Daily Archives: May 30, 2008

March 30, 2008 — Contents

FRIDAY MAY 30 CONTENTS

(1) EDITORIAL: The Wages of Slaves

(2) “Hypermortality” in Putin’s Russia

(3) Russia Backs Down

(4) In Russia, Tsarist Fascism

(5) Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda

NOTE: Kim Zigfeld rips out the still-beating “heart” of a Russophile scumbag and stomps on it over at Instablogs.

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EDITORIAL: The Wages of Slaves

EDITORIAL

The Wages of Slaves

At the current dollar-ruble exchange rate of 23.5:1, 7,000 rubles amounts to $297.87.

That’s the average monthly wage of a petrochemical worker in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region, just west of the Urals on the border of Siberia. The major metropolis of Yekaterinburg is located there.

For four 40-hour work weeks, that translates into a shocking average hourly wage of only $1.86. So much for the notion of economic recovery in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These are the real wages earned by the vast majority of real Russians across the country, offset by a tiny clan of super rich who exploit the unwashed masses as has always been the case in Russia.

But little enough, you might think, so that managers at such a plant would consider their workforce cheap at twice the price, and be rolling in profits. Yet if that were so, why would workers at the Lobinsky plant have declared a hunger strike in protest of wages that are four months overdue?

It’s an important question, because that’s just what they’re doing. Other Russia reports:

18 employees of the factory have refused to eat since April 28th, in an attempt to convince management to dole out back pay to over 500 factory workers, according to the Agency of Political News. Of the 18 employees who started the hunger strike, six have been hospitalized, and four were forced to stop when the act exacerbated chronic illnesses they have. The plant’s management did not respond to the protest until the hunger strike was underway for 12 days. Workers received a “letter of guarantee” that they would be paid by June 10th. The striking employees, however, said they had never heard of the directors who signed the letter, and said the document held little authority. They then continued their protest. The Lobinsky protest is the third labor dispute in the the Sverdlovsk oblast in recent months, according to Itar-Tass (RUS). Thus, 107 miners working for Sevuralboksitrud (a part of the mammoth RUSAL aluminum company) went on strike from March 26th to April 4th, demanding a raise in wages. And from April 13th to 19th, 66 workers of the same mine announced a hunger strike with similar demands.

Speaking of hunger strikes, dissident opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky has just finished one. According to his Washington Post column last week, Kozlovsky sees the Kremlin has having imposed “the stability of the Gulag” on Russia. His blog carries a photograph of Kozlovsky just after his release, showing the effects of his self-imposed malnutrition.

So, despite the absurd propaganda being churned out by the Kremlin, Russia is rather far from being a resurgent dynamo on its way to paradise. To the contrary, Russians are starving themselves in the vain hope of clemency from the malignant trolls who prowl the Kremlin’s parapets, begging for legal and economic justice and laying their lives on the line to do it. Meanwhile, as has always been the case in Russia, a tiny clan of oligarchs hoards the nation’s wealth for their own obscene and secret purposes.

RIA Novosti recently reported that “the minimum wage in the capital is to come to 10, 900 rubles by the end of 2010. Currently the minimum wage in the city is 6,800 rubles. After September 1, it will be 7,500 rubles. Additionally, pensions in the capital are to exceed the cost of living by the end of 2009, Igor Antonov, the chairman of the budget and finance committee of Moscow State Duma, said.”

Moscow is the world’s most expensive city, and its minimum wage is a shocking $290 per month or $1.80 per hour. If Moscowites are lucky, by 2010 that my rise to $465 per month or $2.90 per hour — of course, with Russian prices rising at double-digit annual rates, that may well be worth much less then than $290 is worth today.

Russians are besieged from every side in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Below we report on a new term, “hypermortality,” being coined to describe Russia’s skyrocketing rate of population loss, something that is obviously connected to the ill-health that results from such an insanely low, slave-like wage scale.

