Maia Gemmill (Page 2 of 3)

The Putin phenomenon

I find it difficult sometimes to adequately explain to Americans Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia. We get media stories about Putin’s tightening hold on media and political freedoms, and Americans automatically assume that the Russian people must resent this creeping dictatorship.

Yet Putin is highly popular, with poll numbers achieved only by American presidents in the aftermath of a major crisis. His positives consistently rank in the high 70s–his disapproves are lower than Bush’s approval rating.

Some of Putin’s popularity is easy to explain: Russia is a richer and less chaotic place that it was during the Yeltsin years. High energy prices mean that the government is flush with cash, and salaries and pensions are paid. Putin has also inaugurated a more “muscular” foreign policy, attempting to reassert Russian interests not only in the near-abroad (the former Soviet empire), but in Europe and beyond. This graphic from the BBC’s Russia profile gives a nutshell picture of this side of things.

But it’s not just the economy, stupid. There is much, much more to it. Although Americans have an image of Yeltsin as the man who brought down Communism, in Russia he was widely perceived as a buffoonish drunk, with some justification.

And this is the key to the other part of Putin’s popularity. Not only is Putin a teetotaling technocrat–he’s a manly man. A sex symbol. He’s got his own personality cult–the sort that is not usually devoted to politicians in America. He’s even got a catchy pop song devoted to him: Takogo Kak Putin (Someone Like Putin), in which a female vocalist sings about how her boyfriend was a lousy drunk so she threw him out, and now what she really needs is a strong man like Putin. It’s all rather mind-boggling. Presumably the ex-boyfriend is Yeltsin and the singer herself is a stand-in for Russia in a time of need.

(This is just a clip–an mp3 of the full song is here.)

There are downsides, though, to looming large in the national psyche: back in 2003, when the film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” was released, there was a big flap about an alleged resemblance between Putin and Dobby, the computer-generated house elf. I’m afraid that I find it hard to believe that the character designers had Putin in mind when they were working up Dobby, despite the unfortunate coincidence their respective appearances. So, with that in mind, do watch this delightful clip.

(To fully appreciate the Dobby video, make sure you watch the other clip first.)

Dobby video via Siberian Light


Gut check

While I was in grad school, I helped to make ends meet by tutoring high school students. Believe or not, I’m actually high-school competent in a wide variety of subjects. Unfortunately, though, a lot high school-level work follows this pattern: plug numbers into formula, write answer, move on. While this might not sound like a bad strategy, my students often accepted that whatever answer they got must be correct, by virtue of having been spit out by their calculators.*

Conversations tended to go like this.

Me (watching student scribble down answer to physics problem): “Do you really think that 147 divided by 40 is 36.75?”
Student: “Oh. No. That doesn’t make sense.”
Me: “If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t right. Let’s try that again.”**

I had the same reaction this afternoon when I read an interesting tidbit in the Passport blog on the coming New Year in Ethiopia, which is going to be celebrating the new millennium, only seven years and eight months after the rest of us.
Prerna Mankad writes:

Following the Julian calendar, which is seven years and eight months behind the Gregorian calendar, Ethiopia will welcome the first day of the third millennium on September 12.

Very interesting, except that the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is a matter of days, not years. For example, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the great October Revolution actually occurred on November 7, rather than October 24 (“Hunt for Red November” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?). But both calendars agree that Revolution occurred in 1917.

So, for there to be a difference of almost eight years, there has to be something else going on. Sure enough, according to Wikipedia (don’t shoot me–it’s the easiest source to turn up quick answers, and I have no reason to suspect that Colbert nation has been messing with the calendar entries) the Ethiopian Orthodox Church uses a different calculation for the birth of Christ.

In Mankad’s defense, the article cited in the post makes the same error, asserting that the disparity between millennia is due to Ethiopia’s use of the Julian calendar. Still, knowing when to question received wisdom is an important life skill (one that I’m still working on). Sometimes that gut check is an important one.

* Tutoring kids is not just about making sure they get the concepts–it’s about making sure that they have the necessary study and test-taking skills to demonstrate that they get it. Stupid errors are a big cost for many of these kids. They understand what they are supposed to do with the formula and why, but they get lousy grades because they make dumb mistakes.
** A tip for those of you with school-aged kids: textbook math/science problems almost always have a round number or a neat fraction (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc.) for their answer. If you do the calculations on a word problem and get 31.4332456, it’s probably a wrong answer, unless you are doing a lesson on rounding. This annoys me, however, since real world math does not tend to produce round numbers.

Update: after I emailed the author, Passport has corrected the post.


An empire of language

Jack Shafer at Slate draws our attention to an advertising section included in yesterday’s Washington Post: Russia Beyond the Headlines.

Most people I know with an interest in Russia are also fascinated by Soviet propaganda, and Shafer, I think, correctly identifies this as a particularly amusing, if less effective, example of the genre.

It also provides an interesting window into the psyche of the Russian government, though. Take this piece on the position of the Russian language in post-Soviet space. During Soviet times, Great Russian nationalism may have been denounced as a bourgeois deviation, but the New Soviet Man was always presumed to be educated in Russian, because, after all, that was the language of International Communism.

Now that the Soviet Union has vanished, there are still plenty of Russian speakers within the former boundaries of the Soviet (and tsarist) empire. Russian remains an available lingua franca, though many of the post-Soviet states have worked very hard to develop a modern vocabulary in their official languages (this has been a particular issue for some of the Central Asian states). Still, it seems, Russia wants to maintain its position as the imperial culture, except now it’s framed as “convenience” rather than domination.

I remember how at an international conference on post-Soviet space, held in Riga, people scrambled to express themselves in English during the panel discussions, but switched to Russian in the cafeteria. “I am also a Russian-speaker,” a local journalist from Latvia’s Diena newspaper said sourly, mocking Moscow’s attempts to protect Russian speakers in Latvia from discrimination. “Does the Russian government think I need protection?”

