Saturday, July 02, 2005

Russian scientists still negative about Kyoto protocol

... but the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yuri Osipov (a mathematician) has signed the pro-Kyoto letter to G8 over objections of Russian climatologists. Looks like he was in a hurry to sign it before the official Academy panel on climate change could convene. Still, the panel calls on him to withdraw his sign.

What bothers me most in all this Kyoto business is the number of tricks that Kyotoists use to achieve their goal.

When they replace all the references to carbon dioxide or CO2, which everyone knows as the natural product of organic life, with 'greenhouse gasses' or, to make it more scary, 'greenhouse pollutants', it's a kind of propaganda newspeak that makes me deeply suspicious of every Kyoto proponents' word, including 'a' and 'and'.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Censorship and polls

Recent poll about Russian opinion on censorship in mass media brought headlines like Poll finds massive support for censorship. What's actually the poll found (here in Russian) was a bit different. Indeed, when asked "Do you think that Russian TV needs censorship" 47% responded "Yes, definitely" and additional 35% answered "Yes, probably". But when asked which kinds of content need censorship (up to three answers, in % of respondents), Russians answered this way:

the advertisement of dubious-quality medicine 30
crime-glorifying movies and TV series24
the advertisement of intimate products (tampons and pads, condoms, toilet tissue etc.24
Big Brother-like reality shows 15
tasteless pop music8
excessively graphic reportage on catastrophes, terrorist acts 4
educational, children's2
political 1

As you can see, nobody wants political censorship, and this is the kind of censorship that really matters. So headlines like 'Russians want more censorship' are misleading. If one ask Americans whether they supports the censorship that exists on their TV, few would say yes, and many would ask back 'What are you talking about, there is no such thing'. For many do not think about ban on nudity and profanity on public airwaves as censorship. Those who support such restrictions are especially loathe to call it 'censorship', although some, like Jonah Goldberg, prefer straight talk, and call it 'the kind of censorship which I support, as opposed to political one which I oppose'. Well, Russians are with Goldberg on this issue.

Some other notes: the first place of 'sexual content' and relatively low number of 'profanity' would make some think that Russians are more prudish on the former than the latter. But these numbers reflect the character of Russian TV.

Russian taboo words 'the famous Mat) are bleeped, Russian movies very rarely contain them at all, and Western movies are translated in a way that replaces four-letter words with euphemisms, so, say, Full Metal Jacket is aired without any taboo word. When a former cop nicknamed Goblin started to translate Western movies using Russian language in full, many of his critics even said that English taboo words are not equal to Russian mat, that they are a way more acceptable. A funny notion for anyone who tried to listen how real Russians talk on streets or at work.

However, there are no real restrictions on sex and violence. Most of the channels have enough common sense to show movies by Tarantino or Tinto Brass after 10 PM, but milder ones, which would be R-rated in the USA, are showed without any formal restrictions. It's not that daytime TV is packed with them -- no, TV programmers can read polls too, but sometimes when they have no good talk show or Soviet oldie at hand, they can place an R-rated movie on, say, 5 PM slot.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Monument to Aleksandr II, the Tsar Liberator, unveiled in Moscow

At last. It was a bit incogruent that, while even Finland had a statue of Alexander the Liberator on one of Helsinki's downtown squares, Moscow had not.

RIA Novosti had a freudian slip in this article: the inscription says that he "freed Slavonic peoples from the Ottoman yoke", not "the Slavonic people from the Islamic yoke", as their article says. While his wars led to the independence of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro, Bosnia continued to be Ottoman until early XX century. Besides, most of Slavonic peoples didn't live under Islamic rule. And substituting general 'Islamic' instead of specific 'Ottoman' is historically wrong: while most of the war of the time were waged against Islamic countries, he integrated Muslims in the Russian society. Actually, among those who fought against Turks there were Islamic Azeri troops and officers. Khan of Nakhichevan, to name one, showed exceptional bravery and loyalty in the siege of Bayazet.

