Never Truer Words Spoken

In August I wrote a post, the central point of which was Russia ought to tread carefully in its dealings with the west because they might not be as forgiving the next time should Russia find itself once again in a very weak position:

By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Russians might do well to appreciate this, and consider that should a similar situation arise again they might get treated somewhat differently.  History is littered with examples of enemies not being finished off when the chance was there; there are not so many examples of an enemy being forgiven twice.

I envisaged a scenario whereby Republican voices in the US and like-minded politicians in Europe take advantage of a crisis in Russia to ensure another showdown with a government in Moscow cannot happen, i.e. by taking steps to severely hobble the country or dismember it.  It’s unlikely, but nevertheless possible.

Today I came across this article reporting Vladimir Putin making a statement in October which I suspect might be interpretted differently from how he meant it:

“The Cold War has ended,” Putin said yesterday. “But it ended without peace being achieved, without clear and transparent agreements on the new rules and standards.”

Indeed.  And the lesson drawn by some will be that next time around peace will be imposed unconditionally and Russia will be left in absolutely no doubt as to the new rules and standards.

In completely unrelated news, the Russian rouble has suffered its biggest fall since 1998.

Posted in Politics, Russia | 9 Comments

RIP Phil Hughes

At the risk of this blog turning into a series of obituaries, I feel I should say something about the tragic death of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes, who has died two days after being struck on the head with a cricket ball during a Sheffield Shield match at the SCG.

That this is a terrible tragedy doesn’t need repeating by me; at 25 years of age and with a talent that the Australian selectors didn’t fully appreciate, it is a dreadful shame.

But there are two things that I would like to say.  Firstly, among the outpourings of sympathy on social media – which is in danger of turning Diana-esque – few people have mentioned that a year ago Australian cricket fans and media were roaring with enthusiasm at Mitchell Johnson when he was bowling extremely fast bouncers at the English batsmen, with many wishing them physical harm and squealing with delight every time a ball thudded into English flesh or bone.  Not that I blame Mitchell Johnson: he did what anyone with that sort of pace would do, but given how the whole country were happy for him to do it to English batsmen I’m finding it a little hollow that the dangers of aiming bouncers at batsmen’s heads is only now being seen as a problem.  Naturally the Sydney Morning Herald chooses to illustrate an article entitled Time to ban the bouncer? with a photo of Stuart Broad hitting Chris Rogers in the last Ashes and not the snarling Mitchell Johnson close-up that dominated the media at the time.  Hypocrisy, much?

Secondly, I was extremely surprised that a batsmen could suffer such an injury, let alone a fatal one.  Broken noses, smashed ribs, rattled jaws yes; but a fatal blow to the head is something I thought was barely possible.  But then I read that Hughes had attempted to play a hook shot and been hit by the ball – a bouncer – as it rose off the pitch.  And then I read that the ball had struck him on the side/back of the head, behind the side guards which cover the ears.  I suspect he went for the hook, swivelled, and was facing away from the bowler when the ball struck him.  Everyone mis-times strokes, but to mis-time this badly is incredible at Sheffield Shield level: I am still wondering if the video of the incident (which I’ve not looked for, but investigators will have a copy) will show he didn’t even see it coming.  The reason the helmet didn’t protect him is that it is not designed with the expectation that the back of the head will be exposed to the ball; it assumes all impacts will come from the front or angled at the side.  I have no idea why Hughes would attempt to play such a clearly unbalanced and mis-timed shot, but the Australian batting style of recent years seems to be to smash anything and everything out of the ground regardless.  Aggressive bowling is probably what everyone will focus on here but fast bouncers have been part of the game for decades.  What is new is the expectation that such deliveries can be smashed with a haymaker that unbalances the batsman and leaves him facing the wrong way when the ball arrives.  Over-aggressive batting, in other words.

Finally, spare a thought for the bowler Sean Abbott.  There is not a soul on the planet who will blame him for this accident, but he will surely blame himself for the rest of his life.  I hope he does okay.


