Posts tagged ‘russia’

21 February 2009

Politkovskaya’s killers

Anna Politkovskaya’s sister rejects the idea that the Kremlin was responsible for ordering the killing of the critical Russian journalist on 7 October 2006. Channel 4′s report on the verdict of the trial of four men suspected of the killing can be seen for one week by going to Channel 4 News and scrolling down to “Thurs 19 Feb Part 4: Anna – CIA”. All four were found not guilty on 19 Feb.

Channel 4 provides extensive details of the case, the four men, the issues of impunity facing Russia’s legal system, the contradictory evidence, etc.

More importantly, it includes (minute 4:06) an interview with Anna Politkovskaya’s sister, Elena Kudimova, who thought that there was enough evidence to convict the four in court yesterday. She said, however, that she is not interested in who finally pulled the trigger, but in who ordered the killing.

She also pointed out that what Anna wrote about still continues today, i.e., that law enforcement officers are connected to organised crime. To which Jon Snow replied:

Jon Snow: Do you think the finger of suspicion actually extends right inside the Kremlin?

Elena Kudimova: No, I don’t think so. Anna wrote about many other people, especially in the Caucasus, who also quite disliked her writing. I don’t mean necessarily Chechnya, it is also Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia.

I was waiting to see how Jon Snow would follow up on this, and perhaps expand on her suspicions. But his next question draws attention back to Russia’s political/legal systems:

I mean, are you surprised that it even got to a trial at this point? And is there a chance that another trial, of more important people, might be held?

Multiple discourses in any one text, indeed.

20 February 2009

Russia’s Free Press Hoax

Interesting piece by William Dunkerley on opednews.com. In Russia’s Free Press Hoax, he responds to a recent New York Times editorial, one of numerous such articles which claim that Vladimir Putin stifled Russia’s free press. Dunkerley argues that there was no free press to stifle in the first place.

His evidence:

1. The Yeltsin administration nipped press freedom in the bud. It imposed laws that gave media companies little hope of operating profitably. And without profitability, the press had no way of achieving independence. Instead, the media companies became dependent, not free, and most remain so today.

2. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], 15 journalists were murdered during the period of Putin’s presidency. What the “murdered journalist” stories fail to report is that in the previous 8-year period, there were 31 murders! In other words, under Putin, the number of journalists killed was more than cut in half.

While I’d phrase the criticism differently (less emphasis on “mis”information and more on “a particular perspective on” information), I agree that there is a definite shift in the attention paid to killed journalists under Yeltsin (not only CPJ, but also Reporter sans Frontiers (RFS) give a similar number of killed journalists, which they report as having decreased under Putin).

What I find crucial to this discussion is the desired aim. Ignoring hard news for the moment, what do editors hope to achieve when they blame Putin for the deaths of journalists? Putting this more discoursively, what is the function of such editorials; what ‘action’ do they carry out? Editors – and the commentariat in general – generally make recommendations for change, whether explicit or implicit.

If the reason for the deaths is Putin, the recommendation must be to reduce his power. The trouble is that

  • (i) according to the CPJ and RSF websites, the majority of journalists who were killed were investigating stories associated with organised crime and/or business corruption,
  • (ii) this means that when grand sweeping statements are made about these journalists being critics of the Russian regime and/or Putin, the editorial in question completely loses credibility in the eyes of the Russian public and politicians. This in turn means that
  • (iii) no-one feels the need to tackle the problem.

The core problem, according to CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme researcher Nina Oganiova, is that murders of journalists are not followed up in the legal system. This is a serious issue in Russia, but it seems hypersimplistic to report this as Putin’s control over the media (although, again, this is not “mis”information, but a particular perspective on a piece of information).

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Finally, I must jump to the defence of the journalists (as a proper anthropologist I might say “my” journalists) criticised by Dunkerley. There is a strict distinction to be drawn between

  1. very well informed, thoughtful, perceptive and/or insightful foreign correspondents based in Moscow,
  2. deadline-driven, desk-based, non-expert journalists who turn agency news into printable news stories often in less than 45 minutes, and are therefore thoroughly embedded in locally accepted knowledge of what Russia is doing at the moment and what meanings are to be assigned to these journalist deaths, and
  3. Washington Post editors (who seem to have some particularly deep axe to grind; see the discussions on Johnson’s Russia List).

