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Power of Mockery

5 August 2012

The Power of Mockery

By Gwynne Dyer

How much do tyrants fear mockery? Consider the case of Belarus, often called “the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” where President Alexander Lukashenko has just fired his air force and border security chiefs because they did not stop a Swedish light plane from dropping teddy bears into the country.

The plane, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm called Studio Total, crossed into Belarusian air space from Lithuania on 4 July, and dropped hundreds of teddy bears on little parachutes on the outskirts of the capital, Minsk. The teddies bore labels calling for freedom of speech and respect for human rights, which is only what Lukashenko’s opponents within the country demand (before they are carted off to jail).

Lukashenko, who has won every “election” in Belarus since 1994, was furious. “”Why didn’t the commanders intercept that flight?”, he raged last week. “Who did they sympathise with?” In reality, his commanders weren’t paying much attention to air defences because nobody is going to bomb Belarus, but he couldn’t accept that explanation. His power rests on people believing he is too strong to resist, and the teddy bears said the opposite, very loudly.

Meanwhile, some hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the east, a trial opened last week in Moscow. Three young women, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – Masha, Nadia and Katya to their friends – face a charge of hooliganism that could send them to jail for seven years for singing a song in church. Their real offence is that it was an anti-Putin song.

Masha, Nadia and Katya belong to a punk rock band called Pussy Riot. It’s a loose collective of around ten young Moscow women, feminists in a very macho country, who dress up in brightly coloured clothes and balaclavas (ski masks) and use music and performance art to criticise the repression and conformity they see around them. They are funny, brave, and sometimes offensive. They are not criminals.

In an action that one band member later called an “ethical mistake”, five of them entered the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow last March, stepped onto the altar, and delivered a cheeky, shrieky song begging the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Putin. A companion videotaped them, and the performance lasted exactly 51 seconds before the security guards intervened and the police were called.

The cops came and took down three of the band members’s names (the other two escaped), but they made no arrests, did not confiscate the videotape, and did not open a case against anybody. Only nine people had seen the performance, and most of them were guards. It just wasn’t worth pursuing – until the video appeared on YouTube two weeks later and went viral.

This all happened during the election campaign that saw Vladimir Putin return as Russia’s president after eight previous years in that job and four more as prime minister (to get around the constitutional limit of two terms as president). Pussy Riot chose to make their protest in Moscow’s cathedral in response to Patriarch Kirill’s public statements that it was “un-Christian” to demonstrate and that the Putin era is “a miracle of God.”

It is alleged that Kirill called Putin demanding legal action against the blasphemers. He was certainly very cross: his spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, declared that “God condemns what (Pussy Riot) have done. I’m convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next. God revealed this to me like he revealed the gospels to the Church.” But the decision to make a horrible example of the young women was Putin’s, not Kirill’s.

People accused of non-violent crimes are hardly ever held in custody in Russia before their trials, but Masha, Nadia and Katya were refused bail and have already been in prison for five months. Nobody has been allowed to visit them, though two of the three have small children. The state-controlled TV channels (i.e. almost all of them) have waged an endless propaganda war against them, portraying them as foreign agents.

The trial verges on the ridiculous. On Thursday a lawyer for one of the cathedral guards (who has “suffered deeply” and lost sleep over the incident), described the punk band as “the tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand-year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by…guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan.” And behind it all, of course, was the “world government”: the Satanic West.

The girls of Pussy Riot – they deliberately call themselves girls (“devushki” in Russian) to emphasise their innocence and powerlessness – have done more by mockery to unmask the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime than all their more earnest colleagues together. At a greater personal cost than they ever imagined, they have raised political consciousness in Russia and made the regime look both cruel and foolish.

Vladimir Putin is no fool. He realises that things have gone too far, and on a visit to London last week he tried to throw the machine into reverse. “There is nothing good in what (Pussy Riot) did,” he told reporters, but “I don’t think they should be judged too severely.” The court, no doubt, will take this an order. But the damage to the Putin regime is already done.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The cops…viral”; and “It is..Kirill’s”)



Russia, Europe and Energy

15 January 2007

Russia, Europe and Energy

By Gwynne Dyer

Angela Merkel has a very different attitude to Russia from the last three or four German chancellors, perhaps because she grew up in former East Germany, under Russian control. She’s not anti-Russian (she speaks the language fluently), but she doesn’t think that they deserve special treatment. So when Russia suddenly cut of the flow of oil to Germany and several other EU countries on 8 January because of a dispute with Belarus, she did not waste time on tact.

