Jun 30, 2009

The Deadliest Catch

A good news story? Seriously I think more Russian journalists die every year than do Alaskan king crab fishermen. You might remember that yesterday, I mentioned the closing of legal casinos in Russia as part of the anti-vice campaign, and made this comment: "No mention in the article on whether or not the anti-vice plan considers killing journalists a vice."

Today, according to Reuters, the editor of a newspaper in southern Russia that campaigned against official corruption died late on Monday. Two months ago, he suffered head wounds from what a colleague and an opposition group said was an attempted murder. Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, 63, who ran the paper 'Korruptsia i Prestupnost' ('Corruption and Crime') in Rostov-on-Don, suffered severe skull damage in the April 30 attack outside his home. An opposition website quoted local media as saying police ruled the injuries resulted either from a brawl or a fall on stairs.

Jun 29, 2009

The Delightful Pleasures of an Open Society

Thanks to rules which prevent foreign governments from influencing U.S. officials with expensive presents, the WashPost has sifted through the State Department's annual list of Gifts from Foreign Officials and found a few real gems. For example, we know that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko really took a liking to former-Vice President Dick Cheney and his family.

The list of his gifts to the Cheney family are best sung aloud to the tune of 12 Days of Christmas:
…Yushchenko gave to Cheney:

“Six plush stuffed animals” (for his grandkids),
"Three Ukrainian cookbooks,"
“Three girls' blouses,”
“Three boys' shirts,”
"Two bottles of 1940 Massandra Golden Collection Wine,"
And a "wooden toy cart with horses," which the family kept.

We sure hope Cheney brought an extra bag to haul all of that stuff home. Either way, we still think the Ukrainians might want to up their game. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, gave Liz Cheney “three pairs of Dr. Scholl’s high-heeled clogs.” That's all you need to know about King Abdullah, elegant, yet oh so very practical.

Gambling Goes Underground in Russia

I'm just predicting the future with that headline. I'm assuming we're going to read about illegal gambling and an increase in crime in Russia sooner than later after this last move.

According to the New York Times, it's snake eyes for hundreds of thousands of people who held jobs in Casinos in Russia. The government is shutting down every last legal casino and slot-machine parlor, under an antivice plan promoted by Prime Minister of Kicking Ass Vlad Putin. No mention in the article on whether or not the anti-vice plan considers killing journalists a vice.

The law that started the whole process was introduced in 2006 by Mr. Putin, then the president and now the prime minister, who spoke of the perils of the blackjack tables and the one-armed bandits, of shady characters having a grip on the industry.

Yes, the shadiest characters in Russia are the men dealing cards at the legally run casinos. (Ern looks up and to the left)

Jun 26, 2009

Gazprom Invests in Nigaz

Please say it's a hoax.

According to the BBC, Gazprom has created a joint venture with Nigeria's state-owned NNPC gas company. "The new firm, to be called Nigaz, is set to build refineries, pipelines and gas power stations in Nigeria."

Oh. Sweet. Lord.

Gazprom to Europe: Don't Get Kinky

Gazprom held its annual meeting today, allowing CEO Alexei Miller the chance to warn Europe that its drive to use non-Gazprom gas was turning into a fetish.

"The push for Europe to diversify suppliers is understandable but it should not turn into a fetish," said Miller.

A fetish, really? You mean that energy security is now "a form of sexual desire in which gratification depends to an abnormal degree on some object or item of clothing or part of the body." How does that work?

Or maybe Miller meant to use fetish as "a charm superstitiously believed to embody magical powers." Does Nabucco really have magical powers?

In all fairness, however, Miller probably meant to use fetish in the sense of "excessive or irrational devotion to some activity."

That would make the most sense. We certinaly agree that Bulgarians spend far too much time "irrationally devoted" to staying warm every time Gazprom shuts off their gas supplies.

Kremlin Inc: Now in the Bank Business?

Russia's state capture continues. However, this time it's the Kremlin that wants to consume vast sections of the economy. Under a new plan to "recapitalize the banking system," the Russian government intends take a massive stake in the country's largest financial institutions. Sounds familiar.

Now the catch:

FT: "Unlike the US bank bail-out, the Russian scheme would see the government take board seats and have veto rights."

So how much does it cost to place hand-picked men & women on the boards of the country's largest banks? $40 billion, according to S&P. Unfortunetly, the Kremlin doesn't actualy have $40 billion to spend at the moment, so the government will finance the whole thing with debt.

Russia's currency reserves, it seems, have gone the way of democracy and a free press.

Jun 25, 2009

Cruel Summer in Turkmenistan (not really)

Shamelessly ripping off, er driving more traffic to, RFERL's TransMission Blog...

I Promise To Be Good Over The Summer Vacation...

Students at Turkmen universities are being made to write a written promise that they will be "good kids" over the summer vacation, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports. In a special letter, they must state that they will not drive a car, visit gambling houses, go abroad, or contact foreign organizations operating in Turkmenistan. A university lecturer in Ashgabat confirmed that students have to sign such letters before starting their summer vacation. Officials at Turkmenistan's Education Ministry have refused to comment on the issue.
So what's the beef with cars? Environment? Safety? Public transportation in Turkmenistan can't be that great. Oh wait, I get it now. In that case, they should have included not boarding planes either.