As TNA points out in the comments, the media coverage of this in Australia is turning into a circus.  This article by 9 News is a case in point:

Michael Clarke has often been the man for a crisis but never before has he stood so strong.

The Australian Test captain has earned plaudits for leading like never before, in a situation so removed from his post, while grieving himself for his close friend Phillip Hughes.

Clarke was singled out for praise by Australian team doctor Peter Brukner for being a rock of support for Hughes’ parents – Greg and Virginia – and siblings Megan and Jason in the bedside vigil at St Vincents Hospital.

It was Clarke who read a statement by the devastated family to a packed press conference at the hospital late Thursday, before having to walk away as emotion overcame him.

Dr Brukner then fought back tears as he credited the captain for providing strength and loving support desperately required in a time of need and sadness.

“Phillip has always been a little brother to Michael,” Dr Brukner said.

“Michael’s efforts over the last 48 hours to support the family; the family was obviously going through a difficult time but I’m not sure they would have coped without Michael’s assistance.

“I was just enormously impressed at the work he did and the genuine care and love he gave to the Hughes family.”

Look, Michael Clarke is a good bloke, a great captain, and a fantastic cricketer.  That is well known already, and if his close relationship with Phil Hughes was not already obvious to some and needed to be highlighted, his role in support of Hughes and his family during the last few days is worthy of a solemn mention, not reams of gibbering tripe like that above.  This is little more than an attempt to put Clarke on a pedestal as some sort of guardian angel to the Hughes martyr, driving on this “nation united by grief” meme which has been in vogue since Diana’s death and is peddled by an unattractive combination of a population desperate to show they “care” and a media desperate to shift more copy.  Clarke doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal: he is doing his job well, both on and off the field, as is expected.  Note this by all means, but spare us the soap opera.

Posted in Sport | 9 Comments

RIP Christophe de Margerie

I spent the last week in a somewhat remote village in Kazakhstan, close to the Uzbek border, visiting a friend who was getting married.  The house in which I was staying did not have a fixed line telephone let alone internet, and with roaming charges coming in at a bargain 13 Euros per Mb I was effectively cut off from my normal information channels.  As such, I received the terrible news that Total’s CEO Christophe de Margerie had been killed in a plane crash in Moscow via text message.

As I managed to scrape together more details I realised with some discomfort that the crash had occurred at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.  I’d never heard of this airport (always using Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo before) until I transferred through there on my flights between Paris and Shimkent – about 24 hours before the accident. By the time I flew back on the return trip a few days later, the wreckage had been cleared.

There are two things I would like to say.  Firstly, the descriptions of de Margerie as being hugely charismatic, unique, outspoken, and held in high regard are absolutely true.  A couple of years ago he visited us in Nigeria to open a new office, and I turned up to the function in the company of my wife, who was over on a visit.  The Big Moustache stood in front of the crowd of about 100-200 people, and because he was pushed for time waved away the bloke who was standing with his pile of notes and spoke off the cuff.  I don’t remember much about what he actually said, but he delivered it well and his presence filled the room.  What happened next I remembered more.  The Total CEO finished speaking, received the applause, walked a few metres across the room to my wife and asked “Are you Russian?” and then proceeded to entertain the two of us with stories of his trips to Russia for about 15 minutes.  To be honest I didn’t say much, I left the talking to my wife who, with her hotel sales background, can charm just about anybody.  But I did invite him to my birthday party on the following weekend, but sadly he was departing that night.  From this experience I can assure you that he was a man of enormous character and charm, and genuinely likeable.  If you were in a business meeting or a barbecue, you would have wanted Christophe de Margerie there at the top of the invitation list.  To have a drink with he would have been one hell of a lot of fun.  I am sure he will be sadly missed by all those who knew him.  It is a terrible shame.