Alexandra Ivannikova update

It seems that Alexandra Ivannikova, whose case recently got big publicity, will be cleared of all charges. I'm happy that she will be cleared, but, unfortunately, it is not a court, but prosecutor's office again that is the real judicial power in Russia.

The Moscow Prosecutor's Office has asked the Moscow City Court to annual the guilty verdict a lower court handed down against Alexandra Ivannikova, who killed a man while he was trying to rape her.

"The capital's prosecutor's office has lodged a prosecutor's appeal with the Moscow City Court asking it to overturn the guilty verdict handed down against Ivannikova and to drop the criminal case against her due to the absence of any crime," a prosecutor's office spokesman told Interfax.

On the bright side, this case showed the power of Russian public opinion. Demonstrations weren't numerous, but they were held by very unlikely allies: anti-immigration nationalists, liberals and gun right activists united for anything would be almost unimaginable before. Naturally, they weren't truly united, and each side tried to show clearly that they are here on their own, but such disunity of thought combined with unity of action is the most powerful combination.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Two recent verdicts

So. Mikhail Khodorkovski and Platon Lebedev were found guilty on almost all charges, and sentenced almost to the longest term available: 9 years of 10 years possible.

Today, another defendant was found guilty: Alexandra Ivannikova, a Moscow young wife and mother who inadvertently killed a would-be rapist. She got two years on probation and must pay $9000 to the late rapist's relatives.

In both cases the society and blogosphere as a part of it are split. Heated arguments, ad hominem attacks, questioning of opponents' motives are rampant. But in the essence, both cases share one cause: the mindset of Russian courts which prevents them from acquitting anyone who was charged. Juries alleviate this a bit, but in some cases (such as of Sutyagin, a defense analyst convicted for espionage) judges dismiss juries which look like potentially pro-defendant and call new ones with abnormally high percentage of former governmental, security and defense officials. In other cases, such as that of colonel Budanov and captain Ulman, charged with war crimes in Chechnya, acquittals are reverted, and new trials continue until the defendant is convicted. Sometimes, like in Ivannikova case, the defendant gets some years in probation. This way, judges try to prevent appeals while still convicting the indicted. Virtually the only way to acquit oneself is to prove self not guilty before prosecutor, before the indictment. Otherwise one is guilty.

That is why the trial of Khodorkovski was so important for Russia and that's why the sentence was so shocking even for those of his supporters who were sure that he would be incarcerated. When a judge doesn't even try to show that he has his own mind, but simply retells the indictment almost verbatim, it is bad. But when he does it in a case that got such publicity, it is the sentence on Russian judicial system, which is publicly pronounced dead.

While prosecutors were as bad in Yeltsin's tenure, judges then were a way more independent. Several high-publicity cases ended in acquittals, and some of the Presidential decrees and Duma's laws were overturned by the Constitutional Court. While many problems persisted, when a court was sentencing someone back then, most of the public accepted their judgment. Now it's all over. The destruction of the Russian state by attempts to strengthen it continues.

On blackout

The Moscow blackout itself was thoroughly covered by Andy of Siberian Light and Lyndon of Scraps of Moscow (many articles, scroll down or look in the archive on May 25-27 postings).

The public behavior during the blackout was probably the most interesting issue of the day. From what I gather from numerous Russian-language blogs, newspapers and official data, Muscovites could get B+ or even A-.

The most persistent complaint was that there was not enough cooperation among people struggling to get to their homes or offices. With subway closed lots of people tried to catch a car, but semi-professional taxi drivers charged about 1000 rubles for the ride that usually costs about 100-200 rubles. And not enough drivers who usually don't pick any passengers changed their mind in the emergency. However, those taxi drivers who hadn't significantly raised their prices, got passengers in seconds, and weren't available for anyone else. And free rides by those who do not usually allow strangers in their cars were restricted to the obviously needy (grannies, moms with kids, etc.) or at least to pretty girls. No wonder that most of those who complained about selfishness of Moscow drivers were young and middle-aged men: the only ones who were easily available for them were, indeed, those who raised their prices outrageously.