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And very finally. my personal favourite of the NYT editorial comes nearer the end:

So far Mr. Obama has been quiet about Russia’s latest efforts to bully its neighbors. He will have to find his voice. After its war with Georgia last year, Russia defied international law by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Do we really need to go into who bullied who and who started what in Georgia again? Perhaps we could just refer to an old NYT article for details about what could as easily be called Georgia‘s war with Russia. Other articles discussed the hypocrisy of the debate on the legitimacy of recognising the independence of some former communist states but not others.


11 January 2009

K19 – the Widowmaker

The most intriguing thing about K19-The Widowmaker (starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson) is that it’s clearly been made during the Putin era.

In the 1980s films made in the UK or the US about the Soviet Union, the whole Soviet enterprise was fairly cold-hearted, uncaring, cruel, etc. Whereas in this film there is a clear divide. The (real) captain (Liam Neeson) is a great leader, loved and respected by his men, the sailors and officers are also good three-dimensional characters, with joys and fears. Quite a normal military film — they could be US sailors and officers. But the Politburo and Moscow, now that’s where the cruelty lies. They have no feelings for the men; anti-Americanism is their highest goal. The captain sent by them (Harrison Ford) also has no warmth while he is doing what Moscow ordered.

A line has been drawn: the people on one side; Politburo/Moscow on the other. And at one point, Harrison Ford’s character crosses the line. Becomes one of the people.

This division is much more reminiscent of the way “Putin’s Moscow” is/was represented in ‘the West’, than the ways in which Soviet Russia has generally been presented.

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10 January 2009

Ukraine and Gazprom

Very spirited debate on the Gazprom-Ukraine dispute on Johnson’s Russia List, a must-have source for all interested in Russian affairs. In the red corner, we have Peter Lavelle, political commentator, arguing that the dispute is first and foremost an economic issue. In the blue corner, we have Ian Hague, fund manager specialising in Russia and the CIS, arguing that the dispute is solely a political issue.

Warning: long — but highly entertaining and informative — texts coming up.

Post 1: From Peter Lavelle, published on RFE/RL (surprisingly to me, since it contradicts their usual very strong position on Russian and CIS affairs). 6 Jan 2009.

‘Gazprom Simply Wants To Get Paid’

It would appear to be an annual event: At the end of each year and the start of the next, Russia and Ukraine have a nasty natural-gas dispute.

Moscow is adamant that it will not resume gas supplies to Kyiv until arrears are paid and a new contract reflecting world gas prices is signed. Kyiv remains defiant, hoping the European Union will eventually step in to mediate.

This is the last thing Brussels wants at this point, but there is a sense of urgency that the EU must admit that its energy security is threatened by Ukraine. In the meantime, gas supplies to Europe are being interrupted.

As of January 1, Russia had no contract to sell natural gas to Ukraine. Without a contract, the export gas monopoly Gazprom is not only under no obligation to continue supplies, it also has no legal basis to do so. Thus, Gazprom was given no choice — it had to cut supplies (and lose revenues in the process).

The energy giant has made it clear that it will honor its contracts with European consumers and there is no evidence that it has failed to do so. As Ukraine is the transit country for 80 percent of Gazprom’s natural gas to Europe, it is Kyiv that must shoulder complete responsibility for any shortages experienced by Gazprom’s consumers.

A great deal of the commentary on the current dispute — as has been the case for the past few years — has focused on the tense relations between Moscow and Kyiv. There can be no doubt there are political undertones to the current dispute. Russia has made it clear that NATO membership for Ukraine would pose an existential threat to Russia. The fact that Kyiv sold arms to Tbilisi at discounted prices definitely heightened tensions. But at the end of the day, these gas disputes are all about commercial relations and irrefutable energy realities: Gazprom simply wants to be paid.

Ukraine continues to purchase subsidized gas from Gazprom. Last year the price for 1,000 cubic meters was $179.50. In contrast, Gazprom’s European customers pay up to $500 for the same amount of gas. Before Ukraine’s 2008 contract with Gazprom expired, Kyiv was offered a new price for 2009 — $250 per 1,000 cubic meters.

By any standard this was a very generous offer. To top this off, the transit fees Gazprom must pay Ukraine to get its product to market in Europe would also have been increased.

Kyiv rejected this deal. And it owes Gazprom hundreds of millions of dollars for gas supplies and penalties. In response, Gazprom made a new offer: Kyiv would have to pay $481 per 1,000 cubic meters in any future contract.

Getting Tough With Kyiv

The facts of this energy dispute speak volumes about Gazprom’s determination to force Kyiv to act responsibly.

