Daily Archives: July 23, 2008

July 23, 2008 — Contents

TUESDAY JULY 23 CONTENTS


(1) EDITORIAL: Russian Poverty Chickens, Roosting

(2) Standing up to the Russian Bully

(3) Rumbling Stomachs in the Russian Countryside

(4) Annals of Russian Cyber Terrorism

(5) The Missiles of October 2008

NOTE: Serbia has arrested accused mass murderer Radovan Karadzic. The New York Times reports: “The arrest was hailed by western diplomats as proof of Serbia’s determination to link itself to the west and put the virulent nationalism of the past behind it. It has particular resonance because the new coalition government is the result of an alliance between the Democrats of President Boris Tadic and the Socialist Party of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, which fought a war against the west in the 1990s, but has now vowed to bring Serbia back into the western fold.” Yet another devastating blow for Putin’s Russia! Welcome Serbia, the community of civilized nations. You leave Russia behind in the wilds of barbarism. Let’s not forget, by any means, that Russia has been aggressively providing aid and comfort to these maniacs for years now, flouting the civilized world at ever turn as usual.

EDITORIAL: Russian Poverty Chickens, Roosting

EDITORIAL

Russian Poverty Chickens, Roosting

The Financial Times reports that the average Russian teacher earns a salary of about $300 per month. That works out to a truly startling $1.88 per hour for a full-time job.

And that’s only the beginning of a teacher’s troubles. Because, as we reported last week, consumer price inflation on the basic basket of goods and services that can be purchased by people earning such pathetically low incomes is currently running at 25%. This means that by year’s end, if the teacher salary isn’t raised, its actual value will have dropped to a measly $225 per month or $1.40 per hour.

The FT quotes Lyudmila Erasova, a university teacher in Voronezh, 500 km south of Moscow: “In Soviet times, we had money but nothing to buy. Now, we have everything, the shops are starting to look good, but no money.”

As we report below in an article from the Eurasia Daily Monitor’s excellent Russia analyst Jonas Bernstein, these basic facts are rippling throughout Russia and creating a groundswell of discontentment that is little different from what was experienced in Tsarist times and which led to the Bolshevik revolution. In other words, Russia’s poverty chickens are coming home to roost.

Now, you tell La Russophobe. If you were a Russian, would you go into the teaching profession? If you wouldn’t, just exactly what kind of people do you think would do so, and how well would they perform their task?

Now you tell La Russophobe: What has Vladimir Putin done during his eight-year dictatorship, where he wielded total power over every aspect of Russian life, to address this situation? What has he even said about it? Can you, dear reader, name one single major speech in which Putin had decried the living conditions of Russian teachers and called for a major raise in their salaries? All Russian teachers, except the tiny minority who work in private schools, are direct employees of the Kremlin, and Putin could raise their salaries with the stroke of his pen. He hasn’t, the continued to languish in horrifying poverty, and yet the cattle known as Russian “voters” continue to favor Putin with 70% approval ratings, even as he obliterates their children’s future.

In Putin’s defense, of course, one must acknowledge that the lack of any serious effort at a solution doesn’t necessarily indicate he is incompetent. He likely knows the problem exists, but doesn’t want to fix it anymore than his Soviet ancestors did. To give Russia a real education system would (a) empower a class of academics who could become regime critics and (b) empower a population to vote using critical thinking and demand a free flow of information. It’s so much easier to govern a nation of cattle, and if they are drunken cattle afflicted by drunkenness, smoking and AIDS, so much the better. All that produced a nation of sheep easily led around by a few tough dogs from the KGB.

Recently the investment blog Motley Fool wrote an extensive post extolling the profits being made by Russian steelmaker Mechel over the past year owing to the rising international price of steel. Mechel, of course, can rake in these profits because of the extraordinarily low costs of doing business in a country like Russia where such low wages are paid and individual workers have so few legal rights. But despite all the black ink, the post concluded: “I would advise Fools to think carefully before investing in Mechel, since Russia boldly restricted foreign ownership of certain key industries last week. “

That’s Russia in a nutshell! It can’t even take advantage of the few areas of its economy where it has a competitiveness advantage because of its frenzied, paranoid xenophobia. And yet, it still expects foreigners to treat Russia “fairly” and with “respect” even as it hates those same foreigners with seething passion. Why, it’s almost as if Russians were barbarians educated by “teachers” being paid slave wages and hence without credentials, heedless of their profession, isn’t it?