However, it is notable that there were no lootings, even when most of the street kiosks refused to sell water, sodas and ice-cream in the hot weather (they couldn't: their cash registers, which are compulsory even for smallest ventures, went out of power too). Moscow drivers managed to sort out their priority rights without traffic lights or police, and did it so well, that overall traffic accident level lowered. There is even a joke about that: "With traffic lights out, the accident level on Moscow streets dropped. The city police department dispatched additional traffic police to the streets, and the accident level returned to normal". There were lots of jokes, lots of news swapping, but overall reaction was mostly subdued. Nobody wanted any additional trouble, and most tried to behave themselves in a damage-minimizing way. On the whole, I think that such response was healthy, much healthier than I'd predict before.

Friday, April 29, 2005

State of the Federation

Most of the recent commentary about Russia involves Putin's Annual Address to the Federal Assembly.

Those who spent their time decrying 'bloody Putin's regime', do it again, featuring his characterization of the collapse of Soviet Union as 'the greatest catastrophe', and conveniently hiding most of the speech itself. However, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. is followed with That was precisely the period when the significant developments took place in Russia. Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life.... ...They had to accomplish the most difficult task: how to safeguard their own values, not to squander undeniable achievements, and confirm the viability of Russian democracy. We had to find our own path in order to build a democratic, free and just society and state.

Other, pro-Russian opeds highlight such details as Putin quoting from Count Witte "The state does not so much create as add substance. The genuine creators are all the citizens themselves… The aim should be not to hinder independence, but to develop it and encourage it in every way" and call it major pro-democracy, pro-free market speech. A CNN observer even told that, listening to his calls to repeal inheritance tax, he thought for a time that he was listening to Bush.

If one reads the whole speech, the latter point of view would be much closer to the reality. Indeed, it would be an excellent speech for a pro-market, democratic politician, probably aspiring for top jobs. Had any of the leading opposition candidates been able to produce something nearly as good, he would immediately have become a natural leader.

It was not, however, nearly as good as the address of the President of the Russian Federation now in his second term.

The obvious gap between Putin's fine speeches and not-so-fine deeds is now being spinned by pro-Kremlin pundits as a result of the meddling of bureaucracy, which takes to the heart only those signals from the top that suit its needs. Opposition, naturally, says it's just the centuries-old 'good tzar, evil boyars' spin designed to cover up for evil tzars. I think both views have some truth.

Indeed, some of the reforms promoted by Putin are being hindered by the same Putin. His judicial reforms, including the introduction of the trial by jury, are countered with his meddling in court process. Some examples of such breaches of the spirit of law are well-known in the West: scientists and military analysts convicted for espionage, and tycoons convicted for tax evasion by retrials, manipulations of jurors, dismissals of defendant-leaning juries, etc. Less known is that the same crude manipulations are being used in war crime cases. Colonel Budanov was acquitted, but government set a new trial, which convicted him. Captain Ullman was also acquitted, and now he is on retrial. Such blatant pressure on courts discredits judicial reforms. In Yeltsin's era courts (then mostly without juries) slowly gained trust, although this process was seriously hindered by corrupt judges. Now this fragile trust is broken.

On the other side, many cases are indeed of 'evil boyars' type. Putin has fought for small business rights for all his presidential tenure -- with very little success. "Boyars" in the bureaucracy are not even really evil. It is simply a case of ungovernability -- nobody can efficiently control such a vast territory as Russia.

Governors and regional elites ignore what Moscow tells them, but if something goes wrong and people become restless, they always blame the federal government. Putin, being tired of such irresponsible tricks, first tried to control governors using democratic means: he, being the most popular politician in Russia, could use his popularity to help friendly candidates. This scheme didn't work: those newly elected pro-Putin governors turned out to be as ungovernable as were their oppositional predecessors. More ungovernable, in fact: while Kremlin could argue and negotiate with the oppositional figures, nowadays all the governors are suck-ups, and say no bad word about Kremlin, preferring to silently ignore federal laws, regulations and governmental orders.

As a remedy, Putin wants the governors to be directly answerable to him, "a governor is selected by president from the panel of candidates belonging to the party which has the majority in the regional legislature". Western political establishment called this reform antidemocratical, but this is wrong: it is not more or less democratic than direct elections, but it is obviously less federalistic. What's worse is that it's like dousing the fire with oil. As a result, he will get even more subversive governors than he has got now.