20 years just FLEW by, didn't they?

I can't believe we missed this, but it turns out this month marks the 20th anniversary of Islam Karimov's selection as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic AND Nursultan Nazarbaev's election into the Kazakh presidency.

What have these Central Asian iron rulers accomplished in 20 years? RFE/RL tells us some tidbits.

Karimov AKA "Big Papa"
- Under his rule, Uzbekistan has emerged as the region's dominant military power.
- "If you don't have the will, give me a gun and I will shoot them in the head myself," he once famously announced to lawmakers, exhorting them to crack down on Islamic extremists.
- Early on, Karimov showed a fondness for overriding constitutional restraints in order to clean house, sacking a member of Uzbekistan's Soviet-era parliament after the country gained independence.
- And something about Andijan...you may have heard about it a massacre or something

- Before his rise to power, Nazarbaev had been a vocal critic of extended political terms, saying no leader should be allowed to stay in office for a long period of time. (a long period of time would be 80 years or so)
- Nazarbaev's critics say his political immortality has created a crisis of widespread corruption, nepotism, and suppression of the opponents in the media and political spheres.
- A number of journalists and high-profile opposition leaders have been arrested, beaten, and killed under Nazarbaev's rule.
- Still, Kazakhstan is undeniably the most prosperous and stable country in Central Asia, and has become so under Nazarbaev's rule. (so that makes eveything else okay?)

Congratulations, men!

Cruel Summer in Ingushetia

This is what you get when you outsource to Chechnya, Russia.

Um, so this is REALLY bad. According to the New York Times, Chechen leader and missing link, Ramzan A. Kadyrov said that he would exact “cruel revenge” on the organizers of a suicide bombing that nearly killed the leader of a neighboring region, Ingushetia.

There's so much to say about this, but I'd like a moment with Kadyrov. The words you were looking for were "swift justice," not "cruel revenge." I know the outcome would be the same, but for once, JUST ONCE, Kadyrov, could you pretend that your a political leader and as such should try to use political language. Just humor us.

Addendum: Are you wearing a pinky ring in this picture where you're holding a golden gun? And now that I've noticed it, I'm actually surprised you don't have a golden silencer for the golden gun.

Does anyone else feel like Kyrgyzstan is a total playa?

According to the New York Times, Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament ratified an agreement today to allow the US to maintain operations the Manas Airbase. The US will now pay $60 million annually for use of the facility, up from $17.4 million under the previous arrangement.

You might remember that Kyrgyzstan had opted to stop allowing the US to use Manas, when Russia had promised Kyrgyzstan something 80 manillion dollars and I think all of Jupiter's moons (no source available on those numbers). So how does Russia feel about this latest decision?

Russia has so far refrained from criticizing the measure, calling it Kyrgyzstan’s 'sovereign right.' But the Russian daily Kommersant quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying this week that the deal had surprised Moscow, and that an 'adequate response' would be made.

Something tells me that next year, the US might pay more than $60 million. Can we end the war on terror already, because I could really use some health care?

Jun 24, 2009

Go Green

Most people do it to save the planet.

Some people do it because they want to rub their "superior awareness" of environmental issues in our faces.

Apparently in Turkey people now do it to avoid punishment for domestic abuse. Yesterday, a court in the Turkish province of Agri sentenced a man to six months of tree planting after he was convicted of spousal abuse. I hate to be a gainsayer, but what exactly is this exercise going to achieve? In six months this man may have learned nothing (other than horticulture) and gained nothing (except a some young saplings probably grown just enough to be used as switches)...

Russia: Outsourcing to Chechnya?

Apparently, the Kremlin has ordered Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (allegedly the brains behind Politkovskaya’s assassination) to transform Ingushetia into a peaceful Zen garden.

Speaking to the Reuters, Mr Kadyrov said the Russian leadership had told him to intensify operations in both Chechnya and Ingushetia. "[Medvedev] told me to intensify actions... including in Ingushetia. I will personally control the operations... and I am sure in the near future there will be good results."

We’re sure the locals in Ingushetia are going to absolutely love knowing that Kadyrov is "personally [in] control" of their territory as well. Not like President Yevkurov can do much. He remains in the hospital following an assassination attempt.

And it’s only June. Insurgency season in the Caucuses is just getting started.

You can't sell furniture for pennies AND pay bribes

It's just not good business. According to the New York Times, it seems that Ikea is pulling out of Russia, because of rampant corruption in business. In a radio interview, Ikea’s 83-year-old founder said that Ikea had decided not to solve problems by slipping money under the table.

The decision is particularly damning for Russia because Ikea runs outlets in dozens of countries around the world and is hardly thin-skinned when it comes to dealing with bureaucracies.

Yeah some other countries where Ikea operates: Italy, Kuwait, Singapore, and China. Come on, Russia.