Indeed, it does. Because this person, whether he wants it or not, is a part of the Russian world. If his children do not speak the language that can make them feel at home from Kaliningrad to Mongolia, this will be a loss for them. So, a journalist from Diena indeed needs protection – from forgetting. In the same way we need protection against forgetting Latvian music and cinema, which used to be highly popular in Soviet times.

But the value of Russian is dependent on the degree to which post-Soviet space is genuinely intertwined. If the near-abroad views its future as lying elsewhere (say, to the west, or even to the east), then the value of Russian is diminished. Or, perhaps, maintaining the position of the Russian language as the lingua franca is an important strategy in maintaining the position of Russia itself. Either way, the ghost of the Russian empire lives on.


Quick, fetch the smelling salts

I’m back in town after having been blissfully detached from the news cycle for two weeks. I seem to have missed quite a lot: resumption of long-range bomber flights, the bombing of the Nevsky Express, yet another (alleged) Russian incursion into Georgian airspace.

I’m still working on catching up with everything. In the meantime, here’s something for your viewing pleasure: manly man Vladimir Putin goes shirtless in the Siberian forest. Note the crucifix perched on his well-defined pecs. Oo-la-la.


Mysterious missiles

Are you following the tale of mysterious missile that Georgian officials claim was launched by a Russian plane violating Georgian air space?

The Russians are counter-claiming Georgian provocateuring, which seems patently silly. Both sides are offering a variety of reasons why they could not possibly have been the source of the missile.

Now, Kommersant is claiming that the Georgians, after having examined the remains of the missile and declared it to be definitely, absolutely, Russian, have destroyed the wreckage. I haven’t found any other corroborating reports, yet.


Depressing thought of the day

I’m currently reading about the economic impact of the demographic shift (i.e., aging populations) of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. One of the reforms being advocated to improve the solvency of the pension systems is, of course, raising the retirement age, which in most of these countries is 60 or lower.

Raising the retirement age has been a common theme in discussions about Social Security reform in the US–the problem in a nutshell (for all of these pension systems) is that too many old people collect too many benefits, and the system is funded by too few younger workers. The problem is often phrased as “people live longer so they collect benefits longer”.

Pension reform, then, is about making sure, actuarially speaking, that a sufficient number of people die before they can collect any significant amount of benefits–otherwise the system won’t be able to pay for people who live into their 90s.

Several years ago, one of my father’s coworkers retired. They held a big retirement party for him. A couple weeks later, my parents attended his funeral. He had dropped dead of a heart attack, barely two weeks into his retirement. I doubt he collected a single Social Security check. From the point of view of the pension system, he was the ideal worker. He paid into the system, and never got anything out.

In Russia, the retirement age for men is 60. Unfortunately for them, the average life expectancy for men is just under 58.


Gas pains

Gazprom has a problem.

We often read about Russia wielding its energy power as a political tool, cutting off energy supplies hither and thither to punish political foes. Last winter’s dispute with Belarus did not fit the usual template. Although the script was similar to the dispute with Ukraine–Gazprom looks to double energy prices in new contract–the scenery was rather different. Belarus has been one of Russia’s closest most reliable allies in recent years–there’s even been serious, highest level talks on unification between Russia and Belarus.

So why would the Kremlin allow Gazprom to potentially destabilize (or, at the very least, smear egg all over the face of) the Lukashenka regime?

To answer this question, you have to leave the realm of politics and head straight for economics.

Yes, Gazprom wanted to double gas prices for Belarus. But under the old contract, Belarus was paying about 1/4 of the market price paid by European customers. But, you, say, isn’t Russia an energy superpower, with nearly limitless supplies of oil and gas?

Ah, and here we arrive at Gazprom’s not-so-little problem.

See, Russia’s gas production is not only not limitless, it’s actually falling. Both domestic and export demand are rising–and some experts estimate as soon as 2010, Russia may not be able to meet both its domestic needs and its export contracts.

In this context, continuing to provide Belarus with as much gas as they can consume at 1/4 market price is clearly not a Good Thing for Gazprom. After a tense few weeks last winter, they came up with a deal: Belarus agreed to pay higher gas prices, while coughing up a significant share in its pipeline operator, Beltransgaz, to cover the costs. This suited Gazprom well, which has sought to shore up its control over pipelines (and thus over exports, which must pass through the pipelines) whenever and wherever possible.

Then last week, Belarus suddenly refused to pay the bill. A Belarusian delegation made its way to Moscow, to plead for a loan to help it make the payment. If Russia would no longer subsidize Belarus via Gazprom, perhaps they would be willing to do so directly–it’s hard to read this as anything other than an attempt to back out of an unfavorable deal. But no dice. Russia’s political arm refused to clean up after the problems created by the economic arm. Belarus then tapped reserved to pay a portion of the bill, promising to make the remaining payment by August 10. Belarus is, of course, in a tight spot. The regime is both economically and politically isolated, and, as a result, it is pretty much at Russia’s mercy. There is little outrage expended on behalf of the Lukashenka regime when Russia flexes her muscles at its expense. Russia doesn’t need to placate Belarus, because there isn’t really anywhere else to turn.


The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my ideological match

Americans tend to have a very simplistic view of the world. For example: we are opposed to Evil Dictatorship. You are opposed to Evil Dictatorship. We are Liberal Democrats. Therefore you must be Liberal Democrats, too. I suspect that we are not alone in this tendency, but it has frequently gotten us into trouble. We should be careful not to assume that all those who oppose Dictatorships are George Washingtons.

Foreign Policy’s Passport blog has an excellent example of this fallacy at work. When I read Der Spiegel’s interview with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, I was not surprised to see him praise Vladimir Putin. After all, Solzhenitsyn is a Russian nationalist who regards the Communist period as an aberration (Communism is not a native Russian ideology). In his view, Russia must become strong and reassume its proper place on the world stage. So why are the bloggers at Passport surprised to see that Solzhenitsyn approves of the Putin’s leadership of Russia? Although he may be indeed be one of the greatest (and most famous) dissidents, his opposition to the Soviet regime does not make him into a liberal democrat.

