The passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 last December sent US-Russia relations into a dramatic tailspin. To many, the law and its subsequent list would finally demonstrate that the world’s preeminent democracy had enough of Putin and his gang. Forget all about the “reset.” Enough with the US divorcing its “interests from values” in dealing with Russia. Putin, of course, wasn’t going to take the Magnitsky Law in silence. In addition to its usual charges of hypocrisy, Moscow responded by banning US adoptions of Russian orphans, a callous and misdirected act that left many wondering who exactly Putin intended to punish. Nevertheless, thanks to William Browder’s crusade and whatever he did to cajole Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to get them to “listen,” US-Russia relations are at a nadir. (I hope that one day an enterprising journalist will uncover exactly how Mr. Browder got so much pull with McCain and McGovern.) For years, pundits have proclaimed that US and Russia were steeped in a “new Cold War.” The Magnitsky Law is now a pivotal symptom in this diagnosis. Yes, four years after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her plastic “peregruzka” (sic) button to Sergei Lavrov, the reset now looks in rewind.
Maybe the reset is dead, maybe it’s not. Either way, we’ve witnessed this shuckin’ and jivin’ before. Rather than choreographing a new routine, the US and Russia seem satisfied with rerunning the same old minstrel. The US points its crooked finger at declares “Villain!” at Russia for its poor human rights record. Affronted, Russia cries “Pecksniffery!” followed by a laundry list of equitably egregious offenses. But really, it’s all a game. This is how the big geopolitical boys play in the sandbox. It’s what David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova call the “Let’s Pretend” game. This is where the West feigns caring about human rights to bolster its own sanctimonious image, but could really care less. For the West, and for the US in particular, human rights are a weapon, like a rhetorical Sword of Damocles, and when economic interests dictate, a casus beli against the baneful. Russia, thanks to the orientialist discourse, is forever cast as devil, a dark mirror against the occidential mirror of light. It plays its part well, even when it’s sincerely revolting against its subaltern status. Given this dance, is anyone surprised that the Magnitsky Law entered with a diplomatic bang, but the Magnitsky List resounded with a pitiful whimper? Every drama needs its rising action, climax, and falling action. When it comes to the US and Russia, however, the denouement is eternally postponed.
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As regular readers can see, my blogging has been sparse over the last few weeks. I just finished a three week teaching blitz of a Western Civilization course at Santa Monica High School. The class was part of Santa Monica Community College’s dual enrollment program which allows high school students to take classes for college credit. The class was everyday, 8-11 a.m. I haven’t woken up so early since I worked in a stove factory over fifteen years ago.
Rushing through 500 years of history has never been so daunting. The class was enjoyable and the students remarkably bright. One thing that struck me about the high school is how it resembled a prison. I guess Gilles Deleuze was on to something when he wrote that modernity initiates,
The organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment. It’s the prison that serves as the analogical model: at the sight of some laborers, the heroine of Rossellini’s Europa ’51 could exclaim, “I thought I was seeing convicts.”******
So teaching was the main reason why blogging has been sparse. It will continue to be so. On Thursday, I leave for Israel for two weeks. I’m hoping to do so research for a few articles on the Russian diaspora there. My big hope is to meet up with some Israeli neo-Nazis for an article for the newly relaunched eXile Online. (Yes, if you haven’t already heard, the eXile is back in virtual form. Mark has left Russia and word is the eXile is going to be less Russia focused. Look for its verbal assassins to set their sites on more victims.) If the Israeli Nazi thing doesn’t pan out, I’m sure my travels will present a number of other topics. So stay tuned.
Though I haven’t been keeping up with the Russian news as well as I normally do, there have been a number of interesting stories that have appeared. Some of them are directly Russia related, others are bit tangential.
First article to catch my notice was a report on the exhumation of a mass grave containing around 300 bodies in an asphalt plant in Chechnya. The grave was discovered in 2000 but wasn’t uncovered until now. The site dates to the Second Chechen War and according to the report “likely contains civilian victims of an attack by Russian forces.” The report of this mass grave follows the announcement a week earlier of another one found in Grozny containing an estimated 800 corpses.