First, the volumes: Gazprom sells about 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas to Ukraine annually. This is compared to the 155 bcm sold to Gazprom’s European customers. Gazprom’s yearly production is about 610 bcm, and the Russian energy flagship purchases about 50 bcm annually from Central Asia.

Now for the dollars and cents of this dispute: In 2008, Gazprom sold Ukraine gas at a price of $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters, totaling around $10 billion. Then consider the average price of about $400 to the rest of Europe. At this price, Gazprom’s annual revenue from the 155 bcm sold is about $65 billion.

Do the math: Gazprom earns more than six times the revenues for only three times the volume of gas by selling to Europe. This is an incredible shortfall in revenues for Gazprom and unfair to its other customers who pay market prices. Selling Ukraine gas at the same price paid by the rest of Europe would raise Gazprom’s revenues by about $12 billion annually, based on the 2008 sales volume. This figure would probably diminish slightly when factoring in the higher transit fees Gazprom is expected to pay Ukraine in any new contract. Nonetheless, Gazprom has a strong, compelling argument for its get-tough policy with Kyiv.

I have been covering the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes closely for years, and it is obvious to me that Kyiv is conducting a “the-worse-the-better” strategy. Ukraine is in dire economic straits and has been kept afloat by a $16 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Under these conditions, Kyiv desperately hopes Brussels will negotiate a better deal with Moscow on its behalf. Brussels should do just the opposite — demand Kyiv transit Russian gas purchased by European countries without hindrance or delay.

In the meantime, Brussels simply must get serious about developing a long-term and integrated energy policy for the entire bloc. This is what Gazprom has repeatedly requested — a European energy partner with whom it can speak with one voice and negotiate with without troublesome in-betweens like Ukraine.

Also, instead of fearing the “Russian energy bully,” Brussels should help Russia build the Nord Stream and other new pipelines. Ukraine is a thorn in Gazprom’s side. If Brussels isn’t careful, Ukraine will become a thorn for the EU as well.

Post 2: From: Ian Hague, Some questions for Peter Lavelle. 7 Jan 2009.

I normally don’t feel compelled to interject regarding the pieces you publish, but the little thing from RFE/RL by the RT-network “journalist” Peter Lavelle cries out for a response.

JRL readers are savvy enough to know that Ukraine is not blameless in the latest gas scandal: the Ukrainians continue to administer their gas network in the same politicized and flamboyantly corrupt, Soviet manner as public utilities throughout the former Soviet Union, so Russian government propagandists like Peter Lavelle are right to sense an opportunity to move European public opinion to see Kyiv as less of a victim in this latest go-round, especially as the Ukrainians have stored-in up to a month’s worth of supply for themselves this time and do not appear to be suffering. Given the most recent European Commission statements on the question, the Russians may even think that they are gaining ground.

However, Mr. Lavelle’s assertions about the primacy of commercial factors in this dispute are pure nonsense.

Lavelle asks readers to “do the math”. Economically-literate observers of the situation have done the math and they are baffled as to why Gazprom should think that $480-500/tcm is a “market” price for both Ukraine–which is right next to Russia–and for France, which is roughly the same distance from the Russian border as Omaha, Nebraska is from Portland, Oregon. Furthermore, if $480-500/tcm is the non-political “market” price for Ukraine, why does Gazprom say that for 2009 it will charge $140-160 per tcm to Belarus, which is even closer to the Yamal-based gas fields? Throughout the civilized world, the natural gas market is all about transport logistics. If the cost of transporting fuel is not factored in, there is no market-clearing price, period.

In economic terms, it is senseless to use the term “market” in the context of Gazprom’s pricing policies. They are about as typical an example of the market at work as Vern Troyer is an example of a New York Knick point guard. It flatters the Kremlin to think of its unreformed state-controlled monopolies as commercial entities, but they do not behave in such a manner. Therefore, the EU would be well-advised to change course and refrain from characterizing this latest debacle as a “commercial dispute”.

The real roots of this crisis lie in Russia’s desire to seek retribution against Ukraine’s Western-leaning government for assistance to Georgia during the Russian invasion and to influence the latest inter-elite leadership contest there.

Post 3: From Peter Lavelle in response to Ian Hague. 8 Jan 2009.

I am not in the habit of replying to individuals who are ill-informed and simply mean-spirited, particularly since I have far more important things to do. However, Ian Hague has publicly embarrassed himself on the JRL by showing just how uninformed he is regarding the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute and his politics of tarring people he disagrees with. (I must admit my reluctant respect for RFE/RL for publishing my article ­ not the most “balanced” news outlet on Russia ­ Hague could learn from its example of tolerance, openness, transparency and debate).