The second thing I want to talk about is the circumstances of the crash.  What cannot be denied is that this is a freak accident: high-speed collisions with ground objects in an airport of this size are extremely rare (Tenerife in 1977 being an obvious exception), and it must be said that de Margerie was desperately unlucky.  The odds of the CEO of a major oil comany dying in a plane crash like this were negligibly low, but it happened nonetheless.  Naturally, this being Russia, conspiracy theories are now circulating (I will not bother linking to them) to the effect that he was knocked off by the CIA or some other nefarious organisation for opposing the sanctions on Russia (which he did) and – it wouldn’t be a proper conspiracy theory without this one being wheeled out – suggesting oil could be sold in Euros (incidentally: the idea that selling oil in anything other than dollars concerning the Americans one jot doesn’t stand up to a basic comparison of the volume of oil sold daily versus dollars traded).  All of this is nonsense on stilts: nobody had anything to gain by murdering de Margerie, and even if they did there are methods of achieving it (ramming his car with a large lorry, for example) than presumably paying an elderly snowplough driver to time his entry onto the runway with such precision that he can clip the wing of a speeding plane.  It does a grave disservice to de Margerie to even entertain this rubbish.

A lot was said early on about the allegedly intoxicated state of the snowplough driver.  Here is where I think I can add some value.  His family were quick to point out that he had a chronic heart problem and hence could not drink, but I doubt anyone was fooled by that.  He may well have a heart problem and he may well not drink, but nobody familiar with Russia would believe that something like a mere heart condition would stop somebody drinking.  There is a good reason why life expectancy among Russian men is so low.  But even supposing he was “drunk”, I think this is a red herring.  Without advocating that we should all go about our daily business under the influence of alcohol (far from it), it is a fact that when Russians drink – even enough to render a westerner unconscious – they can often still function effectively to the point of operating complex machinery.  This is not a desirable state of affairs as the alcohol will certainly impair things like reaction times, but it is not a question of comparing this to a British teenager crashing his car after drinking in the pub.  If machinery operators, drivers, and pilots being drunk in Russia caused crashes the place would not function at all, especially during the Soviet times.  Drinking is so widespread that Russians joke some guys know how to operate the machinery only when drunk.  I don’t know what percentage of Russian pilots are drunk at the yoke, but I am positive it is higher than the percentage of actual crashes to completed flights.  So my guess is the snowplough driver was “drunk” pretty much every day of his working life and never had an incident, yet on this particular day he was unfortunate enough to have an accident and get breathalysed (there is a strong parallel here with the 2012 Denzil Washington film Flight).  But I doubt it was his alcohol consumption which caused or even contributed to the crash.  I feel extremely sorry for the man – on TV he appears to be completely bewildered, and at 60 years old with a heart condition might well be facing the rest of his life in prison.

So if not a drunk snowplough driver, what did cause the crash?  Put simply: Russian managerial and organisational incompetence.  Obviously there was a huge communication and systems failure here.  A snowplough should be nowhere near a working runway, especially at night, and there should be robust controls in place to ensure this sort of accident does not occur.  Most likely such controls were in place – once – but as is so common in Russia a combination of complacency, bad management, laziness, poor incentives, and general incompetence has meant the controls were circumvented and the safeguards failed.  The snowplough driver said he got lost, which I can well believe is true – if the visibility was a bad as he says it is.  Guaranteed the equipment he was operating would have been from the 1980s or before with no system of indicating to the control tower where it is at any time.  And with the speed snowploughs move even if he got lost he should have been nowhere near a working runway.

I am pleased to see the authorities appear to be taking an interest in the air traffic controllers and head of runway cleaning at Vnukovo, and hopefully the rapid resignations of the airport’s CEO and deputy will not put them beyond the reach of the investigation (but being Russia, chances are some poor sod in the lower ranks will be scapegoated whilst the well-connected bosses who presided over it walk away scott-free.  Russia has form in this area).

Like so many deaths in Russia, this is a tragic accident which probably could have been avoided.  It is a terrible shame for Christophe de Margerie, his family, all those that knew him, Total, the oil industry, and France.  May the Big Moustache live long in our memories.

