Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Irony of Politics

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

I spent an hour this past Thursday morning involved in an argument over beer. While this isn’t unusual (even in the morning), instead of having it in the pub with my friend Daniel over what our next pint should be, this argument was held over twitter, with a prominent commentator in the field of Russian studies. It all started with a retweet of a picture by Ariana Gic Perry, editor at the Intersection Project, of a new brand of stout at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO).

Bolshevik Bastard

Perry was outraged that a Canadian public corporation would sell Bolshevik Bastard Imperialist Stout, claiming that the label ignored (or maybe even endorsed) mass murder and oppression that took place under the Bolshevik regime, and urged a boycott of LCBO. She repeatedly asked me if I would drink a beer with a swastika on it, expressing equal disdain for other products I pointed out that bear the images of such distinguished figures as Mao, Che, Churchill and Napoleon. I even went so far as to point her in the direction of Hispter Hitler, a satirical cartoon poking fun at the Nazi dictator (you can buy hilarious shirts there!), but it ended up being wasted breath. Perry clearly feels that using a symbol like the hammer and sickle or the swastika somehow means acceptance of dictatorship and/or racism not matter how it is used.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of irony and satire in political awareness, especially in light of the fact I have enjoyed classic examples in the past. Was I part of the problem, promoting acceptance of unsavory government or practices? Watching the British comedy classic ‘Allo ‘Allo is one of my fondest childhood memories. The escapades of the stereotypically horny French resistance fighters against the oafishly stern and methodical Nazi occupiers of France saw me splitting my sides as Herr Flick of the Gestapo saw his staff car run over by a steam roller, or watching Private Helga Geerhart of the Wehrmacht prance about in her outrageous (swastika covered) lingerie.ScSGrLsF_400x400 Closer to home I used to cheer on the obstructionist and self-serving Sir Humphrey Appleby as he stymied the Right Honourable Jim Hacker’s in Yes Minister’s caricature exposing the inadequacies of parliamentary democracy. These iconic shows became some of the most popular in British comedy history.

Watching these shows, or enjoying watching Roger Moore’s James Bond cooperate with Soviet (GASP!) Agent Triple X to defeat an international criminal mastermind, didn’t dull my perception of the crimes of the Nazi or Soviet regimes, or leave me with an impression that a life in government is only about self-advancement and privilege. If anything they are partly responsible for how I grew up interested in politics and international relations. What I enjoyed as satire in my spare time as a young man, fueled my studies as serious academic and eventually my career in politics and global economics.

Moreover, satire and the ability to poke fun as serious political subjects is one of the characteristics of a mature and confident polity. Thankfully Canada and the UK are not places where I can be arrested for denigrating the honour of the state or for making fun of historical figures. For someone as apparently concerned with the ramifications of political satire as Perry, I would hope she is aware of the critical role it played in shaping public perceptions about the regime through spontaneous street theatre by Otpor in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, to take only one example.

As I tried but failed to explain to her, the fact someone is using a hammer and sickle on a beer in the LCBO, doesn’t diminish the scale of Bolshevik crimes or mean that they are not taken as a serious subject. Discussion and debate concerning them goes on in the classroom, the seminar, or at the conference; not necessarily in the liquor store. If anything satire of this kind is an essential weapon in the fight against injustice and oppression. The countervailing view, that we should ban or boycott anything that denigrates the seriousness of the subject, ironically, does more harm than good.

So to all my many friends who I know are passionate about politics and to all my former classmates and colleagues from European and Russian studies who are working to better understand Russia’s history and current struggle for democracy, I urge you to get to your nearest LCBO and down a Bolshevik Bastard at once!



The longer the conflict in Ukraine continues and the more column inches and opinion pieces I read about Vladimir Putin, the more I’m struck by the continued use of two devices. The first is the use of the term “thug” to describe Putin’s character and behaviour, but that’s one for another day. The second is Putin’s description, in an April 2005 speech, of the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. I suppose I was always aware of it, but more recently I’m disturbed by its use to hint at a sinister plot behind Russian foreign policy. When pundits like former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton or Guardian columnist John Kampfner (to name but a few) cite the quote what they mean to suggest is that Putin’s bitterness over the Soviet collapse and his desire to reconstitute the Soviet empire are behind Russia’s aggressive actions in Georgia and Ukraine. After all, as a former KGB officer raised in the Soviet milieu, threats and force are the only things he understands apparently.

