Jan 29, 2009

Moldova's Economy Beats Japan and the United States

This one gets filed under, "I've been down so long it looks like up to me."
Europe's poorest country, is basking in its new status as one of the world's most stable economies, even if it did take a global slump to earn it the accolade. Moldova has been ranked fifth, well ahead of powerhouses like Japan and the United States, in an index compiled by London-based magazine The Banker that rated countries on how well-protected they are from the slowdown.
All of this good news has made Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin positivly giddy. “We have been classified in the top five countries with robust economies." While we never expected to read that in our lifetime, congratulations go out to Moldova.

We knew you could do it.

Putin: "We Are Not Invalids"

Leopolis sends along this absolutely priceless Putin-ism. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Putin offered the opening keynote. That's when Dell Computer founder Michael Dell figured it was a great time to ask a question about helping Russia's IT sector. Bad idea.

Dell asked, asked "How can we help" you with your country's IT infrastructure? Putin immediately rebuffed the PC company's founder. "We don't need your help. We are not invalids. We don't have limited mental capacity."
Seriously, "limited mental capacity"?

If anything, this is a great argument in favor of a free press in Russia. When the only people who ever get to ask Putin an unscripted question have just been forcefed three grams of polonium, the poor guy doesn't get much practice answering real questions from the public.

Either that, or Putin has also been forced to deal with Dell’s customer services reps in India. In that case, his comments are entirely justified.

Jan 28, 2009

Raul Castro on 8-day Visit to Russia

...did no one tell him he might need a hat for Moscow in January? Just saying. Anyway...

NY Times: Cuban leader Raul Castro arrived in Russia today for a visit intended to boost ties between the former Cold War allies. Castro is scheduled to meet with Medvedev and other Russian officials during his 8-day trip.

The not-so-shocking news: In an interview, Castro backed Russia in its disputes with the U.S. over the Bush administration's efforts to place missile defense facilities in Europe and to put ex-Soviet nations Ukraine and Georgia on track to join NATO.

The sad news: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov didn't have anything crazy to say. He did say he expects Castro's visit to "mark an important milestone" in bilateral ties. He also reaffirmed Russia's call for the United States to lift its trade embargo on Cuba. You're boring me, Lavrov! You used to be cool, man.

This is the conflict that doesn't end...

...yes it goes on and on, my friend...

NY Times reports: A Russian soldier said he entered Georgia because he was fed up with his military service, but Russian officials say he was abducted and was being forced to discredit the army.

Russia’s Defense Ministry contended that Junior Sgt. Aleksandr Glukhov was abducted by Georgian forces and was being forced to discredit the army as “information provocation.” However, Glukhov told reporters that he left the Russian army because he had been verbally abused by his commander, who he said drank excessively and “nagged at me all the time.”

So who wins this one? American capitalism. Yeah, I said it. They found Glukhov in civilian clothes eating a Big Mac at a McDonald's in Tbilisi. There's McDonald's in Tbilisi. I'm lovin' it.

Jan 27, 2009

Some Russians Don't Believe the Hype

or should I say some Russians don't believe the hope?

On Monday, Anne Applebaum (my favorite Slate writer) gave us this gem "The Obama Conspiracy: Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square." It seems there are a lot of hope-haters out there:

A number of international observers eschewed the general adulation and concluded, simply, that the entire event—the election, the inauguration—was a hoax.

Among those who don't trust the US electoral process are several academics, bloggers, and government officials in China (who censored the inauguration), Al-Qaida, and of course some of our beloved friends from Russia. Applebaum tells us:

Look...at Pravda.ru...Writing in the spirit of the times past, one of its authors informed readers last week that Obama's presidency was a sham. After all, he "became the president because one needed a scapegoat during hard times of the crisis," and he will not last: "[I]f Obama does not manage to extricate the nation from the crisis in two or three years, the Republicans will unveil their real candidate, and Obama's presidency will finish earlier than expected."

That's funny...Obama doesn't look like Medvedev to me. ;)

Jan 26, 2009

Any Port in a Storm

According to Abkhaz authorities, Russia intends to build a new naval base in Ochamchira, near the port of Abkhazian. Since none of this is official, it's hard to say if this is part of the long-awaited decision to relocate Russia's Black Sea fleet.

If so, the Ukrainians will breath a sigh of relief, since the clock is ticking on Russia's mandated pullout of its 16,000 man Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. (Check out time is 2017, but it takes a while to pack a fleet and clear out the mini-bar.)

Unfortunately, what's good for Ukraine is bad for Georgia, since Ochamchira is technically part of Georgia's internationally-recognized territory.