“It is not acceptable,” she said, “when there are no consultations about such actions. That always destroys trust.” It was the harshest thing that any German chancellor has said to any Russian leader since the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago — and she said it, moreover, in her capacity as the current president of the European Union, a post that she had assumed just days before. Something is going on here.

The dead of winter is the ideal time for an energy supplier to have a confrontation with an energy-poor customer in a cold climate, and this is the second January in a row that Russia has pulled the plug on a neighbour who was resisting massive increases in the price it paid for Russian gas and oil. Last year it was Ukraine; this year it’s Belarus. In each case, Moscow brought them to heel by turning off the taps — but that also cut off its EU customers further west, since the pipelines pass through those countries first. The EU was not amused.

“We are paying for these energy resources and are never late in our payments,” said EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs last week. “We have a right to insist that you never disrupt supply.” But behind Piebalgs’s stern insistence that “the disruption to oil supplies we have seen in the last few days must never, never happen again” was the knowledge that it might well happen again. The Russian negotiating style is too muscular for the EU’s taste, and what happens to Ukraine or Belarus today might happen to other Russian customers tomorrow.

When Moscow told Minsk that the price of gas was going up from $47 to $105 per thousand cubic metres on January 1st and that it was imposing a “customs duty” of $180 per tonne on the oil Belarus buys from Russia, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s first response was defiance: “We will live in dug-outs but we will not surrender to blackmail.”

Belarus has no energy resources of its own, and Lukashenko’s popular support among poorer Belarusians depends entirely on the fact that he has preserved the old Soviet system and the guaranteed minimum living standard that it provided. His support would probably not survive a prolonged bout of hardship as a result of a confrontation with Russia over energy prices, so he took a different tack.

Just after New Year, Lukashenko accepted the Russian demands on oil and gas prices — but then he tried to claw the money back by imposing a $45 a tonne “transit fee” on all the oil passing through Belarusian pipelines to the EU. What’s more, knowing that he could never force Moscow to pay up, Lukashenko started collecting the fee in kind by diverting oil from the pipeline that crosses Belarusian territory on its way to the EU. So Moscow shut the pipeline down.

Fair enough, in the bandit world of post-Soviet capitalism — and it brought Lukashenko sharply to heel. He gave in completely, and since he has now also been forced to sell 50 percent control of Belarus’s pipelines to Russia he will never pose this problem again. But further west, the European Union is quietly re-doing its energy calculations as the lesson sinks in that it is unwise to be too dependent on energy supplies from post-Soviet Russia. (The EU imports a quarter of its oil and 42 percent of its gas from Russia.)

As Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs put it: “If there’s disruption of supply, it’s not retaliation that’s required but appropriate action…You simply conclude that this partner is not worth your trust and you don’t make any more contracts….” There will actually be lots more contracts, because nobody can switch the bulk of their energy purchases overnight, but the trend line in EU purchases of Russian energy is likely to be down.

Chancellor Merkel is already saying that Germany should reconsider its plan to phase out nuclear power by 2020, although she cannot do so under the terms of the current coalition agreement with the Social Democrats. More importantly for the near future, she is urging private industry to build a network of gas pipelines across the EU that is connected to liquefied-natural-gas ports in Germany and elsewhere. That would give the EU, and especially the former Communist countries of eastern Europe, an alternative to heavy dependence on Russian energy.

Russia doesn’t care. In the long run, it can probably sell almost all of its exportable oil and gas to China and other East Asian customers (though the pipelines mostly have yet to be built). But a major strategic shift is getting underway: the EU no longer assumes that Russia is a reliable partner or even a friend.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Belarus…tack”; and”As Energy…down”)

Chernobyl: The Numbers Game

20 April 2006

 Chernobyl: The Numbers Game

 By Gwynne Dyer

April 26 is the 20th anniversary of the explosion and fire in the Chernobyl-4 nuclear reactor, so the long-running dispute over how many people actually died as a result of the accident is back. And now the growing public argument in Western countries about ending the de facto ban on new nuclear power stations has lent wings to the debate.