And Russians have nobody to blame but themselves for this apocalypse. They themselves chose to be governed by a proud KGB spy, or did nothing to oppose his rise to power. Now, they will take the consequences.

"Hypermortality" in Putin’s Russia

United Press International reports on more proof of the brilliant success story that is Vladmir Putin’s Russia:

An alarming new word has been born. It is “hypermortality,” which might be defined as an extraordinary tendency toward death. It jumps from the first page of the U.N. Development Program report entitled “Demographic Policy in Russia.”

“The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations,” it says.

“Compared to the majority of countries that have similar levels of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women.”

What this means, the report says, is that the size of the working-age population “will fall by up to 1 million people annually already by 2020-25.”

The effect of this will be to raise the dependency load (the number of young and old people dependent on those of working age) to 670 to 750 per thousand by 2020 and to 900 to 1,000 per thousand by 2025.

“This will inevitably influence economic growth rates,” the report notes.

“At the moment, there are no grounds to believe that the crisis will be overcome and the size of the population will be stabilized,” it adds.

The report, while commissioned and published by the U.N. agency, was entirely prepared and written by Russian experts led by Professor Valery Yelizarov, head of Moscow State University’s Center for Population Studies. It was peer reviewed by Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

In precise and formal scientific language, the report suggests that Russia is suffering the kind of hypermortality that is normally only associated with the effects of a major war.

In wars, young men die. That is also happening in Russia. The report says: “Without factoring the impact of AIDS, the number of males age 15-24 could decline by nearly half over the next 20 years.”

But factor in the effect of AIDS and the picture is even more grim.

“Russia has experienced a dramatic spread of HIV in just over a decade. In 1997-2007, there was a 370-fold increase from less than 1,090 to 405,427 officially registered cases,” the report says. It adds that this represents the minimum of those in contact with the HIV reporting system.

Russia’s Federal AIDS Center estimates that up to 1.3 million Russians are living with HIV, and last year women of childbearing age accounted for 44 percent of known new infections.

What led to this dismal state of affairs? The report does not attribute blame, but it is specific about the timing of the demographic disaster that has overtaken Russia, associating it with the “reform period” that began in 1985 with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the tumultuous “reform period” that followed, which included the fall of the Soviet Union.

“In the nearly two decades of the reform period, a segment of the population living on the verge of poverty expanded and multiplied, exhibiting habits and factors contributing to risk: alcoholism, smoking, improper nutrition, avoidance of healthcare, and psychological stress,” it says, seeking to explain the “hypermortality” phenomenon.

This may be disputed. Western demographers like Murray Feshbach were writing of the demographic collapse in the mid-1980s and citing data from as early as the late 1960s. But there is no doubt that the disruptions of the Soviet Union’s death throes exacted a fearsome toll. Even now, when Russia is becoming rich with its oil and gas wealth, the death toll continues to be unnecessarily high.

Many lives could be saved, the report says, by “providing economic and geographic access to healthcare services, most of all in medical and social prevention and primary treatment. In 2005, by primary prevention means only, about 150,000 deaths could have been avoided (about 105,000 men and 45,000 women) in the age of up to 65 years.”

It is important to consider what this means for the future of the Russian economy. Ever since Goldman Sachs devised the concept of the BRIC nations, identifying Brazil, Russia, India and China as the key emerging markets, great hopes (and considerable investments) have been placed on them. But a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male workforce looks set to fall by half.

Moreover, a large proportion of the Russian workforce may be too drunk to function. Almost one male death in three is alcohol-related.

“The increase of alcohol consumption from 10 to 15 liters and an almost simultaneous increase in mortality suggests the central role played by alcohol to mortality, in average up to 426,000 per year in 1980-2001. Alcohol-related deaths total 29.6 percent of total mortality for men and 17.0 percent for women,” the report says.

Last year President Vladimir Putin launched a crash program to try to tackle Russia’s hypermortality by increasing maternity leave to 18 months and cash benefits for mothers that would go as high as $9,000 for a second child. But noting that there is a current shortage of around 1 million day-care facilities in Russia, the report hints that the Putin plan lacks credibility.