However, it is also possible that the Ochamchira is not going to be the new home of Russia's fleet. In fact, it could be part of just another Kremlin-inspired "support the Abkhaz economy by stationing a few sailors in a port" strategy. And by Abkhaz economy, we mean all the fun and exciting service industries which pop up around a fleet, like mushrooms after the rain.

Hey Ukrainian Government, where my money?!

According to Yulia Tymoshenko's official blog, the Ukrainian Ministry of Labor has opened a salary and pension hotline (salary: 8 (044) 287-12-30 and pension: 8 (800) 500-39-20). People can call these numbers to report delays or unpaid salaries “so that the reaction is instantaneous.” And just so you know, "call back in two months" does count as an instantaneous reaction.

They have the plant, but we have the power

God, I love Bulgaria. I missed its tales. Did you all miss me? :)

The Sofia Weekly: About 4,000 Bulgarians took part in a rally in downtown Sofia Sunday at noon demanding the restart of Reactors 3 and 4 of the Nuclear Power Plant at Kozloduy, which were shut down on January 1, 2006, in accordance with Bulgaria's EU accession treaty.

The rally was organized by the Political Movement "Napred" ("Forward"), which is a coalition of three parties - the LIDER party, whose informal leader is the Bulgarian energy tycoon Hristo Kovachki, the nationalist VMRO-BND (an alleged successor to the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization from the first half of 20th century), and the Agrarian People's Union.

Apart from a reboot of the two 440 MW reactors at Kozloduy, the rally participants also demand a new national energy strategy.

I'm with you, Napred.

Jan 23, 2009

Dude, Where’s My Ruble? (Part II)

Finally, some good news for the Kremlin. Prime Minister Putin's on-going effort to make the ruble an international reserve currency has become so successful, Russian real estate companies and car dealers are no longer bothering to price goods in rubles. Instead, companies are listing prices in "conditional units" -- otherwise known as U.S. dollars, the "other" international reserve currency.

Meanwhile, the Russian Central Bank said on Thursday that it was "finished" devaluing the ruble, and asked everyone to stop using ruble notes to line bird cages, or as cool-looking wrapping paper for small birthday presents.

Ok, very small presents.

Jan 22, 2009

Guns Don't Kill People, Journalists Carrying Them Might

Aleksandr Lebedev has made the news a lot today, but in this case its for his co-ownership of Novaya Gazeta and not the Evening Standard. In reaction to the contract-style killing of prominent human rights attorney Stanislav Markelov and NG reporter Anastasia Baburova, Lebedev has asked the government to permit his journalists to carry guns.

As RFE/RL reports, Ms. Baburova was the fourth NG reporter killed in the last nine years. However, other reports of the incident suggest that she was not the intended target, but was shot after pursuing the masked gunman who shot Markelov. The assassination of Mr. Markelov has been associated by many with his recent, vocal petitioning against the release of Col. Budanov (for more info see here).

This surprising request to arm NG journalists comes at a time when the rest of Russia has been arming itself as well. Window on Eurasia noted that today more than 1 in every 10 Russian's owns a lethal weapon, even though it is illegal for private citizens to possess a gun without official government sanction. If anything, this new trend should be taken as a sign of the growing insecurity amongst the population (and journalists) and a lack of faith in the ability/desire of government officials to protect them.

Free Press, Well Almost Free

The controlling stake in London's Evening Standard had been sold to oligarch Aleksandr Lebedev for one pound. The former-KGB agent's interest in the paper remains unclear, but is certainly not for profit, because the paper is reportedly hemorrhaging almost one million pounds a month.

It's really a sweet story...as a spy in England the Evening Standard served as a key source of information for Lebedev, so he's decided to give back to it...hopefully not by providing it with his own disinformation. Lebedev claims that he will not interfere in the content of the paper, other than ensuring that it is "unbiased." According to an interview by the International Herald Tribune, Roy Greenslade, who writes a column for the paper, argues that there are "five reasons for owning newspapers, and all begin with a "p" - profit, propaganda, political influence, prestige and public service." Which begs the question....which is it?

Jan 21, 2009

"Lord of the Gass"

The gas is flowing again. Time to bid farewell to Gas Crisis 09, and look forward to all the frozen fun we can expect during next year's perennial Russia-Ukraine gas dispute.

Total cost to Gazprom for this year's festivities: $2 billion in lost revenue.

Whoa Mummy

There are definitely some Muscovites who woke up this morning, looked outside, and decided to go back to bed and sleep it off. But no, it's really true, Moscow was invaded today by the living dead. About fifty people dressed as mummies marched towards Red Square carrying cardboard coffins labeled Lenin. According to RIA Novosti, about 2/3rds of Russians believe that Lenin's body should be removed from his mausoleum and laid to rest. The Moscow Patriarchate has been calling for just that since 1999, but in a much less hilarious and therefore less effective fashion.