Jun 23, 2009


If Bulgaria’s always-entertaining Boiko Borissov manages to win next month’s elections, the country will have a new prime minister. Even better, Eternal Remont will have years of new and hilarious content. Sure a Center-Right coalition of democratic parties is possible, but so is a Borissov coalition with the even-more entertaining Ataka! party.

Just how crazy is the Ataka! platform? Well for starters, the party has made “Leaving NATO” a top foreign policy priority. On the domestic front, Ataka! has stated that post-Communist privatization will be “subject to revision.” All the while, Ataka! threatens “severe sanctions” for anyone “defaming Bulgaria.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Gorby Drops an Album

No, for serious. According to Foreign Policy Passport, Mikhail Gorbachev has a debut album.

An "anonymous British philanthropist" bought what we suppose is Mikhail Gorbachev's "debut album", Songs for Raisa, in London this week, bidding $164,940 (about £100,000) at an auction to benefit the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation.

Gorby dropped it like it's hot! And those lovely people at FP Passport via Novaya Gazeta made my day by giving us access to one of the songs. Assuming there are about 10 songs on the album, you just listened to a $16,494 song.

Take the train

If you live in Lithuania, Poland, or Romania, you're really better off taking public transportation to move around. A recent study by the Brussels non-profit European Transport Safety Council indicates that the roads in those three central and east European states are the most dangerous in the EU.

Kudos to Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Lithuania for making the roads safer. I'd like to know what was up with Latvian roads in 2001, but good work on getting the numbers down so dramatically, even if it's as dangerous there as Bulgaria. Speaking of Bulgaria, what's with the increase in mortality? Poland and Romania...apparently even high profile road deaths make no difference either.

Seriously, I'm taking the train.

Literally Rewriting WWII history (Part IV)

When I wake up and find another Russian revision of World War II story, I know it's going to be a good day. Polish source disclaimer: As usual, my sources on this issue are Polish, so I encourage Russian googlers to hunt down originals, if they exist on the internet.

The latest claim aired on Sunday on the ever-truthful Russian TV, "The Molotow-Ribbentrop Pact: Historical Investigation," claims that:
  • Poles admired the Nazis and the Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck had a photo of Hitler in his office. (Implication: Poles are fascists. Now, was Beck a nationalist who wanted to keep down minorities in Poland? Probably. But there's a wide gulf between a post-independence nationalist surge and admiration for the Nazis.)

  • Poland "wanted to outfox everyone" by jointly planning an attack with Germany and Japan on the USSR. (This one just makes me laugh.)

  • A secret protocol of the 1934 Polish-German Nonaggression Pact agreed to to mutual defense in the event of an attack. (Oh the magic of the secret protocol!)

  • The lands the Soviet Union acquired by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact were not Polish, but actually Russian, since they had been part of the Russian empire (I know, I know, jaybird. Lithuania was not a Polish land. Also, Gazeta Wyborcza's writer at this point comments that it's a good thing that Russians choose to forget that Warsaw was once part of the Russian empire as well. )
And ER fans be heartened, it appears that there will be a lot more of this programming going on throughout the summer, leading up to the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Jun 22, 2009

Russia, Like its 1909...

One hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II commissioned Sergey M. Prokudin-Gorsky to document the Russian empire on film. In the process, Prokudin-Gorsky not only created a new technique for coloring black and white photographs, but recorded some of the most stunning, and haunting, images of a quiet world on the cusp of a revolutionary upheaval from which it would never retrun.

See it here and the full archive here.

...Ingushetia, Like its 1999

The President of Ingushetia Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was ambushed in Nazran over the weekend. He somehow managed to survive the high-speed collision and bomb attack with his life. While President Medvedev has called it "an act of terror," we can’t help but get that sinking feeling that its 1999 all over again.

Days since Putin declared victory in neighboring Chechnya: 66.

[You can see more video of the aftermath here.]

One step forward

a billion steps back...

In an effort to rectify "mistakes" (if that word can be considered strong enough) of the past administration, the decision was made to close Guantanamo and release and/or try detainees for their crimes in courts of law. A significant challenge in translating this policy into reality has been the task of finding countries willing to accept (or in some cases re-accept) detainees into their sovereign boundaries. I mean, even Canada said "No." This is particularly true regarding the 17 Uighur detainees. Not because China wasn't ready to take them back, but because according to these men, life in China would be worse than Gitmo, and probably shorter-lived.

Last week, 4 of the 17 Uighur detainees were relocated to Bermuda. In the midst of the goodwill this created for the U.S. abroad and at home, Representative Steve King managed to destroy it all that last week with a flippant reference to the former detainees "wasting away again in marga-uighur-ville." It might've been funny if it wasn't so crass. May I kindly suggest that representatives of the U.S. government spend more time examining human rights issues instead of begrudging their vacation spots. Bad form.

Jun 19, 2009

The Pushkin Brothers

Pearls Before Swine


To the eternal Russian question "Что делать?" (what is to be done?), Eternal Remont has responded with "что бы Путин делает?" (What would Putin Do?) and discovered an an answer:

In your face Chernyshevsky.