Both Putin's own and his lackeys' subversion of the fine principles described in his numerous speeches makes him sometimes resembling Gorbachev of 1989-1991: he is almost as out of touch and almost as irrelevant as Gorby was. What's different is that Gorbachev was a communist. His constant talks about Lenin, about communist ideals, about socialistic choice of our grandfathers were met with such a big yawn because very few agreed with him, while most of the Russians basically agree with Putin. That's why he's still got some credit of trust. He talks well. Another diffence is that when Gorbachev's government ceased to be relevant to the real life, everything crashed. The system was Soviet, and it could not function without government. Now most of the society functions more or less well on its own. We lived through times when there was almost no government to speak of, so now we can live well with a very inefficient one.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Special Agents and MiGs to Safeguard Foreign Leaders in Moscow on Victory Day

Back in USSR, Victory Day used to be one real holiday. New Year, too, but New Year celebration, being an atheistic substitute for Christmas, was a holiday without holiness. Blood of the tens of millions made Victory Day a real holiday.

Somehow even communists managed to strike balance between official and unofficial for this day. Maybe it was so because Brezhnev, who was the first who started to celebrate Victory Day in earnest, was a veteran himself. Now there are signs that this delicate balance can tip to the governmental pomp.

It is one thing to invite world leaders to celebrations and, maybe, to prevent unauthorized access to a few sites in the capital for a few hours. To shut down virtually all of the Moscow’s downtown, to encourage Muscovites to leave city for these days, to close several popular downtown sites completely for days is to cross the threshold. Hope some sanity will still be left, and all this pomp and pageantry will not manage to rob the Russian people of our main holiday.

Monday, March 14, 2005

On military decorations, Soviet and Russian

This post was started as a comment on Lex Libertas's posting with a picture of a building, but his comment system is not working right now, and since the comment was too long-winded anyway, I decided to post it here.

Here on the building there are two circles below the national emblem. What is depicted on them is not a simple architectural decorations, but orders. On the left is the Order of Lenin, and on the right is the Order of October Revolution (with cruiser Aurora on it). The building itself is former Leningrad Higher Party School, now St.Petersburg International Business Center.

Military and civilian decorations in USSR and Russia have two classes. The higher one is called an order, the lower one is a medal. For example, if a soldier did some heroic deed in WWII, he was awarded a medal 'Za otvagu' (For courage). Many medals were awarded for participation in a specific battle, e.g. 'For the defense of Moscow', 'For the liberation of Prague', 'For the conquest of Budapest' (since Hungary was Hitler's ally, it is conquest, or taking, (vzyatie), not liberation).

However, if the deed was outstanding, he could be awarder an order 'Slavy' (of Glory), or an order of Red Banner. 'Hero of Soviet Union', 'Hero of Socialist Labor', and modern 'Hero of Russia' are special titles. In the Soviet times, the awardees were decorated both with an Order of Lenin and the special Golden Star medal (with Hammer and Sickle for Labor version). This makes this medal the highest award, like Medal of Honor in USA. But basically, orders are what is called medals in America, and medals are what is called badges and coins.

The word 'order' in this sense is a relic from the Imperial Russia. In Russian Empire, just like in the most of the contemporary Europe, orders were knight orders -- they had a limited number of members, they had their complex insignia, chapels, celebration days, the official head of order was usually the Emperor. When a commoner got in the Order he usually officially became a noble (there were exceptions for the lowest ranks in the lowest orders). However, in Russian Members of Orders were called 'cavaler', not 'rytsar' (knight), and this word was used exclusively in the context of orders. So, when the Communists decided to design their own system of military and civilian decorations, they simply used words 'order' and 'cavaler', both of which had already lost most of the connection to the concept of Knight Orders.