Posted in France, Russia | 12 Comments

Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.

Posted in Engineering, General Observations, Travel | 22 Comments

The Not-So-Strategic Base in Sevastopol

Alex K. – who appears to be providing me with a lot of blogging fodder these days – has written a post about the propaganda being fed to the Russian population which they appear to be swallowing wholesale.  This – coupled with this post of mine – got me thinking about how little the Russian population queries what they are told by their government compared to that of the UK, for example.

Now don’t get me wrong.  We have plenty of gullible idiots in the UK, and a lot of those who query the government are both wrong and blithering idiots at the same time, so I wouldn’t say the quality of public discourse in the UK is high (just look at the level of debate over Scotland’s independence referendum, for example).  But the inquiry is there, the desire to question and argue, even if wrong.

One of the most often repeated mantra over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea – one which I heard expressed by an educated, well-travelled, westernised, and intelligent Russian friend – is that Putin had no choice to intervene because Russia could not afford to lose its strategic base in Sevastopol, because it is “Russia’s only warm water port” on the Black Sea.

Except it isn’t.  Russia has the port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, and it is both large and busy.  What happened was that at the breakup of the Soviet Union the Russians inherited the Soviet fleet which was based in Sevastopol, which is part of Ukraine.  And in the chaos and economic collapse, I’m guessing there was no money or will to move the fleet to Russian territory and so Russia and the Ukraine entered an agreement whereby Russia would rent the base for a fee.  So in the 20 odd years that have passed since the Ukraine went its own way, Russia never bothered to invest the money and effort to move its Black Sea fleet to Novorossiysk, or any other Black Sea port.  Yet they had no problem hosing billions on Sochi, also on the Black Sea, to host the Winter Olympics.  And then in 2014 they decided the port was so vital to their strategic interests that they had to invade the Ukraine to secure it.

Seriously, are the Russians really buying this?  Has nobody asked the question why, if the Black Sea base at Sevastopol was deemed so vitally important to Russia’s strategic interests, why Putin – who has held power for 15 years – didn’t see fit to move it to Russian territory?

There’s a parallel with the UK here.  If Scotland goes independent in the next year or so, the status of the Royal Navy base at Faslane – which is home to the submarines used for launching the Trident nuclear missiles – becomes one of the main topics of negotiation.  The most likely scenario is that the submarines will head to the US temporarily while the London government figures out where best to base them in England or Wales.  But there is a possibility, albeit unlikely, that England could simply lease the base from Scotland in the way Russia leased Sevastopol from Ukraine.  In this event, I rather think the English population would be somewhat skeptical if, after 2o years, England invaded Scotland and annexed part of the country in order to protect its strategic interests in Faslane.  Whatever the merits of doing so, there would be a good portion of the country that would be asking what the hell such a strategic base was doing left in a foreign country for so long.

But in Russia?  No such questions.  My take is that most of them know it’s bollocks, but are happy with the land grab anyway.  Gangster rule it is, then.

(Of course, the other elephant in the room is that Sevastopol is a pretty crap strategic location anyway.  Good for a fleet patrolling the Black Sea perhaps, whoopee, but they still have to get through the Bosphoros and Dardanelles to get anywhere else.  As a location from which to base Russia’s global military reach, it is hardly worth going to war over.  Even the Soviets understood this.)

Posted in Politics, Russia | 10 Comments

An Interesting Choice of Leaders

Alex K. has posted a graphic account of the treatment of a woman suspected of being pro-Ukrainian in the city of Donetsk recently.

I made a comment under the post which I’ve decided to turn into a post of my own, because I am genuinely baffled here.  From what I have seen thus far, and the account above can only serve to reinforce this view, the separatists in east Ukraine are a bunch of violent, armed thugs accountable to nobody (anybody remember MH17?) who have taken it upon themselves to dish out arbitrary punishments to anyone suspected of being against them, operating with impunity and the full support of the Russian government.  And these people claim to represent the ethnic Russians who wish to secede from Kiev’s rule.