Ironically, they note that Solzhenitsyn has been a critic of Putin in the past and link to a BBC article from 2000…but the blogger didn’t read very carefully.

So, in 2000, for what did Solzhenitsyn criticize Putin?

For being too “Western” (the Beeb notes his commitment to free markets and human rights) and for an overly conciliatory foreign policy that is insufficiently committed to a vision of renewed Russian greatness.

Apparently Putin has done quite well at dispelling Solzhenitsyn’s doubts in the last seven years.


Blame to go around

Today’s IHT has possibly one of the most idiotic commentaries about US-Russian relations that I’ve read in a long time. In this column, [sorry, it’s behind the pay wall] John Vinocur essentially places all the blame for the current deterioration in US-Russian relations squarely on Russia’s shoulders.

He writes:

Does anybody out there remember Dick Cheney’s harangue in Lithuania last year, the growlingly bellicose one that the Russians regard as heralding a new Cold War?

Here’s how that dreadful man, who is 800 percent responsible for the Russians suspending the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, threatening to target European Union members with new missiles, and even talking the possibility of an America versus Russia shooting war within the next decade, got it all started:

In a speech in May 2006 to a group of new democracies at the edges of the old Soviet Union, Cheney said, “None of us believe that Russia is fated to become an enemy.”

“A Russia that increasingly shares the values of this community can be a strategic partner and a trusted friend as we work toward common goals,” he said.

The Wild Man from the White House also asserted – although just in passing, a re-read of the speech shows – that there were opponents of reform in Russia trying to reverse its movement toward a lawful, civil society, and that “no legitimate interest is served” when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail.

For at-your-throat shock and provocation challenging peace among nations and good sense, that’s it.

Fourteen months later, we have a remarkable situation. The Russians, insisting they face a vast, American-led Western menace, move almost weekly from new outburst to new provocation.

No where in this column does he mention Russia’s sense of encirclement as NATO expands to its borders, the plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe, or the US’s expressed lack of interest in renewing the START arms control treaty. Nor does he mention the American go-it-alone, we-don’t-need-your-stinking-input attitude that has alienated plenty of countries besides Russia.

Instead, he quotes one speech by Dick Cheney–and in his deep grasp of the nuances of Russian politics, completely misses what seemed provocative: Cheney praises the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and then moves on to criticize Russia. He says:

The freedom movement is far from over, and far from tired. And we still live in a time of heroes. From Freedom Square in Tbilisi, to Independence Square in Kiev, and beyond, patriots have stepped forward to claim their just inheritance of liberty and independence.

Later he adds, in case it wasn’t clear that “you’re next”:

The spread of democracy is an unfolding of history; it is a benefit to all, and a threat to none. The best neighbor a country can have is a democracy — stable, peaceful, and open to relations of commerce and cooperation instead of suspicion and fear. The nations of the West have produced the most prosperous, tolerant system ever known. And because that system embraces the hopes and dreams of all humanity, it has changed our world for the better. We can and should build upon that successful record. The system that has brought such great hope to the shores of the Baltic can bring the same hope to the far shores of the Black Sea, and beyond. What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kiev, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow.

Perhaps it seems completely harmless to you, but if you know that the Kremlin fears that the opposition might attempt to launch a color revolution in Russia, it starts to look like a veiled threat. Russians already widely believe that both the Rose and Orange Revolution were US-supported plots (some even go so far as to claim that they were CIA-lead coups). Did Cheney mean his remarks to be provocative, or was he simply praising the march of democracy without realizing how it would be read in Russia? That’s unclear to me. Surely there are diplomats who vet speeches, but as we’ve recently seen Cheney pretty much operates as a law unto himself, so both possibilities seem equally plausible.

Vinocur, however, seems to display nothing but ignorance. He willfully disregards the actual provocative part of Cheney’s speech, while quoting a few platitudes about cooperation. But if you really want to understand Russia’s perspective on the deterioration of relations with the US, you have to look beyond a few nice words and look at the US’s deeds.

The truth is, we don’t treat Russia like a partner, despite Cheney’s platitutes–we treat them like they don’t matter. Russia wants desperately to matter. Like the middle child who’s jealous of all the attention received by the over-achieving eldest and the cute baby of the family, Russia consistently acts out in attempt to have their concerns taken seriously. One thing that Vinocur does get right: Russia seems to be off the radar screen for US policy makers, and Russia don’t like it that way. They want to be treated like a great power (or at the very least, a regional power). So they throw these unbecoming temper tantrums and throw their weight around where they can. Russia’s recent oil-fueled growth both emboldens them and makes them all the more frustrated with their apparent second class status. So they do the only thing they know how.

So, yes, there’s plenty of blame to throw Russia’s way for the current state of Russian-US relations. But let’s not try to make out the US to be a wounded innocent, standing there in confusion, saying “What did I do?” That won’t fly in any relationship.


Lukashenka shakes things up

I’ve been meaning to write something about the tit-for-tat between the UK and Russia and the strange and unfolding saga of Boris Berezovsky, but things keep changing before I get anything coherent written.

So, let’s take a quick look to Russia’s neighbor to the west: Belarus.
Belarus gets little attention in the western media. They haven’t had an exciting people’s revolution to cover. The president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, keeps a pretty tight handle on the media and on the opposition, which tends to be disorganized and ineffective, fighting amongst themselves instead of uniting in the common cause. Lukashenka is a pretty savvy politico, as well. When he was first elected president in 1994, he was a bit of dark horse. He positioned himself as a political outsider: a man of the people and an anti-corruption crusader. Once elected, he triangulated his opponents and eliminated them one by one (sometimes literally–more than one opponent has simply vanished). But Lukashenka didn’t just target the political opposition–during his time in office, not even his inner circle has been secure. He’s careful to make sure that no one has the opportunity build an independent power base–he keeps the regional governors moving around and has been perfectly willing to sic the legal system on insiders who grow too powerful. Since Belarus is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, it’s easy to charge enemies with corruption: the charges are almost certainly true…it’s the application that is politically motivated.

