20 October 2013
Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking
By Gwynne Dyer
Short term beats long term most of the time, even when people understand where their long-term self-interest really lies. Take, for example, that well-known pair, Russia and the Maldives.
Five years ago, it was hard to find senior people in the universities and scientific institutes in Moscow who were even willing to discuss climate change. But the great heat-wave of 2010, which killed one-third of the Russian grain crop, seems to have changed all that.
It was Russia that insisted on putting a reference to geo-engineering, the highly controversial array of last-ditch measures to combat global warming, into the last paragraph of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report. The Russians get it now. And yet….
On 18 September the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise stopped near the drilling platform Prirazlomnaya, the first rig to drill for oil off Russia’s Arctic coast, and launched four inflatable boats. Their aim was to hang a banner on the platform denouncing Russian plans to exploit the oil and gas reserves of the environmentally sensitive Arctic, especially since burning all that extra oil and gas will speed up the warming process.
There were no weapons aboard the ship, and Greenpeace’s protests are always non-violent. None of the protesters tried to climb up the legs of the platform or damage it in any way. But armed Russian security forces abseiled down from helicopters and took them all prisoner. The ship and all its crew were arrested and taken to the nearest Russian port, Murmansk.
A month later, all thirty crew members, volunteers who come from Britain, France, Canada, Russia, Brazil, New Zealand and eleven other countries, are still in prison. Half of them have already been charged with “piracy”.
It sounds ridiculous, but piracy carries a prison sentence of ten to fifteen years, and the Russian state is deadly serious. The crew have all been refused bail, and it will probably be months before they even stand trial. The Russian state has a long tradition of reacting badly when it is challenged, and the platform belongs to Gazprom, a state-owned firm, but even so this is an extreme over-reaction.
Besides, knowing how hard climate change will hit Russia, why did Moscow let Gazprom start drilling in the Arctic seabed at all? Because Russia’s relative prosperity in the past decade has depended heavily on exports of oil and gas. Because President Vladimir Putin’s rule depends on the continuation of that fragile prosperity. And because Russia’s onshore reserves of oil and gas are in decline.
Russian scientists are well aware that the frozen seabed of the Arctic Ocean is already thawing and releasing huge plumes of methane gas that will accelerate warming further. President Putin is concerned enough about climate change to spend serious diplomatic capital on getting geo-engineering into the IPCC report. But warming is a long-term (or at least a medium-term) problem, and his political survival is short-term.
Short-term comes first, so drill away, and if people protest against it, charge them with piracy. And if you think this is as stupid as politics can get, consider the Maldives.
The Maldives are several hundred tiny islands in the Indian Ocean where most of the land is only about a metre (three or four feet) above sea level. As the sea level rises, most of the country will simply disappear beneath the waves.
You would think that the prospect of national extinction in two generations would concentrate anybody’s mind, and in the Maldives it did – for a while. In 2008 the long-ruling dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ousted in the islands’ first free election by Mohamed Nasheed, a young politician who put great emphasis on fighting climate change.
Nasheed knew that his own country’s actions could have little direct effect on the outcome: China emits about 2,000 times as much carbon dioxide as the Maldives. But he also knew that the extreme vulnerability of the Maldives gives its decisions a high publicity value, so he pledged to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral country. He even held a cabinet meeting underwater, with all the ministers in scuba gear, to dramatise the country’s plight.
Then, early last year, Nasheed was overthrown in a coup by senior police officers closely linked to the old regime. International pressure forced fresh elections early last month and Nasheed came in well ahead of the other two candidates.
Various interventions by police and judges linked to the former dictator have complicated the issue, and the election will now be re-run early next month. Nasheed will doubtless recover the presidency in the end, but here’s the thing. In the whole election campaign, he didn’t mention climate change once. Neither did the other candidates.
This is a country full of people whose grandchildren are going to have to live somewhere else because the whole place is going underwater, and they STILL don’t want to hear about climate change. You can’t just blame the politicians for the neglect. It’s just too uncomfortable for people to stay focussed on the issue for long.