Jun 18, 2009

Whatever You Can Do

Putin will make you do better.

That's the message we're hearing from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin more and more often these days. Putin has gone on a cross-country rampage, making it clear that people are just not up to his standards.

At a time when no one seems capable of making decisions, Putin is stepping in. First he throws a pen at oligarch Oleg Deripaska and forces him to sign an agreement to buy raw materials to reopen a Pikalyovo cement factory. "Do better, or we'll do it without you," he told Deripaska. Barely a week later, he's told celebrated painter Ilya Glazunov that the sword in his work Prince Oleg with Igor would only be good for slicing sausages. “I don’t miss a single detail,” Putin told Glazunov.

What do Russian art and oligarchs have in common? Come to think of it, Putin really is the best qualified person to give advice on both subjects. His first painting sold for a whopping 37 million rubles last year, setting a new record sale price. He's also squirreled away something away for a rainy day himself..::cough:: forty billion ::cough:: and might himself be associated with a few questionable business endeavors. Look out Dima, we know what else he's good at...

Jun 17, 2009

Green Tycoons: Missing in East Europe

The Times of London has released a list of the top 100 “Greenest Tycoons” in the world. Curiously, not a single person from the former-Soviet Union or Central & Eastern Europe made the list.

Alwasy the over-achievers, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates took the top slots for investments in renewable fuels and wind power (respectively). China’s Jifan Gao, worth a measly $326 million, rounded out the bottom for investments in solar power.

Meanwhile, the likes of Mikhail Prokhorov (Russia’s richest man) apparently have more important things to do with, say, the $9 billion left over from investments in aluminum smelters. Take for example Prokhorov's latest creation: Snob -- the exclusive social-networking site for billionaires.

The Iranians can twitter all they like, Prokhorov has rich people to poke.

Life on Planet Belarus...Just Got Stranger

Last week, Russia proudly informed the WTO that, membership would be nice, but it really wanted to join the group as a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus; just one big happy free-trading family.

So what did our trade BFF’s do for an encore? Why Belarus chose to launch a bitter trade war, for starters.

“AP: Belarus has set up customs posts on its border with Russia for the first time in 14 years as a trade dispute between the two countries escalates...Belarus has not had customs posts on its border with Russia since 1995.”

By the way, anyone willing to take a quick read of the WTO’s rules on customs unions will notice “that the purpose of such agreements should be to facilitate trade between the constituent territories and not to raise barriers to the trade of other Members with such territories.” This is to prevent countries from using a customs agreement to raise trade taxes on other countries.

Strangly, the WTO doesn’t seem to have anticipated a scenerio whereby two countries would announce their intention to form a customs union for the purpose of actually raising barriers on each other. That would defeat the whole purpose of forming a customs union in the first place.

Not on planet Belarus.

Jun 16, 2009

CSTO: Where "Unanimous" Goes to Die

It looks like Moscow’s plan to revive the moribund Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO ) is proving to be a lot harder that issuing a press release and holding a summit.
"A June 14 summit in Moscow of the Collective Security Treaty Organization devolved into a very awkward affair for the Kremlin, as the authoritarian-minded leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka, boycotted the gathering, and Belarus and Uzbekistan opted not to sign a key agreement to create a rapid reaction force."

Belarus is miffed because the Kremlin redefined “unanimous approval by all six member states” to mean unanimous approval by all six member states, except Belarus. Also, Minsk wants to make milk imports the subject of CSTO talks, leaving Russia’s delegation at their wit's end.

Milk, you want to talk about milk? This is a defense organization.

And to think, prior to becoming president, Medvedev's only problem was how to spend billions of dollars on popular “National Priority Projects” for health, housing, education and agriculture.

Sorry Medvedev.

Azerbaijan's Next President?

In light of Azerbaijan's proposed NGO law, we can probably assume that President Aliyev will want to maintain his country's proud post-Communist tradition of dynastic succession. If so, let's not waste any time getting to know Azerbaijan's Next Top Model President: Leyla Aliyev.

Her interests include working with the UN on international youth cooperation, the Khojaly genocide and looking fabulous.

Russia Leads Europe!

...in journalist killings.

According to The Moscow Times,Russia leads Europe in the number of journalists killed in homicides and accidents since 1991 and that many of the deaths were politically motivated but largely ignored by law enforcement authorities. On Monday, the International Union of Journalists presented a report that lists 312 homicides and accidents in Russia. A few hundred more deaths, and I'm pretty sure that journalist killings officially get factored into the declining population problem.

Russia Vetoes UN Peacekeeping Mission in Georgia

This is horrible because the peacekeepers were doing such an awesome job (Ern looks up and to the left)

According to The Washington Post, yesterday, Russia vetoed a UN resolution authorizing the continued presence of nearly 150 UN peacekeepers in Georgia, abruptly ending a 15-year long U.N. effort to monitor Georgia's fragile border with the separatist territory of Abkhazia.

