Daily Archives: April 30, 2008

EDITORIAL: Authentic Russian Gibberish

EDITORIAL

Authentic Russian Gibberish

There is a scene in the Mel Brooks cowboy movie Blazing Saddles where an elder rises at a town meeting to thank a citizen for delivering a motivational speech in “authentic frontier gibberish.” But the babbling cowboys had nothing on the modern Russian Kremlin.

In a shocking recent report, RosBusinessConsulting stated:

Russia could face a staff deficit of between 8m and 22m people, according to various estimates, Deputy Health Minister Alexander Safonov told a round table on Russia’s employment problems. He stressed that even now, the shortage was considerable, and was not only of a quantitative, but also a qualitative nature. The primary and manufacturing sectors are seeing a steep decline in staffing, while the accident rate continues to soar. According to Health Ministry data, the share of work places that does not meet the relevant standards has reached 25 percent, up from a maximum of 12 percent several years ago. Safonov also noted growing foreign work force problems in Russia, as the number of international workers in Russia stood at between 4m and 12m people, according to different sources. While the quota for issuing work permits stood at 3m people in 2007, only 2m were actually granted.

Russia is facing a massive demographic crisis, suffering a net loss of up to 1 million people from the population each year due to a pandemic health crisis even though it is experiencing record waves of immigration as unwanted Russians return home from the far-flung reaches of the former USSR. Russia doesn’t rank in the top 100 nations of the world when evaluated for average male adult lifespan.

So it’s hardly surprising to learn that Russia will soon experience a blood-curdling dropoff in the size of its workforce, as it becomes a nation of the old and the sick. What’s startling in this report is not that obvious reality, but rather the fact that the Kremlin has no idea what the actual contours of the problem are — or, worse, it simply won’t say.

A deficit of “between 8m and 22m” workers?

“Between 4m and 12m” foreign workers arriving?

“According to various estimates” and “different sources”?

It’s doubtful that Federico Fellini could concoct a more insanely disjointed attempt to document the problem. Do you dare then, dear reader, try to imagine the quality of the Kremlin’s actual policy response to the problem, if this is their attempt to describe it?

In it word, that policy response is non-existent. The Kremlin is wholly preoccupied with a massive militarization campaign, just as was the case in Soviet times, utterly at the expense of Russia’s social and economic fabric. It’s spending money on buzzing American cities with nuclear bombers rather than on building the Russian population.

And, as we’ve said before, we doubt that the Kremlin even wants the people of Russia to be happy, healthy or prosperous. Such people are much harder to govern and control than those who are depressed, sick and poor — and ease of control has dominate Russian political thought since the times of the tsars. To be sure, one would think that sooner or later Russians would realize the damage this kind of thinking does to the foundations of the country, having already seen not one but two fundamental collapses of their national government in less than a century.

Each time, of course, the collapsed regimes held themselves up to the nation as indestructible — the words of the anthem of the USSR on that score are enough to induce convulsive fits of laughter. And now, history repeating itself like a pulverizing wheel, Putin’s Kremlin says the same, and the hapless citizens of Russia once again go right along.

It would be funny, if it were not so very tragic.

Censoring Nemstov, Destroying the Nation

Richard Lourie, writing in the Moscow Times:

In February, Boris Nemtsov published a white paper on the Vladimir Putin years that he considered so inflammatory that he suspended his membership in Union of Right Forces, the party he co-founded, to spare it the Kremlin’s ire. Nemtsov, the former boy-wonder governor of Nizhny Novgorod and first deputy prime minister in 1997 and 1998, wrote the 75-page essay with Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, in 2002.

All Russian bookstores have reportedly refused to carry the book, whose title has been variously translated as “Putin: The Results” and “Putin: The Bottom Line.” It is available in Russian and English on the blog of La Russophobe.

After a one-paragraph review of Russia’s success — “true but only the lesser part of the truth” — the authors launch into an unremitting assault on the crimes, follies and failures of the Putin administration. The central failure was not using the oil windfall to modernize the country’s economy, army, health care, education and infrastructure.

Authoritarianism only brought corruption on a colossal scale — $300 billion a year. Transparency International ranks Russia 143rd on its Corruption Perceptions Index, along with Gambia and Togo. The authors’ analysis of the larceny under Putin is sharp, detailed and convincing. They do not hesitate to call his a “criminal system of government.”

Meanwhile Russia is dying out. Men can expect to live less than 59 years (“I’m officially dead,” a Russian friend said to me on turning 60). The annual numbers are bad — car accidents (33,000), murder (30,000) and suicide (57,000). Drinking, smoking, poor diet and the lamentable health care system polish off even more.