And by the way, opinion polls reveal that a majority of Russians approve of the piracy charges laid against the Greenpeace crew.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Russian…short-term”; and “Nasheed…plight”)
10 September 2013
Syria: An Unexpected Rabbit
By Gwynne Dyer
When someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it’s natural to be suspicious. Magicians are professionals in deceit – and so are diplomats. But sometimes the rabbit is real.
On Monday morning, the world was heading into the biggest crisis in years: a looming American attack on Syria, a Russian response that could set off the first major confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War, and the possible spread of the fighting from Syria to neighbouring countries. Or alternatively, a Congressional rejection of President Barack Obama’s plans that would have left him a lame duck for the next three years.
By Tuesday morning all that had changed. A Russian proposal for Syria to get rid of all its chemical weapons was promptly accepted by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and the Senate vote on Obama’s planned strikes on Syria was postponed, probably for weeks. If Syria keeps its word, the vote may never be held. What a difference a day makes.
Now for the cavils. Nothing has been signed. Nothing has even been written up for signature. Maybe Syria is just playing for time. Perhaps Obama will want to pursue the Syrian regime legally for the poison gas attacks that he claims it has already carried out (though he sounded very relieved on hearing the news and didn’t mention any “red lines”).
The sequence of events, so far as can be made out, was as follows. At the Moscow G20 summit last week, Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had a one-to-one chat on the side at which one of them broached the possibility of persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons entirely. Which one isn’t clear, and the idea was not pursued by either of them.
Yet both men had reason to want such a thing, for the alternative was that Obama would lead the United States into another Middle Eastern war, not exactly what he was elected for – or that he would not get Congressional approval to do so and end up completely discredited. Putin would feel obliged to respond to a US attack on his Syrian ally, but that could end up with Russian missiles shooting down American planes.
There was then silence until Monday, when John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, gave an off-the-cuff reply in London to a question about whether Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American attack. “Sure. He could turn over every bit of his (chemical) weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” said Kerry with a shrug. “But he isn’t about to.”
Then Kerry got on a plane to fly home, and halfway across the Atlantic he got a call from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying that he was about to announce that Russia would ask Syria to put all its chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and finally destroy them all.
The Syrian foreign minister happened to be in Moscow, so within an hour he declared that Assad’s regime “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.” By Monday evening Obama was saying that the Russian plan “could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” and the pot was off the boil.
The whole thing, therefore, was made up on the fly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work, but it is a proposal that comes without any of the usual preparation that precedes a major diplomatic initiative. The reason we don’t know the details is that there aren’t any. What we do know is that everybody – Obama, Putin and Assad – is clearly desperate to avoid going to war, and that gives us reason to hope.
Two things that have to happen fast, if this rabbit is really going to run. First, Syria has to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention right away. That could be done within a week, and it would legally commit it to getting rid of all its chemical weapons and the factories that make them.
Secondly, the United Nations Security Council has to pass a resolution demanding that Syria reveal the size and location of its entire stock of chemical weapons and place them under international control. France has already put such a resolution on the Security Council’s agenda; the test will be whether Russia vetoes it. It probably won’t.
There is a great deal of suspicion in Washington that this is merely a delaying tactic meant to stall an American attack and sap the already weak popular support in the United States for military action. Moreover, it will be hard to send international troops in to secure Syria’s chemical weapons (at least forty storage sites, plus some weapons in the hands of military units) unless there is a ceasefire in the civil war now raging all over the country.
But the American military will be pleased, because they were really unhappy about the job that Obama was giving them, and Obama himself looks like a man who has been granted a new lease of life. There will be time to try to make this work.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 11 and 12. (“Now…lines”; and “Two…won’t”)
4 September 2013
Putin’s Last Decade
By Gwynne Dyer
“Each time one of us thinks ‘I’ll just stand aside and things will happen without me and I’ll wait,’ then he is helping this disgusting feudal system that sits like a spider in the Kremlin,” said Alexei Navalny, often billed as Russia’s top opposition leader, as he sat in a courtroom in Kirov in July awaiting conviction on embezzlement charges. True enough, but Vladimir Putin is not losing any sleep over it.