This undead protest comes on the 85th anniversary of Lenin's death and subsequent display at the mausoleum. Interestingly, Lenin and his wife had both been against a fancy funeral and (arguably, if he had thought it was possible Stalin would do it Lenin would've...although he's not rolling in his grave yuk yuk yuk, my apologies) Lenin's wife seriously objected to the embalming and showcasing of his remains.

My question is, if Russia buries him, how are we going to continue making jokes (and Russians poems) about how Lenin is really alive and oversees everything at night? Also, in this economy and with the decrease of entombed bodies on display in Russia, what are the guys who have been upkeeping Lenin's physique going to do?

Day 1

On the first day of the Obama Administration, Russians are taking stock and eyeing the future of US-Russian relations, even Father Frost.

"America is a beautiful country – very picturesque – but it has been unlucky with its leaders lately,' said a man dressed as Ded Moroz (a Russian Santa Claus) interviewed by CBS News in downtown Moscow. 'It has been run by the wrong people."

When did Ded Moroz get so political?

Still, the inaguration has put everyone in a good mood, even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei "Who are you to f#*$&^@ lecture me?" Lavrov. When asked about the future, he quipped, "We are open to equal dialogue."

Not a bad start for the first day at work, but tomorrow is a tricky thing.

Jan 16, 2009

Does Azerbaijan Have the World’s Oldest Person?

News reports from Azerbaijan claim to have discovered the country’s oldest living resident: 126 year-old Kableyinovruzali Aslanova*. If true, it would also make her the world’s oldest person. [Sorry for the hotlink, but it's the only known photograph.]

Not so fast, says the official record-holder, 114 year-old Gertrude Baines of Los Angeles. Ms. Baines recently learned of the honor after nurses awoke her from a day-long nap to tell her that 115-year-old Maria de Jesus of Portugal was dead. (By the way, who wants to be awoken from a nap to be congratulated on someone’s death?)

But here’s where the problems begin.

Apparently, the Gerontology Research Group, a group that cares deeply about these things, has verified only 90 supercentenarians in the world (people 110 years or older).

Eternal Remont's own team of crack researchers (err, the intern) has confirmed that Kableyinovruzali Aslanova is definitely not on this list. In fact, our beloved region can not boast a single supercentenarian. The closest we can find is 110 year-old Theresia Staffler-Breitenberger, born in the Austria-Hungary Empire on November 15, 1898.

However, if the Azeri reports are true, then 126 year-old Kableyinovruzali Aslanova would make 114 year-old Gertrude Baines look like a relative youngster, since she was born after invention of the fountain pen, the machine gun, and Coca Cola.

Sorry Gertrude.

Nevertheless, a closer look at Gerontology Research Group’s data shows a clear bias in favor of countries which are known for obsessive, nit-picky record keeping, and do not have a history of revolutions, civil unrest, fur hats, comet strikes, and Gulags. Not that it matters, Kableyinovruzali is taking a nap anyway.

*Gulus Kalbeynovruzali gizi Aslanova, her full name, thanks to readers.

Sur La Table

Polish police apprehended criminal mastermind Janusz D. The 50 year old man was sentenced to 60 days in jail for an unpaid fine today after several months of intensive searching. Acting on an anonymous tip, police showed up to a house and conducted a search. After noticing that the tablecloth in the dining room was "uneven," the suspect was found hiding underneath it. Not under the table...on top of it.

Several things wrong with this picture. Hilariously, also sitting on top of this table was a bottle of vodka (I'm imagining it was empty). If the police had failed to notice the "unevenness" of the table cloth, they probably could simply have noted that the presence of only two other men in the house was insufficient for the typical drinking threesome required when having vodka.

Privatization is...

...the process of transferring ownership of business from the public sector (government) to the private sector (business);

...the reverse process of nationalization; and

...the deadliest thing to hit Russia since the Mongol Invasion? (Just rewatched Mongol recently. Best film of 2008, bar none.)

Today, Judy Dempsey reports in the New York Times on a most interesting study by David Stuckler: “Mass Privatization and the Post-Communist Mortality Crisis: A Cross-National Analysis.” Apparently, the faster a post-communist state privatizes, the more said state's mortality rate skyrockets. Russia was apparently the hardest hit of all. In 1985 the life expectancy of a Russian male was 67, and only last year, the life expectancy was 60. Why?

Unlike the governments of Russia and some other former Soviet states, most governments in Eastern Europe have tried to mitigate the “harmful effects of unemployment” that are linked to mortality, including smoking and alcoholism, the report said.

Maybe the privatization process in Russia should not have been led by a drunk. Just a thought, not a sermon.

