Some of you may know that I’ve started writing op-eds on Russia for Al-Jazeera English. Here’s an snippet of my latest on the Russian elections:
In mid-November, the Russian site Slon.ru noted that political brands have a life cycle of five stages – “rise”, “peak”, “stabilisation”, “fall”, and “political death”. As brands, Russia’s political tandem, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and the ruling party United Russia, are no less immune to this cycle. Their popularity peaked in 2008-2009, was stable throughout 2010, and began to fall rapidly in the second half of 2011. In this sense Russia’s ruling elite are little different than, say, a pop song or a breakfast cereal. The more you consume them, the more disgusting they become, until their mere mention evokes the dry heaves.
As returns from Sunday’s polls show, more and more of the Russian electorate are getting nauseous with the political establishment, and Putin in particular. Technically, Sunday’s elections were about determining the Russian Duma (parliament) for the next five years. But, in reality, they were a popularity vote for Putin: the man, the politician, and the system he created. And if there is any doubt that “Putinism” is on a downward swing, just take a look at Sunday’s polls compared to the last election in 2007. In 2007, United Russia received 64.3 per cent of the vote, giving it a supermajority of 315 seats. On Sunday, United Russia got 49.5 per cent and is slated to get 238 seats. That’s a drop of 14 per cent and a loss of 77 seats. One should also note that United Russia got walloped in regional parliaments. In three regions, Krasnoyarsk, Primorye, and Sverdlovsk, the Party of Power didn’t even break 38 per cent. Considering that this is the first election since 2003 that United Russia’s power shrank, this election is a turning point.
The whole article is here.
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By Sean — 4 years ago
The consensus around Russia’s ban of food imports from the US and EU is that Russia is only hurting itself. As a NY Times editorial, aptly named “Russia Sanctions Itself,” stated, “No doubt many producers in these countries will feel the loss of $30 billion in food exports to Russia, but the overall effect on their large and diversified economies will be marginal. Russia, by contrast, imports about 40 percent of its food needs in terms of value, and the Russian agriculture minister has acknowledged that the sanctions would cause a spike in inflation.” If this is the case, then what’s Putin’s strategy behind the food ban?
Writing in Slon, Maksim Samorukov takes a stab at Putin’s possible strategy. In 2013, the EU exported 10.5 billion euros of food to Russia, about 10 percent of its total agricultural exports, making it the second largest market after the US. It’s a growing market, Samorukov states, because Russia imports three times more from Europe than it did ten years ago. Moreover, these exports are important to balance trade in Russian oil and gas. Nevertheless, 10.5 billion euros doesn’t seem like a lot when spread over 28 EU countries. Nevertheless, some countries will be more affected than others as this chart shows.
And this is perhaps what Putin is banking on. Europe’s agricultural lobby will put pressure on their governments and countries like Spain, which has the most to lose with Russia’s food ban, will break the solidarity of the EU. It’s wishful thinking, for sure, but here’s what Samorukov argues:
- The food ban will hit European farmers, and their discontent might force governments to weaken their resolve. Samorukov writes, “Farmers in Europe are very organized people, with extensive experience in lobbying and a tradition of organizing mass demonstrations at the slightest threat to their welfare. You can always find a group of fishermen or peasants at the official European Union buildings in Brussels expressing their indignation at the next food policy. And if it comes to any major changes in agricultural policy, then there is bound to be a crowd of many thousands. . .” Moreover, these farmers will have the sympathy of the population, adding to the political pressue. Putin is essentially counting on European democracy to work in his favor.
- The EU’s pocket book is squeezed on both sides. There’s the “pampered” farmers in western Europe that refuse to accept any reduction of agricultural subsidies on one side, and the poorer famers from eastern Europe on the other. Until now, according to Samorukov, famers in the east were getting fewer subsidies than their counterparts in the west. But now the EU will have to pay those famers equally to alleviate the pain of the Russian food ban. “A unified EU budget, where agrarian subsidies make up almost half of expenses, cannot support such a burden.” Putin, therefore, is hoping that the EU financial woes will play to his advantage as well.