Seriously, it's like I knew the peacekeepers were there, but I'm still somehow surprised they were there. I mean, what have they been doing?

Jun 15, 2009

Why do governments hate NGOs so much?

So it seems my favorite Caucasian country (seriously, I love Azerbaijan) is trying to amend a new NGO law that would make civil society work more difficult in the country. How? Well, take a look at some of the ammendments:

- Non-registered NGOs will be banned and administrative action will be brought against their founders (i.e. fine in for of Euro 50 000 and probably detention).
- NGOs can be registered only after the confirmation given by Ministry of Interior and Ministry of National Security.
- If an officially registered NGO does not have branches in one third of administrative districts of Azerbaijani Republic, it will not be allowed to hold any activities in the districts of the country.
- An NGO's budget cannot consist of more than 50% of foreign donations, and as almost all resources available in Azerbaijan are controlled by the government this implies that no civil society support projects can be conducted without the permission from the government.
- Foreign NGOs can operate in Azerbaijan only after bilateral agreement between Azerbaijan and their countries.

Honestly, before I get into what's being done about this, governments around the world, allowing NGOs makes for low-paying jobs that allow semi-academics to work and make enough to eat. Let them have their NGOs. Please.

In any case, several organizations in Azerbaijan have written an appeal to stop these amendments from passing. Find their appeals here and here and for our Azeri speakers, here. If you're convinced, support their cause.

Ukraine: Prostitution Up, Football Investment Down

As Ukraine's unemployment rate soars by 50 percent, one industry is booming: sex.

Sadly, the CSMonitor reports, Ukraine's "sex industry is set to more than double in value, going from $700 million in 2008 to $1.5 billion this year." Hard to say how anyone can put an exact dollar figure on the industry. Still the economic downturn is having a very real impact on the lives of young women.

"My choice was to work as a prostitute or go home," [Tonya] says, glancing around nervously. "I could never have done it but for the circumstances. I don't want to work as a prostitute, but I need to get an education so I can get a decent job."

If that wasn't enough, it looks like Ukraine's preperations for the 2012 European Football Championship are falling dangerously behind schedule. As the BBC reports,"The new Donbass Arena may never host a match in Euro 2012. Not because there is anything wrong with the stadium itself, but because the other infrastructure simply is not there - the airports, the highways and the hotels."

Oddly, graft and corruption are somehow involved.

Jun 12, 2009

United Russia: We Don't Need No Stinkin' Democracy

Sometimes, the lead just speaks for itself.

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia does not need to move toward greater democracy because the financial crisis requires strong leadership, a think-tank close to the ruling party United Russia has said in a report.
That's like saying that Brittney Spears doesn't need lip syncing lessons because her world tour requires too much of her time.

If we followed United Russia's own reasoning to its conclusion, can we assume that Russia actually needed greater democracy while the economy was doing well? But that doesn't make any sense at all, since that was the same period in which United Russia did everything in its power to kill the democratic process.

Taking a hint from the report, we are compelled to offer a few suggestions for future United Russia research topics...

--Putin: World's Greatest Judo Master, or the New Jesus?
--Sochi: Gateway to the future, or Future gateway?
--Beets: the Other Red Meat.

Jun 11, 2009

Pork Wars: Love Your Enemy

If you didn't hear, the World Health Organization has elevated the H1N1A virus (swine flu) to pandemic levels. This prompted WHO Chief Margaret Chan to repeat the now-familiar mantra, “Countries should not close borders or impose travel restrictions to halt the movement of people, goods and services due to a geographical expansion of the virus.”

Looks like Russia didn't get the memo. At least, that would explain why Russian officials have expanded the ban on pork imports from the United States. Last week it was pork from Utah. This week it's Pennsylvanian pork.

Officially, the ban on American pork is supposed to prevent the spread of H1N1A, even if pork does not spread the virus. "That ban on trade is unnecessary,” said Chris Ryder at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.


Well, it that all depends on your definition of unnecessary, Mr. Ryder. According to RIA Novosti, “A Russian government official earlier [stated] that Russia is not overly concerned with the new pandemic.”

Ok then, maybe the ban is unnecessary. But why American pork?

Clearly, the Kremlin is trying to protect the domestic pig-farming industry by forcing Russian consumers to buy lower-quality Russian pork. However, it also happens to make Russian agricultural officials look backward and ill-informed, since pork products don’t actually transmit H1N1A. Then again, all of this derives from the same government mind-set that once claimed the Soviet Union was free of all STD’s.

None. Zero. Not in the Worker’s Paradise.

More smoked ham anyone?

The Czech Republic is the new Bulgaria

Ok, it's official: The Czech Republic has become the new Bulgaria as the epicenter of weird. (And I love Bulgaria, literally.)

So what happens when a Missouri mom posts the family Christmas photo on her obscure blog? Why, it ends up as a the centerpiece of an advertizing campaign for a Czech grocery store – of course.

AP: “One of Smith's college friends was driving through Prague when he spotted their huge smiling faces in the window of a store specializing in European food…’It's a life-size picture in a grocery store window in Prague — my Christmas card photo!’ said Danielle Smith.”