Jan 15, 2009

Best Friends Forever

Somehow, Polish President Lech Kaczyński has developed a keen radar for knowing exactly where the cameras will be. If it's Wednesday, he must be in Kyiv, holding a press conference with Victor Yushchenko on the gas crisis.

Can you feel the love?

Interior Minister of Azerbaijan Sues Activist for Abusing Her Freedom of Speech

I'm not kidding. On December 13, Interior Minister of Azerbaijan Ramil Usubov filed a court suit against the director of the Institute of Peace and Democracy (IPD) and human rights activist, Dr. Leyla Yunus. Minister Usubov claims that Dr. Yunus damaged the Azerbaijani police’s reputation in an interview, which was posted on www.day.az on December 3, 2008. In his claim, the minister states, “This interview was published as a result of the abuse of the freedom of speech in the mass media and without any justification, where false and slanderous data discredited business reputation of the police guarded and protected by the law and caused a lot of harm.” He is demanding that Dr. Yunus publish a refutation, publicly apologize, and pay 100,000 manat (about $120,000) as compensation “for causing moral damage to the Interior Ministry.”

Not cool, Baku.

Moldovan Footballers Get Dissed

The Times newspaper recently gave a shout out to up and coming footballer Masal Bugduv, who is apparently "Moldova's finest." Only problem, there is no such person.

It remains unclear where this imaginary person came from, he may be the invention of several bloggers who began touting his mad skills as an inside joke. Too bad the Times didn't get that memo. Hopefully the actual Moldovan footballers who's real skills have been eclipsed by this Mr. X will get over it.

Controversy in the Caucasus

Are we surprised?

Turkishforum.com reports: Armenia’s Defense Ministry on Monday denied a report from Baku alleging that Russian arms had been handed over to Yerevan. Azerbaijani media previously reported that arms worth a total of $800 million had been transferred to Armenia from a Russian military base in the country.

Seriously, it's really tough to analyze this one, when you can't trust any one of the parties involved. 1. There's no doubt Turkishforum.com loves reporting on Armenia buying arms. 2. The media in Azerbaijan are not a beacon of reliability and credibility these days. 3. It's completely plausible arms were transferred from a Russian military base to Armenia. It just is.

Really the only thing surprising is that Georgia hasn't weighed in.

Jan 14, 2009

"новый...новый...новый год"

Amichka's intern claims this is a real band.


(Steklovata, we salute you.)

The Greatest Art Hoax, Ever

When the Czech EU Presidency wanted to present an artistic retrospective of the block, the idea was to have each member state contribute their own symbolic representation.

Unfortunetly, no-one caught on to the fact that it was all an elaborate hoax by Czech artist David Cerny. Not even the Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, who unveiled the project with gushing praise.

Romania: Dracula's themepark?

Poland: Where Catholic monks work for gay rights?

Bulgaria: One giant squat toilet, or land of convenience?

Force Majeure

Ukrainian patriots take heart, the Kremlin has recognized Ukraine as a superior force, literally.

“On Wednesday, Gazprom’s deputy chief executive, Aleksandr I. Medvedev, said the company had informed European customers that it had declared force majeure on its European gas exports through Ukraine.”
Ok, maybe we oversold that just a bit. However, in addition to being elevated to the legal status of a war, volcano or hand of Zeus, Ukraine’s new-found fame as an Act of God will allow Gazprom to skip out the penalties associated with breaking delivery contracts.

Baby steps Ukraine, baby steps.

Eye of the TIGR

We all remember what happened last time Putin was confronted with a tiger, right?

Well this time it's a different kind of tiger, but I'm expecting a similar result (i.e. tranquilizer dart in the neck, then pack stripey off to a zoo somewhere.)

Window on Eurasia and The Power Vertical have both published interesting posts recently on the up and coming TIGR movement (short for the Fellowship of Activist Citizens of Russia). This group, really a bunch of Russian "drivers" in the Far East, has banned together to protest the governments tariffs on cars. From such meager aspirations, however, TIGR has taken on a life of its own and has made a list of political demands. Including ::gasp:: demanding that President Medvedev dismiss President Putin....

It remains unclear who is behind this group, their website and internet forum are relatively moot on that point. Although the Communist Party's attempt to incorporate this movement into their upcoming (Jan 31) dissident protest may be an early tell.

Regardless, Putin has dealt with tigers before and had one as a pet. Couldn't you have a more appropriate name guys?

Hitler Would Be Jealous

Vladimir Putin is about to become Russia's most financially successful painter. His painting for the third Tsarskoye Selo Carnival Foundation auction is one of several done by prominent Russian figures. The painting, seen above, was done to the theme of Nikolai Gogol’s Christmas Eve.