Last Tuesday the World Health Organisation published a report estimating that 405 people died in the first decade after the accident, almost all of them former plant workers, firefighters and soldiers who were exposed to massive radiation doses in the initial explosion or during the nine-day struggle to put out the fire in the reactor core. But over 200,000 people were involved in some aspect of the clean-up operation, and some of them as well as some people living near the site will also develop cancers from their lesser exposure to radiation sooner or later.

The WHO’s best estimate is that about 9,300 people will eventually die from Chernobyl-related cancers. Greenpeace International, on the other hand, has just issued a report predicting that the number of cancer deaths directly attributable to Chernobyl will ultimately reach 93,000.

This is as much an argument about the future as the past, since the outcome of the revived debate in the West about the desirability of nuclear power depends heavily on the public’s perception of the risks involved. It’s not how the debate SHOULD be settled, but both sides know that it’s how it will be.

The West effectively abandoned building new nuclear power stations after the accident at the Three-Mile Island reactor in the US in 1979 (which killed nobody) and the Chernobyl accident in 1986 (which killed quite a lot of people). Few existing plants were shut down, and in a few countries, notably France and Japan, nuclear energy continues to supply most of the nation’s electricity, but the global population of big nuclear power reactors has fluctuated in a narrow band between 400 and 450 for the past twenty years.

Now there is a new wave of reactor-building in Asian countries where rapidly growing economies have created a huge demand for electricity, and few voices have been raised against it in those countries. Even in the West, the debate has been re-opened as concern about global warming has grown. Apart from hydro-power, which is only available in certain areas, nuclear energy is the only available short-term option for producing very large amounts of base load electricity without adding to the greenhouse gases that cause the warming.

The real arguments for and against nuclear power are about complicated technical and financial issues. Would the same amount of investment in “renewables” like wind power produce as much electricity, and how do you allow for the fact that the wind does not always blow? Would investing in techniques like “sequestering” the carbon-dioxide output from conventional coal, oil and gas-fired power-plants (capturing it and pumping it into underground reservoirs) be a better way to spend the money — and how soon could such technologies be available on a large-scale?

Those are the real issues, but everybody involved in the argument knows that “safety” will be what decides the outcome in the public debate. Since Chernobyl is the only accident involving a nuclear power plant in the past fifty years that has killed any members of the public, just how many died has become a bitterly contested question. Unfortunately, it is also a hugely misleading one.

There is no doubt that thirty people died in the immediate struggle to contain the accident, twenty-eight of them from massive radiation overdoses. Of the 139 people who were treated for acute radiation sickness, another nineteen died. But after that, all the other deaths attributed to Chernobyl are statistical inferences. That doesn’t mean they did not occur, but it does mean that the range of plausible conclusions, given the state of the medical and demographic data in the affected area (Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia), is very wide indeed.

Moreover, predictions about the “final death toll” are almost meaningless, because everybody dies eventually, and about 30 percent of people in developed societies die of cancer. Whether it’s ultimately 9,300 or 93,000 people who die as a delayed effect of the Chernobyl accident, they will mostly die from cancers that develop late in their lives, only a few months earlier than they were statistically likely to anyway.

The massive hydrogen-bomb tests in 1962, which released about a hundred times as much radiation as Chernobyl into the atmosphere, had a similar effect. Worldwide, the average radiation dose from those tests was ten milliSieverts, roughly the same as most people living within a few hundred kilometres (miles) from Chernobyl received in 1986. Ten milliSieverts of radiation is calculated to shorten a person’s lifespan, on average, by four days — but averages lie. What those tests really meant was an early death for an unlucky few, and nothing for everybody else.