Open Democracy has published several articles on Russia as part of their collaboration with Polit.ru. Football fans should check out Lyubov Borusyak’s “Russia, Football and Patriotism.” Granted connecting football to patriotism, or what I’d rather call nationalism, is not new. Sport is a uniting force and it is no surprise that in Russia’s so-called “age of stability” sport is making a national comeback. Russia now appears as a winning nation to many of its citizens, and this is only reinforced by the fact that its teams have some victories under their belts. But as Borusyak points out, its not just that Russian teams are winning. In fact, the ultimate crown often alludes them. This however doesn’t dampen the link between national enthusiasm and sport. Just the opposite actually. As she notes, “There are two kinds of patriotic rhetoric. On the one hand, our people are winning because Russia is ‘rising’. On the other, our people are losing because the whole world is against us. Until 2008,the second discourse predominated, as there were not many successes. But this year the situation changed.”*****
With much of the world reeling from capital’s cyclical curse of overproduction, speculation bubbles, or to put it more kindly, “market corrections,” it begs the question of Russia’s economic prognosis. Unlike the American economy, the Russian economy has not experienced shocks of similar magnitude. It’s banks aren’t collapsing, being bailed out or raided by the state. Corporate profits aren’t taking a hit. Announcements of layoffs, buyouts, and wage slashing aren’t ubiquitous. Like so often, American capitalists who love to spit on the state are the first to run to it for a handout. It all proves once again that its socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. As Robert Borosage reminds us, Wall Street’s “losses are socialized; their profits are pocketed.”
This is not to say that Russia’s economy is all bread and circuses for the average Russian. Inflation is a particular bugaboo that is not just being fueled by high oil prices and general global inflation in commodities. Russian inflation more comes from the fact that, as Dmitri Travin notes, “millions of people, from oligarchs to cleaners really are benefiting from oil revenues.” Of course, the spread of petrodollars contains the seeds of its own destruction. Especially when you consider its effects on manufacturing. Travin writes,
From the point of view of manufacturing,this wealth is a terrible curse. An expensive ruble makes the goods we manufacture more expensive by comparison with imported goods. If the Central Bank does not stop the ruble from rising, many Russian producers will lose their competitive advantage and cease to exist. And along with them, many jobs will disappear. GDP will stop growing, and parts of the country will be plunged into crisis. In the long term, the Russian people’s unexpected wealth will turn into poverty.
What God giveth, God (might) taketh away. Again, the inevitability of overproduction is a real bitch to tame.
The losses of global economic crisis are not equal. There are winners and losers. Take General Motors, for example. GM executives plan to make some “difficult decisions” in regard to its American workforce. This includes, according to the New York Times, “a 20 percent reduction in payroll for salaried workers, elimination of health care for older white-collar retirees, and suspension of G.M.’s annual stock dividend of $1 a share.” GM, like most car companies, are reeling from the slide in the American market. No one wants their big gas guzzling SUVs and two-ton trucks anymore. As a result, GM plans to make $10 billion in cost cuts. And where will these cuts come from? Why labor and benefits of course.
At the same time GM is slashing labor costs in the United States, it’s looking to expand in Russia. GM is currently in negotiations to up its production in Russia, where its market share has increased by 2 percent over the last year. Given that Russia has a skilled, cheap workforce it’s ripe for exploitation. The average wage for a Russian autoworker is about $1000 a month with few, if any, benefits. An American autoworker makes an average of $5000 a month and that’s if you don’t include benefits. With GM sales rising coupled with the benefit of slashing labor costs, its no surprise that they and many other automakers can’t get to Russia fast enough.
Russian and American autoworkers know the score. Class war is heating up in both countries. In the States, auto union are fighting against the “two-tier wage system” which looks to slash staring wages by half. In Russia, autoworkers are increasingly understanding their labor power and are putting collective pressure on automakers. This pressure is expected to grow. As Aleksey Etmanov, the leader of a Ford auto union in St. Petersburg, said in a recent interview,
The creation of trade unions will increase. Even now there is simply a wave of new trade unions appearing. Today in our trade union there are approximately 1000 people, this is half of the workers of plant. In Taganrog the works manager hides in order not to obtain information about the creation of the trade union. Certainly, the pressure everywhere is being stepped up, and repression from the side of employers is increasing, they are sacking activists. Nowhere do the employers want to live according to the law (including Russia) but we are fighting back. In Toyota in the Petersburg area the manager, who, by the way, went there from “Ford”, is himself putting the workers in such conditions that we are confident, that very soon there will a trade union there too.
We are actively participating in the setting up of new trade unions in other factories of our industry, and we are developing inter-district unions of the Russian automobile industry, which, according to our plans, will be linked up as members of an organization covering all the car factories of the country, and we think we can do this towards the middle of next year. The Ford trade unionists are the most experienced elements in this association, and without us, probably the association would not have appeared. But all over the world the car workers trade unions are the strongest. The joint-combine committee draws nearer…
It is clear that the strength of the union is not only in the individual enterprise but is also in all the surrounding workplaces. Therefore we want to be combined with other trade unions, both with the Russian and in other countries. In particular, we closely collaborate with the international association of metalworkers. Now our interests can also be represented abroad. For example, when we struck, our American friends came to examine the headquarters of company “Ford” in Detroit…
Finally, its not just Russian autoworkers who are organizing. So are Russian prisoners. ON July 6 over 100 former Russian political prisoners gathered for the First Congress of Political Prisoners in Moscow. The result was the formation of the Union of Prisoners, which in the words of Edward Limonov, “will gather, not only political prisoners, but will defend the rights of all prisoners and ex-prisoners.” Limonov also proposes the creation of A Day of Prisoners for September 14. He also plans on turning his National Bolshevik Party toward organizing prisoners. Limonov clearly knows his history. Prison is indeed a transformative revolutionary experience. Any bonafide Old Bolshevik did a stint in prison or exile. Prison hardened the Bolshevik soul and spirit. Apparently many of Limonov’s young charges are undergoing the same process. As Limonov says of Aleksei Makarov, who was recently released from prison. “Aleksei wasn’t yet 18 when he was arrested two years ago. He grew greatly in prison.”