This merely proves that if you lack talent to become a major artist on your own, you must become an extremely powerful politician so that people are afraid enough to buy your work, or view it as something of historical value.... Sorry Hitler

Critic of Chechen President Dies in Austria

...and not from the cold.

New York Times: Umar S. Israilov - a Chechen who had formally accused the president of Chechnya (Ramzan Kadyrov, pictured above in native garb) of participating in kidnappings and torture sessions - was fatally shot Tuesday as he walked out of a grocery store in Vienna, according to his lawyer and family friends.

The shooting appeared to be another politically motivated killing of a Russian citizen who had criticized government conduct. He was ambushed at lunchtime on Tuesday near his apartment as he left a grocery store where he had stopped to buy yogurt. At least four men in two cars were waiting for him. Mr. Israilov tried to run away but was quickly overtaken and shot.

After Mr. Israilov fled Russia, his father was abducted, tortured by Mr. Kadyrov and held illegally for more than 10 months, in an effort to force the son to return home, according to both victims and a human rights worker who investigated the case. His father has since been granted assylum in another European country.

Ovechkin Goes Bauil:

cold as ice.

ESPN:Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are two of the world's best hockey players, fellow Russians who became millionaires by their early 20s, former Olympic team roommates and the NHL's top two scorers last season. The feud between Evgeni Malkin, left, and Alex Ovechkin is causing some anxiety for Russian Olympic hockey officials. But the one-time friends have become cold-as-ice rivals, and their on-ice feud has grown increasingly nasty.

The ugliness has moved off the ice, too, with Ovechkin reportedly taking a swing at Malkin's agent in Moscow.

"Ovechkin is a great player, but every time he hits me -- I don't know why," Malkin said.

Ovechkin's defended his play by saying that he hits hard against every opponent, although he does not have a reputation among his fellow NHL players for regularly throwing his body around.

The feud is reportedly causing some anxiety for Russian Olympic hockey officials.

But what does Colbert think of the gas crisis?

Pretty hilarious, as expected. It's Colbert's Cold War Update.

Jan 13, 2009

Is Burkina Faso to Blame? Only Medvedev Knows

As the gas dispute disintegrated into absolute hilarity, Gazprom Deputy Chief Executive Alexander Medvedev figured this was the perfect time to air a wild conspiracy theory. (Is there ever a bad time?)

"One gets the impression that this whole musical which is happening in Ukraine is being conducted by a completely different country," Medvedev said. He declined to name the specific country, but we’re going to assume he intended to finger Burkina Faso and not the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia has rebooted the crisis since the first run-through didn’t go according to plan. At precisely 7:30 GMT this morning, Gazprom resumed deliveries through Ukraine. However, the Ukrainians report that Russia sent the gas on a magical mystery tour of obscure pipelines, and at very low pressure. The next step is to blame Ukraine for stealing the gas, again. We'll know if its working if we don't see any more of Gerhard Schröder.

All of this is a problem for Viktor Yanukovych, who worries about his lack of press in the dispute and has called for Yushchenko's impeachment. For everyone keeping score at home, this would be the political equivalent of carpet bombing a city after it had been hit by an earthquake.

Hot tea, anyone? We’d offer you some but the gas is out.

What mere words could describe Mr. Putin?

The December 2008 edition of the Journal of Communist Studies and Transitional Politics includes an excellent article: "Putin in Russian Fiction". The article discusses depictions of Putin in a number of works of fiction, either occupying centre stage, performing a secondary role, or making a cameo appearance. I again strongly encourage reading the whole article, but here are some highlights:

In the 2001 novel Gospodin Geksogen, Aleksandr Prokhanov constructs a portrayal of Putin precisely around elusiveness as his dominant trait.

Prezident (2002) portrays Putin as a man of flesh and blood, whose decisive actions bring a resolution to the armed conflict in Chechnya.

And my favorite:

In Russia...there has been a long tradition of suffusing the genre of fairy tales...with political satire, to voice the author's critical opinion of certain aspects of the regime in an accessible form and to try, at the same time, not to get into trouble with the censors...

An early example of the fairy tale genre targeting Vladimir Putin is Natal'ya Babasyan's 'Gadkii Putënok' ('putenok' is an amalgamation of Putin's surname and the Russian word utënok, 'duckling'; it can approximately be translated as 'The Ugly Put-ling'). 'Gadkii Putënok' was published on 6 January 2000, almost immediately after Yeltsin's resignation upon which Putin had become acting president.