Is this seriously what Ukraine’s Russians want, these guys in charge?  I can understand why the thugs want it, but where are the middle classes, the educated Russians, in all this?  Do they honestly believe these roaming gangs of bandits, looking like extras from Mad Max 2, have their best interests in mind?  Or are they as horrified by what is going on as everyone else, but too scared to speak out?

I know a lot will turn a blind eye to the separatists’ methods because they will genuinely see the Ukrainian government as bringing war to their neighbourhoods, but I find it hard to believe that all ethnic Russians will apportion the blame in this manner.  And there is not enough of an ethnic, religious, historical, or cultural divide to generate the hatred that would cause thousands of educated, otherwise decent people to support marauding bands of armed thugs shooting their erstwhile friends and neighbours.

I find the whole thing bewildering.  Personally I think the idea of Scottish independence as presented is laughable (but good luck to them, if that’s what they want), but at least they have leaders who appear to be politicians.  What the east Ukrainians are doing is the equivalent of the Scottish independence movement being led by armed gangs of Glasgow football hooligans on a giant rampage.  Was Kievan rule really so bad that the Ukraine’s Russians see this as an improvement?

The closest parallel I can think of is the Catholics/Republicans in Northern Ireland.  Their independence movement was to a large extent led by murderous thugs (albeit better presented than Ukraine’s equivalents), and their lower ranks enjoyed beating the shit out of anyone they suspected of disloyalty along with running protection rackets and other criminal enterprises.  Yet despite their thuggish violence they still enjoyed the support of much of the ordinary Catholic population.

So perhaps it is the same with Ukraine’s Russians, and they are hopeful that these men will secure them a place in the Russian Federation after which Moscow will take over and the local headcases and Ossetian mercenaries will quietly pack up and go home.  But I’m interested to know where are the educated, semi-respectable (at least on camera) leaders of the separatist movement, the Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness?  Waiting in the wings in Russia?  Who knows?

But for now, I guess they’re happy with a bunch of shitfaced hooligans who 6 months ago were drinking beer in the local park at 10am.

Posted in Politics, Russia, Ukraine | 11 Comments

Leningrad It Ain’t

Nothing unites Russians so much as their agreement that they did a good job in defeating the Nazis in WWII, and hence this achievement has been wheeled out at various times by politicians looking to shore up their popularity or galvanize the citizenry in support of some nationalistic drive or other.

It was therefore not very surprising when the Russian government potrayed the uprising in Kiev as driven by facists, implying that the rebels in the east were doing pretty much what great uncle Ilya did at Stalingrad in 1942.  It was nonsense from the outset of course.  Regardless of any unsavoury elements involved in the overthrow of the government, those who took over were not the Nazis and they were not bent on elminating ethnic Russians.

Now as Russia steps up their military offensive into Ukraine, the WWII rhetoric is being ramped up.  Yesterday Putin likened the Ukrainian army in east Ukraine to the Nazis at the siege of Leningrad:

“Sad as it might seem, this reminds me of the events of World War II, when the German Nazi occupants surrounded our cities, like Leningrad, and directly shelled those cities and their inhabitants,” Putin said on Friday, speaking at the “Seliger-2014” youth forum.

He recalled the signs in St. Petersburg, preserved since World War II, which warned citizens which side of the road was more vulnerable to shelling.

Now “both towns and cities are surrounded by the Ukrainian army, which is directly shelling residential areas with the purpose of destroying infrastructure, and suppressing the will of those in the resistance,” Putin said.

Perhaps Putin has forgotten the siege of Grozny, which took place under his orders in 1999-2000, where the Russian army bombarded the city indiscriminantly, killing thousands of civilians in a manner not dissimilar to the Nazis at Leningrad.