Before I reply to Hague’s “questions,” I want to respond to one of his personal attacks first. Hague describes me as a RT-network “journalist.” (His quotation marks). I am not a journalist. At RT, I am referred to as a “political commentator.” I am known for my views and I defend them openly and with great pleasure. I wear my stripes on my sleeve for all to see, hear, and read. RT does not tell me what to say ­ RT lets me say what I want to say. Those of you who are veteran readers of the JRL have been aware of my worldview and opinions for a very long time now.

As for Hague’s questions ­ well they really aren’t questions; they are challenges and a demonstration of extraordinary ignorance.

Hague challenges me on the issue of how to determine “market prices” for gas. Hague is surely aware that in Europe the “market price” for natural gas is approximately $400 and even up to $500 ptcm. I am not making up this price. This is what European energy companies cite and every financial institution I have had contact with from Moscow, London, on to New York. Hague shows himself to be “economically-illiterate” with his ramblings in the subject. They are not even worthy of replying to or discussing.

Then Hague makes his cardinal mistake, his blunder. He brings up the issue of what Belarus pays for Russian natural gas. This is what the naieve and the politically motivated do all the time. It is easy and very lazy to do this.

So Mr Hague, I will educate you (and still again remind the commentariat).

Mr Hague for some reason thinks a country’s location determines what country should pay for a commodity. Location does not always determine the price of a commodity. In the case of natural gas, transit does play an issue, however it is not the determining factor. And Belarus demonstrates this.

Belarus DOES pay lower prices for Gazprom’s gas than other European customers ­ for now. But it is not only because of politics. Those of us who carefully follow Russia’s energy policies and understand the nuances beyond the lazy and biased commentariat know why. (Hague, since you are an investor, I would have expected the same from you.)

The facts are following: Minsk, just like every other post-Soviet state, is very vexed that Gazprom has moved to using the market to determine commodity prices. The Soviet Union was the ultra-super lazy monopoly trading political influence for cheap prices. Today, Russia is doing just the opposite. Belarus has woken-up and smelled the coffee of new realities. Gazprom made a deal with Minsk: “You can’t afford market prices at the moment, then gradually sell your pipeline system to us up until you can pay the right price ­ we’ll give you until 2011 to do this.” Increasing Europe’s and Russia’s energy security will be the result. This is a policy of deferring the pain of opening up to the world today for a better tomorrow. And “politics” is taken out of the equation.

Ukraine needs to do something along the same lines. There is no reasonable, rational, or even business defined reason why Russia should subsidize a market competitor. (As a businessman like yourself, Hague you should know this.)

Mr Hague, you contend this is all about politics. Have you considered or are even remotely aware of the FACT that Armenia ­ a country very “friendly” to Russia ­ has conceded to paying market prices for imports of Russian natural gas? Location is not the issue, the price of a scarce and very much needed energy source is.

Hague’s parting comment is a real jewel of backward thinking and full of bitter political prejudice. Hague writes: “The real roots of this crisis lie in Russia’s desire to seek retribution against Ukraine.” Hague should read the JRL more ­ over the past few weeks and months Putin and Tymoshenko agreed to a process of having Ukraine pay “European market prices” for natural gas through time. This is an extension of the Belarus model.

Hague’s message on my post wasted his time and mine. At one time I was an investment banker in Eastern Europe and Russia. Only a fool like Hague can claim the natural gas showdown between Russia and Ukraine has nothing to do with a “commercial dispute.”

Hague – have you ever considered the following? I bet you any regime in Kiev would position itself to get the best deal possible from Gazprom ­ be it “Western,” “pro-Russian” or even “pro-Martian.”

Come back to Earth Mr Hague before you again write such nonsense about my studied work and commentary. I console you on losing so much money on your investments in the emerging market world. You didn’t lose money because of Russia or because of me. You lost money because you lost interest in business and economics.

Your defense of Ukraine’s INDEFENSIBLE energy policies only loses you even more money. It is you who peddles propaganda…

3 January 2009

Gazprom, Ukraine, media coverage

For German speakers: I’ve put some of my discourse research into circulation in a short analysis of the current coverage of the Gazprom-Ukraine dispute for the online newssite Telepolis: ‘Gazprom, Ukraine and the German media – the New Year trio‘.

