6 January 2013
The Russian Solution
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s as if Paul Newman and Jane Fonda had fled the US in protest at something or other – they were always protesting – and sought Russian citizenship instead. Americans would be surprised, but would they really care? It’s a free country, as they say.
Whereas the French are quite cross about the decision of Oscar-winning actor Gerard Depardieu, who received Russian citizenship at the hands of President Vladimir Putin personally last Saturday. A taxi driver in Paris went on at me about it for the whole ride yesterday. (Talking to taxi drivers is how we journalists keep our fingers on the pulse of the nation.)
After 42 years of starring in French films, Depardieu had acquired the status of “national treasure” in the eyes of the public, but he clearly does not reciprocate their loyalty and pride. And hard on the heels of Depardieu’s defection comes the news that actress Brigitte Bardot, France’s leading sex symbol for the generation who are now drawing their pensions, is also threatening to give up her French citizenship and go Russian.
Depardieu, who was described by director Marguerite Duras as “a big, beautiful runaway truck of a man,” is much larger than life – about the size of a baby whale, in fact. He is over the top in every sense: 180 films and TV credits, 17 motorbike accidents, five or six bottles of wine a day by his own reckoning.
He reckons he has paid 145 million euros ($190 million) in taxes since he started work at fourteen, and he doesn’t want to pay any more. France’s Socialist government is bringing in a new 75 percent tax rate for people earning more than one million euros ($1.3 million) per year, and so Depardieu is leaving.
Initially he was just moving to Belgium, to a village 800 metres from the French border that already hosts a number of other super-rich tax exiles, but then French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that his decision was “shabby and unpatriotic.” At this point, the truck ran away again. Belgium was no longer far enough.
When the outraged actor declared that he would ask for Russian citizenship, Putin (who knows how to play to the gallery) announced that he could have it at once. By the weekend it was a done deal. “I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history, your writers,” the actor burbled. “…Russia is a country of great democracy.”
It is also a country with a 13 percent flat tax rate, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin crowed on Twitter: “In the West, they are not well acquainted with our tax system. When they find out, we can expect a mass migration of rich Europeans into Russia.” He had barely finished tweeting when another French celebrity said she was also thinking of moving to Russia.
It wasn’t high taxes that obsessed Brigitte Bardot, however; it was animal rights. She was protesting a court order Friday in Lyon ordering that two circus elephants that have been suffering from tuberculosis since 2010 be put down. “If those in power are cowardly and impudent enough to kill the elephants,” she raged, “then I will ask for Russian nationality to get out of this country which has become nothing more than an animal cemetery.”
It’s always wise, when threatening to flounce out, to make sure first that they really want you to stay, and in BB’s case that may not actually be the case. She is better known to the present generation not as a sex symbol but as a crazy old lady who believes Muslims are “destroying our country” and has been convicted five times for incitement to racial hatred. Some people (including my cab driver) think the Russians would be welcome to her.
But elephants aside, going Russian opens up a huge new opportunity for avoiding burdensome taxation. All those American millionaires who have been condemned by recent events to live under the rule of that foreign-born Muslim Communist, Barack Obama, and pay an appalling 39.6 percent tax on the portion of their annual earnings that exceeds $400,000, have an alternative at last.
They can do exactly what they have been telling anybody who complains about the gulf between the rich and the poor in America to do for decades: they can go to Russia. The only problem is that they will actually have to live there for six months of the year to qualify for the 13 percent Russian tax rate.
Well, actually, there is another problem. Some Russians may not welcome them with open arms. Even the arrival of Depardieu, who is world-famous in Russia as a result of acting in several high-profile Franco-Russian co-productions and appearing in television ads for credit cards from the Sovietski Bank, is being greeted with mixed feelings.