The Russian president, currently hosting the G20 summit meeting in St Petersburg (5-6 September), has run the country as his private fiefdom for the past thirteen years. The media obey orders, political opponents are jailed on trumped-up corruption charges, and individuals who dig too deep into the murky history of Putin’s rapid rise to power (Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Yuri Shchekochikhin) die mysteriously of bullet wounds or poison.
Navalny, a 37-year-old Moscow lawyer, rose to fame as an anti-corruption campaigner during the 2011-12 protests against Putin because of his sharp, sardonic blog about Russian politics. He was then identified by the foreign media as the great new hope of the Russian opposition because he was hip, he was cool, he was everything that Russian leaders, whether in power or in opposition, have traditionally not been.
His new political prominence promptly attracted the usual state-sponsored charges of corruption, and on 18 July Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement (by a judge who has never issued a not guilty verdict) and sentenced to five years in prison.
Navalny took it with his customary cool. He tweeted to his 373,000 followers “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me. And most importantly, don’t be idle. Remember, the frog won’t hop off the oil pipes by itself.” (Never mind – it makes more sense in Russian.)
But then something odd happened. The state prosecutor asked that Navalny be left free pending his appeal, which could take months. Navalny is running for mayor of Moscow in the election on 8 September. If he were in jail pending his appeal – the normal situation in politically motivated trials –he would have to drop out. Why is the state suddenly being nice to him?
Because it wants him to run and lose – and it’s sure he will lose. The opinion polls give Navalny just over 10 percent of the vote, compared to more than 50 percent for the incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. Navalny’s presence on the ballot papers will lend some credibility to Sobyanin’s re-election, Navalny’s defeat will demonstrate how little popular support he actually has – and afterwards they’ll whisk him off to prison.
But why does Navalny have so little popular support? Why do Russians put up with being ruled by Putin, an autocrat who no longer steals public money himself, but whose colleagues and cronies all steal? (Putin made his secret pile back in the early 1990s, when he was a rising politician in the first post-Communist city government of St. Petersburg.)
Well, before Putin came to power in 2000 they put up with eight years of Boris Yeltsin, a boorish drunk who not only stole from the Russians (as did most of his political allies) but also embarrassed them. Before that there was a brief interlude of honesty and sanity under Mikhail Gorbachev – but he is blamed by most Russians for all the bad things that have happened since the fall of the Soviet Union.
And before that there was the Era of Stagnation, the last decades of Communist rule, when the state didn’t murder its own citizens so much any more, but everybody lived in relative poverty under a perpetual rain of brazen lies, and endured the constant insults and petty criminality of an arrogant Communist elite. Fifty years in which the politicians who ran Russia have almost all been brutal, contemptible, or both.
So the great mass of Russians have given up believing that any politician could be honest, or that anything could ever really change. Some urban sophisticates are drawn to Navalny’s post-modern style and his relentless critique of the Russian political system, but even in large parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and almost everywhere outside the big cities, that sort of thing has no pulling power at all.
That’s why there is an undercurrent of despair in Navalny’s tweets, with their constant exhortations to Russians not to just switch off and go back to sleep. Living standards have risen considerably on Putin’s watch, mainly due to high world prices for oil and gas, and lots of people just want to keep their heads down and get on with their lives. Besides, in the boonies most people assume that Navalny is just another crook, only slicker.
Putin’s macho style no longer wins him the old adulation either: a recent poll by the Levada Centre found that nearly half of all Russians want him to step down at the end of his current presidential term in 2018. But they’re not in any hurry about it, nor will they be unless global energy prices and Russian living standards start to fall. And Navalny won’t be out of jail in time to run in the 2018 election anyway.
__________________________________________________________To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Navalny…Russian”; and “That’s why…slicker”)
NOTE: If “boonies” (para. 12) doesn’t work in your jurisdiction, try “sticks”.
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”)