But what did Mr Putin actually say in his address to the Russian Federal Assembly in 2005? Translations appear to differ. Take the official Russian transcript and feed it into Google Translate and it comes across as “[…]the greatest geopolitical catastrophe […]”. The official English translation from the Kremlin website, however, records it as “[…[a major geopolitical disaster […]”. As a (intermediate level) Russian speaker myself, I can tell you there is ambiguity here, given the Russian language lacks a definite article. But regardless of whether it was “the” or “a” (and believe me it makes a difference given the inference it often lends itself to), what’s more important is the context Putin used it in.

The relevant section of the speech does not relate to Russia’s diminished prestige or national pride, nor the collapse of its military strength or global influence. Instead Mr Putin was highlighting the difficulties faced by ethnic Russians who suddenly found themselves living outside the new Russian Federation and the privations of the general population. If anything he appears to be lamenting the social and human costs of the Soviet collapse, highlighting the depreciation of savings, the rise of oligarchic groups and the spread of mass poverty. There is also a reference to the rise of terrorism and the Khasavyurt Accord, which ended the First Chechen War, but this is framed in terms of Russia’s potential Balkanization, rather than anguish over its diminished power. The rest of the section is dedicated to celebrating the perseverance of the Russian people during this difficult period in consolidating Russian inspired democracy, freedom and human rights. Issues over the compatibility of Western and Russian standards of human rights notwithstanding, this speech is hardly the eye opening revelation of Putin’s revanchist character that commentators regularly make it out to be.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves. Russia seeks to maximize its influence and power in the former Soviet Union. This is inevitable, given the geographical, cultural, linguistic and economic position it finds itself in. By their very nature great powers must seek the security of friendly regimes as buffers, and reject the encroachment of outside powers and alliances into their periphery. In their direct borderland, that necessity sometimes dictates the use of force. For policy makers and media figures to explain this to the public would mean challenging powerful societal narratives about the nature of the international system and the benign intent of our institutions. So instead we currently rely on a different narrative about Russian revanchism as embodied by Mr Putin, and in terms of reinforcing this narrative, his 2005 speech is a powerful lever. I’ve seen it more times recently than I can count. But it’s ultimately counterproductive to the goal of re-establishing regional and global stability. If we are ever to reach some kind of understanding with Russia, one in which we both escape the seemingly endless cycle of engagement and confrontation that has seemingly defined our relationship since the 17th century, we will eventually need to abandon this approach.        

The cease-fire in Ukraine appears to be holding, for now. This despite reports of shelling from both sides and talk from the EU that new sanctions on Russia will be announced on Monday. Many people seem convinced that the truce is bound to fail, and why not? Ukraine has said that it will not recognise the “terrorist” statlets or the annexation of Crimea, and the rebels in Luhansk and Donetsk have said the beginning of a peace dialogue will not deter them from seeking eventual independence. The truth is, however, that for the moment peace suits everyone.

Despite their stunning victories in recent days, most of it achieved by the now almost universally accepted presence of Russian regular troops, until two weeks ago the rebels were on the rack. They had been forced back into two small and separated enclaves by the Ukrainian army, had lost control of both Luhansk and Donetsk airports and with mounting casualties they faced imminent defeat. Only deliveries of Russian heavy weaponry and “volunteers” were keeping them going. Russian intervention has saved them for now, but there is no guarantee beyond Vladimir Putin’s personal calculations of a western response that it will be maintained.

Mr Putin meanwhile, appears set to come out of this most recent crisis as the major victor. He took the extreme risk of committing Russian troops to what amounted to a covert, but nonetheless outright, invasion of eastern Ukraine and looks likely to get away with it. His calculus, that western powers would offer strong moral and verbal support, but draw the line at committing troops to fight was entirely correct. Russia may face a new round of sanctions on key Kremlin individuals and industries (although this is by no means certain) but he is reasoning that Russia, and his regime in particular, can survive the short term impact of sanctions, and once they are repealed the situation on the ground will remain the same. Ukraine will not be ready to join NATO for a long, long while, and once the west has lost interest in the Ukrainian crisis, Russia will still be right next door. After all, geography is forever.