Mario Bertuccio (who we suspect is not Czech) owns the store. He knew the photo was "from the Internet," but claims that he didn’t know the family was real. “We'll be happy to write an e-mail with our apology,” said Bertuccio. Since Bertuccio is dealing with Americans, he might just have to write a check to their lawyer as well.

By the way, Smith’s blog has received 180,000 hits since the story went viral. Seeing opportunity, I'm toying with the idea of posting photos from that lost weekend in Baku. I could be the face of Yves Saint Laurent in Malaysia.

Jun 10, 2009

Let's learn about Bashkortostan

And why it's leader will soon be dead.

Not gonna lie, I don't know much about Bashkortostan (an energy-rich southwestern region in the Russian Federation). One time, I edited my friend's final paper on Bashkortostan, and I haven't really kept up on it. All the same, the New York Times put out an article today that left me with more questions than answers, and I WELCOME angry comments correcting me.

So it seems Murtaza Rakhimov, 75, the leader of Bashkortostan since 1990, gave an interview with a Moscow paper. In the interview, he asserts that Russia’s political institutions were “embarrassing to look at” and that the country “is walking away from the process of democratization.”

Right now, everything is decided from above. The level of centralization is worse than it was in Soviet times. With respect to local people, they carry out a policy of distrust and disrespect.

Let's do this, 1. I'm always caught off guard when any man living in Russia makes it past 65. 75 years old. What's his secret to longevity?

2. I'm glad he made it to 75, but now he's going to die, right? I mean. Ballsy.

3. A man who's been the leader of a region since 1990 is upset about the country's process of democratization? Again, I don't know that much about Bashkortostan, so maybe there's no term limits on running Bashkortostan, and maybe he's been voted in every time. I don't know.

Please, someone, wikipedia all this already.

Voter turnout was better when not voting could get you killed

According to the NY Times, our beloved former communist, now EU countries didn't really care about the most recent parliamentary elections.

The average turnout for the 10 former Communist countries was just over 31 percent, compared with an overall average of 43.1 percent for the 27-nation European Union. The turnout in Eastern Europe was uneven. More than 52 percent voted in Latvia because, analysts said, the parliamentary election coincided with local government elections; only 20 percent voted in Lithuania.

Why? Several theories. Most prominent, lack of information or um proof as to how the EU makes people's lives better in these countries. Ouch.

But honestly, isn't it the right of those living in democratic countries to abstain from voting? Maybe all the candidates weren't worth voting for? Silver lining?

Jun 9, 2009

But is it Violence?

Last week, someone threw an egg at Czech Social Democratic Party leader Jiri Paroubek. Ok they threw lots of eggs. Opponents had been stalking Paroubek for quite some time, scored several misses, and finally managed to hit him with a good salvo despite -- get this -- police protection against egg attack. While this would be a mild embarrassment for anyone, it was nothing that a quick shower and a new shirt couldn’t fix.

Paroubek’s response? Why he threatened to pelt any journalist who reported the story with the same indignity (egg attack). This practically guaranteed that a passing story would jump from the back pages of the Czech press and crack into the international arena.

"After the elections, I will take a basket of eggs and come to your newsroom and throw them at you," Paroubek said.

Mission accomplished. Now the whole world is talking about it.

Turns out, the Czechs take their egg throwing seriously. So seriously, that it’s now on par with terrorism and ethnic cleansing. “An egg thrown at a politician has always been a symbol. But this is no longer a symbolic expression of disagreement. This is political violence,” said Tomas Lebeda of Palacky University.

To review…

--Political violence in Tajikistan: civil war.
--Political violence in Iraq: bomb.
--Political violence in the former Yugoslavia: ethnic cleansing.
--Political violence in the Czech Republic: throwing an egg.

At least in the Czech Republic, no-body has to die.

Oh Snap

In today’s WashPost, four rather well-known individuals (including Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center and Lilia Shevtsova at Carnegie Moscow) unleashed a broadside against the administration’s emerging Russia policy. It is chock-a-block with quotes.

“...in blaming the Bush administration for trying to ‘teach’ Russia about democracy, [American] realists appear to accept the official Russian position.” [That means you, D-i-mitri Simes.]

Or this gem:

“In our view, America has ignored the problems of democracy and civil society in Russia, but even turning a blind eye did not prevent the breakdown in the U.S.-Russian relationship -- and now Obama is essentially being asked to treat Russia as though it is incapable of democratic transformation.”
More hand buzzers, anyone? What about reset buttons...rubber chickens maybe?

Lilia Shevtsova has been one of the most underrated political analysts in Russia. That is unfortunate, because it looks like she's also one of the bravest as well. Kudos to the authors.

Ukraine: Repeating mistakes since 2005

From the New York Times (as if I need to actually give a reference, as if this isn't general and accepted knowledge): Ukraine is incapable of forming coalitions!