What a country.

Standing up to the Russian Bully

Writing in Newsweek magazine, Andrew Wilson and Mark Leonard of the the European Council on Foreign Relations argue that “Europe needs to figure out a way to come together to fight back against Russian aggression.” Hopefully, this is a sign of a new tsunami of coverage from the MSM, one which should have arisen years ago. But better late than never! Wonderful, heartening stuff.

In the past eight years, Russia has had serious rows with almost half of the EU’S 27 member states. Contrary to popular opinion that such disagreements are fueled by historic grievances in Eastern Europe, these disputes have affected both longtime members of the EU and new ones; both Russia’s neighbors and states farther afield; both those who thought they had good relations with Moscow and those who were happy to admit they were bad. For instance, Russia banned Polish meat in 2005, claiming it was unhygienic; it attempted to charge the German airline Lufthansa special fees for flying over Siberia in 2007; and it allegedly engaged in cyberterrorism against Estonia in May 2007 and against Lithuania in June 2008.

For each of these countries, these were more than just foreign-policy problems. They have become an internal problem for the EU as well, creating divisions among member states. For instance, Poland, and then Lithuania, delayed the start of negotiations on an agreement that would help regulate EU-Russia relations, causing frustration among other member states that wanted to proceed. In another instance, the Russian-sponsored North Stream and South Stream gas pipelines have sparked disagreements about preferential energy access, the undermining of current transit states like Ukraine and Europe’s own Nabucco project, which is supposed to bring in gas from the Caucasus and Central Asia via the Balkans.

Indeed, it seems that too often Russia has been able to punch above its weight by using underhanded divide-and-conquer tactics—while Europe has failed to recognize that collectively it is much stronger than its members are when they act alone. EU states have seemed confused about when to show solidarity in the face of Russia’s games—when, for instance, Moscow offered certain member states, like Germany, preferential energy deals while picking fights with others, like Estonia.

Europe needs to figure out a way to come together to fight back. When it has done so, the results have been impressive. Two years ago, the nationalist Nashi youth group began shadowing the British ambassador, in flagrant breach of various conventions on diplomatic immunity. Especially worrying was the fact that these toughs seemed to be armed with insider information on his daily whereabouts. The United States would have responded harshly toward them. But London failed to comprehend that this was a classic Russian modus operandi: probe for soft spots and push hard. Britain’s initial protests were muted, creating a perception of weakness that only invited further Russian aggression. But finally, when the European Union began to protest, it helped solve the problem. Nashi stood down.

The EU has shown a similar capacity to shape Russian behavior when it has agreed on common positions. For instance, in 2004 it persuaded Russia to sign the Kyoto Protocol in exchange for a clearer path to World Trade Organization membership. In 2006 it faced down Russian demands for free passage for its citizens through Lithuania to their stranded enclave of Kaliningrad. But now Russia and Britain are at odds again, in what is possibly the biggest and most significant bilateral confrontation yet. At the G8 conference in Japan two weeks ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised, in what has been described in diplo-speak as “extremely frank talks” with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the 2006 London murder of British citizen Alexander Litvinenko. For months now, Britain has been seeking the extradition from Russia of the chief suspect in that case, Andrei Lugovoi. But Russia has refused. At the G8 conference, Medvedev, in his first face-to-face with Brown, stood firm, yielding no ground on that matter or on an unrelated commercial dispute between the British oil company BP and investors in its joint venture in Russia.

To be sure, the Litvinenko mystery was never going to be an easy issue to resolve. It had echoes of a John le Carré novel, with a full plot list of spies, mysterious émigrés and bizarre poisoning methods. In many ways, the media circus surrounding the affair has made it difficult for Brown to manage it. But rather than cooperating, Russia has pushed back aggressively. In response to the request to extradite Lugovoi, the Russian Foreign Ministry asked for extradition of the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev, both currently in London. When Britain explained it had no power to force its courts to comply, Moscow responded (albeit without formally linking the issues) by accusing the British Council, a cultural institution, of not paying taxes and acting as a cover for espionage, using crude intimidation of the staff to close down offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. While the British government could have kept a small staff in the parts of the offices that were on consular premises, it pulled the council out, effectively proving to Russia it could get away with its behavior. Now it has lost cultural influence in Russia while getting no closer to extraditing Lugovoi, who enjoys full domestic immunity after being elected as a Russian M.P. in December 2007.