A cross between Hans Christian Andersen's 'Ugly Duckling' and George Orwell's Animal Farm, it tells the story of an unattractive but assiduous duckling (Putin) from a poultry yard, who is noted for his diligence and reliability by the Mole (presumably an allusion to the tycoon Boris Berezovskii, who is widely believed to have helped Putin to take over the Kremlin) and the Ginger Cat (modelled, it seems, on the politician Anatolii Chubais, who may have recommended Putin for his first job in the presidential administration30).

With their assistance, the duckling is taken to the household of the Old Farmer (Yeltsin) to manage the poultry yard on his behalf. The duckling's unfortunate appearance plays an important part in his promotion because the Old Farmer's protg is not supposed to be loved by the domestic fowls more than the Old Farmer himself.

The Head Scarf Issue

Apparently, the hujum in 1927 didn't stick. Probably, because it could only remain implemented with a crazy amoral brutality that only Stalin brings to the table.

Today, the Financial Times' Charles Clover reports on the enforcing of mandatory head scarves for women entering public buildings in beautiful Chechnya. He writes:

Many girls are the first in three generations to cover their heads, and it does not come naturally to some. The Soviet Union even encouraged women to burn their headscarves, to discourage its officially atheist youth from falling under the sway of religion.

Forced traditions that haven't been traditions for generations are nothing new to the region. Moreover, I do like the words "even encouraged" there. Apparently, someone skimmed through Veiled Empire Anyway, this is clearly a Russian constitution issue. The Russian constitution strictly separates church from state. Tanya Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says the legality of the headscarf policy in Chechnya is controversial, but:

There seems to be a tacit agreement between the Kremlin and Kadyrov that, as long as the violence is contained, he can do whatever he wants.

Excellent policy for the short term, except inconsistency could lead to more trouble. Previous attempts in other predominantly Islamic regions such as Dagestan and Ingushetia to mandate Islamic values have led to confrontation with the Kremlin.

I strongly suggest you read the whole article. Gas is not the only problem in our beloved Russia.

A Solution at Last!

A reader from observationalism.com offers a fantastic solution to the Russian-Serbian flag burning confusion.

With one simple fix, beauty queens, anarchists and protestors will never again have to worry about hoisting (or burning) the wrong flag.

Well done.

How awesome are things in Serbia...

...if $1.34 million is only good if it's tax free?

NY Times: A Serbian official said the reward of $1.34 million for information leading to the arrest of the country’s most wanted war crimes fugitive, Ratko Mladic, was tax-free. Bruno Vekaric, a spokesman for Serbia’s Special War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, said the reward was exempt from the 20 percent income tax. The same is true of a $334,000 reward for another war crimes suspect, Goran Hadzic, he said. Mr. Mladic commanded the Bosnian Serb troops and Mr. Hadzic led Croatian Serbs in the early 1990s.

You can't tell me there have been people who actually thought, "Man, that is Mladic right there! I'm calling this in, get me $1.34 million!...Of course 20% of that goes to the damn government. So what would I get? $1.072 million? That's barely over a million. Not worth it."

Jan 12, 2009

The Legal Niceties of Flag Burning…

Last month, Miss. Russia opened our eyes to the dangers of mixing flags and beauty contests. This month, we see that the Serbs are burning Russian flags (to protest to gas shut-off).

Having never attended a flag burning, we're not 100 percent sure about the protocol. However, if a Russian flag were to, say, accidently flip during the messy burning process, wouldn’t the Serbs in fact, be burning their own flag? Would it still be a protest against Russia?


In a strange political contest, for which there must have been numerous contenders and tie breaker contests, Russia's biggest "yes-men" of 2008 have been called out by Kommersant Vlast Journal in its December issue (see english summary here courtesy of Pravda.ru).

My personal favorite of the top ten is from Oleg Morozov, spokesman from United Russia, about what oppositionists could possibly criticize about Putin or Medvedev "They are both made of gold, it is true, but this gold is not enough.” Although Svetlana Semenova's comment that “President Putin has always commanded respect and admiration with me. The people have become kinder – this is an attribute of Putin’s policies,” was particularly funny (in a dark way) coming from a reported legal expert.

Remember, just say yes

Medvedev Grows a Pair?

The Financial Times reports, yesterday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took another apparent swipe at predecessor and future supreme leader Vladimir Putin, rebuking his government for moving too slowly to alleviate the country's economic crisis. Medvedev said only 30% of the government's anti-crisis program, which was drafted last October, had been fulfilled. Medvedev also used yesterday's meeting to cite a series of dismal economic indicators, including a 6% drop in Russian industrial output in the final quarter of last year and a sharp drop in global commodities prices that has hit the resource-based economy hard.

Although several attempts by Medvedev to pursue independent policies have been thwarted, Kremlin watchers have noted a new assertiveness in the president of late. Last month, the president declared that he had "final responsibility for what happens in the country" and that "I would not be able to share this responsibility with anyone".