Fellow celebrity Tina Kandelaki, the celebrated host of the celebrity talk show “Details” for the past eleven years, has no reservations about him at all: he can stay in her apartment. “Let’s not divide up Depardieu,” she tweeted. “Simply give him to me.” But a less starry-eyed observer replied: “Haven’t we got enough alcoholics?”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Initially…enough”; and “It’s always…her”)
3 September 2012
Arctic Sea Ice and Climate: the “Unknown Unknown”
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s no surprise that we will have a record minimum of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean at the end of this summer melt season. It’s already down to around 4 million square kilometres, with a least another week of melting to go, but this is what you might call a “known unknown.” Scientists knew we were losing the ice-cover fast; they just didn’t know how fast.
I’m no fan of Don Rumsfeld, who helped to lead the United States into the disastrous invasion of Iraq when he was George W. Bush’s defence secretary, but I never had a problem with the distinction he made between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” when discussing the intelligence data. He was brutally mocked in the media for using such jargon, but there really is a difference.
A “known unknown,” in the case of the Arctic Ocean, is how long it will be before the entire sea is ice-free at the end of each summer. The last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, talked about that happening some time in the second half of this century, but it couldn’t be more specific.
The IPCC usually underestimates the rate of climatic change, but even the pessimists didn’t think we’d get there before the 2030s. I did encounter one maverick at the National Ice and Snow Data Centre who thought it might happen in this decade, but nobody actually knew. A “known unknown,” in other words.
There were also some assumptions about what would happen next in the Arctic. At first the ice would return each winter, although it would be thinner and less extensive than before, but as time passed the ice-free period would get longer.
A frozen ocean reflects sunlight back into space, but open water absorbs it and turns it into heat, so the ocean itself would now be getting warmer. The warmer water would inhibit the growth of ice even in winter, and eventually the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free all year round – but nobody knew when this would happen.
As for the impact that an ice-free Arctic Ocean might have on climates elsewhere, it would obviously accelerate the global warming trend, but beyond that there wasn’t much to go on. This was the territory of the “unknown unknowns”: big things might happen to the complex atmospheric system of the planet when a major chunk of it suddenly changes, but nobody knew what.
Now we begin to see the consequences. The polar jet stream, an air current that circles the globe in the higher northern latitudes and separates cold, wet weather to the north from warmer, drier weather to the south, is changing its behaviour.
In a paper in Geophysical Letters last March entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered a hypothesis that may explain why world grain prices have risen 30 percent in the past four months (and are still going up).
First, a warmer Arctic reduces the temperature gradient between the temperate and polar zones. That, in turn, slows the wind speeds in the zone between the two and increases the “wave amplitude” of the jet stream. The jet stream flows around the planet in great swooping curves, like a river crossing a flat plain, and those curves – Rossby waves, in scientific language – are getting bigger and slower.
The bigger amplitude means the Rossby waves reach farther down into the temperate zone than they used to, and the slower winds means that the waves take more time to track across any given territory. The weather north of the jet stream is wet and cold (even warmer Arctic air is still pretty cold), and to the south it is dry and warm – and now many temperate regions of the planet are stuck in one kind of weather or the other for much longer periods.
This is a recipe for extreme weather. In the old days the Rossby waves went past fast, bringing the alternation of rainy and sunny weather that characterised the mid-latitude climate. Now they hang around much longer and generate more extreme weather events: droughts and heat-waves, or prolonged rain and flooding, or blizzards and long, hard freezes.
The temperate zone has been seeing a lot of that sort of thing in the past couple of years – much more than usual. It’s cutting deeply into food production in the major breadbaskets of the planet, like the US Midwest and southern Russia, which is why food prices are going up so fast. And this was an “unknown unknown”: nobody saw it coming.
All the scenarios that the military of various countries were working with assumed that climate change would hit food production very hard in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world, and that is still true. But the scenarios also assumed that the temperate regions of the planet would still be able to feed themselves well (and even have a surplus left over to export) for many decades to come.