“Quantitative indicators that describe set ambitious goals and tasks make one doubt if they are correct, agreed and realistic,” the report concludes.

Russia backs down on Arctic Imperliasm

In yet another craven show of weakness, a pathetic back-down on the wild-eyed attempt to seize the Arctic. The Canadian Press reports that Russia has once again bitten off much more than it can chew:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has downplayed his country’s placing of the national flag under the ice at the North Pole, saying it was not meant to signal Russia’s claim to the Arctic.

A Russian scientific expedition deposited a rustproof titanium version of country’s flag on the seabed at the pole last year. The act heated up the controversy over an area that a U.S. study suggests may contain as much as 25 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.

“It should be seen basically the same way as the American flag was planted on the moon sometime ago,” Lavrov said Tuesday.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erected a U.S. flag when they became the first men to land on the moon.

Lavrov, who was headed to a meeting in Greenland to discuss sovereignty in the Arctic, said the flag at North Pole was not a political event.

“You shouldn’t be in this fascinating game of treating this particular, scientific, human achievement as anything else,” he told reporters.

Interest in the region is intensifying because global warming is shrinking the polar ice, and that could someday open up resource development and new shipping lanes.

“There is no claim for any territory. There couldn’t be because as I said there is a sea convention, there are mechanisms created to implement this conventions, including for the continental shelf,” Lavrov said.

Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Arctic nations have 10 years after ratification to prove their claims under the largely uncharted polar ice pack. All countries with claims to the Arctic have ratified the treaty, except the United States.

Canada has announced plans to build a new army training centre and a deep-water port in Arctic waters. Norway, the United States and Denmark also have claims in the vast region.

Denmark is gathering scientific evidence to show that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 2,000-kilometre underwater mountain range, is attached to Greenland, making it a geological extension of the sparsely populated giant island that is a semi-autonomous Danish territory.

A UN panel is supposed to decide the Arctic control by 2020.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is representing Canada at the meeting on the Arctic this week in Ilulissat, Greenland. Officials from Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States will also be there.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller will co-host the conference with Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen.

Moeller reiterated that the aim of the meeting was to reaffirm the nations’ commitments to international treaties governing the region.

In Russia, Tsarist Fascism

British TV host Jonathan Dimbelby, writing in the Daily Mail:

As ex-President Putin settles in to his new role as Prime Minister, he has every reason to congratulate himself.

After all, he has not only written the script for his constitutional coup d’etat, but staged the play and given himself the starring role as well.

Of course, he has given a walk-on role to Dmitry Medvedev, his personally anointed successor.

But the transfer of power from Putin to his Little Sir Echo, Medvedev, and the show of military strength with those soldiers and clapped-out missiles in Red Square on Victory Day which followed it last week, made it clear who is really in charge.

No decision of any significance for the Russian people or the rest of us will be made in the foreseeable future without the say – so of Medvedev’s unsmiling master.

Just before he stood down as President, Putin declared: “I have worked like a galley slave throughout these eight years, morning til night, and I have given all I could to this work. I am happy with the results.”

As he surveys the nation today he reminds me of that chilling poem by Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting, in which the dreaded bird sits at the top of a tall tree musing: “Now I hold all Creation in my foot – I kill as I please because it is all mine – I am going to keep things like this.”

In a way he is right to be so self-satisfied. He has told the Russian people that life is much better than it was before he took over – and, after a journey of some 10,000 miles across the largest country in the world for a new book and BBC TV series, I am in no doubt that the majority of his subjects believe him.

I travelled from cities to towns to villages by road, rail and boat and met a great diversity of people – from St Petersburg glitterati to impoverished potato-pickers, from a witch who charms the sprites of the forest to the mountain herdsmen who worship fire and water, from oilmen to woodcutters.

It was an exhilarating and revelatory experience in a land of extremes. But it was also deeply disturbing.