Pani PM Yulia acknowledged Sunday night that talks to create an alliance between her party and opposition forces in Parliament had collapsed, putting an end to her plan to undercut her former ally, Pan President Viktor the Orange.

In a televised address, Yulia said she had hoped to build a broad coalition to address the economic crisis. Then she accused the Parliament opposition leader and former PM, Pan Viktor the Blue, of betraying her.

Are there no soap operas playing in Ukraine anymore, that Tymoshenko, Yanukovych, and Yushchenko feel the need to continue this ridiculous plot line on television? All that's missing is a love child and Maury Povich to conduct the paternity test. Come on, Ukraine!

The Right is rocking out Europe...

...so why do they love Obama so much?

According to Slate's Anne Applebaum (who apparently never heard of us, but we or at least I still love her all the same), the Right-Wing is kicking a$$ and taking names in Europe. Just look at the results from the European parliamentary elections:

In France, Germany, Italy, and Poland—four of Europe's six largest countries—center-right governments got unexpectedly enthusiastic endorsements. In the two other large countries, Britain and Spain, left-wing ruling parties got hammered, as did socialists in Hungary, Austria, Estonia, and elsewhere.

Why are they doing so well? Well, it seems that they actually are sticking to capitalism. Applebaum claims that in Europe "there are few equivalents of either George W. Bush's budget deficits or Barack Obama's spending binge."

So kudos to Europe, especially to our friends in Poland, Hungary, and Estonia, for believing in capitalism...God, I hope it works out for you.

Jun 8, 2009

So free plane tickets didn't solve the problem?

I guess that Vietnam is in fact that awful.

So, remember back in February, when the Czechs offered a free plane ticket and $649 to any foreign worker who agreed to return home after losing their jobs in the economic downturn? Well according to the New York Times, it turns out about 2,000 Mongolians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs took up the offer. But it also turns out that there were more than 2,000 migrants in the Czech Republic. And in fact, the largest remaining migrant population is the Vietnamese community. Oh, and a good number of them aren't actually migrants, but second-generation residents who were born among the workers who came over in the 70s.

So solutions? ... None have been offered as of yet...

Jun 5, 2009

Literally Rewriting WWII history (Part III)

We want to give a major shout-out to reader Livlivs Maximus who found the original text of an article posted on the Russian Ministry of Defense website, which claims:

“Everyone who without prejudice studied the history of the second world war know that it started because Poland did not want to meet German demands.”
It seems that the Russian Defense Ministry had second thoughts and has since removed the article. But, as we know, nothing is ever erased from the Internet. Thanks to the wonders of Google, and our readers, you can still read it here.

Livlivs Maximus, awesome job. For our eternal thanks, we're happy to grant you 100 Zimbabwean dollars, payable to a Swiss account of your choosing.

Jun 4, 2009

On why facebook should not be used for policy discussions

Oh, RFERL!  (Thanks to Carrie for the link!)

Sto lat!

Trans: Maybe the walls fell, but the communist mentality did not.

I'd like to somewhat belatedly congratulate Poland on its 20th anniversary of the first semi-free elections in Poland. The true culmination of the Solidarity movement, the pacted transition, democracy on the march, a lot to celebrate. How did the leadership in Poland celebrate? As divided as possible. The president went to Gdansk, the prime minister invited his Visegrad buddies to Krakow, and Lech Walesa (remember him?) gave a speech in Warsaw. So much for the concept of Solidarity. And the ironic reason for this geographic split is that the Solidarity trade union was planning a strike in Gdansk and the prime minister didn't want to be embarrassed in front of his friends.

In all seriousness, it is a momentous occasion and an anniversary for a dramatic event which is often overlooked in US and West European history because of a little thing that happened in China that very same day. But with these elections, the Soviet satellite system began to crumble, later leading to more PR-friendly events, such as walls tumbling down.

Sto lat!

The Swine, or, Pork Wars...

Sensing opportunity, Russia "has added Utah to the list of U.S. states from which imports of live pigs and pork are banned due to the H1N1 virus, the country's animal and plant watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor said on Thursday."

To review: "The spread of the virus, commonly known as swine flu, is not caused by pigs and pork."

Silly Russians. They just don't get it, right? Wrong.

In fact, this has to be one of the most brilliant covers for trade protectionism ever devised. If there was a used-car flu, you can bet the farm there'd be a Russian ban on car imports to protect the country's auto industry. Avian flu? Well, the U.S. and Russia have already gone 12 rounds over chicken imports.

The Russian government "gets it" better than anyone else .

Literally Rewriting WWII history (Part II)

According the Polish Daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, Russia wants to correct some basic misconceptions about the start of World War II. Apparently this statement is now posted on the Russian ministry of defense website (russophone friends, please feel free to verify translation):

"Everyone who without prejudice studied the history of the second world war know that it started because Poland did not want to meet German demands. However, not many know exactly what Hitler demanded from Warsaw. German demands on Warsaw were very moderate: - including the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk) into the Third Reich, permitting for the building of extrateritorial railway that would connect East Prussia with the majority of Germany. It is difficult to call these demands unjustified."