The justice system obeys the Kremlin, causing “the collapse of the idea of the supremacy of the law” (never very widespread in Russia if the truth be told). The Constitution has been “trampled into the dust.” The infrastructure is in dire straights, endangering economic progress (Finland has more paved road).

The report’s own weakness lies in its off-putting tone and its too-general suggestions. The tone is too dark, every problem is a crisis. Understatement was always alien to the intelligentsia.

The report offers very little in the way of practical suggestions. Something more than exhortations can reasonably be expected from men with their political experience. How to build a decent “successful, European” Russia is, they say, “perfectly clear. First and foremost, the police state has to be dismantled and human dignity returned to the people.” You could hardly think of a more unobjectionable statement, except perhaps to the people running the police state in question.

They authors do, however, at times propose useful solutions to pressing problems. For example, they point out that it makes more sense to encourage middle-class people to have more children by writing down mortgage debt at government expense than to encourage the “lumpen proletariats” to reproduce by offering cash awards to “hero mothers” who produce large numbers of offspring.

The authors’ list of Russia’s problems contains no great surprises. And just as we can guess pretty much in advance what a New York liberal will think of U.S. President George W. Bush, we can do the same for what a Moscow liberal will think of Putin. But there is one subject where the authors came up with some surprising, even shocking conclusions — the fear of China. They accuse Putin of conducting “capitulatory” policies — arming the enemy and making “major territorial concessions.” In time, China will demand much more, claiming that tsarist treaties were unequal and unjust.

“China represents a real threat to our country,” they say, calling Putin a “Chinese agent of influence.” I have heard similar sentiments from highly placed political figures with whom Nemtsov and Milov would otherwise have nothing in common. Perhaps in the absence of ideology all that can unite Russia now is love of money and fear of China.

Mailbag: Russia and 9/11

Letters, we get letters, we get lots of cards and letters every day

Dear La Russophobe:

First of all, I really enjoy your blog. I’ve become very interested in Russia lately, but I don’t speak Russian (yet!) so I can only really scratch the surface when it comes to deciphering the place.

But – I was kind of shocked when I read an entry about Russia and its connection to 9/11 that you posted on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Not because I’m some idealistic American patriot offended that you’d blame anyone by the dirty A-rabs for 9/11, but because you’re missing the most obvious link: One of Litvinenko’s allegations about the FSB was that Ayman al-Zawahiri was an “old agent of the FSB.” An old FSB agent corroborated Litvinenko’s story, saying that Litivnenko himself was responsible for facilitating al-Zawahiri’s entrance into Russia (1). Litvinenko alleged that al-Zawahiri was being trained by the FSB when he was supposedly in their custody as a suspect rather than agent-in-training, only a few months before al-Zawahiri and bin Laden issued the fatwa that declared that it was okay to kill civilians in the name of jihad (2). It was the intellectual precursor to 9/11. Jamestown Scholar Evgenii Novikov points out the obvious holes in the accounts given by both al-Zawahiri and the FSB that despite being in possession of a well-known terrorist leader with phony credentials and encrypted Arabic data on his computer who was caught trying to illegally sneak into Russia, the FSB simply couldn’t figure out eh was, and so they had no other choice but to let him go (3). Wright, in his book The Looming Tower, says that al-Zawahiri was likely the author of that fatwa. Bin Laden’s favorite biographer, Hamid Mir, even declared once that in meeting bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (which he did more than any other journalist), he believed that al-Zawahiri was in control and “He is the person who can do the things that happened on Sept. 11” (4). Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were the perfect vehicle for Russian proxy terrorism: bin Laden earned his terrorist creds while fighting the Soviet Union and was once backed by the US. Surely the Americans would never dig deeper than simply “the terrorists,” because of the Americans’ misdeeds are also rather prominent. It also explains al-Zawahiri’s low profile, despite all indications pointing to him being the key player in al-Qaeda: bin Laden needed to remain the figurehead, as he had a reputation for being against the Soviet Union. However, al-Zawahiri had no such past. Not to mention that Litvinenko pointed him out as an agent, so he couldn’t play too prominent a role lest people start digging into his background.

The motive for the attacks is the motive of all Russian-sponsored terrorism: wars in the Middle East and higher oil and natural gas prices. Russia has been quite openly abetting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not because it honestly thinks that it needs any more protection of its empire, but because a US invasion of Iran would further destabilize the region and drive energy prices up further. Not to mention that terrorism is what brought Putin to power – he was unknown before the Second Chechen War, which you as the Russophobe know was likely provoked by a series of black-flag terrorist operations. Putin was the first leader to call Bush to offer his condolences after September 11th, and the Russians never miss an opportunity to cite common cause with the US – “We’re both the victims of terrorism!”

Very truly yours,

Stephen Smith


That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.