Despite the fact that Putin’s Russia is increasingly autocratic and irredeemably corrupt, the man himself – their born-again Tsar – is overwhelmingly regarded as the answer to the nation’s prayers.

Russia has a bloody and tormented history. Its centuries of suffering – its brutalities, its wars and revolutions, culminating in the collapse of communism and the anarchic buffoonery of the Yeltsin years – have taken a terrible psychological toll.

Cynicism and fatalism which eat away at the human psyche have wormed their way into the very DNA of the Russian soul.

In a nation that has not tasted and – with very few exceptions – does not expect or demand justice or freedom, all that matters is stability and security.

And, to a degree, Putin has delivered these twin blessings. But the price has been exorbitant and the Russians have been criminally short-changed.

Putin boasts that since he came into office investment in the Russian economy has increased sevenfold (reaching $82.3 billion in 2007) and that the country’s GDP has risen by more than 70 per cent.

Over the same period, average real incomes have more than doubled. But they started from a very low base and they could have done far better.

Nor is this growth thanks either to the Kremlin’s leadership or a surge of entrepreneurial energy.

On the contrary, it is almost solely down to Russia’s vast reserves of oil and gas.

When Putin came to power, the world price of crude oil was $16 dollars a barrel; it has now soared to more than $120 dollars – and no one knows where or when this bonanza will end.

But this massive flow of funds into the nation’s coffers has not been used “to share the proceeds of growth” with the people; to reduce the obscene gulf in income between the rich and poor.

It has not helped to resurrect a health service which is on its knees (and is ranked by the World Health Organisation as 130th out of the 190 countries of the UN), or to rebuild an education system which is so under-funded that the poor have to pay to get their children into a half-decent school or college.

It has not brought gas and running water to the villages where the peasants have been devastated by the collapse of the collectives, or even developed the infrastructure that a 21st century economy needs to compete with the rest of the world.

Russia may be a member of the G8 whose GDP (because of oil) should soon overtake the United Kingdom, but, in many ways, it is more like a Third World country.

Stricken with an epidemic of AIDS and alcoholism which both contribute to a male life expectancy of 58 years, the population is projected to shrink from 145 million to 120 million within a few decades.

So where has all the oil wealth gone? According to an Independent Experts Report, written by two former high-level Kremlin insiders who have had the courage to speak out, “a criminal system of government [has] taken shape under Putin” in which the Kremlin has been selling state assets cheaply to Putin’s cronies and buying others assets back from them at an exorbitant price.

Among such dubious transactions the authors cite the purchase by the state-owned Gasprom (run until a few months ago by Dmitry Medvedev) of a 75 per cent share in an oil company called Sifnet (owned by Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who owns Chelsea Football Club).

In 1995 Abramovich, one of Putin’s closest allies, paid a mere $100 million for Sifnet; ten years later, the government shelled out $13.7 billion for it – an astronomical sum and far above the going market rate.

Even more explosively, the authors claim the Kremlin has created a “friends-of-Putin” oil export monopoly, not to mention a secret “slush fund” to reward the faithful.

According to an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre, which promotes greater collaboration between the U.S. and Russia, the report is “a bomb which, anywhere but in Russia, would cause the country to collapse”.

In Britain such revelations would certainly have provoked mass outrage, urgent official inquiries and a major police investigation – if not the downfall of the government.

But because of Putin’s totalitarian grasp on power (he has not only appointed his own Cabinet, which used to be the prerogative of the President, but will remain in charge of the nation’s economy), there will be no inquiry.

You can forget any talk from the new President about “stamping out” corruption. This social and economic disease is insidious and rampant.

According to Transparency International – a global society which campaigns against corruption – Russia has become a world leader in the corruption stakes. Foreign analysts estimate that no less than $30 billion a year is spent to grease official palms to oil the wheels of trade and commerce.

But when you raise the subject, Russians shrug their shoulders: “What’s the problem?” they retort.