Now it looks like Lukashenka is going to sack his prime minister, Sergei Sidorsky. Sidorsky has been in office now for about 3 1/2 years, so he’s due to be replaced, kind of like the timing belt in your car–it’s not broken yet, but you’d better do it with that mileage. Kommersant seems downright pleased by this story: the Russians have been trying to break into the Belarusian petrochemicals markets for a couple of years now and they seem to be hoping that this will be their big break.

Kommersant also predicts that Lukashenka will tap a particularly unsavory figure as Sidorsky’s replacement: Vladimir Naumov. Currently Interior Minister, Naumov is allegedly linked to the disappearance of numerous opposition figures and is banned from traveling to the United States and western Europe.


Going through the motions

Welp, we know that a new Harry Potter book is about to come out, because the Washington Post has featured the obligatory piece on Christian reactions to Harry Potter, along with a side-helping of wonderment at the rise of explicitly Christian publishing.

Too bad this is so not new.

The article points out that some Christians are uncomfortable with the depiction of magic in the series, and notes that literature marketed as Christian in content (as opposed to the previous thousand years or so of Christian literature which was, well, just literature) is becoming a large and important market segment.

As Dan and I have argued elsewhere, for Christians who genuinely believe that magic is 1) real; and 2) derived from demonic forces, it is perfectly logical and consistent within their worldview to object to Harry Potter, the popularity of which encourages children to play at being wizards themselves, putting them at risk of contacting those demonic forces. That the heroes use magic for good is irrelevant, since magic is per se evil and dangerous. The article, unfortunately, doesn’t really explain the basis for the objection. Although to many of us on the secular left (as well as the very large number of Christians who also don’t believe in magic), their claims are patently ridiculous, there is a nearly unbroken chain of cultural imagination concerning witchcraft and satanism going all the way back to the middle ages, and possibly beyond. (If you want to know more, you need to buy the book. I can’t give away everything, you know.)

Then there’s the breathless discovery of Christian literature, complete with OMIGOD! They. Have. Romance. Novels. With. No. Sex. Scenes. Although Christian publishing continues to be a rapidly expanding market, the writer makes the forays of the major trade houses in Christian publishing sound like they happened yesterday. Unfortunately, this has been going on now for over 10 years. Sure, it’s a trend, but it didn’t start yesterday.

Update: Here’s an example of the kind of thinking I mentioned above, concerning the promotion of magic by Harry Potter.



After months of threats, Russia announced this morning that it is officially suspending its obligations under the Cold War-era Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. From a military point of view, this probably isn’t all that significant: I haven’t seen any one making a serious claim that the Russian Army has the genuine capacity to present a conventional threat NATO and the US.

From a diplomatic point of view, though, it represents a new low in the relationship between the US and Russia. Although you wouldn’t know it from the NY Times story, this decision seems to have been precipitated by an amendment added to the defense authorization bill currently wending its way through the Senate, which makes the missile defense system official US policy. The Kommersant article jumps the gun a bit–the vote on the amendment does not yet make it US law (it could get dropped in conference, though it seems unlikely)–but it is not a Good Thing.

I’m also very disappointed in the NYT’s coverage, which fails to make clear the mutual responsibility for the current state of affairs. I am not a Putin booster, but the relationship has also been grossly mishandled from the US side.

Update: A good discussion of the issues involved here.


Russia vs. Georgia

The now independent states that once made up the Republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are often referred to in Russia as the “near-abroad”. The meaning of near-abroad, depending on how broadly you want to interpret it, can range from “those areas that used to be part of Russia in our imperial past” to “those areas that really ought to be within our sphere of influence” to “those areas where we have the right to meddle at will”. Relations between Russia and the near-abroad range from “let us celebrate our Slavic brotherhood” (Belarus, the gas price kerfuffle of late 2006 notwithstanding) to downright nasty.

Bad blood between Estonia and Russia received a lot of western press attention this spring, after Estonian plans to relocate a Soviet-era World War II memorial that contained soldiers’ remains from a prominent location in central Talinn to a cemetery outside the city resulted in a wave of violent protests by ethnic Russians in Estonia and in anti-Estonian protests and attacks within Russia, followed by an apparent cyber-attack on Estonian government websites.

The Russia-Estonia conflict, though, will likely remain no more than sturm und drang. Estonia is, after all, a NATO member, and there is little reason to think that despite all the hype, the conflict will ever go hot.

No, if you want to put money on a hot war somewhere in the near-abroad, I’d advise you to give considerably more attention to relations between Russia and Georgia.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been less than cordial ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with disputes over the status of the so-called break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia fueling the flames. The situation deteriorated significantly after the Rose Revolution of 2003, in which the corrupt government of Eduard Shevardnadze (better known in the US for his role as Gorbachev’s foreign minister) was forced out in favor of Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who lived for a time in the United States in the early 1990s, took an unabashedly pro-western stance, going so far as to suggest that Georgia be considered a candidate for eventual NATO membership. Russia, naturally, did not take kindly to Georgia’s new orientation, and in the four years hence, there have been numerous incidents that have escalated tensions between Russia and Georgia. Here’s a few highlights for your consideration:

  • a Russian boycott of Georgian wine and mineral water (a major export for Georgia)
  • gas pipeline explosions (blamed on Chechen rebels) that disrupted gas supplies to Georgia
  • the expulsion of four Russian military officers (attached to the Russian embassy) from Georgia on accusations of espionage, followed by retaliatory expulsions of Georgians from Russia

Perhaps most disturbing, though, are claims that Russian military helicopters participated in an attack on a Georgian government building in Abkhazia, in an attempt to disrupt efforts by the Georgian government to build a stronger presence in the breakaway region. According to the Wall Street Journal, a UN report, due out as early as next week, will provide a detailed account of this incident, which occurred on March 11 of this year (the article is behind the WSJ pay wall, but can be read here). The dispensation of Kosovo also has important implications for Russian-Georgian relations, as many expect that if Kosovo is granted independence, then Russia may recognize both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.