British system of orders is one of the few traditional ones which made it to the modern world, and now every time a celebrity of any kind gets a British decoration, the world is abuzz. Is Bill Gates a knight now? Paul McCartney surely is, but Gates wasn't dubbed and cannot style himself as 'sir'. Was it appropriate for the former Presidents of USA Reagan and Bush Sr. to become members of the Order of Bath? Well, everyone can remember something similar. However, a mere century ago 'the order' meant 'the Knight Order' with few, if any, exceptions, and there were no confusion when someone was awarded one of them (or, to be more precise, was accepted in one of the Knight Orders).

Another confusing feature of the Soviet award system is the practice of awarding not only persons, but legal bodies too. Factories, newspapers, organizations, cities, universities, and, of course, military units were awarded 'the order of Lenin', 'the order of Red Banner', 'the order of October Revolution', etc. Not all of the orders were used in this way, most of the military orders were highly restricted, but these three were quite common. That's why you see the depictions of two orders on the building in Owen's picture. The Leningrad Party School was decorated with them in both senses. Sometimes this practice brought extremely funny linguistic monstrosities such as 'Leningradskii Ordena Lenina Metropoliten imeni V.I.Lenina' (the official name of Leningrad subway).

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Colonel Maskhadov is still dead-2

I didn't intend to return to that theme, but
1) most of the analysts both in Russia and the West are promoting the usual 'he was the only hope for peace' meme that worked such brilliantly with Arafat, Hussein, and other 'legitimate secularist leaders', and
2) for some (probably technical) reasons, I was banned from commenting on Wind of Change article "The Death of Aslan Maskhadov" by Dan Darling, so I couldn't present some of the counterarguments there. Nothing to do but bore myself (as the sole reader of this startup blog) with the following:

The death of Maskhadov is almost the best thing for Chechnya. In some sense it is even better than the death of Basayev would be. Lots of Basayev-like jihadi are already dead. Hattab, Gelayev, Baraev, Abu al-Walid, Atgeriev, Raduev. Their death doesn't mean much, Arabs will send another leader. There are lots of jihadi wannabes and lots of Arabic funds and support for them.

But Maskhadov was an Arafat figure, a leader whose ability for fundraising and PR went beyond usual Islamist sources. He had influence in the West and was widely supported by British, American, and German NGOs and, to some extent, governments. He learned the art of speaking different things in different languages, making himself simultaneously the feared terrorist leader whose orders unleashed Dubrovka and Beslan massacres, and noble freedom fighter whose aspirations for peace process were trumped by ham-fisted Chechen-hating Russian KGB henchmen. Worse, he was relatively popular among purely nationalistic Chechens, those whose alliance to terrorist jihadi is contested with Chechenization.

The purpose of Chechenization is to separate legitimate insurgents from jihadi terrorists, and Maskhadov was the main obstacle. His talks about talks not only gave the air of legitimacy to terrorists, but also prevented real insurgents from making separate deals with Kadyrov's Chechens. Many of them made deals, and now are serving as police officers. But many others hesitated, hoping that Maskhadov will cut a better deal, and fearing his retribution. Now that hope is over and they are presented with their choice.

There are also talks about supposed 'revenge attacks'. We heard this after every successful killing of the terror leaders: Yasin, Rantisi, the aforementioned Hattab and company. However, this theory is fundamentally wrong in the presumption that jihadis usually lack the will to make terror. In fact, they have all the will to strike regardless of their enemy's actions, what they lack when they do not attack is means. And the death of a leader diminishes their means.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Colonel Maskhadov is still dead.

Chechnya loses its Yasser Arafat, says Guardian, and I, for the first time in a while, agree with them.

Not completely, because their description of both needs some additional clarification:
For some outside observers, Maskhadov was the Yasser Arafat of the Chechen conflict - beyond the pale for negotiations as far as the occupying power was concerned, but the only person with the combination of military credibility and diplomatic experience to carry his people to the peace table.
..., and, with the opponents' hands tied with 'peace process', to unleash a wave of terror while getting financial support from both Western democracies and Arab terror-charities.

However, we have to remember that it wasn't the death of Arafat alone that brought positive changes to the Arab territories. The death of Yasin and Rantisi was also required. So our guys still have a lot of work. Nevertheless, kudos to them.