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

The Rocks in Russia’s Harbours

For some reason, Russia has decided to respond to western sanctions over its behaviour in Ukraine by banning imports of stuff Russians like to eat.  Other blogs have covered the story well in terms of its stupidity and likely impact, but I’d like to weigh in as well.

Firstly, I think Russia will find it quite difficult to diversify its suppliers across a whole sector for the simple reason that doing business with Russian companies is a nightmare at the best of times and their current suppliers will have gone through a long, hard, and painful route to get where they are now.  New entrants from South America and Asia will find themselves having to leap through endless bureaucratic hurdles, provide reams of documentation containing papers which don’t exist outside of Russia, negotiate umpteen obstacles thrown in their path by every bureaucrat and gangster who has seen a way to make a quick buck, and then probably find that, after all that, they’re not actually going to get paid.

Secondly, I think enterprising Russians based overseas will quickly re-route, repack, and relabel EU produce and then send it through the otherwise normal channels, in the manner in which Israeli products routinely get sold in the Gulf States after passing through Lebanon or Jordan.  This operation needn’t be sophisticated, just good enough to allow a well-bribed customs official to plausibly claim deniability.  Although what it will do to the accuracy of sell-by dates of products on supermarket shelves may have some Russian consumers hoping toilet paper is one such foreign product that can still be imported.

We can also expect “businessmen” in Kazakhstan and Belarussia to do well out of this.  These two countries have not adopted the Russian sanctions yet are in a customs union with Russia.  Therefore, in theory, these countries can import as many EU goods as they like and re-export to Russia without interference.

I expect these two re-routing options to meet the bulk of the demand for goods banned by the sanctions, at a cost to Russian residents of somewhere around 10-30% in price and reduced freshness of the produce itself.  Where the Russian government intervenes with price controls, we can expect those products to disappear from shelves almost entirely and a healthy black market springing up.  The EU producers will suffer, but only in the short term whilst these re-routing schemes are put in place.

I am quite certain that the demand won’t be met, as some Russians have been confidently predicting, by domestic suppliers.  Yes, Russia does make cheese but Russia also makes cars.  There are good reasons why these imported goods appeared in the first place.  There is also the issue of whether Russia’s factories can increase production to meet demand.  I once pointed out to a rather dim journalist that just because watercress can be grown in Britain, it does not mean that all imports of watercress are unnecessary, i.e. ability to produce a certain quantity does not equate to an ability to be self-sufficient.

As several people have noted, the nostalgia for the USSR among sections of Russian society has been apparent for some time.  Up until now, I didn’t know such nostalgia included Brezhnev-era food shortages and 1920s double-digit inflation.  But as I’ve said before, many times, Russians will gladly endure any manner of hardship if it allows them to thumb their noses at the West and feel better about themselves.  See this post, for example.

Good luck to them.

Posted in Russia | 8 Comments

An Olympic Legacy

This is a damning report:

Athens’ Olympic venues lie empty and disused as the tenth anniversary of the Games approaches.

Greece spent over £7bn on the Games, yet the canoeing and aquatics centre are now completely dried up.

The pictures say it all:

_76804358_athens8_getty[1]_76803679_athens4_getty[1] _76804189_athens7_getty[1]That last picture is of a beach volleyball stadium.  The one above is of a softball stadium.  Why build such facilities for hosting a sport which nobody watches outside of an Olympic jamboree lasting only a few weeks?

The Games cost almost twice their projected budget, with organisers not opting to use any temporary, collapsible venues, as other host cities have done.

Why?  Because permanent venues offered greater opportunities for kick-backs, make-work schemes for unionised employees, and photo shoots for politicians, that’s why.  All paid for by the taxpayer.  And how’s that worked out for Greece?  How’s their economy looking these days?

And just in case we thought London was any better we get this report:

A major parliamentary report into the London 2012 Olympics warns that the prospect of an “effective and robust” legacy from the Games is in jeopardy unless there is a change in government approach.

The report finds “little evidence” of increased participation in sport, highlights the uneven distribution of economic benefits of the Games across the UK, and also criticises funding body UK Sport for its ‘no compromise’ policy on sports without short-term medal prospects.

So that’s one major justification for splurging £10bn which has turned out to be a load of bollocks, then.  Fortunately, we have a world class Olympic venue as an enduring legacy.