30 December 2008

Tanks moving towards Ossetia

Apparently, reports have been made that Georgian tanks are moving back towards the South Ossetian border. Love the discussion on this blog, where the first comment noted that “And while the world is watching Israel, Russia decides it’s time to move things along slowly… quietly….”. S_he was corrected and noticed the mistake (“LOL. Sorry”)… Ah, how hegemonic configurations frame our readings… (Although a later comment on the same blog probably has a point: I wouldn’t be surprised either if Russian, Georgian, Ossetian military were all on the move in the region.)

19 December 2008

Caucasus Analytical Digest

The first issue of the Caucasus Analytical Digest is now available: “Perspectives on the Georgian-Russian war” (download pdf here).

The Caucasus Analytical Digest (CAD) analyzes the political, economic, and social situation in the Southern Caucasus within the context of international and security dimensions. Subscription is for free.

CAD is a monthly internet publication jointly produced by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi (www.boell.ge), the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen (www.forschungsstelle.uni-bremen.de), the Jefferson Institute in Washington, DC (www.jeffersoninst.org) and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich with support from the German Association for East European Studies (DGO).

Although written in a different style to the RFE/RL Caucasus Report (where RFE/RL is primarily a news service, CAD offers more analytical, although also fairly short, articles), it promises to offer more balanced and reflective accounts of events in the region than those available at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

5 December 2008

Putin the President Part II?

After answering questions from the public on television and radio today, Vladimir Putin responded to questions from the media. One in particular reflects worries/interest among western journalists:

QUESTION: Can you say for certain that you will not revert to the presidential office in the next 12 months?

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Strange as it may seem, this question interests foreign journalists more than their Russian colleagues.

I would like to note that President Medvedev and I have established a very good tandem. We have worked together for many years, and I am very happy about our effective cooperation.

The next elections in the Russian Federation will take place in 2012. I think that everyone should perform his duty in his place. There is no need to fuss about what will happen in 2012. Let’s make it to that time, and then decide.

28 November 2008

Georgia Update

The story continues on Reuters.

Ex-envoy: Georgia thought US backed Ossetia assault
By Matt Robinson

TBILISI, Nov 26 (Reuters) – A former Georgian ambassador said on Wednesday that Georgia had wrongly convinced itself it had U.S. blessing for an assault on breakaway South Ossetia.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, former envoy to Russia, told a parliamentary commission on Tuesday that Georgia had been the aggressor and triggered a war with Russia in August that proved to be disastrous for Georgia.

President Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed the comments as “simply untrue”.

Since his testimony, Kitsmarishvili has been vilified by senior Georgian officials, underscoring the difficulty of expressing dissent in the ex-Soviet republic since the war.

27 November 2008

Machinima | In Soviet Russia

Ever so subtle critique of Soviet Russia through the wonderfully creative medium of machinima:

And what is machinima?

Machinima is to film-making what mash-up is to music. Take your favourite computer game, make your own characters, your own plot, your own dialogue, and edit it all together into your own original film, with no need for real live actors (or their makeup artists, favourite drinks and bad moods). Or take your favourite song and make a music video using the characters from your computer game. Groups can collaboratively produce a film – some participants are the sound engineers, some do the story board, others shoot the film. This process is not as complex as it sounds. All you need is:

  1. Computer (PC or Apple Mac or …)
  2. Computer game (commercially purchased or freeware)
  3. Fraps (which is open source — or any other software which can record your video screen. The Fraps website offers a demo version which has limited usability, but an old freeware version which can do pretty much everthing is still available from Chip online)
  4. Video editing software (all computers running on Windows should have Windows Movie Maker; there are also commercially available software programmes, such as Final Cut Express or Julit. NB: old versions of Julit are available for as little as 10 Euros)
  5. Your ideas

With these ingredients, a machinima need not take too long to make. Basically:

  • (1) think of story ideas,
  • (2) start the computer game,
  • (3) turn on Fraps (one click and it records everything you see on your screen),
  • (4) make the characters do actions you want in your film,
  • (5) open the video editing software,
  • (6) drag the Fraps video clips into the editing software (as simple as copy and paste),
  • (7) cut out the bits you don’t want,
  • (8) add the soundtrack you would like (voice and/or music).
  • Voila.
  • Perhaps also (9) play with some special effects.

NB. The only problem with Windows Movie Maker is that it only has one audio track. This means you can have either music or a voice speaking. Can make some good music videos though. Easy Rider:

Check ‘Internet is for porn’ for more music. Or McCain’s promise to continue his election campaign, even though he lost.

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