But leaving that aside, I think he’s blundered here.  The siege of Leningrad, like the battle of Stalingrad, occupies a special place in the minds of Russians for the reason that they undeniably represent incredible suffering, sacrifice, and ultimately victory over an enemy that was determined to destroy them.  The siege of Leningrad needs no propaganda, the facts speak for themselves.  Even those who disliked the USSR and everything it stood for regarded the city with a pride which had nothing to do with its namesake, and it was for this reason that even former dissidents objected to the name change back to St. Petersburg in 1991.

I suspect there are more than a few Russians who will find this clumsy attempt to co-opt such a major event into this latest cause somewhat distasteful, and it would not surprise me if he comes in for considerable cricitism over this in later years, when his inevitable decline and fall occurs, even if nobody will dare say anything now.  The whole speech is an insult to the intelligence of those in the audience, and smacks of desperation.  Little wonder that he chose to share it with a bunch of kids.

Posted in Politics, Russia | 2 Comments

Russia Chooses

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with a friend, a European who has lived in Russia for most of his adult life.  We were discussing the current political environment in Russia, particularly in regards of the situation in Ukraine, and he made an interesting comment.  He said what was different about the current situation as opposed to any before, and what surprised him, was that Russians who he previously considered to be more liberal and skeptical of the government line had bought wholesale into the Kremlin narrative and had fallen into the same patriotic fervour as the rest of the population.

I found the comment interesting because I have observed much the same thing.  Of the Russians I know and read online, I have always been broadly aware of which were the skeptics who could generally be relied upon not to offer unquestioning support for Putin’s policies.  But since this Ukraine mess started, and Russia annexed the Crimea, it has been interesting to watch how the views have aligned.  I don’t know why this is, but if I were to hazard a guess it is because this is probably the first time when Russia has really come under serious criticism from the West: chucking Pussy Riot in jail rankled with some people, but no sanctions were applied.  As such, it could be that Russians feel the need to defend their homeland regardless of the actions they wittingly or unwittingly support whilst doing so.

Personally, I’m not bothered – it’s up to the Russians how they think – but I’m also not surprised.  For all the complaining from Russians about the Soviet Union when it existed, and then when it did not, they tended to overlook the fact that an awful lot of them supported it unquestioningly right up to the point when it came crashing down around their ears.  The Russians were not some oppressed minority forced to adopt a system and language not of their choosing under orders issued from a foreign capital, in a way the Lithuanians or Latvians were.  Russians bear a responsibility for their lot both during and after the Soviet Union which in my opinion they’ve never really owned up to.  When pressed, they speak of the Soviet leadership as some sort of “other”, an alien government, but where was this sentiment at the time?  Other than a handful of dissidents, everyone else fell meekly into line.  I’ve mentioned this on here before, but one of the things which shocked me most when I read about the Stalin purges was the willingness of one set of Russian civilians to unquestioningly massacre their friends and neighbours.  By the million.

Putin’s approval rating among Russians currently stands at 87%, and I am quite ready to believe that is accurate.  Now, as then, Russia has united in the face of perceived attempts by foreigners to destablise Russia.  And now, as then, Russia is also clamping down internally.  Alex K. has posted some good stuff on the suppression of seemingly any form of pro-Ukrainian sentiment, and witch-hunts seem to be growing apace:

A veteran Russian rock star has been accused of betraying his country after performing in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by the Ukrainian army.

A prominent MP and other Kremlin supporters say Andrei Makarevich, a critic of Russian policy on Ukraine, should lose his state honours.

United Russia party MP Yevgeny Fedorov denounced Makarevich over his 12 August concert for children from Donetsk and Luhansk.

Fedorov said he should be stripped of his state honours, including one “For Services to the Motherland”.

Now, as then, it appears that anyone who doesn’t support the government’s policies is seen as a traitor.  More so than at any time since the USSR the population has thrown itself behind the government – or more specifically, the person who leads the country – and is rooting out dissidents both real and imagined.