Oh, hang on:

The Olympic Stadium is not being used as well as it should be, according to a group of Lords who also questioned the legacy of London 2012.

The House of Lords Committee on Games Legacy said the £429m stadium was a “national asset that should be used to the full”.

But it remained “unconvinced” that present arrangements would deliver an “effective and robust” legacy.

The major examination of London’s legacy efforts by a cross-party committee of peers claims political impetus has been lost and there is a “lack of ownership” from the government over building on the opportunities the Games provided.

Personally, I don’t really give a stuff, as I am not a UK taxpayer, let alone a London rates payer.  But I remember when the games opened social media was full of Brits declaring themselves “proud”, and dismissing anyone who objected on grounds of cost or principle to be a grumpy stick-in-the-mud.  I find it hard to believe so many people can be so fucking stupid.  Maybe in 10 years Londoners will see the same legacy the Athenians have to face every day: derelict facilities and an enormous bill their grandkids will still be paying decades after they’re gone.

I only hope the Rio de Janeirians wake up before it’s too late.

Posted in Politics, Sport | 10 Comments

The False Start of Electric Cars

I have noticed that there is considerable optimism in some quarters about the future of electric cars, and many people are pointing to Norway as a sign that the internal combustion engine may be on the way out:

Norway may seem like an odd place for electric cars to thrive, but the 1,493 Tesla Model S new registrations last month set a new single-model sales record. That’s more than sales of the two next-best selling models, the Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Leaf, combined. In fact, so far this year, the Tesla Model S is the best-selling car in a cold country that has quickly warmed to electric vehicles.

Only when you look a bit closer you find the underlying reason as to why Norwegians have taken to the Tesla in such numbers:

Unlike many European countries, where electric cars carry a huge price premium, there is no import tax or 25% VAT tax on [electric vehicles] in Norway. 

And that reason is the government has, through taxation (particularly import taxes, which are a function of horsepower), made the price of ordinary cars artificially high. From Wikipedia:

As an example, by early 2013 the price of the top selling Nissan Leaf is 240,690 krone (around US$42,500) while the purchase price of the 1.3-lt Volkswagen Golf is 238,000 Krone (about US$42,000).[9] Electric vehicles are also exempt from the annual road tax, all public parking fees, and toll payments, as well as being able to use bus lanes.

Plus what gets left out of the purchasing figures in Norway is how many of these cars are bought by government departments for whom image is more important than value for money.

Personally, I am of the belief that the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway doesn’t tell us anything about the future viability of electric cars.  When you look at the development of the motorcar in the US between the wars, the boom was driven by an overwhelming desire of individuals to move around freely and independently, and the car companies rushed to meet that demand whilst the oil companies competed with one another to build the infrastructure to support it.  I can’t think of anything further from this situation than a government taxing the hell out of something and shoving a population in the direction of their chosen product.  Would Norwegians be buying Teslas if ordinary cars were reasonably priced?  According to this Reuter’s article, Norway’s electric cars require an annual public subsidy of up to $8,200.  This is the future?

What we have here is a government picking a winner, and this rarely ends well.  The underlying assumption is that everyone driving electric cars is a desirable end, and I’m not convinced this has been proven.  Norway registered about 11,000 electrical vehicles in 2013, which might make Oslo’s air a bit cleaner and the streets quieter, but is in no way indicative of what might arise should even half of Norway’s 5m inhabitants eventually switch to electric cars.  11,000 electric cars quietly charging themselves off the grid at night won’t make much difference, but 2.5m of them?  You’re going to need a lot more power stations to cope with that sort of demand, and although Norway currently produces around 96% of its electricity using hydroelectric power it is far from certain that they would not need conventional power stations to meet the increased requirements.  In any case, it is somewhat unlikely that other countries, should they choose to emulate Norway in this regard, would be able to meet the increased demands using renewable energy sources.

In fact, the whole drive to use electric cars seems at odds with campaigns by Green organisations and politicians who are constantly nagging us to save negligible amounts of energy by unplugging phone chargers and not using TVs on standby mode.  I think when most people talk of electric cars, they think charging them is simply a matter of plugging them into a grid which is already in place, and I suppose this is true while their numbers remain small.  But an increase in just one order of magnitude – let alone two or three – is going to require a complete overhaul of the electricity generation infrastructure in a manner which is going to render unplugging phone chargers even more negligible than it is now.