The upshot is that while cyber-war may make for sexy headlines, it’s the potential for an old-fashioned hot war that should most concern us. On the other hand, observers have been sounding the warning about the potential for a hot war between Russia and Georgia for years now. Who knows whether anything will ever come of it? Still, it’s plenty worth keeping an eye on.


Five Days in August

During World War II, teams of scientists raced to build the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. This weapon, everyone believed, was so powerful that it would force the Japanese to surrender immediately, eliminating the need for an extremely costly invasion of the Japanese main islands. They built two weapons using two different models: Little Boy, a uranium gun-style weapon, and, just in case the first one wasn’t enough, the Fat Man, a plutonium implosion weapon. When the weapons were ready, President Truman, who knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until Roosevelt’s death, struggled mightily with the moral implications of using these ultimate weapons. The atomic bomb, once dropped on Hiroshima, and then three days later, on Nagasaki, proved America’s overwhelming military superiority to the Japanese, and they promptly surrendered.

If you attended an American high school, this roughly outlines the story you learned about the end of World War II. Perhaps you had an in-class debate about the morality of dropping the bomb. You may have also learned that the decision to drop the bomb was influenced by a desire to impress Stalin, as the the wartime alliance was beginning to fray.

Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August challenges the central premise of this story: that the atomic bomb was perceived as a weapon qualitatively different from what we now call conventional weaponry. Instead, he argues, many (though not all) of the scientists and political and military decision makers understood the new nuclear weapons as simply a more powerful and efficient method of delivering destruction than conventional weaponry, and that this viewpoint was dominant. Although the atomic bomb was part of a larger plan to “shock and awe” the Japanese into surrender, it was only one component of that plan, along with the conventional firebombing of Japanese cities and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific. Most people involved expected the war to continue for some time longer–at the very least, into September, and they expected that they would need to continue to deliver additional atomic weapons throughout this period. The true impact of the atomic bomb, particularly its radiological effects, was unknown, even to the Manhattan Project scientists, who initially discounted reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Japanese propaganda. The US was surprised not only by the effects of the atomic bombs, but also by the speed of the Japanese surrender.

Gordin makes a convincing case that when World War II became the first (and hopefully last) nuclear war, the people in charge did not fully grasp that they had ushered in a new era. The idea that nuclear weapons are the “unusable weapon” was not immediately obvious, as war-planners not only used the weapons, but planned to use them repeatedly, as fast as they could produce them.

I do wish that he had spent more time on this transformation, though. The final chapter, which discusses the post-war world, doesn’t really explain how the atomic bomb changed from “really efficient deliverer of destruction” to “weapon of the apocalypse”; he notes briefly that the popular imagination was moved by the propaganda about the new weapon’s power and journalistic accounts of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we don’t get much insight into the transformation from either the popular perspective or the policy/military perspective. Perhaps that will be fodder for a future project.


A Darkness of our own

“The third hearing of my man took place at two o’clock at night; I had previously worked for eighteen hours on end. He had been woken up; he was drunk with sleep and frightened; he betrayed himself. From that time I cross-examined my people chiefly at night….Once a woman complained that she had been kept standing outside my room the whole night, awaiting her turn. Her legs were shaking and she was completely tired out; in the middle of her hearing, she fell asleep. I woke her up; she went on talking, in a sleepy mumbling voice, without fully realizing what she was saying, and fell asleep again. I woke her once more, and she admitted everything and signed the statement without reading it, in order that I should let her sleep. … That the wife had been kept waiting on her feet the whole night was due to the carelessness of my sergeant; from then onwards I encouraged carelessness of that kind; stubborn cases had to stand upright on one spot for as long as forty-eight hours. After that the wax had melted out of their ears, and one could talk to them….

“My colleagues had similar experiences. It was the only possible way to obtain results. The regulations were observed; not a prisoner was actually touched. But it happened that they had to witness–so to speak accidently–the execution of their fellow prisoners. The effect of such scenes is partly mental, partly physical. Another example: there are showers and baths for reasons of hygiene. That in winter the heating and hotwater pipes did not always function, was due to technical difficulties; and the duration of the baths depended on the attendants. Sometimes, again, the heating and hot-water apparatus functioned all too well; that equally depended on the attendants. They were all old comrades; it was not necessary to give them detailed instructions; they understood what was at stake.”
                                — Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler’s 1941 novel A Darkness at Noon recounts the arrest, imprisonment, and eventual execution of an Old Bolshevik (who is a composite figure) during the purges and show trials of the late 30s. It’s a brilliant novel–every time the protagonist starts to become sympathetic, we are reminded that he himself has been responsible for the “physical liquidation” of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people (the numbers are unclear), purging those who represented ideological weak spots, until he himself becomes identified as an ideological weak spot. He’s a bit like Tony Soprano–every time I started to like him, he killed someone with his bare hands.

In the passage above, one of the jailers, an old party hand himself, recounts the interrogation techniques he used to break recalcitrant kulaks who refused to divulge where they had hid “excess” (probably non-existent) grain.

These techniques probably sound familiar to you, because they are now being used by American interrogators in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (and possibly elsewhere). I have repeatedly read investigative reports that trace these techniques to a Cold War era program intended to train US soldiers to withstand interrogation if captured by the Soviets or the Chinese.

And still they shy away from the absolute truth, perhaps unable to face the bald facts: we are using the techniques of the KGB and NKVD, the great bogeymen of the Cold War.

We even justify ourselves using their logic:

“In the opposite camp they are not so scrupulous. Any old idiot of a general can experiment with thousands of living bodies; and if he makes a mistake, he will at most be retired. The forces of reaction and counter-revolution have no scruples or ethical problems.” —Darkness at Noon (again)

Can we truly say that freedom and liberty have triumphed over oppression?

Happy Fourth of July.


Speedboat diplomacy

Update below the fold.