If the Natsbol’s slogan is indeed “Yes, to death!” then nothing will harden that political will more than prison.
Russian prisons are of course nightmares. They always have been and continue to be so. For a run down on the conditions in prisons and the treatment of prisoners in Russia, I recommend checking out Robert Amsterdam’s excellent coverage of the issue. In particular, check out Grigory Pasko’s three part series “Life Behind Bars.”Post Views: 407
What happened in South Ossetia? The war may be over but questions linger. Who started the war? Was there ethnic cleansing of Georgians? What role did South Ossetian militas play in the conflict. BBC has made available the first part of Tim Whewell audio documentary on South Ossetia where he uncover more pieces of the puzzle. Here’s BBC’s program description:
This summer’s war in Georgia sparked the biggest crisis in east-west relations for 30 years. When Russia sent its tanks across the border, its intervention was denounced around the world.
Reporting from Moscow and Georgia, and with rare independent access to the disputed territory of South Ossetia, Tim Whewell investigates allegations of ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages, and counter-claims that Georgia’s army was guilty of war-crimes against Ossetian civilians.
I recommend giving it a listen.Post Views: 323
There is a cease fire on paper. There isn’t a cease fire in reality. Russia’s moving toward Tbilisi. Russia isn’t moving toward Tbilisi. Tomāto. Tomato. Potāto. Potato. Let’s call the whole thing off because checking CNN for updates on Georgia is liable to make your head spin. Every small Russian action is instantly viewed as part of a larger design. The latest evidence that sparked fears of an assault on Tbilisi? A Russian convoy that was heading toward the Georgian capital but then turned off the road back to South Ossetia. Saakashvilli interpreted this as Russian forces “encroaching upon the capital.” Thankfully, even CNN is starting to not be so easily fooled. CNN Correspondent Matthew Chance was traveling with said convoy, and though he couldn’t say where it was going, he did report that it didn’t get any
resistance from Georgian soldiers, and it was possible that the Russians were on a scouting mission to choose a buffer zone between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgian territory. Chance described the flag-waving Russians as relaxed.
Not the atmosphere you would expect for soldiers mounting an assault.
Still Saakshvilli was persistent, perhaps trying to save face from a military debacle and that embarrassing video of him running for cover in Gori out of fear that he was the target of Russian bombing. “This is the kind of cease-fire that, I don’t know, they had with Afghanistan I guess in 1979,” he told CNN. “There is no cease-fire, they [Russian forces] are moving around.”
Perhaps the Russian forces aren’t the ones Georgians should be worried about. The real worry should be the so-called “irregulars” that are wreaking havoc in the wake of Russian armored columns. The Guardian‘s Luke Harding reports that these irregulars, who according locals are comprised of “Chechens, Cossacks and Ossetians,” are engaging payback.
“Eyewitnesses say they are looting, killing and burning. These irregulars have killed three people and set fire to villages. They have been taking away young boys and girls,” said Harding, watching smoke rise from another village, Karaleti.
He said he had witnessed people fleeing in the direction of Tbilisi. “For three hours there were people fleeing in cars, I saw one with 11 people and a Lada with eight people in it.” He had also seen people fleeing on a horse and cart and a tractor.
Though the Guardian adds that “eyewitness claims could not be immediately verified,” I wouldn’t be surprised if irregulars, especially Ossetian militias, are extracting some vengeance. The last few days have produced a Manichean atmosphere where violence is quickly becoming a whirlpool of reciprocity.
Human Rights Watch confirms these reports of Ossetian vengence:
Numerous houses in the villages of Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti, Verkhnie Achaveti and Tamarasheni had been burnt down over the last day – Human Rights Watch researchers saw the smoldering remnants of the houses and household items. The villages were virtually deserted, with the exception of a few elderly and incapacitated people who stayed behind either because they were unable to flee or because they were trying to save their belongings and cattle.
“The remaining residents of these destroyed ethnic Georgian villages are facing desperate conditions, with no means of survival, no help, no protection, and nowhere to go,” said Tanya Lokshina at Human Rights Watch.