In the case of nuclear power, the number of lives that might be at risk from accidents is certainly only a tiny fraction of those that are at risk from global warming, but that’s not how the argument will be pursued in public. The debate will be mostly about the alleged dangers of nuclear power, not about whether it is really the best way to produce huge amounts of power without also producing huge amount of carbon dioxide.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. “The West…the warming”

Belarus: A Case of Arrested Development

9 March 2006

Belarus: A Case of Arrested Development

By Gwynne Dyer

The ten million citizens of Belarus don’t go to the polls until 19 March, but the outcome is already certain: Alexander Lukashenko will win a third term as president. Most other governments in Europe, which see him as the continent’s last dictator, will express their dismay and claim that the election was unfair. They will be right in the sense that the opposition has been mercilessly harassed and that the counting of the votes probably won’t meet international standards. But they will be wrong if they really think that Lukashenko would have lost a fair election.

“It is necessary…to take a stand against this post-Soviet autocrat and his efforts to totally suppress what remains of independent initiatives in Belarus,” said former Czech president Vaclav Havel last year, but Lukashenko does not see autocracy as a bad thing. As he told Belarusian radio early this month: “An authoritarian ruling style is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it. Why?…You need to control the country, and the main thing is not to ruin people’s lives.”

Belarus has more policemen per capita than any other country in the world, and a few of Lukashenko’s harshest critics have simply “disappeared”. Opposition politicians are regularly beaten up or imprisoned, and people can go to jail for up to two years simply for openly criticising the president. It is an ugly, petty, oppressive regime that is reminiscent in many ways of the old Communist tyrannies — but Lukashenko has won two elections and a referendum in the past dozen years, all with more than 70 percent of the vote.

He didn’t win them just by stuffing ballot boxes, and although many people in Belarus feel intimidated by his rule, if they really constituted an outraged majority then the tool for their liberation is readily available. In the last five years, disciplined crowds of non-violent protestors have overthrown similar “post-Soviet autocrats” in several other post-Soviet states. If the problem is just unfree elections and intimidation, why don’t Belarusians get rid of their faintly Chaplinesque dictator that way?

The answer is to be found in the results of an international opinion poll that was published last week by the Social Research Institute (TARKI) in Budapest. The survey was conducted last year in eleven central and eastern European countries that were ruled by Communist tyrannies for at least a generation until the revolutions of 1989-91. The only country where a majority of the people polled preferred the “democratic” systems (some real, some sham) that they have lived under since then was the Czech Republic, where 52 percent actively supported democracy and only a small minority longed to have Communism back.

In most of the former Soviet-bloc countries the nostalgia for Communist rule was strong, peaking at 38 percent in Bulgaria and 36 percent in Russia (where only 13 percent favoured democracy). But this is hardly surprising when you consider that the most people’s experience, in most of these countries, was that the end of Communist rule brought a steep fall in living standards and a sharp rise in insecurity and inequality. For Russia, it also brought the loss of a centuries-old empire, the “exile” of tens of millions of Russians as minorities in newly independent countries, and a huge decline in the country’s power and influence in the world.

These things are not what normally accompanies democracy elsewhere. They happened in central and eastern Europe partly because the social and economic costs of converting from a centrally-planned economy to a free market were bound to be very high, and partly because the former Communist elite seized the opportunity to “privatise” the state’s former assets (i.e. almost everything) into their own pockets. It was an experience that has given democracy a very bad name in the former Soviet bloc, and only time and the rise of a new generation will erase these attitudes.

And here we have Belarus, where a former collective-farm manager who was legitimately elected to power in 1994 halted the privatisation process before it had properly got underway. Lukashenko has preserved both the good and the bad elements of the Communist system almost unchanged (except that the actual Communist Party no longer rules). So there has not been the same crash in living standards in Belarus, and there is none of the soaring inequality and unemployment seen in almost all of its neighbours.

There are also no free media, and secret police everywhere, and the drab conformity typical of late-period Communist states, and occasional state violence against “dissidents”. But Lukashenko would probably have won a majority of the votes honestly in every election and referendum he has held.

Why has it happened this way in Belarus and not elsewhere? Partly pure chance, but Belarus was also an ideal candidate because it has a very weak national identity (most people there actually speak Russian). There is little of the nationalism that helped most other former Soviet countries to persevere with the changes, and many Belarusians would be happy to be reunited with Russia. But even there they would have to undergo many of the painful changes that they have avoided by choosing to live in this time warp.

Sooner or later they will have to go through them anyway, but not yet. Not in this election.


To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“It is

necessary…lives”; and “These things…attitudes”)