After months of diplomatic sniping between the US and Russia, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George Bush are meeting today at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush has generally invited foreign leaders to his own ranch in Texas, rather than to the Maine compound, which belongs to his father. I have yet to read a compelling explanation as to why he chose Maine over Texas other than the more pleasant summertime weather, but that’s never stopped him in the past.

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this visit, at least so far. Both the American and the Russian press seem to expect little from the meetings between the two leaders, noting the wide differences in policy toward Iran and missile defense.

Putin arrived yesterday in time for a spin about the bay in a speedboat driven by Bush Père, followed by a fancy lobster dinner. This morning, they went fishing; Putin was the only one who caught anything. Putin will continue on to Guatemala to a meeting of the Olympic committee, in support of the Black Sea resort city of Sochi’s bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Can personal diplomacy between world leaders really make a big difference? Certainly, but I don’t think Putin is going to be swayed from his positions by a little Bush “charm”. Instead, he’s continued to try to put Bush off-balance–this time, according to the New York Times, offering yet another proposal for a jointly developed missile defense plan located in former Soviet space, in exchange for Bush abandoning plans to deploy the system in the new NATO members of eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the NYT article lacks details of what Putin actually proposed. The BBC has only slightly more, mentioning, in addition to the Gabala radar, a “site in Southern Russia”.

Update: Izvestia has more information about Putin’s specific proposals. First, he proposed the creation of an information exchange center in Moscow and an early warning station in southern Russia (still no specific location). Second, he proposed widening the discussion of missile defense to include other European countries, while noting that these countries will have to conduct elections on whether to participate in the system. This last bit is a reminder to the Bush Administration that missile defense is not actually all that popular in eastern Europe–at the beginning of April, one opinion poll showed that 57% of Poles were opposed to participating in the program. Bush, in his turn, responded to the latest proposal by calling it a “bold, interesting, new idea.”* ‘Interesting’, of course, should be translated as ‘I haven’t figured out how to politely say ‘no’ yet.’

* This is translated from the Izvestia article, so I can’t guarantee Bush’s exact English words–I haven’t been able to find a detailed English-language account yet.


Shell games

On Tuesday, I mentioned that second rule of Russia watching is “follow the money”. The only problem is that following the money is not easy.

I’ve been asked on occasion whether I think Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of YUKOS oil now in prison for tax evasion and fraud, is guilty or were the charges against him politically motivated.

My answer: “Yes.”

Khodorkovsky gained control of YUKOS in the notorious loans-for-shares auctions, which were a breathtakingly audacious scheme to defraud the Russian government (and thereby the Russian people) at a time when the government was on the verge of fiscal (and possibly political) collapse.

Once he held the reins of YUKOS, however, Khodorkovsky seems to have run it more or less in the style of a western public company. YUKOS was widely praised for its wise and productive investment decisions, which resulted in higher productivity, and its comparatively high level of corporate transparency. But Khodorkovsky wasn’t satisfied with running Russia’s most successful oil company. He started to dabble in politics–and in doing so, violated the bargain between the Kremlin and the oligarchs: you stay out of our business and we’ll stay out of yours.

Khodorkovsky is now in a Siberian prison, and YUKOS was split up and put back on the auction block to pay its tax debts to the Russian state.

Much like the loans-for-shares auctions, these auctions have been less than transparent–but in these cases, the prime beneficiaries of the shady dealing have been the energy parastatals: Rosneft and Gazprom. Borrowing a page from the oligarchs’ strategy book, they’ve used shell companies to pick up YUKOS assets while disguising their own role in the bidding. One of YUKOS’ prime assets, its Yuganskneftegaz subsidiary, was purchased by a mysterious company named Baikalfinansgrup. This company, which at the time of the auction had its address registered to a small office-building in the provincial city of Tver and had been in official existence for only two weeks, nevertheless managed to secure $1.7 billion in financing from the state-owned savings bank Sberbank. The only other registered bidder in the auction was the Rosneft-Gazprom joint venture Gazpromneft (which should not be confused with the former Sibneft, now owned by Gazprom and called Gazprom Neft), which ultimately declined to bid, leaving Baikalfinansgrup to acquire Yuganskneftegaz for a fraction of its market value. Baikalfinansgrup was later revealed to be a subsidiary of Rosneft, created specifically for the acquisition of Yuganskneftegaz.

If your head is spinning after reading that, I can’t blame you. It’s hard to keep track of all the maneuvering and switching. But wait, there’s more.

The big mystery currently occupying YUKOS watchers concerns the very last lot of YUKOS assets, which was auctioned off earlier this spring. Everyone expected that this last lot, which included YUKOS’ Moscow headquarters, would be acquired by Rosneft. But at the last minute, a previously unknown company, OOO Prana, appeared out of nowhere and outbid Rosneft, driving the final sale price up to over 100 billion rubles ($3.9 billion) from a starting price of 22 billion rubles.

Who is this mysterious company, and why was it willing to pay so much for this lot? Moscow real estate is expensive, but not that expensive. Details have started to dribble out, starting with the news that the lot included not only the real estate, but also numerous other assets, including accounts receivables of over $1 billion. Kommersant has made some serious effort to sort this out, though it’s still a bit murky. The biggest question, though–who’s behind Prana?–is still a mystery. Rosneft denies any connection, though phone records suggest a potential connection to Gazprom via Gazprombank.

Now Rosneft is in negotiations to acquire some of those assets purchased by Prana, possibly at a hefty discount. There’s also speculation that oligarch Roman Abramovich is somehow behind all of this. Before break-up of YUKOS, it was set to merge with Sibneft, which was at the time controlled by Abramovich. When the deal was cancelled, Abramovich ended up short. Could this be a way of paying him off?

Stay tuned, and we’ll keep trying to follow the money.


Quick! Fetch the comfy chair!

The other day, we were discussing Monty Python references, and I volunteered that I had recently started a short piece on the prospects for democracy in Belarus and Ukraine with “Revolutions are like the Spanish Inquisition–no one ever expects them.”

“Surely that’s not true!” our friends protested. “There must be something to predict them.”