The NATO summit in Wales this last week was a strong display of unanimity by the alliance , and the presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko suggests that the western powers are prepared to support for embattled government. But this support is likely to have limits. NATO has committed itself to creating a new rapid reaction force “spearhead” for eastern Europe and has spoken strongly about Russian aggression, but it is clear no troops will be sent to fight. Quite sensibly, no one wants to provoke outright war with Russia over Ukraine and the alliance appears unwilling to breaks its treaty commitments from the 1997 agreement with Russia not permanently base troops in eastern Europe. I suspect that if the fighting does indeed cease, many members of the EU will hope for a quick reversal of sanctions in order to reduce the strains on their economies. It took France until Russia sent troops into Ukraine to “suspend” delivery of the Mistral warships it is building for the Russian navy, and they for one will be eager to avoid the EUR 1.4bn hole cancellation will create in the French budget.

Which brings us to the real loser under this cease-fire, Mr Poroshenko and Ukraine. To go in the space of weeks from near victory to a humiliating agreement which leaves the separatists empowered and Russia emboldened is a serious blow. But I can’t see that he had much choice. The Russian invasion was devastating, and while casualty figures have not been announced, eyewitness accounts speak of a shattering defeat for the out-gunned Ukrainian military which lost a sizeable number of armored vehicles and artillery. Barring outside help Ukraine faced total defeat. Ultimately, like in Georgia in 2008, no-one came to save them in this crucial hour. Moreover, despite IMF and EU support for the Ukrainian economy, the task of reforming it is colossal and the immediate survival of Mr Poroshenko’s government depends on extensive economic links with Russia, especially gas deliveries. These remain under negotiation despite the recent surge in fighting. Without an agreement, Ukraine could be forced to pay an extremely high and destabilising price or, worse, face a cut off altogether. To borrow an expression, winter is coming.

So the cease-fire remains in everyone’s best interest for now. That is not to say it will hold. Too often such agreements are brought down by the situation on the front lines and a quick escalation from an exchange of shelling to a total resumption. But this agreement reflects pragmatism on the part of the Ukrainian government, which realises its current geographical, economic and political status depends on coming to some sort of agreement with Russia. I cannot see them breaking it. No assurances about the rebels, their calculation is entirely different, although if Mr Putin keeps a tight hold on them, it is in his interest to maintain the truce as well. Russia’s position depends on its intervention being short. The last thing it needs is an open ended conflict in Ukraine and further sanctions on its already anaemic economy.

The next week will be crucial for both sides.


Ukraine EU

This blog is not a news service. I don’t have the time or the resources for something like that. Nor do I like making very precise predictions about the future as it’s too difficult to anticipate all the variables, especially given the shifting situation in a case as fluid as that which Ukraine now finds itself in.  For instance, a Ukrainian friend of mine has recently told me the protests are being misinterpreted in the west and are no longer about the failure of European integration, but about regime brutality against protestors.  I still think it’s about Europe, but what do I as a desk bound analyst know?  It’s hard to tell what the actual situation on the ground is.

Given the momentous events of the past few weeks, however, it is possible to list a few things I have learned following the government’s decision to delay signing the EU Association Agreement and the subsequent protests.

Yanukovych is thinking purely in the short term

Ukraine’s president is thinking no further than the 2015 presidential elections. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; most politicians are primarily concerned with their own positions of power. And pundits the world over have their hands full debating why he cannot bear to give up his position, even if it means cementing the favourable legacy of putting Ukraine on the path to Europe. You only have to google his name to read about the attacks on the media, the clan politics, the fact companies run by his son, Oleksandr, have received the majority of government procurement contracts in the last 3 years, or the public impression of Mr Yanukovych and his wife as thieves (Lyudmyla Yanukovych is often referred to as “Fortochka” – the word for a tiny window prevalent in Soviet era housing, but also a slang word for a thief).

