloway as an “expert.”

The star witness


September 23, 2015 by AK

The two Ukrainians accused of torturing and killing Russian servicemen Chechnya in 1994-5 will be tried by a jury in Grozny, according to Russian press reports. It appears that one was kidnapped in Ukraine and the other seized on a brief visit to Russia; that both were treated improperly, likely tortured, in Russian jails; and that the investigators/torturers wanted the detainees to sign “confessions” implicating certain Ukrainian politicians, including PM Yatsenyuk.

It is difficult for a defense lawyer to get any evidence suppressed or struck from the record in a Russian court. Prosecutors are very good at exploiting this institutional defect of the Russian justice system — a flaw it shares, to some degree, with other inquisitorial systems. Normally, any document a defendant is forced to sign under duress, at a precinct or in jail, makes its way to the dossier and trumps the defendants’ live testimony. But for jury trials, which are rare in Russia, the rules, both written and unwritten, may be different.

If pre-trial “confessions” are not allowed, some evidentiary backup would be in order, even before a Grozny jury. What about a co-conspirator? Enter Alexander Malofeyev. A Ukrainian citizen, he used to live in Crimea and had several convictions for burglary. Then he moved to Russia, to Novosibirsk, where his mother lived, and was convicted there in 2009 of taking part in a robbery that ended in two deaths (more specifically, according to Kommersant, two women had their throats cut). Malofeyev received a 23-year term.

Some five years into the sentence, he decided to confess his Chechen escapades to Russian investigators. Now, he’s up for a fast-track trial, a familiar scheme that will help prosecutors to confer the status of a “judicial truth” on Malofeyev’s memoirs smearing the two Ukrainian defendants and a few other Ukrainians. The fruit of his recovered memory would be incorporated into the judgment of the fast-track court, in order to be read – as prior findings of fact – to the jurors in the upcoming trial. Malofeyev may also have to take the stand in person, but cross-examination is unpredictable, in contrast to a prefabricated ruling.

Kommersant reports some gory details of Alexander Muzychko‘s alleged crimes as recounted by Malofeyev. Muzychko (a.k.a. Sashko Bily) is conveniently dead, killed in a shootout with Ukrainian cops in March 2014. He may have been a vicious gangster posing as a freedom fighter, so stories of him breaking the fingers and piercing the eyeballs of captured Russian officers would sound somewhat plausible. According to Kommersant, Malofeyev has also implicated Dmytro Yarosh and Oleh Tyahnybok, the nationalist politicians/paramilitaries who have been the Russian media’s favorite bugbears since the Maidan uprising and whose importance to Ukrainian politics has been blown out of proportion by Russian propaganda. Them, and Arseny Yatsenyuk. But I suspect that the Yatsenyuk part is going to end up vague and noncommittal, open to interpretation depending on political currents.

Is there so little room for refugees in Latvia?


September 22, 2015 by AK

To follow up on Commissioner Muižnieks’ statements, let’s focus on the EU and imagine it were a super-state settling refugees based on the availability of land, without regard to their wishes and to those of the natives. A natural approach would be to examine the table of population density and land area from the bottom up. Sweden and Finland are sparsely populated but most of their uninhabited land is also uninhabitable because of the harsh northern conditions. On to the next three member states with the lowest population density (ignoring the tiny Faroe Islands): they happen to be Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The climate is temperate in all three. The terrain is agreeably flat to hilly. The infrastructure is not bad. The population density is 42 persons per square kilometer, compared with 108 in Hungary, 233 in Germany, and 256 in the UK.

And the total area of the three Baltic countries is a whopping 175,000 sq. km, more than the United Kingdom sans Scotland (165,000 sq. km). In other words, the 7.3 million of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are occupying more land than the 59 million inhabitants of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

A hypothetical central planner for a speculative Confederation of Europe would marvel at the imbalance and offer an instant solution: make them take in all the refugees in exchange for a stream of federal moneys. It’s also a common-sense approach: England and Wales are overcrowded, Germany but slightly less so, while the three Baltic countries are virtually empty in comparison, and perfectly livable. It only remains to get their citizenry to agree to the plan.

Which is going to be pretty hard. Yes, Latvia is bleeding people at about 15,000 or 0.8% of the population per annum. Yes, emigration was named a “very significant threat” by 76% of both ethnic Latvians and Russophones in 2012. Yes, at least 100,000 Latvians found refuge from near-inevitable Soviet repression at the end of WWII in Western Europe and overseas. Yes, 40% of Latvians are saying they would become refugees if an armed conflict broke out in the country. Still, the Latvian government is opposing any mandatory quotas for refugees as a matter of principle, and has offered to take in but a handful.

This stance is consistent with the attitudes of their electorate: in the fall of 2014, 79% opposed immigration from outside the EU, and 63% (!) opposed intra-EU immigration. This is a mirror image of Sweden (to which certain Latvians are fond of professing their country’s resemblance), where 72% were in favor of accepting non-EU nationals.

Eventually, I believe Latvia will budge on the numbers but talk its way out of bearing its fair share of the burden.

Council of Europe Commissioner Muižnieks on immigration


September 21, 2015 by AK

Nils Muižnieks is the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights. (The CoE is not a EU body; it includes all states at least partly located in Europe, except Belarus.) He has written extensively on Europe’s obligation to accommodate refugees from wars and conflicts, including the Syrian civil war most recently. To quote his June piece in The New York Times:

…with the exception of Turkey, European countries are far from experiencing the kind of refugee pressures that much poorer and less stable countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia are experiencing…

Yet Europeans act as if they were on the verge of being “invaded…”

European countries have lost all sense of proportion. With a total population estimated at more than 740 million, they are among the richest and most stable countries in the world, but they pretend to be threatened by the idea of admitting 600,000 asylum seekers a year.