“Well, most revolutions seem to be highly contingent phenomena. You can go back and and pick out the primary factors in hindsight, but it’s hard to see them coming in advance or even, at times, to recognize a successful revolution in active progress.”

I then trotted out my favorite parlor game (answer below the fold–no peeking!):

In 1989, in which Communist country did the largest pro-democracy demonstrations take place?

Despite the difficulty of accurately predicting revolutions, there are some factors that show up repeatedly in cases of major regime change. For example, authoritarian regimes are highly vulnerable at the moment of succession–there may be a squabble over succession or the successor may fail to placate the necessary social and political actors to sufficiently shore up his position or the very process of placating those social and political actors may weaken the regime. And of course, no revolution succeeds without support (or, at the very least, indifference) from (a significant portion of) the military. During the Orange Revolution, one of the key questions hinged on what direction the military and the interior ministry police would go. If ordered to attack the protesters, would they comply?

In a similar vein, Mark Lynch wonders which Arab regime will be the first to fall, and offers his own assessment of the most likely candidates.

But I’ll expand the question to authoritarian regimes in general: what authoritarian (or semi-authoritarian) regime do you think is next to go and why? What factors do you think drive regime change?

Oh, and the answer to the parlor game question is: China–it is often estimated that there were more than one million pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In Eastern Europe, the largest protests were in Czechoslovakia (about 500,000) and East Germany (about 300,000). But “China” doesn’t occur to most people because the Tiananmen Square demonstrations failed to bring about a successful regime change. Of course, one million Chinese democracy supporters represent a much smaller percentage of the total population than 500,000 Czechs or 300,000 East Germans. But that’s not the reason we don’t think of it.


War of the words

Did you know that there’s a new Cold War? Well, not really. It makes for good media headlines, but it’s largely exaggerated hype.

Nevertheless, tensions between the US and Russia have been on the rise over the last year. At the heart of the matter is Russia’s desire to be taken seriously as a player in the world political scene. The economy is booming and government coffers are overflowing. Russia sees itself as undergoing a resurgence and they want to be treated accordingly.

Instead, they’ve been receiving the standard Bush administration treatment, which seems to be applied equally to all our allies: here’s our plan for X…no, we don’t need your input.

Although the US and Russia have been wrangling over a number of issues, including the disposition of Kosovo and the progression of the Iranian nuclear program, the biggest bone of contention has been American plans to place anti-ballistic missile installations in Central Europe, in Poland and the Czech Republic (talk about ABM installations in Ukraine is, for now, just talk).

While the negotiations for deployment of these ABM components has been largely under the radar of the US press, it’s been a Big Deal in the Russian-language press since last fall. It’s a hot story…and it’s not merely nationalist drum-beating by the domestic Russian press–even the Russian-language BBC has been giving it a lot of coverage.

If you haven’t been following it, here’s the basics: the US wants to site radar installations and missile launchers in Poland and the Czech Republic, with the idea that this system would protect against missile attacks by rogue states (i.e., Iran and North Korea). Russia has reacted strongly against the proposed system, arguing that in placing BMD practically “at Russia’s borders” (this is the phrase used in the Russian press), the US can only have one purpose: to undermine the Russian nuclear deterrent. This has led to some absurdist rhetoric, where Russian officials have claimed that new missile systems under development will be fully able to penetrate the missile shield, while in the next breath they repeat the claim about undermining the deterrent. (If their missiles are truly unstoppable, then an ABM shield shouldn’t really concern them, should it?) As negotiations have proceeded with our NATO allies on BMD deployment, the pitch of the rhetoric has turned up: among other things, Russia has threatened to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and to retarget missiles toward Europe.

If you read closely, though, you will find that the key issue for the Russians is not the BMD system, but rather American unilateralism. The Russians want to be our partners, not our pushovers. From the NYT back in March:

NATO diplomats have also expressed frustration at Russia’s words of shock over proposals for basing missile interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic, and they produced lists of sessions in which officials from Moscow were briefed on the antimissile effort in NATO-Russia Council sessions and in bilateral talks.

Russian officials complain that those meetings were not two-way consultations about American plans but one-way notifications at which their concerns were not weighed.

Russia wants to be treated with the respect it feels it deserves as nuclear superpower–and it’s willing to throw its weight around to get it.

So here’s where we get to the juicy part: the recent G-8 summit in Germany.

After months of pumping up the rhetorical volume on the BMD controversy, Putin suddenly shifted gears. In a brilliant bit of political theater (or, perhaps, political judo), he offered a Russian radar installation in Azerbaijan as a site for a jointly managed ABM radar site.

The Bush administration could only splutter in response. The Gabala site is considerably closer to Iran and to North Korea. Of course, it’s not without drawbacks. For one thing, many Azeris are furious about the offer, claiming that the Russia’s lease on the facility does not permit them to hand it over to a third party.

On the other hand, they don’t have much to worry about. Putin placed a number of conditions on the deal, including a requirement for full Russian access to the joint facility (and presumably, to US technology). And some analysts have claimed that the site is both too close to Iran and too far from the proposed missile launcher sites to be effective. And at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting on June 15, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the Russian offer will not affect US plans to site facilities in Central Europe, though he didn’t rule out the possibility of using the Gabala radar as an additional site.

SOP, for the Bush admin: all take and no give. Of course, Putin’s offer grabbed all the headlines, while Gates’ quiet “thanks, but no thanks” has made no splash at all. But I don’t think anyone really thought it was a genuine offer in the first place, so the headlines are the real field of battle.