Cops attackThe point is, regardless of “why” he needs to remain in office, Mr Yanukovych clearly reasoned he could survive the public anger over refusing to sign whereas he would certainly not survive public anger over the economic ramifications of falling out with Russia.  That is also probably behind the regime’s decision to use force against the protesters.  At first I thought Mr Yanukovych may have learned from the Russian experience of 2011 and 2012 that the best way to defuse street demonstrations was to allow them to take place, hold managed demonstrations by regime supporters to confuse international media, promise substantially increased state spending for key constituencies, and wait for opposition supporters to become demoralised.

I’ve come to realize that the Ukrainian situation is different, however.  Ukraine’s fiscal imbalance means the government does not have the financial resources to increase spending or wages.  Also, unlike the Russian system, Yanukovych does not enjoy support in large parts of the country outside Kiyv and the Donbas making it difficult for him to portray the protestors as a small, urban intellectual elite, as Putin was able to do in Moscow.  Moreover, he does not enjoy unified support from the oligarchical class, and although he has influential backers, he cannot ensure powerful businessmen will not support the opposition.  So he may have decided that if he could clear the protests out quickly, as he tried in the police attack of 30 November, he’d stand a better chance. That was obviously a mistake and he now appears to have opted for something closer to the Russian model, but his presidency is now in grave danger as police brutality has only served to bolster the protestors.

Yanukovych may have actually saved Ukraine’s European orientation though this reversal

This is a controversial observation but hear me out.

As usual at times like these, when citizens get caught up in the emotion of a historic event, many participants and observers lose perspective. Of course it’s easy for me to say this, not being Ukrainian, but I think much of the analysis that is coming forth, both from protesters and supportive pundits is taking too black and white a view. They are framing these events as a struggle of good v evil, Putin/Yanukovych and autocracy v the West and a democratic future.  This is too simplistic, which is perhaps why the contrasts are used, to garner support from the interested and media attentive, but ultimately ill-informed, international public.

Ukraine GasWhile one of the major issues at hand is whether Ukraine has a future where governance is conducted under the rule of law, something Mr Yanukovych has not always been committed to, this good v evil paradigm ignores several important facts. When Mr Yanukovych says he caved to Russian pressure it is largely dismissed by the western press as a convenient excuse, but I think he is being honest.  Almost absent from current discourse is the fact Ukraine’s economic and fiscal imbalances are becoming unbearable.  Its heavy industries, especially steel, are hugely energy inefficient and without Russian gas subsidies would have to endure a painful restructuring that would involve significant layoffs.

On an individual level, Ukrainian consumers enjoy generous gas utility subsidies, helping shield them from the drop in living standards that followed the 2008 crisis, but which are very expensive.  It is estimated the cost of industrial and personal gas subsidies in 2013-14 alone is USD 2.9bn and for a country already facing a high deficit, Ukraine simply can’t afford this.  Ukraine’s already faces USD 60bn in debt repayments in mid-2014, equal to one third of its GDP, and cannot access international markets due to its poor sovereign debt rating.  This has resulted in a severe shortage of foreign currency, putting pressure on the hryvnia which faces a potential devaluation next year.

Ukraine Financial MinistryAnd here is where I think people are missing the point. Russia’s position was blackmail yes.  Sign the Association Agreement with EU, Putin said, and there would be no more subsidised gas deliveries and an economic embargo that would have seen trade and revenues drop precipitously.  Russia has in its power the billions of dollars needed to support Ukraine’s existing imbalances. What did the EU offer by contrast? It offered only USD 1.6 billion in funding over the next year and a further unspecified support, not exceeding USD 15bn, from the IMF if Ukraine cut subsidies and restructured its economy.

Had Mr Yanukovych gone down that path, I don’t think many appreciated how difficult life would have become.  As industries were forced to become more efficient unemployment would have risen rapidly, shrinking gas subsidies would have seen the cost of living go up, especially for those on a fixed income such as pensioners, and a likely devaluation of the hryvnia would have damaged savings and created upside inflationary pressures.  While the long term benefit of joining the EU would be enormous, in terms of cheaper procurement and a larger market for Ukrainian goods, the short term results would have been painful.