Half of me thinks this is all a set up. The other half hopes Medvedev read too many items questioning his role. :)

The Secret Entrance

This is the point where we go off the map onto uncharted territory. The Serbs are burning Russian flags in Belgrade, elephants in the Sofia Zoo are huddled up to a space heater, and Bulgaria's government has asked the EU for $535.7 million to build new pipelines to Greece and Romania.

Unfortunetly, the EU and Swiss governments have already determined that Bulgaria is too corrupt to spend other people's money. Thus, we are witnessing the birth of a new conflict between 1) the EU’s drive to limit dependence on Russian energy and 2) a desire to keep official funds from being, shall we say, “repurposed” by Bulgarian officials.

It is hard to determine how all of this will play out. But the smart money says the Bulgarians may just have found the secret backdoor into new EU funding. The Serbs, meanwhile, will just have to heat thier homes with all the Russian flags left from Medvedev's last visit.

Pimpin' ain't easy

The Sofia Weekly (my fav weekly) reported over the weekend that Norway is banning paying for prostitution because of a European prostitution ring run from Brussels, Belgium. It seems said prostitution ring is very successful, and sends a number of prostitutes to various cities throughout Europe, including Oslo, Norway. However, since the pimps are not based in these cities, the whores are not able to get into brothels, but must walk the streets, sparking a public reaction in Oslo. And so, as of January 1, any Norwegian citizen caught paying for a prostitute at home or abroad, will face a large fine or a six-month stay in prison.

And who are the pimps that caused all the trouble? Well, they are gentlemen from Sliven, Bulgaria. Just fantastic.

I will say, I do not condone prostitution or pimping; however, this ring is based out of Brussels. And, Benelux countries do indeed make it extremely difficult for our Bulagarian friends to work legally in their countries. Just saying. It's hard out there for a pimp.

Also not surprisingly, I could not find a not offensive picture for this post.

Top "Corruption Destinations"

You know where they are.

The Sofia Weekly: Corruption in Bulgaria is among the top security concerns of the US private sector in 2008, according to a report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council of the US State Department published Wednesday. Bulgaria is ranked as a top "corruption destination" for American businesses abroad together with Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Other key security issues for US investors abroad according to the Report are the attacks of the Somali pirates, and drug wars in Mexico.

I do wonder how exactly these concerns were ranked.

Jan 9, 2009

Lithuania Brings the Smack Down

Jaybird writes that it looks like Lithuania is ready to put the smack down on this whole crisis, as the Ukranians have called for some "Baltic backup."

According to the Baltic Times:

"Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas [pictured] has agreed to take a leading role in negotiations with Ukraine, the EU and Russia over renewing gas supplies to Ukraine. Usackas will join Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzka, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg -- whose country currently holds the EU presidency -- and European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in talks aimed at renewing the flow of gas to Ukraine."
Jaybird adds that most Lithuanians don’t get what the big issue is. The Soviets had a blockade on Vilnius for five months (!) in 1990 that was barely noticed. The tiny nation has proved to be indestructible...and incredibly multilingual.

...which will help save time in translation, we suppose.

Walks Like a Duck

Turkmenistan may no longer look as much like a duck, or even talk as much like one, but underneath its makeover it continues to walk like one.

Since the death of its longtime leader, Saparmurat Niyazov (aka Turkmen Bashi), Turkmenistan has taken numerous steps to clean up its image as a bedraggled dictatorship. Most recently, the image of its former leader has been taken off the national currency (the manat) and is being replaced by other cultural heroes. In mid-December 2008, the national anthem was also edited to remove all mentions of the "Father of Turkmenistan." Also in mid-December, there was an unprecedented parliamentary election which was reportedly held in accordance with electoral laws and (according to Russian observers) "democratic norms." Although I didn't realize it was normal to predetermine a list of candidates all from one party to participate in an election.

Under the leadership of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenistan has also changed its rhetoric to become more acceptable for foreign investors. Turkmenistan has been more open to cooperating in controlling the illegal drug trade and has been instrumental in proposing and international energy security bill at the United Nations.

At the same time, however, RFE/RL Correspondent Osman Hallyev has essentially been placed under house arrest and there has been little improvement on human rights. Activists continue to be jailed and speech or political participation still remains at a minimal.While this duck-tatorship (excuse the horrible pun) may have changed its image and tune, it should not be ignored that Turkmenistan has continued to walk much like the duck of old.

Let the Word Play Begin

"It's a Real Cold War: Angry Bear Freezes Europe," writes Peter Brookes in today's New York Post (the last redoubt of journalism in America).
"But cutting off gas in the dead of winter - especially with teeth-chattering, sub-zero temps in parts of Europe recently - is pretty harsh. (Happy New Year to you, too, comrade.)"