This will not end well.  I believe Russians are sleepwalking – nay, rushing headlong and willingly – into a state that, via a rapid shifting of the Overton window, they will come to not like living in very much.  I don’t know how many times I can repeat “You’ve been here before,” but it is worth noting that it wasn’t the Gulags and famines that disgusted the Soviet citizens of the 1980s, but decades of stagnating living standards, unmet potential, and a slow realisation that their leaders had been living it up at their expense from the outset.  Putin is not Stalin, and he is not going to unleash The Great Terror Round 2, but as I implied above, Stalin did not lose the USSR – Brezhnev and his successors did.

If this is the direction Russians want to take, then good luck to them.  They are an independent and proud people, who deserve to choose their own path.  But they should be wary all the same.  When the Soviet Union ended there was a surprising amount of sympathy for Russians and the hardships they faced, as they were considered (wrongly, in my opinion) as being a victim of a system over which they had no control.  For all the complaints modern Russians have over how they were treated by the West in the post-Soviet era, they actually came off very lightly.  Aid money poured in, overseas visas were issued by the tens of thousand, and genuine attempts were made at reconciliation by both sides.  The worst that can be said is the Russians were given well-meaning economic advice but, as nobody realised the degree to which they were prepared to beat the shit out of each other and kill over money, the results were disastrous.  But note that Poland was given the same advice, and we don’t hear stories of mafia wars raging in Warsaw and Gdansk for a decade.  By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Russians might do well to appreciate this, and consider that should a similar situation arise again they might get treated somewhat differently.  History is littered with examples of enemies not being finished off when the chance was there; there are not so many examples of an enemy being forgiven twice.

Posted in Politics, Russia | 14 Comments

Tough Times for Ronald in Russia

I was once told a story by an American who found himself working in Russia in the early 1990s.  He had met a fellow American who was involved with the opening of McDonald’s in Moscow, and the latter was finding things rather frustrating, particularly when trying to introduce western standards of customer service to the staff.  Apparently, he told one of the Russia servers to greet the customers and offer a smile, which prompted the following response:

“Why?  We’re the ones with all the burgers.”

It seems that almost 25 years later some Russians still haven’t worked out the basic relationship between business and customer as far as McDonald’s is concerned:

Russia’s consumer watchdog has announced unscheduled checks on McDonald’s restaurants across Russia as part of a probe into food standards.

The move comes after watchdog Rospotrebnadzor temporarily shut four McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow.

The actions come amid rising tensions and sanctions between Russia and the West over the crisis in the Ukraine.

The regulator denied the checks were politically motivated. McDonald’s said “top quality” food was its priority.

The regulatory agency said: “There are complaints about the quality and safety of the products in fast food restaurant chain McDonald’s.”

BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg said: “The suspicion is that because McDonald’s is one of the symbols of America, that’s why it’s encountering problems now.”

Russian MPs have also called for checks on other US fast-food brands, including Burger King and KFC, he said.

“It does seem, if not the public, then the people in power, are losing their appetite for American fast food,” he added.

The primary beneficiary of McDonald’s in Russia are those Russians wishing to purchase its products, who number in the millions.  (This point was driven home to me once when somebody in Sakhalin asked me, in all seriousness, to bring him a Big Mac meal from Moscow when I returned from a business trip.  The flight is 9 hours.)

The secondary beneficiary of McDonald’s in Russia are the Russian owners (it is a franchise), managers, employees, and suppliers whose income derives from its operations.  As somebody with a greater grasp of economics than a Russian policymaker points out:

“It’s an extraordinary decision, because McDonald’s is the great symbol of the West, but at the same time they’ve set up the most extraordinary network of suppliers in Russia to keep the whole system going.

“There are now something like 300 McDonald’s across the country, and they’ve got an enormous network of people providing them with potatoes, and beef, and everything that goes into the product… In fact, it’s going to hit an enormous number of people inside Russia.”