Would the Ukrainian people have endured this economic turmoil stoically, reasoning that it was worth it to be a step closer to EU membership? I doubt it. The EU membership process can take years.  The people would have cursed the EU for failing to support them in transition.  We saw it after the Orange Revolution, when faced with the painful loss of Russia friendship and unwillingness in Europe to support the costs of the transition, the people eventually turned to Yanukovych to restore Ukraine’s economic relationship with Russia.  Ukraine must use what little time remains in its beneficial relationship with Russia to start resolving its economic imbalances, because Europe is very hesitant to bear the cost.

Which leads to observation 3:

Europe is probably pleased that Ukraine backed out of the deal

BarossoThe EU has been very quiet and non-committal about Ukraine’s about-face and the prospect for its future association.  Leave aside European Commission officials, whose job it is to promote EU policy and institutions, and are shocked and disappointed by Ukraine decision to delay the Association Agreement’s signing.  I haven’t heard much out of France, Germany or the UK.  I think on a national level many of the EU’s member states are secretly pleased at this turn of events.  They will make all the right noises about their commitment to bringing Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic community, and denounce violence in Kiyv, but we must remember that at its core the EU is not a united entity.  It’s a confederation of tribes where national interest often trumps collective decision making.

The two countries behind the Eastern Partnership, designed to bring former Soviet States closer to the EU and keep Russia at arm’s length, have been Sweden and Poland.  Now, I won’t go as far as the Russians in claiming the Association Agreement is motivated by a Polish-Lithuanian desire for revenge from the 1700s, but Poland at least has been a leading voice of suspicion and hostility toward Russia in Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism.  The Poles have made no secret of their view that Russia seeks to dominate not just the former Soviet Union but Eastern Europe as well, and trade disputes and recrimination is just regular business between these two neighbours.  At the time of the 2008 Russian war with Georgia a significant number of Poles surveyed said they expected an imminent Russian invasion. This was one of the main reasons they supported missile defence in Eastern Europe during the 2000s and why they launched the Eastern Partnership.  The building of economic, cultural and political links between states in Eastern Europe will help form a buffer against Russian encroachment.

By contrast, France and Germany have never been that hot on the Eastern Partnership, especially the prospect it held out for eventual Ukrainian membership in the EU.  Why would they, the two most powerful states in the EU, want to embrace a rival of comparable population and geographic size in Eastern Europe? Although not immediate this would create an alternative power centre away from Western Europe along with all the regional rivalries and disputes that go with it.  Additionally, and more immediate, France and Germany balked at supporting Ukraine’s transition from its post-Soviet incarnation to a modern European democracy.  Yes, the EU has previously supported states struggling with economic imbalances, poor governance and ingrained corruption, but Ukraine is no Slovakia or Romania.  Its needs are larger, its oligarchs more powerful and its politics more divisive than the EU has ever attempted to reform.  For countries struggling with their own economic recoveries and where populations are becoming more dubious on the benefits of the union (support for the EU in France fell to 41% in 2013), the prospect of having to provide large scale financial support for years to Ukraine is extremely unpalatable.  Mr Yanukovych’s decision to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement will give these members of the EU years to continue expressing scepticism over its suitability for membership.

Finally, this will not derail Ukraine’s inexorable move towards Europe

These protests not a struggle to keep Ukraine from joining some neo-Soviet Union, although that sounds great on TV!  The outpouring of public anger is proof that huge parts of the country want eventual EU membership, or at least closer alignment. Polls have shown that over 50% of the country wants closer association with the EU.  I have seen very little evidence many want to be part of Russia’s Customs Union.   Ukraine is a European nation, not just some upstart region of the former Russian and Soviet empires. Don’t be deceived by those who say this is a civilizational choice or that Ukraine is the birthplace of Russia.  That is a disservice to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, for starters and neither orthodox Christianity nor a sense of Russian nationalism can definitively have been said to start in Kiyv.