This one lingering issue is but a glaring illustration of the kinds of problems Russia poses to the rest of Europe. It is therefore time for the EU to agree, at least on principle, to a common response to these shows of Russian aggression. The EU’s population is more than three times the size of Russia’s; its economy is 15 times larger. But its biggest strength lies in interdependence, solidarity and consensus. When the next crisis comes, all European states will need to be prepared.

Rumbling Stomachs in the Russian Countryside

Jonas Bernstein, writing for Eurasia Daily Monitor:

It is often said in Russia that dissatisfaction with the country’s existing political system is greater among those living in the cities than those living in the countryside. Yet according to one observer who recently traveled through central Russia, dissatisfaction with the status quo is also rising in the countryside but is not being picked up by the country’s pollsters.

Recent polling by the independent Levada Center among the “elite” of the Russian middle class–those aged 24 to 35 and living in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg–found a high degree of uncertainty about the future and a strong feeling that their well-being was precarious, with half of those polled indicating that they would like to leave Russia temporarily or for good. Only 13 percent of those polled by the Levada Center agreed with the statement that Russia had entered a period of protracted stability, while 59 percent said the situation could change for the worse at any moment (see EDM, June 30).

Pavel Voshchanov, the prominent political analyst who served as Boris Yeltsin’s press secretary in the early 1990s, recently traveled through a dozen or so small cities in central Russia, including Dzerzhinsk, Balakhna and Gordoets in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast; Murom in Vladimir Oblast; Kashina in Smolensk Oblast; and Kalyazin in Tver Oblast. He found that contrary to the conventional wisdom, dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo is rising in Russia’s heartland. Voshchanov paints a grim picture of the economic situation in the cities he visited, one that contrasts sharply with the booming economies of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large Russian cities (Novaya gazeta, July 17).

“The Russian province, if you are guided by what it had during the Soviet period, has lost a considerable number of work places. Many of the old ones are closed, and nothing new has been built,” Voshchanov wrote. “The only things new are market stalls and drinking establishments with a scanty assortment of cheap products. There are few fancier novelties because there is no demand for them; no one can afford them. The only people buying [such things] are young people ‘doing management away from home’ (an expression heard from a Kalyazin resident whose son is working as the manager of a large store in Ivanovo). Is it possible to assert that people in the provinces are satisfied with their current situation? No. Prices are moving upward, and on all types of products, but salaries at non-governmental enterprises remain as they were two or three years ago. Two-thirds (and maybe more) of the provincials live off of [their] vegetable gardens. And it is also necessary to get to those [vegetable gardens]–but how, if prices for gasoline in the remote areas are now higher than in Moscow?”

According to Voshchanov, economic dissatisfaction in the Russian heartland is becoming political, although the political dissatisfaction thus far remains inchoate. Still, according to Voshchanov, negative feelings about the country’s leaders, particularly Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister, are growing.

“It is a bit too early to judge President Medvedev; they shrug their shoulders,” Voshchanov wrote. “As a young guy from Kashina put it: ‘We don’t know him.’ But for Putin, the situation is changing for the worse, albeit slowly. It looks as if he, without wanting to, has stepped onto the minefield of Russian hostility and could easily become the target which, after a time, could be taking all the shots. This has already happened in Russia, and more than once: universal adoration (all the more so if it is produced … by pretty television pictures) quickly turns into universal hostility. The countryside voted for Putin largely because it remembered the soul chilling lack of money of the Yeltsin years, and with his [Putin’s] arrival in the Kremlin at least something returned to life, at least pensioners began to receive their crumbs … on time. But the pocketbook always dictates to the head. And what is it dictating this summer? It is not difficult to figure out.”

According to Voshchanov, the utilities bill for average Russians, which now accounts for a significant chunk of their monthly expenses, could end up playing a much larger role in Russian politics than “the packets of shares with multi-million [dollar] face values that casually end up in the hands of those who are currently close to the authorities or the authorities themselves.”