Russian ban on European food seems to have been invented in the hope to take advantage of these difficulties in the EU’s agricultural sector and try to split the unity of the Union. For example, the countries of southern Europe, that have little enthusiasm for sanctions against Russia, joined the them solely to not betray European solidarity. And now the imposition of sanctions would mean they would not only have possible problems with the flow of tourists, but also tangible losses to their already problematic and large agricultural sector.
Samorukov, however, doubts this will work:
The Kremlin certain in its cynicism, as usual, underestimates the principles of Western leaders and their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the idea of European solidarity, especially when it comes to such lawlessness as the revision of the borders. But still the impact on agriculture was the best choice from the viewpoint of the proportion of losses and effect.
There’s also the shooting down of MH17 by Russian backed separatists. This changed everything, and explains Europe’s suddenly discovered resolve.
Though Samorukov doesn’t make the argument, I think there’s a possible third idea behind Putin’s thinking: the long term goal of reducing Russian dependence on the West. This project of import substitution coincides with the nationalist fervor that has characterized Putin’s third term. In the short term, Russia will likely increase its exports from places like Brazil. In the long term Putin is banking on the food ban to invigorate Russia domestic agricultural production. Russian consumers will certainly feel the pinch of this policy, but as Samorukov states, the Kremlin can reassert that Russia is a besieged fortress and its people must sacrifice for the sake of sovereignty. But this mobilization can’t last forever. The question is whether Putin’s strategy will pay some geopolitical dividends before the nationalist mobilization peters out.Post Views: 511
By Sean — 8 years ago
HIV-AIDS is something that hits close to my heart. My brother died of the disease in 1993. One of my earliest blog posts way back in 2005 addressed the issue in Russia. Sadly, the situation here has little improved though the UN reports that the number of global HIV infections has dropped 17% in the last eight years. 33.4 million people are living with the disease worldwide, and Russia is one of the places were news cases are growing rapidly.
RIA-Novosti reports some startling statistics about HIV in Russia to mark today, World AIDS Day. Russia reported 59,000 new cases of HIV in 2008. The number for 2009 is expected to reach 60,000, reports Marina Semenchenko of UNAIDS Russia. Gennady Onishchenko of the Russian Health Ministry said last week that 12,759 died from AIDS in 2008, up 14% from 2007 death toll of 11,159. He estimates that around 300,000 Russian citizens are currently living with the disease. The horror, of course doesn’t stop there. A recent World Health Organization report says that over 1% of Russian residents are HIV-positive.
The fastest growing population are among “at-risk” youth, particularly street kids. “In a study involving street youth (aged 15-19) in St. Petersburg, 37.4% of the people surveyed were HIV-infected, with a positive HIV status strongly and independently associated with injecting drugs and sharing needles,” said the UN report. About 37% of Russia’s 1.8 million intravenous drug users are HIV-positive. Russia is not alone in the alarming rise of HIV cases. Several countries in the post-communist world are posting alarming figures.
According to the report, three countries in the region – Estonia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine have HIV prevalence that exceeds 1%, with Ukraine showing the most alarming infection rate of 1.6%.
The estimated number of people living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia rose to some 1.5 million, up 66% from 2001.
In regard to the photos in the video above, Alex Majoli was quoted on The Fader:
Are the big challenges privileges for strong human beings? I would like to believe, but it’s not true. Both heroes and criminals have that imperturbability I saw in Igor, Alexey, and Oksana. It is not about courage or will, but simply about the tenacious attachment to ourselves: It’s hard to die, until the end. Many times I tried to imagine what it means to die, until the end. Many times I tried to imagine what it means to die alone, as Alexey did. I tried during my visits at the hospital, where his life was ending. I tried after all the phone calls I had with my girlfriend and my daughter. I still have no idea how that must feel.