I'm starting to get really confused about what Russia thinks WWII was really about. I thought they disliked fascists...but apparently appeasing their extra territorial claims is ok?

Oh Moldova, I forgot you were there...

Remember Moldova? The dubious twitter revolution? Pointing fingers at Romania? The looting?

Here's what's happening now according to the NY Times: President Vladimir Voronin failed in Parliament on Wednesday to secure the election of an ally, Zinaida Greceanii, as his successor. Many believe that her election would have allowed Mr. Voronin to effectively continue running the country. Opposition parties boycotted the vote for Ms. Greceanii, who like Mr. Voronin is a Communist, and her bid for the presidency failed by one vote. The outcome should set off a new general election.

Bets on how long not building a government can go? I believe Ukraine currently holds the record.

Jun 3, 2009

My Bad

That's the message from the Russian navy anyway, which "mistakenly" missed their targets and succeeded in attacking a small village near St. Petersburg and close to the Finnish border on Thursday, May 28. Apparently, the village surrendered quickly to this onslaught.

Big oops? A new means of quelling dissent? Or a secret Russian military coup to start a war with Finland gone awry? We may never know.

One things for sure, we can be a little less worried about conventional war with Russia if they're actually intending to aim at us. But now a little more worried about if they're not...

Jun 2, 2009

Trans-slavic custody battle goes bad

What happens when a Pole and a Bulgarian marry, have two kids, things go sour and they battle over custody?  See footage below.

The backstory, according to the Polish press, is that the Bulgarian court gave custody rights to the mother of the two kids.  But the father won't let them out of Bulgaria, where they have been living for the last year since the court decision.  The mother decided to come and get them herself.  Knowing she was in for a fight, she armed herself with the Polish consul general, a translator, a representative of the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice, a judge, a psychologist, and a social worker, all of whom were escorted by the police to the father's home.  Neither the reason of law nor social science could convince an angry group of bystanders at the father's residence, who attacked the whole delegation.  The mother was able to escape to the car with her daughter, where the crowd continued to attack the car, according to the Polish consul.  The son mysteriously disappeared.  

Putin’s Headshot Controversy Stirs Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s decision to ban Scientologists from editing the wiki page on scientology (Wikipedia to Scientologists: Edit this, suckers) prompted us to check up on the never-ending controversy over Vladimir Putin’s English language Wikipedia entry.

Strangely, most of the hot-button issues are not that crazy. Take for example the dispute over whether Putin is “widely credited for reduced corruption and lawlessness” in Russia – or just the opposite. Also, some wiki nerds worry that Putin’s entry omits any mention of allegations he (or, by extension, the FSB) were behind the 1999 apartment bombings across Russia. This was the official casus belli for the Second Chechen War, and broadly reported in mainstream western media outlets.

However, the most intersting debate, by far, revoles around something that really matters: What photo to use when depicting Putin? Here are a few choice comments from Wiki contributors:

"This photo in my opinion makes Putin look more like an office manager than a president.” -- Russavia

“It makes me vomit for some reason.” -- Colchicum

“I do not like the picture, it makes me shiver. Putin here looks like a zombie or a wax figure or Michael Jackson after nth plastic surgery." -- Anonymous

Follow along in all the Putin glory...

Teaching Russians to Read between the Lines

So, as you may know, pretty much everyone considers the Russian media to be not free or assasinated. Aware of this problem, Russians have decided to take a short cut in solving the problem. Instead of improving the quality of Russian news or providing any kind of safety for the ballsy journalists, the good folks at Moscow State University has decided to encourage critical reading of non-critical articles. That's right the university has developed a program for the city schools that will encourage students to “form a critical attitude to the mass media... [and] teach children how to separate useful from manipulative information.”

I would love to take a look at this curriculum.

Jun 1, 2009

The showdown: bicycle vs. segway

It looks like Poles are getting a handle on the suing for damages philosophy.

Picture a peaceful boardwalk on a warm spring day in the beach destination of Sopot. A woman is happily biking down the boardwalk, when all of the sudden, a woman on a segway rear-ends her. The cyclist flies off the bike and injures her hand. The Sopot police is a little befuddled, since they have no precedent. They investigate the physics of the situation, calling on experts, reenactments, the whole deal. Today, the Sopot police filed charges against the segway driver. Maximum sentence: 3 years jail.

[EDIT: A new picture of beautiful Sopot, since the old one went linkdead after being hit by a segway.]

Do svidaniya, Matryoshka!

According to the Washington Post, matryoshki (Russian nesting dolls) might go the way of the dodo. Why? Because tourism is down. Tourism down in Russia? Really? Who would have thought that an incredibly difficult visa process (unless you're a football fanatic) and the rise of xenophobic inspired violence would ward off tourists?

Still, I cannot believe that this will be the end of matryoshki. What else can Russia sell that tourists will want to buy? You can't legally take caviar out anymore. People can get good vodka outside the country and can get a hold of anti-freeze if they want Russian moonshine. I for one would like to show my support for the matryoshki industry. Who's up for starting an online petition?