In the village of Nizhnie Achaveti, Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to an elderly man who was desperately trying to rescue his smoldering house using two half-empty buckets of dirty water brought from a spring. He told Human Rights Watch that the vast majority of the residents, including his family, fled the village when active fighting between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militias broke out on August 8, but he decided to stay to look after the cattle. He said members of the South Ossetian militia came to his house on August 11, and tried to take away some household items. When he protested, they set the house on fire and left. The man said he had no food or drinking water; his hands were burned and hair was singed – apparently as he was unsuccessfully trying to extinguish the fire – and he appeared to be in a state of shock. He said that there were about five to ten elderly and sick people left in the village, all in a similar desperate condition, and many of the houses were burned.
In the village of Kekhvi, many houses were set on fire between 6.30 pm and 7.30 pm on August 12 – they were ablaze as Human Rights Watch researchers moved along the road. Two elderly women from Kekhvi were weeping as they told Human Rights Watch about what happened in the village. One of them explained that the members of South Ossetian militias passed by the village and stopped at her house and “threw something” that set it on fire. She did not manage to rescue anything from the house and at the time of the interview could not even enter the house as it was still burning. She had no money on her and did not know if she could survive in this situation.
Human Rights Watch researchers also saw armed Ossetian militia members in camouflage fatigues taking household items – furniture, television sets, heaters, suitcases, carpets, and blankets – out of houses in the village of Nizhnie Achaveti and loading them into their trucks. Explaining the looters’ actions, an Ossetian man told Human Rights Watch, “Of course, they are entitled to take things from Georgians now – because they lost their own property in Tskhinvali and other places.”
Hopefully, this terror of the “irregulars” and Ossetian militias will not push things beyond control. That is assuming they haven’t already.
In Abkhazia, the Russian advance has embolden the Abkhaz military. Abkhaz forces have taken the initiative, without the aid of Russian forces, to expel the Georgians troops from the region. A symbolic turning of the tables has already commenced. “Entering the village, the Abkhaz military men first took off the Georgian symbols from the building of the administration hoisting the flag of the breakaway republic instead,’ reported Kommersant. Even Shota Utiashvili, the Georgian Interior Minister, was forced to admit that “Today, we’ve lost Kodori.”
According the Russia Today, Abkhazia was to be next on the Georgian list. A map found in a Georgia command vehicle are believed to show plans to invade Abkhazia.
Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba apparently intends to make this Georgian loss permanent. The taking of Kodori occurred after Medvedev’s declaration to cease operations, a fact that irked the Georgians even more. But Medvedev’s order didn’t seem to matter much to Shamba. As far as he was concerned the Russian President’s words simply don’t apply. “The words of the Russian President regarded Russia’s armed forces. Dmitri Medvedev’s decrees have no power in Abkhazia’s army,” he said [Emphasis mine]. Again, this emphatic “have no power” is a reminder that this conflict includes two parties that seems to be excluded from all the diplomatic wrangling between recognized nation states. Namely, the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians. I would imagine that as long as they are excluded, their voices will sing the songs of retribution.
Then there are the journalists. War is always hell for journalists as their craft and lives fall victim to the chaos of violence. So far, Reporters Without Borders named four journalists who have been reported killed in Georgia.
Cameraman Stan Storimans of Dutch TV station RTL-4 was killed and reporter Jeroen Akkermans, the station’s Moscow correspondent, was injured during Russian bombing of the Georgian town of Gori last night. Earlier yesterday, a Georgian reporter working for the Russian edition of Newsweek and his driver were killed when a shell hit their vehicle in Gori’s main square.
Yesterday’s deaths came just a day after two other reporters – Giga Chikhladze, the head of Alania TV, and Alexander Klimchuk, the head of the Caucasus Press Images agency and a correspondent for Itar-Tas – were killed in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, apparently in an attempt to pass a roadblock manned by Ossetian pro-independence fighters.
That is not all. Russian media reports that two Russian journalists, Vyacheslav Kochetkov, a photographer for Ekspert and Igor Naidenov, a correspondent for Russian Reporter, have disappeared in Georgia. Aleksandr Kots, a special correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda was wounded, as was Zadok Yehezkeli, an Israeli reporter for Yedioth Ahronot. He sustained serious injuries after being hit in the shoulder by a bullet. Two Turkish reporters were wounded after being attacked by Russian and Ossetian troops. Two Czech reporters had their car and equipment stolen by Ossetian soldiers. And what of the Ossetian and Georgian journalists?
The reporters looking for a safe story now have an outlet. The Russian military has reved up its PR machine with hopes to reverse the dismal portrayal of Russian actions in the foreign press. Enter Colonel Igor Konashenko. Today, Konashenko gave a guided tour of Tskhninvali for foreign journalists. “Look around you,” the Russian officer instructed the tour group. “A lot of women and children died here. Who do we blame? You know the answer.”
Indeed we do. And so do the Ossetian militias.Post Views: 685