I am quite certain that those who have ordered these closures have no idea of the impact that this will have on ordinary Russians (and even if they did, they wouldn’t care) and genuinely think that Americans are making billions of dollars as the only beneficiaries of McDonald’s operations in Russia.

To find such economic ignorance you’d really have to go to…well, Russia.  25 years ago.  Plus ça change.

Posted in Economics, Russia | 12 Comments

The Russian Effect on Crimea

Thanks to Michael Jennings for forwarding me this story:

A man died and a woman ended up in a hospital in separate incidents in the line for the ferry between the Krasnodar region and the recently annexed Crimea over the weekend, local news website Kerch.FM reported.

The woman sustained a head injury Saturday after being attacked by other passengers for allegedly attempting to jump the line for the ferry back to the Krasnodar region, the website reported. In recent days, people have spent up to 40 hours in the line for the ferry service. Another man died from a heart attack after spending hours waiting to board a ferry to Crimea.

After border control was imposed between Crimea and Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula last March, most Russian tourists and visitors to the popular summer tourist destination have started taking the ferry there instead of driving through conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. There is no border control for the ferry service.

Thousands of car passengers have been waiting in line for days to board ferries traveling in both directions. According to the website of the local transportation authority, the ferries transported 3,897 cars Saturday, of which 1,689 were traveling in the direction of Crimea.

In any normal country, the ferry operators would have anticipated the increased demand and brought in additional vessels, or switched to vessels of a higher capacity.  But in Russia, either the operators don’t give a shit or any attempt to procure additional vessels would get bogged down in a quagmire of bureaucracy and graft.

Following the annexation of Crimea, which is not connected by land to Russia, President Vladimir Putin pledged to build a bridge to link the peninsula with the rest of the country. In June the state-run road construction and maintenance company Avtodor estimated the cost of the 19-kilometer bridge at up to 376.5 billion rubles ($10.4 billion) and said it would take at least four years to build.

At 19km this bridge is roughly the same length as the Incheon Bridge in Korea.  According to the irrefutable Wikipedia, this cost about $2.7bn – double the projected cost – when it was completed in 2009.  At $10bn this bridge to the Crimea is already looking way overpriced, and given it looks as though they’re going to pass on a competitive bidding process in favour of handing the job straight to a mate in a state-run company, we can expect this figure to double or triple.  In fact, it looks to me like a continuation of the Sochi Olympic scam, which saw billions of dollars transferred from the state coffers into the pockets of favoured individuals via opaque construction contracts.  Those regions of Russia which are seeing earmarked funds diverted to Crimea might not be too impressed.

Two million visitors had traveled to Crimea this year as of Aug. 11, according to the region’s Tourism and Resorts Ministry. The government agency predicted the figure would reach 3 million by year-end. Last year 5.9 million tourists visited Crimea, according to the same agency.

I wonder how many of those 2m visitors were genuine tourists, and not merely servicemen, security personnel, and government bureaucrats arriving to take over the running of the place?  And of those genuine tourists, I wonder how many of them went there having been strong-armed into going by their employer:

As we talk, I gradually sense this young couple may be here not entirely through their own choice.

Word on the beach is that there is a new type of Russian tourist in Crimea. Since the crisis erupted in Ukraine, up to four million Russians who work for the state have been effectively banned from leaving the country – it’s rumoured that the government views holidays abroad as a security risk in their case. Since Sergei is an Interior Ministry official, I ask if he can still go holiday wherever he likes.

“If you are talking about money then yes,” he says. “But… we have certain restrictions connected to my job. So you see if we have to come here, we’re very happy with that too.” When I ask if he is forbidden to travel he says nothing and finally says that it’s “not recommended”.

But would you be punished for a holiday abroad, I persist? Another long pause. “I haven’t tried it,” he laughs.

Deadly queues for ferries, a wildly overpriced bridge, and a gaggle of tourists there under duress.  This annexation has gotten off to a flying start.

Posted in Politics, Russia, Ukraine | 14 Comments