Granted, the EU only has 500 million out of the Council of Europe’s 740 million, but an annual inflow of 0.12% still does not look like an avalanche. In practice, the 0.6 million are going to settle in five countries with a total pop of 120 million (in ballpark terms) – a 0.5% addition – unless the EU ensures they are more evenly spread, which would take ordering around both refugees and some of the member states, with the usual cacophony of protests against Brussels’ unelected bureaucratic dictatorship in the background.

Common folk tend to be xenophobic, as the Commissioner surely knows from experience. Muižnieks is an American political scientist who moved to Latvia, his parents’ native country, in the 1990s and was minister for social integration in 2002-4. It was reported in 2011 that 37% of Latvia’s residents spoke Russian at home, but the language has no official status whatsoever and is considered foreign by Latvia’s authorities despite its deep, pre-1918, historical roots in the country.

Why? Simply put (not sure if Muižnieks would agree), because most ethnic Latvians want to keep Russian out of official business and education, and because there is no one to force them to recognize the linguistic rights of the 37% minority. In the past 20 years, Baltic Russophones have been almost as docile as their linguistic relatives to the East, voting for their own parties but generally preferring to adjust and get the best of what’s been dealt them.

On most social and cultural issues, however, ethnic Latvians and native Russian speakers hold similar views. If there is animosity between them, it seems subdued, more English than Eastern European in its outward display. Suppose a third major community emerged in short order, a community of refugees from the Middle East. Some Russophones would welcome it as a natural ally against the stubborn Latvians, perhaps. But I suspect its arrival would do more to unite the Latvian and Russian speakers against the newcomers, and the new antagonism could express itself in ways less subtle than pursed lips and bitter looks.

This is not to say that refugees should be left to drown in the sea or languish on some bare Mediterranean rock. This is to say that the difficulty of easing the social tension brought by large-scale immigration and mitigating the inevitable ugliness cannot be inferred from the 0.6 to 500 million ratio.

More Ukrainian hostages in Russia


September 20, 2015 by AK

Last week, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, sensationally claimed that the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Arseny Yatsenyuk, had fought on the side of Chechen separatists in December 1994 – February 1995 against Russian troops and, moreover, had taken part in the torture and killing of Russian prisoners of war.

In response, Yatsenyuk suggested that Bastrykin seek psychiatric help. Unfortunately, I don’t think Bastrykin’s off-the-wall charge was merely a glitch of an unsound mind. Thanks to the independent Russian media, one can tell why and where it came from; more could be still to come.

Here’s the BBC reporting from Grozny. Two Ukrainians have gone on trial before the supreme court of Chechnya on the same charges as the fantastic accusation against Yatsenyuk. One of the Ukrainian defendants was kidnapped in Ukraine and held incommunicado for year and a half, the other arrested during a visit to Russia in 2014 and denied access to a lawyer or a consul for a year.

They were most likely tortured and signed “confessions” implicating both themselves and some prominent Ukrainians, including Yatsenyuk, in war crimes committed by separatists in Chechnya in the 1990s. It is also likely they have recanted or will do so before the court. However, Russian courts routinely privilege statements made during preliminary investigations over those made in court and never suppress statements made under duress. (To some degree, this seems to be a general failure of the inquisitorial approach: Italian courts also give disproportionate credence to investigation-stage statements, however obtained.) The court would issue a ruling “establishing” the guilt of the two Ukrainians and their association with Yatsenyuk.

Upon which, not only Russia’s chief investigator but its president would feel free to accuse Yatsenyuk of killing Russian POWs in 1995, referring to that ruling by an “independent” court. On the other hand, Moscow’s agenda is changing and the court’s “findings” may end up in storage or in the wastebin. Unfortunately, that alone won’t help the kidnapped Ukrainians in the near term; more publicity might.

A low-profile political trial in Moscow


September 15, 2015 by AK

Last week in Moscow Alexander Razumov was convicted – by a jury – of trying to recruit Russians into the Ukrainian Right Sector and of inciting ethnonational hatred, and was sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. The man allegedly offered two Russian policemen to join a paramilitary unit under Right Sector’s control in Ukraine and fight against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass.

Here’s my guess at how the system works. The police and the FSB are keeping an eye on a large number of Russians who have a history of involvement with fringe groups, paying special attention to those among them who have mental issues or have displayed borderline behavior. They can be easily provoked into breaking the law, and sometimes all the watcher has to do is wait until the subject, prone to self-destructive rashness, does something illegal or interpretable as such. If there’s a request for a show trial from the Kremlin, the police would have the “evidence” handy.

I have not looked into the details of the Razumov case but I have heard his lawyer speak on the radio. She noted, if I remember correctly, that all the twelve jurors deciding the case were men aged 60 or older. That’s quite a coincidence since men of that age cohort make up 10% of the eligible population (25 and older) in the Central Federal District.

Jurors are supposed to be picked at random from a list of eligible citizens. It’s understandable that men of the working age should be the most likely of all to seek their way out of jury duty, increasing the proportion of retired people available to serve. But that would also increase the share of women, especially as retirement-age women outnumber retirement-age men by a factor of 2.5x in Central Russia. So who rigged the jury?


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