This is not the first time I’ve faced AIDS in my life, either professionally or personally. I’ve worked on the subject various times before, and I’ve shared many thoughts with close friends affected by the virus. “So why not Russia?” I asked myself when I saw the list of possible countries to work in. I thought of all that Russian literature, from Mikhail Bulgakov to Andrei Makine, the plague, the loneliness among the characters of those novels. The collapse of the Soviet Union has profoundly affected everyone’s pride. And this extends to AIDS. They act like they know everything, when in fact they don’t. What happens in this situation? The whole story is mainly about stigma, about pride, about the lack of information.
The stories of the people I met are so sad. Igor was really young when he went to prison and his wife was killed. Oksana had emotionally shut down. Alexey was in very bad condition—he had a hole in his hip; you could see the bones—but with the ARV treatment he was already improving. AIDS wasn’t Alexey’s real problem, however. It was like fighting against a dead man already, because of all his other issues.
By the time of my second trip, most of my subjects had died. I felt sad and angry. As Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once wrote, “The four walls of my squalid room are at once a cell and a wilderness, a bed and a coffin. My happiest moments are those when I think nothing, want nothing and dream nothing… I savor without bitterness this absurd awareness of being nothing, this foretaste of death and extinction.” Maybe this is what Alexey felt when he died.
In 2005, I wrote, “The problem [of HIV-AIDS in Russia] is real. All too real. It is also being consistently ignored by the Russian government and society. All one can do is scream. Scream so loud into the darkness of ignorance and denial in hopes that a ray of sense pierces through.” Unfortunately, these words still apply today. Only now we can also list a few post-Soviet governments as targets for our screams.Post Views: 249
By Sean — 4 years ago
This week’s Russia Magazine column, “The Economic Spoils of the Biryulyovo Riot,” on the possible reiderstvo of the Pokrovskii fruit and vegetable warehouse.
Residents of Biryulyovo rioted for many reasons, but chief among them was that local officials and police provide protection to businesses, in this case, fruit and vegetable markets and warehouses that employ swaths of illegal migrants. “Markets and warehouses are always connected with a “krysha” (literally “roof” or police or political protection), and a “roof” is generally a police structure.” Kirill Shulika, the deputy chairman of the nationalist Democratic Choice Party told BBC Russian. “[The police] will not chop the head off the chicken that lays the golden egg.” Similarly, Mikhail Pashkin, the chairman of the police union coordinating committee, wrote on Ekho Moskvy, “Practically all dealings there are completely in cash. There are no inspections for the circulation of “black cash” (i.e. money unreported to tax authorities). The police don’t go there and less in the last few years when General [Aleksandr] Podol’nyi became district captain. All of this is possible first and foremost because, according to rumors, guys in the precinct “protect” (kryshuet’) the [Pokrovskii] warehouse.”
That krysha has now collapsed. The Pokrovskii warehouse was attacked by rioters, serving as a focal point for local rage against migrants and corruption. As a result, the warehouse has become a government target. General Podol’nyi has been sacked, immigration agents raided the warehouse arresting 1200 migrants, Russia’s consumer watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, has had the building shuttered for sanitation violations, and its manager Magomed Churilov and general director and minority owner Aliaskhaba Gadzhiev have been arrested for hiring illegal migrants. At the moment, Pokrovskii stands vacant.
To some, the attack, the closing of the market, and the arrest of its directors smells like a case of reiderstvo, or raiding. Reiderstvo occurs when an owner or operator of a business is arrested, and while he sits in prison, raiders take control of the company or property by forging documents and bribing officials. The raiders then quickly sell the property for a huge profit. According to Alena Ledeneva, what distinguishes reiderstvo under Putin from the 1990s is that the raiders tend to be government or police officials rather than independent businessmen or mobsters.
The closing and arrests associated with the Pokrovskii warehouse have sparked conspiracy theories that Shcherbakov’s murder, the riots, and the attack on the warehouse were organized by raiders. Such a conspiracy is farfetched, even ridiculous. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that raiders won’t take advantage of the situation. The Pokrovskii warehouse, and more specifically the land it sits on, has been coveted prizes for years.Post Views: 176