“That’s how the system works. It will never change.”

And that is because everyone is at it. From corporations (including foreign investors who claim to have clean hands but cover their tracks by establishing local “shell” companies to pay the bribes) to the humblest individuals who buy their way out of a driving ban.

In a country where the “separation of powers” has become a bad joke, the law courts are no less corrupt.

Except perhaps for minor misdemeanours at local level, the judiciary is in thrall to the Kremlin and its satraps.

The threat of prosecution for tax fraud is the Kremlin’s weapon of choice against anyone who dares to challenge its hegemony.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, used his oil wealth to promote human rights and democracy, Putin detected a threat to his throne.

The oligarch was duly arrested and convicted of fraud. He now languishes in a Siberian jail where he is in the third year of an eight-year prison sentence.

None of this is a matter of public debate in Russia where the media has been muzzled by the Kremlin, their freedom of expression stifled by the government.

Almost every national radio and television station is now controlled directly or indirectly by the state, and the same applies to every newspaper of any influence.

In the heady days immediately before and after the collapse of the Soviet empire, editors and reporters competed to challenge the mighty and to uncover scandal and corruption.

Now they cower from the wrath of the state and its agents in the police and the security services.

That diminishing number who have the courage to investigate or speak out against the abuses perpetrated by the rich and powerful very soon find themselves out of a job – or, in an alarming number of cases, on the receiving end of a deadly bullet.

Some 20 Russian journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances since Putin came to office. No one has yet been convicted for any of these crimes.

Putin calls the system over which he presides “sovereign democracy”. I think a better term is “cryptofascism” – though even the Kremlin’s few critics in Russia recoil when I suggest this.

After all, their parents and grandparents helped save the world from Hitler – at a cost of 25 million Soviet lives. Nonetheless, the evidence is compelling.

The structure of the state – the alliance between the Kremlin, the oligarchs, and the security services – is awesomely powerful.

No less worryingly is popular distaste – often contempt – for democracy and indifference to human rights.

In the absence of any experience of accountability or transparency – the basic ingredients of an open society – even the most thoughtful Russians are prone to say: “Russia needs a strong man at the centre. Putin has made Russia great again. Now the world has to listen.”

The new Prime Minister has brilliantly exploited the patriotism and latent xenophobia of the Russia people to unify them in the belief that they face a major threat from NATO and the United States.

This combination of national pride and insecurity has been fuelled by the America with its proposed deployment of missiles only a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border, allegedly to counter a nuclear threat from Iran.

No serious defence analyst believes this makes any strategic sense, while even impeccably pro-Western Russians recoil from this crass assertion of super-power hegemony by President Bush.

Similarly most Russians feel threatened – and humiliated – by the prospect that Ukraine and Georgia, once the most intimate allies of the Soviet Union, may soon be enfolded in the arms of NATO.

Georgia, which is struggling to contain a separatist movement that is openly supported by the Kremlin, has the potential to become a dangerous flashpoint in which the Western allies could only too easily become ensnared.

Does this mean – as some have argued – that we are about to face a new Cold War? I don’t think so for a moment.

With communism consigned to “the dustbin of history”, there is no ideological conflict of any significance. And there is now only one military superpower.

In comparison with America, Russia’s armed forces are a joke. Only catastrophic stupidity on either side could lead to a nuclear confrontation.

But this does not mean that we can all breathe a sigh of relief and forget about the Bear.

An autocratic and resurgent Russia that feels bruised and threatened is an unstable beast.

The Kremlin’s growing rapprochement with Beijing (the adversaries of a generation ago are now not only major trading partners, but conduct joint military exercises) shifts the balance of power in the world.

And as life on earth becomes less and less secure, with evermore people competing for a dwindling supply of vital resources, Russia, as an energy giant, is once again a big player on the world stage.

Make no mistake, we are in for a very bumpy ride

Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda: Here come the infiltrators

Radio Free Europe reports:

The first Russian think tank based in the United States has yet to officially open its doors. But it’s already generating a lot of controversy.