God bless you New York Post, now if only your Washington cousin would institute a Page 6 girl.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is clearly worried it might be loosing the spin war, since all the headlines in Europe point the blame at Russia. Their solution? Bring out a "European" who can explain things. Lucky they just so happen to have a leading European on the payroll....Gerhard Schröder.

Putin met with Schröder and a room full of cameras to discuss the "political collapse" in Ukraine. Not only are the Ukranians "barbarians," but according to Putin, "From the very beginning our Ukrainian partners were going to blackmail us."

So it's Ukraine who's using energy as a weapon...against Russia.

It all makes sense now.

Jan 8, 2009

Solidarity Vlad, Don't you want to haggle?

In a recent interview, former Russian Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, head of Russia's "Solidarity" opposition movement, has claimed that Gazprom is not acting in Russia's best interests. Although he makes a strong point about the variation in prices which Gazprom charges to various countries, Mr. Milov ends a bit weakly when he says that prices should be raised just not as much as Gazprom had first suggested. Having been to Russia myself, I would have thought a homegrown Russian would understand even more clearly the role of haggling.

However, we've got to admire the audacity or perhaps blatant stupidity of giving such an interview at such a time. As we all know, to criticize Gazprom is to criticize the current government, because they can practically hold simultaneous meetings of the Presidential Administration's key people and Gazprom's board of directors (hey, maybe they do?). In view of that fact, criticizing the government which is reportedly already on edge and is seeking to reign in that kind of talk (evidenced by its redefinition of treason and elimination of the jury trial in those cases) is just ....

Edit- Perhaps my Monty Python reference was a bit unclear in the last picture, for any who don't recognize it, it's Life of Brian

"What do you tell your nine year old?"

With the gas gone, it looks like everyone in Bulgaria went out and bought an electric space heater. The problem: there's now an electricity shortage.

So, how do you explain the gas crisis to a nine year old?

"Oh she get's it," says one Bulgarian mom.

Apparently, Bulgarian nine year olds understand more about international relations than CNN.

Update: it seems that the 1,300 animals in the Bulgarian national zoo have been hardest hit. "About a third of the animals are vulnerable to cold," said the zoo's director Ivan Ivanov said. "Only the Siberian tigers feel comfortable in these temperatures."


Everything You Wanted To Know, But Were Afraid to Ask

Jennifer L. Bovair and Edward C. Chow over at CSIS just released a “Critical Questions: The European Gas Crisis,” for everyone who wants to keep up on this gas business.

Q1: What has changed since 2006, when Russia also cut off gas supplies to Ukraine?
Q2: What is Europe’s role in resolving the conflict between Ukraine and Russia?
Q3: What is the foreseeable resolution?
Q4: What impact does the current Russia-Ukraine gas crisis have on international energy prices, particularly for oil?

Glad to see we're counting Ukraine as part of Europe.

Communism. So Hot Right Now. Communism.

I LOVE the irony on this one. In the New York Times, Eric Wilson reported today that Saks Fifth Avenue is starting a new advertising campaign inspired by the Soviet art of the 1920s. I'm not kidding. The store hired Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the stylized Hope poster of Barack Obama. The Saks slogan, “Want It!” is printed in lettering similar to the graphic designs of Rodchenko, the Russian graphic designer who was one of the founders of Constructivism. Wilson assures us though:

Given the pricey goods Saks is selling, it’s not likely anyone would accuse the store of being socialist.

My beef: I hate when people think they're being kitchy by using Cyrillic letters that look like Latin letters. That doesn't say "WANT IT." It says "ShD(backwards L I think)T IT." Just saying.

Jan 7, 2009

The Year of the Russian Language

You might think that the new Chinese year is the year of the ox, but you'd be WRONG! 2009 is the year of the Russian language in China. No joke. In my search to find any regional news NOT about gas, I turned to the Vladivostok Times, which reports that Russia and China have agreed that 2009 will be the year of Russian language in China, and 2010 will be the year of Chinese language in Russia. For the past 10 years high-level contacts between Russia and China have become more frequent. This language exchange dealie aims to promote collaboration and communication on the non-governmental level.

New Script Please

We shut off the gas, and we hold Europe ransom...FOR ONE MILLION DOLLARS!

Don't you think we should ask for more than a million dollars? A million dollars isn't that much money these days.

All right then...FIVE MILLION DOLLARS!

Gazprom alone makes over nine billion dollars a year.

(pleasantly surprised)
Oh, really?

(slightly irritated)
One-hundred billion dollars?

OK, make it happen.
Anything else?