Sea of boxes

By now, you have probably heard about the recall of Thomas the Tank Engine toys, which are decorated with lead paint. While Lead-Foot Thomas is getting a lot of media attention right now, it’s only the latest in a string of serious safety problems associated with products imported from China. Over the last few years, there have been repeated recalls on children’s toys and jewelry due to lead contamination–all produced in China. Then there was the pet food debacle, in which wheat gluten tainted with melamine–a chemical that makes the protein content of the product appear higher and therefore more valuable– was associated with the deaths of hundreds–perhaps even thousands of pets. Less notice has been paid to another chemical contamination that is deadly to humans–the substitution of diethylene glycol, the primary ingredient in antifreeze, for pharmaceutical grade glycerin in toothpaste and cough syrups. Both are sweet, but poisonous diethylene glycol is cheaper than glycerin. The diethylene glycol-contaminated products were primarily destined for the Third World (Latin America and Bangladesh), though some tainted toothpaste has been found in dollar stores in the US. And today, there’s yet another recall, this time on imported tires, which are apparently missing an important safety feature that prevents tread separation.

All these products have something in common: made in China. Although the vast majority of products made in China seem to be perfectly safe, China’s lax regulatory environment means that the market can do what it wants. And the market wants cheap products, often with no questions asked. Scrupulous producers are at risk of being undercut by the unscrupulous, who have an incentive to shave off pennies by any means possible. Sure, they might get caught, but the chances are slim. You can thank Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and the other muckrakers for the fact that it’s so much harder to get away with these tricks in the US.

Some people seem to have taken these incidents as evidence that one shouldn’t buy products made in China. On one parenting board, a poster admonished members to “know where the products they buy come from.” I nearly laughed out loud when I read that. Unless you are buying toys made by the Amish, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid “Made in China.” Low skill, labor-intensive jobs have almost entirely been exported to countries with abundant cheap labor–and China has become the largest world supplier of cheap labor.

Once upon a time, though, the relative cost of labor was not the primary determinant of the location of production. Sure you might be able to produce a product more cheaply overseas than in the US, but the cost of moving it to market was so high that it just wasn’t worth it. Instead, most products were produced locally–and imports were often luxuries rather than discount goods.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I actually managed to polish off a book I’ve been working on for a while: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Most people, when asked about what drives globalization, would probably talk about the internet and McDonald’s and Coca Cola and American movie blockbusters. But if you really want to contemplate globalization, start looking at the labels in your clothing. The shirt I’m wearing was made in Indonesia, my pants in India. My daughter’s shirt was made in Guatemala. I have clothing made all over the world: Vietnam, Sri Lanka, even Kazakhstan. My computer was “assembled” in China, though heaven knows where each of the component parts where made. The phone sitting next to me was made in Malaysia.

As I said, it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that the vast majority of things you bought were made close to home. New York City, for example, had a thriving garment industry because it was close to both the designers and the customers. Why? Because it cost a fortune to move things around. Remember “On the Waterfront?” In the “old days”, longshoremen loaded and unloaded ships’ cargo piecemeal. It often took over a week to unload and reload a ship during a port call, and it was easy for valuable cargo to “walk”. The bulk of the cost of transporting goods from one place to another was incurred as labor costs in port.

Containers, on the other hand, are efficiently loaded on and off ships and easily transferable to land-based transportation (rail or truck). The labor efficiencies are enormous. Container shipping has transformed the world economy by reducing the cost of shipping products to the point where shipping is a tiny fraction of the overall cost.

The transition to container shipping didn’t happen overnight, and it was punctuated with false starts and bad decisions. Arriving at a standard for containers–their size, their crane couplings, etc.–took years, and in the meantime, shipping companies invested in ships, containers, and port cranes that would become useless if and when standards were ever agreed upon. The longshoremen also suffered–though Levinson argues that the unions largely managed to negotiate deals that smoothed the transition (The Wire notwithstanding). It is telling, though, that the older, more established ports, where the unions fought hardest and most successfully to hold back the transition to container traffic, are also ports that died: New York, San Francisco, Boston. On the other hand, those older ports were also poorly situated for container traffic: old cities, with narrow streets that are difficult for tractor trailers to negotiate.

For the most part, The Box is a fascinating book (though my attention did wander during the lengthy and detailed discussion of the various labor negotiations and the extended wrangling over the standardization of container sizes). The explanation of the impact of the shift from traditional shipping to container shipping is, I think, extremely important to building an comprehension of the true drivers of globalization. I know it’s unoriginal to trash Tom Friedman, but having suffered through The World Is Flat last year, I was struck by the fact that nowhere in his pontification on the “global supply chain” did he mention container shipping. Large metal boxes, I guess, aren’t as sexy as open source software–nor is “Maersk Sealand” as compelling a brand name-drop. But the reason why it makes economic sense to make “Virgin of Guadelupe” statues in China and ship them to Mexico is that it’s so bloody cheap to ship them, and the reason it’s so bloody cheap to ship them is the container. If the shipping weren’t so cheap, it wouldn’t matter that labor is marginally cheaper in China than in Mexico.

By reducing shipping costs to a footnote, container shipping has made shipping itself into a footnote rather than a limiting factor. Instead, production decisions are made according to factor input costs–the relative costs of labor and capital. Container shipping has made classical trade theory (basically) true by reducing shipping costs to the point where they can be nearly assumed away, as typical in trade models. No wonder (orthodox) economists love the modern era of “free trade”–it makes them look right. But the dropping of trade barriers isn’t what drives globalization, it’s shipping, shipping, shipping.

So why is Thomas made in China? Because it’s cheaper to ship him here than to produce him here. The fundamental premise of the market, as my favorite econ professor liked to intone, is “buy low, sell high.” The logic of the market means that production of anything that is low-skill labor intensive will flow to a low-skill labor abundant market–China effectively exports its cheap labor to our expensive labor market. Buy low, sell high. And safety will continue to be a concern for these imported products until we can figure out how to effectively internalize the external cost of ensuring higher safety standards. Don’t think for a minute that the recall-associated costs to the owner of the Thomas franchise are higher than the profits associated with long-term production in China–this recall is merely a “cost of doing business”. Safety problems with products imported from China will not resolve themselves unless there is a genuine economic incentive placed on the producers (presumably by the American importers). The toothlessness of Chinese officialdom in face of the imperatives of market is on display in this account by a New York Times reporter who attempted to visit the factory producing the tainted Thomas toys. Don’t expect a robust regulatory regime to appear on its own, folks.

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