Critics say the Russian Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (RIDC) is little more than a new propaganda tool for the Kremlin as it sharpens its attacks on the West. But the head of the institute’s New York branch says he and his colleagues intend to study U.S. democracy — not criticize it.

Andranik Migranyan bristles at the suggestion that the new think tank is seen as Kremlin tool meant to respond in kind to the harsh critiques often heard from Western NGOs like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.

The political scientist says scrutinizing U.S. conduct at Guantanamo Bay or the Bush administration’s public-surveillance program are not on RIDC’s agenda. Instead, the organization’s main goal is to study the United States for potential solutions to common problems back in Russia.

“We have very serious problems today concerning these problems of immigration, integration, and adaptation,” Migranyan said at a recent press conference in Washington. “Russia is becoming more multinational, multiethnic, multireligious, and we have serious problems in this area. This country [the United States] has a long-lasting history on all these issues. And we would like to know how these problems are discussed here, how they are solved here — as well as institutional problems, and problems [with values]. What do those things mean?”

There’s no disputing that during most of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eight-year rule, which ended earlier this month, U.S. rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House — not to mention the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report — have frequently criticized the Russian government for a variety of sins against democracy.

Such groups have noted a steep decline in Russia’s civil liberties under Putin, pointing to the forced closure of independent media outlets, the jailing of political opposition figures, and tight state control of campaigns and elections.

Russia often seeks to discredit the findings of such Western rights groups. But with the formation of RIDC and other initiatives like Russia Today, a government-funded English-language news channel begun in 2005, the Kremlin appears to be moving from a defensive posture to an offensive one.

Yet Migranyan said the idea for the institute was not a tit-for-tat response to Western criticism, describing it instead as the brainchild of a number of Russian political thinkers who are interested in the concept of democracy and in making sure Russia’s own thoughts on the subject are heard.

“In Russia, from [former] President Putin to President [Dmitry] Medvedev to the rest of academics to the mainstream, or at least majority, they accept the idea of liberal democracy,” he said. “They value institutions and values, they understand that this gives efficiency to the economy, efficiency to political system[s]. But at the same time, the idea of sovereign democracy means that you can’t just impose it.”

Questions Remain

Migranyan, who has held several advisory posts with the State Duma and Federation Council, describes himself as an avid student — if not a fan — of American political affairs. Unabashedly in the Kremlin’s camp, he is quick to criticize opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov and Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov.

The launch of RIDC was announced with fanfare at the start of 2008. Its operations, however, remain somewhat vague. The institute has yet to create a website, for example, and a Paris branch, reportedly already open, has shown little sign of life. Migranyan says he has already signed leases on office space for the New York office and is waiting for a U.S. bank to approve the institute’s status as a nonprofit charity.

While he waits, he says he’s holding meetings with potential U.S. partners — think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Institute; Russian studies centers like the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard; and academic institutions like the University of California at Berkeley.

Questions remain about RIDC’s funding. Many observers have alleged that the group receives handsome support from the Kremlin. But Migranyan says that while the Kremlin approved the group’s creation, financial support comes from “different business structures and donors who are interested in America” — and not the government.

Still, a fellow speaker at Migranyan’s press conference — while not acknowledging Kremlin funding — saw nothing wrong with accepting government support. Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow, lashed out a questioner from the National Endowment for Democracy for what he characterized as a double standard on the question of government funds.

“The last time I [checked] the National Endowment for Democracy was funded by the U.S. government,” Lozansky said. “I don’t know, probably you get some private funds, too, but most of the money comes from the government. The same with the National Democratic Institute, the same with National Republican Institute.”

Lozansky, who was stripped of his academic position in the 1970s for publicly criticizing Soviet policy, appeared convinced his country was on the right track — and that naysayers should find another country to inspect.

“It may take Russia 50 or 100 years to achieve total democracy, but it will get there,” he said. “Let them do their own thing.”