If Francis and Vavrus are right, that may not be the case. It’s a most unwelcome surprise – and it may be the first of many.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“There were…happen”; and “The bigger…periods”)
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”)
1 August 2012
Race for the Arctic
By Gwynne Dyer
Russian television contacted me last night asking me to go on a programme about the race for Arctic resources. The ice is melting fast, and it was all the usual stuff about how there will be big strategic conflicts over the seabed resources – especially oil and gas – that become accessible when it’s gone.
The media always love conflict, and now that the Cold War is long gone, there’s no other potential military confrontation between the great powers to worry about. Governments around the Arctic Ocean are beefing up their armed forces for the coming struggle, so where are the flash-points and what are the strategies? It’s great fun to speculate about possible wars.
In the end I didn’t do the interview because the Skype didn’t work, so I didn’t get the chance to rain on their parade. But here’s what I would have said to the Russians if my server hadn’t gone down at the wrong time.
First, you should never ask the barber if you need a haircut. The armed forces in every country are always looking for reasons to worry about impending conflict, because that’s the only reason that their governments will spend money on them. Sometimes they will be right to worry, and sometimes they will be wrong, but right or wrong, they will predict conflict. Like the barbers, it’s in their professional interest to say you need their services.
So you’d be better off to ask somebody who doesn’t have a stake in the game. As I don’t own a single warship, I’m practically ideal for the job. And I don’t think there will be any significant role for the armed forces in the Arctic, although there is certainly going to be a huge investment in exploiting the region’s resources.
There are three separate “resources” in the Arctic. On the surface, there are the sea lanes that are opening up to commercial traffic along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Under the seabed, there are potential oil and gas deposits that can be drilled once the ice retreats. And in the water in between, there is the planet’s last unfished ocean.
The sea lanes are mainly a Canadian obsession, because the government believes that the North-West Passage that weaves between Canada’s Arctic islands will become a major commercial artery when the ice is gone. Practically every summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels north to declare his determination to defend Canada’s Arctic sovereignty from – well, it’s not clear from exactly whom, but it’s a great photo op.
Canada is getting new Arctic patrol vessels and building a deep-water naval port and Arctic warfare training centre in the region, but it’s all much ado about nothing. The Arctic Ocean will increasingly be used as a shortcut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, but the shipping will not go through Canadian waters. Russia’s “Northern Sea Route” will get the traffic, because it’s already open and much safer to navigate.
Then there’s the hydrocarbon deposits under the Arctic seabed, which the US Geological Survey has forecast may contain almost one-fourth of the world’s remaining oil and gas resources. But from a military point of view, there’s only a problem if there is some disagreement about the seabed boundaries.
There are only four areas where the boundaries are disputed. Two are between Canada and its eastern and western neighbours in Alaska and Greenland, but there is zero likelihood of a war between Canada and the United States or Denmark (which is responsible for Greenland’s defence).
In the Bering Strait, there is a treaty defining the seabed boundary between the United States and Russia, signed in the dying days of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Duma has refused to ratify it. However, the legal uncertainty caused by the dispute is likelier to deter future investment in drilling there than to lead to war.
And then there was the seabed boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, which led Norway to double the size of its navy over the past decade. But last year the two countries signed an agreement dividing the disputed area right down the middle and providing for joint exploitation of its resources. So no war between NATO (of which Norway is a member) and the Russian Federation.
Which leaves the fish, and it’s hard to have a war over fish. The danger is rather that the world’s fishing fleets will crowd in and clean the fish out, as they are currently doing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
If the countries with Arctic coastlines want to preserve this resource, they can only do so by creating an international body to regulate the fishing. And they will have to let other countries fish there too, with agreed catch limits, since it is mostly international waters. They will be driven to cooperate, in their own interests.
So no war over the Arctic. All we have to worry about now is the fact that the ice IS melting, which will speed global warming (because open water absorbs far more heat from the Sun than highly reflective ice), and ultimately melt the Greenland icecap and raise sea levels worldwide by seven metres (23 ft). But that’s a problem for another day.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“First…resources”)