Just where is this additional power going to come from?  Wind is a non-starter, suffering from the same physical limitations the Dutch faced on their windmills a couple of hundred years ago.  Tidal sounds great, except it is mind-bogglingly expensive to construct and maintain, and wrecks the local environment. Wave power suffers from the difficulty of converting uneven, irregular reciprocal motion into rotary motion and the fact that any wave powerful enough to be of any use is likely to have a big brother in the vicinity which will destroy any device used to harness its power.  Solar has potential, but the technology is likely a few decades away yet.  In 40+ years time I can envisage an efficient system whereby solar power is used to generate energy which is stored in cells, and converted to electricity in cars which is then used to power a motor.  But even with huge leaps in solar technology I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where:

Solar > electricity > battery > motor

is an improvement over:

Petrol > engine

either in terms of efficiency or overall effect on the global environment.  Not even close.  As I say, perhaps this might work:

Solar > energy cell > electricity> motor

with the energy cells being instantly replaceable, but until then I think this whole electric car concept is dead in the water.

Aside from the economics, the enormous appeal of the motor car is its flexibility, a large part of which it is its near-permanent availability.  The electric car, as currently envisaged, does away with this as it is unavailable for several hours while it charges.  Unless one can predict exactly when the car will be used and for how long then it won’t be much use, and although in theory this sounds ideal for regular commuting the shortcomings of such a system quickly become clear.

Even those who use their cars mainly for commuting also use them for unplanned or irregular trips, e.g. at weekends or in emergencies.  The non-availability of an expensive asset will become an issue to even the most organised of citizens, and some might even keep an ordinary car as a spare.  And supposing you hit traffic on the way to work?  You can switch off the car and conserve your battery, but let’s hope you don’t live anywhere too hot or too cold (like Norway!) otherwise it’s not going to be very comfortable.  One of the beauties of the internal combustion engine is the waste heat means even the crappest of crap cars is warm; people don’t realise how damned cold a car would be without the engine pumping out heat, and to generate the equivalent amount of heat from a battery will eat into the range considerably.  According to this calculator driving with an outside temperature of 21°C with no heater gives you a range of 283 miles; drop the temperature to zero and put the heater on and you’re at 234 miles, a reduction of 17% (and 27% with the smaller 60kWh battery).  And that’s for a new car, that reduction will increase only as the battery and heating elements start to wear.  You could find yourself thinking you’ve got enough juice to get to where you want to, and then hit traffic and find your destination is outside your range.  The advantage of the internal combustion engine is that they burn little fuel when the vehicle is stationary yet keep you warm with no additional fuel cost.

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.  Anyone who relies on an electric car to complete a journey within 20-30% of the maximum range is going to have to be very well organised – which most people aren’t, particularly when it comes to travelling by car – and have luck on their side as well.  The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.  Until electric cars can overcome this issue, perhaps by using instantly replaceable energy cells instead of recharging, I don’t think they’re going to make even a dent in the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.

Whatever the Norwegians think they’re doing, game-changing it ain’t.  I give it a year or two before we start seeing news reports of electric cars found abandoned by their owners between Bergen and Stavanger due to a flat battery and a desire to sleep somewhere warm that night.

Posted in Climate Change, Economics, Engineering, Norway, Politics | 13 Comments

Weird French Rule #12,763

The weather has been warm in Paris of late, and so last Saturday my wife and I decided to go to the local swimming pool on the Île de Puteaux, which features deckchairs, an outdoor and indoor pool, and a kiddy pool.

Having paid the best part of 10 Euros each to enter, I was prevented from accessing the pool area because I was wearing Bermuda shorts like these:

What they had in mind was that I dress more like this:

(Huge thanks to TNA for letting me use his pic.)

The security guard actually invited me to purchase a set of budgie-smugglers from a vending machine out the front.

Fuck that.

So I went home, and my wife went in.  Later she told me that a security guard had pounced on two men lying on sun loungers for having the temerity to put their t-shirts on.  That the sun had gone behind a cloud and the temperature dropped was no excuse, apparently.

The French: effortlessly homosexual since 1923.

Posted in France | 7 Comments