Voshchanov concludes that it is hard to believe polling data suggesting that those in the heartland are more satisfied with their situation than those in the cities. “Probably, behind the statistical calculation, the precision of which I am not disputing, is hidden something impossible to describe quantitatively,” he wrote. “For example, an unwillingness to speak openly to strangers about such delicate subjects. People in the provinces are distrustful, because it’s a stone’s throw from them to the boss, who is below only Putin and God, and they know first-hand how his revenge might be expressed. Assurances that everything will be anonymous and that they don’t have to sign anything don’t help. Anyone who thinks that this is the result of being downtrodden is mistaken. It is an intuitive lack of faith in justice, expressed in the formulation: ‘You leave, but we live here’” (Novaya gazeta, July 17).

Annals of Russian Cyber Terrorism

Network World reports:

The Web site for the president of Georgia was knocked offline by a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack over the weekend, yet another in a series of cyberattacks attacks against countries experiencing political friction with Russia. Georgia’s presidential Web site was down for about a day starting early Saturday until Sunday, according to the Shadowserver Foundation, which tracks malicious Internet activity. Network experts said the attack was executed by a botnet, or a network of computers that can be commanded to overwhelm a Web site with too much traffic. The command-and-control server for the attack is based in the United States, Shadowserver said. The botnet appears to be based on the “MachBot” code, which communicates to other compromised PCs over the HTTP, the same protocol used for transmitting Web pages.

The tool used to control this kind of botnet “is frequently used by Russian bot herders,” according to Shadowserver. “On top of that, the domain involved with this C&C [command-and-control] server has seemingly bogus registration information but does tie back to Russia.” One of the commands contained in the traffic directed at the Web site contained the phrase “win+love+in+Rusia,” wrote Jose Nazario a senior security engineer with Arbor Networks.

On Sunday, it appeared that the host for the command-and-control server had been taken offline, Shadowserver said. The motivation for the attacks is not entirely clear. But Georgia is just one of several former Soviet satellites including Estonia and Lithuania seeking to downplay their historical legacy with Russia. Georgia has angered Russia by pushing for entry to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a pro-Western security alliance. It has also tangled with Russia over the handling of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two rebellious regions pushing for independence.

In Lithuania, 300 Web sites were defaced around July 1 following a new law prohibiting the public display of symbols dating from the Soviet era, as well as the playing of the Soviet national anthem. The hacking was blamed on an unpatched vulnerability in a Web server at a hosting company.

Estonian Web sites were pounded by a massive DDOS attack in April and May 2007. The attacks were believed to have been connected to a decision to move a monument honoring Soviet World War II soldiers to a less prominent place, which ignited protests from ethnic Russians.

Any other G-8 nations involved in incidents of cyber terrorism?

The Missiles of October 2008

RIA Novosti reports:

The possible deployment of Russian strategic bombers in Cuba may be an effective response to the placement of NATO bases near Russia’s borders, a former Air Force commander said on Monday. Russian daily Izvestia earlier on Monday cited a senior Russian military source as saying that Russian strategic bombers could be stationed again in Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. coast, in response to the U.S. missile shield in Europe. “If these plans are being considered, it would be a good response to the attempts to place NATO bases near the Russian borders,” Gen. of the Army Pyotr Deinekin told RIA Novosti. “I do not see anything wrong with it because nobody listens to our objections when they place airbases and electronic monitoring and surveillance stations near our borders,” the general said.

However, Deinekin said the possibility of Russian bombers being stationed in Cuba is largely hypothetical, because Russia’s Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers are both capable of reaching the U.S. coast, patrolling the area for about 1.5 hours, and returning to airbases in Russia with mid-air refueling.

Russia resumed strategic bomber patrol flights over the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans last August, following an order signed by former president Vladimir Putin. Russian bombers have since carried out over 80 strategic patrol flights and have often been escorted by NATO planes.

Deinekin suggested that Cuba could be used as a refueling stopover for Russian aircraft rather than as a permanent base, because the Russian political and military leadership would be unlikely to take such a drastic step under current global political conditions.

In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war when Soviet missiles were stationed in Cuba. The crisis was resolved after 12 days when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, backed down and ordered the missiles removed. Moscow had a military presence on Cuba for almost four decades after that, maintaining an electronic listening post at Lourdes, about 20 km (12.5 miles) from Havana, to monitor U.S. military moves and communications.

Russia was paying $200 million a year to lease the base, which it closed down in January 2002.