ProtestsUkraine has a long, distinguished and distinct history from Russia.  Its cultural heartland in Western Ukraine speaks a different language (think French to Spanish) and has long established links to the Catholic Church, not Orthodox Christianity.  Younger Ukrainians, from both east and west, may feel a sense of affinity with other parts of the former Soviet Union, but it does not dictate their political orientation. Yes, the Russian language helps them to communicate with citizens in other former Soviet republics, yes they remember the TV shows, the songs, and the schools of their Soviet youth, but they feel European.  We’re on the cusp of a new generation who won’t even remember the Soviet Union.

Moreover, Putin aside, few in Russia are willing to shoulder the cost of absorbing the Ukraine into a Russian-sponsored federation.  It has already been announced this last week that Yanukovych, on his way back from China where he has been trying to drum up financial support for Ukraine’s weakened economy, stopped off in Sochi and discussed renewed gas subsidies with Vladimir Putin. No surprise there, given the stated Russian position, but the cost of this subsidy will also be a burden for Russia’s economy, which is by no means booming.  Although oil and gas prices remain above the oil benchmark rate of USD 100 a barrel the Russian state’s financial commitments are ever expanding and the non-oil deficit is due to average 9.6% of GDP by 2015. There is very little margin for error if oil prices fall and this subsidy will further harm the balance if locked in by contract.  Gazprom, which will bear the primary cost of this subsidy, is already experiencing difficulties, as it saw profitability drop in early 2013 on the back of falling exports to Europe.  Although exports have subsequently recovered, long term trends suggest exports to Europe will continue to decline.

Finally, and similar to the position of France and Germany, why would Russia want to absorb a Ukraine that has a highly developed sense of nationalism and independence? As one of the most respect scholars of post-Soviet studies, Dmitri Trenin, has repeatedly pointed out, the threat posed to any Russian plans for post-Soviet reintegration by a Slavic country of over 40 million, with its own political and economic elites and agenda would be tremendous.  Especially as Ukraine would constantly be challenging Russia’s leadership of such a union.  What a headache!

Take heart Ukrainian friends. The march towards Europe can’t really be stopped, only delayed. A more important question for another day is: Do you really want to be in Europe?

It seems like a long time ago I was in Russia. In fairness, it has only been a year, but that last time was only a visit for four days. Hardly long enough to re-assess what I had learned during my time living there. But in that short space of time I reacquainted myself with some of the wondrous and magical melange of things I think you can only find in Russia.

Back in 2007 I was selected to partake in an exchange between my university, Carleton, and our sister institution, Saint Petersburg State University, in Saint Petersburg. The programme was a two month exchange at the Philological Institute for the purpose of language immersion. For two months I lived in conditions that I would have described as primitive, but which my Russian friends knew, was just part of being a student in the former Soviet Union. I learned my perfective and non-perfective verb conjugations from a professor, who if she hadn’t been a smokin’ blonde, I would have described as a dragon. But I’ll tell you what, I can still remember the difference between “I am going” and “I went” like it was yesterday. I had my first experience bribing a policeman, played drunken bowling until 6 AM, was warned to avoid gypsies, jumped out of the way of speeding Escalades with tinted windows, was carried out of a club unconscious after mixing vodka with antibiotics, and was told by my Russian girlfriend that I “behaved too much like a westerner” when I asked who was paying for lunch.

Russia is a country that leaves an impression on you. I’m a research analyst by trade. My job is to understand Russian policy and the Russian market. To know their leaders , what their strategic and economic capabilities are, and what their future potential is. But you can get all that from a spreadsheet of statistics. Something that tells you GDP numbers, or fighter aircraft numbers, or the background of the former-spy President.  That only paints half a picture. Russia really is peerless.  The largest geographical country in the world. Geopolitically a cross road between Western, Islamic and Asian values, being of not quite any of the aforementioned cultures.

It is a land of incredible openness but also mystery, of generosity and selfishness, strength and weakness, of riches and poverty, faith and science, and hope but jarring reality.

This blog is meant to be two pronged. Primarily it is to provide a platform to examine transition in the former Soviet Union. From geopolitical machinations in Moscow, to ethnic conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the struggle for democracy in Kyrgyzstan. But it is also a chance for me to explore my own feelings and experiences in Russia, which has left a lasting and durable impression on me as well as every country in the Former Soviet space. For how are we supposed to understand the changing politics of a region without understanding its history and it’s people?Image

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