Friday, July 28, 2006

Come Rob a Botanical Garden!

"Shut up! It's a hold-up, not a Botany lesson. Now, no false moves please. I want you to hand over all the lupins you've got." Thus said the highway-robber Dennis Moore in the absurd Monty Python sketch by the same name. Taking from the rich - giving to the poor, Moore contributes to socioeconomic redistribution by robbing lupins (la. Lupinus polyphyllus). The mere thought of robbing flowers is a masterpiece of absurdity, but what few know is that reality presents an even more absurd historical parallel.

In the 1930s, the racist Nazi ideology transformed all walks of German life - and so also biology. When historians today speak about racial biology, they usually refer to the absurd idea of purifying human races, motivated by a belief in the superiority of their own race, as for example the Aryan race in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. What we today often fail to realise is though the full meaning of racial biology in Nazi totalitarianism. As the word indicates, totalitarianism signifies the full ideological control of a society in all respects. Therefore, even flowers and plants fell victim to Nazi ambitions of racial and genetic purification.

The idea was to genetically develop grain, vegetables and fruit, so that they would yield increasingly larger crops to feed a growing population in the ever-expanding Lebensraum of the German people. Consequently, as the Nazi army prepared to conquer the East - the Soviet Union - an expert team of racial biologists was assembled to form the "botanisches Sammelkommando der Waffen-SS" - the SS-Commando for botanical collection. Its task - to rob botanical gardens!

With botanist Nikolai Vavilov, Soviet botany became world leading in the field from the 1920s up till just before the Second World War. Vavilov organised botanical expedtions that were sent all over the world to collect samples, the results of which laid the foundation for his various botanical theories. Extensive research was done at the genetic institute in Leningrad that today carries his name. Botanical plant stations were built up throughout the Soviet Union to test and develop genetically modified plants. In 1940, the Vavilov institute held the world's largest botanical collections - seeds of plants, flowers, fruit etc. However, everything was not as bright as it seemed. Enter villain!

Trofim Lysenko was the Soviet biologist of the times who came to say what power and ideology wanted most - a theory on the inheritance of acquired qualities. In its most absurd versions, knowledge and skills were passed on to new generations, which fitted the image of building a new Soviet Man - Homo Sovieticus. Coming from poor circumstances, Lysenko was just the "barefoot scientist" that the Communists needed to clamp down on and discredit "bourgeois science." Being a biologist, the obvious first target was genetics. Consequently, Lysenko started a campaign to eradicate genetical science in the Soviet Union, leading to a policy of political extermination of scientific opponents. Thus, in 1940, Nikolai Vavilov - as the most prominent geneticist of his time - was imprisoned for "bourgeois pseudoscience" and eventually died of malnutrition in jail in 1943.

Then, what about the SS-Commando for botanical collection? During Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the SS-Commando was deployed to collect as much as possible of the plant samples from plant stations of the Vavilov institute throughout the USSR. Its mission resulted in the greatest theft in history of the genetic inheritance from a single nation. Samples were collected and brought back to the Third Reich for cultivation. Led by German botanist Heinz Brücher, who had long experience from expeditions to China and Central Asia, the Commando succeeded in gathering samples from most Vavilov plant stations in the USSR, though never being able to conquer the Vavilov institute itself in besieged Leningrad.

After the war, Brücher escaped to Latin America, where he continued his research. As the Cold War began, focus turned away from Nazi crimes and Brücher could gradually regain his position as a revered scholar. In secrecy, he returned to Europe to collect the samples he had robbed from the Soviet Union and recultivated in Austria. In 1972, Brücher even became an expert on agriculture and biology for UNESCO. Rumour even has it that he visited the USSR and that the KGB then extorted him into handing over some of his research results along with plant samples he had once robbed the Soviet Union of.

As in many other cases with Nazi crimes, apologists have tried to belittle also this massive theft of genetic resources. Thus, Brücher is said to have saved the Soviet genetic heritage from certain destruction, as Lysenko's policy eventually would have been sure to eradicate the majority of genetic collections in the USSR regardless of the war. However, such speculations do not change the question of guilt. Brücher therefore goes down in history as the greatest genetical robber yet.

Perhaps as a sign of remorse, he used the last years of his life to develop the virus estalla - a virus that was intended to hit the coca plant, and thus cocaine production in Latin America. In 1991, Brücher was brutally murdered in his home in Argentina. There have been speculations that the murder was ordered by Colombian drug barons, fearing that his research results would threaten cocaine production.

Although the image of robbers carrying off entire botanical gardens, seems ludicruous at first thought, the Brücher SS-Commando was the first recorded case of "biopiracy" in history, and to this day also remains the largest.

In 1993, the United Nations adopted the Convention of Biological Diversity for the protection of the genetic heritage of all nations. To this day, however, drug and agricultural companies explore nature to find plants, which they can put to commercial use, developing new drugs or crops. Of course, the biggest unexploited genetic depositories are in developing countries, which themselves are candidly bereft of their resources. Some things never seem to change.

Perhaps, the Monty Python hero of Dennis Moore has greater relevance today than ever - "taking from the rich - giving to the poor" - the genetic heritage that history and present has taken from the poor and helpless. This is equally true for the peoples of the Soviet Union in history as it is for the peoples of developing countries today. So, hand over the lupins!
Reading recommendations:
"Potatisens genetiske revolutionär" Svenska Dagbladet, 1 December 2008.
"Sovjetisk frösamling hett krigsbyte", Svenska Dagbladet, 2 December 2008.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lukashenko No Rocket Scientist

Yesterday, a Russian space rocket carrying 18 satellites crashed shortly after takeoff from Baikonur spacebase in Kazakhstan, as reported by international media. The accident presents a serious setback for Belarus new and proud space-programme. The rocket was carrying Belka - Belarus' first to be human-made object in space. As it now appears, this dream was never realised.

Since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, Russia has kept on to its spacebase in Baikonur by a bilateral lease agreement, which runs until 2050. Baikonur has since been used as a launching-pad for numerous satellites, mainly for commercial purposes. One pleasant twist to activities at the spacebase is that Russia uses converted intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for these peaceful purposes, thus literally turning swords into ploughshares. Working on a commercial basis, Baikonur has also allowed other countries to enter the space age, as should have become the case also for Belarus on Wednesday.

Thus, it was with great pride that Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka yesterday stood watching how the country's first satellite took off from Baikonur space-centre in Kazakhstan. As the rocket rose to the skies, it was to become a short-lived joy for Lukashenka. But 86 seconds after take-off, the rocket started twirling to the ground to eventually explode in a burst of fire. Regretfully, no media reported Lukashenka's reaction to the crash. Let us however assume that it would not have been his one and a half minute of glory.

Of course, had Lukashenka himself been a rocket-scientist, the accident would never have happened. One cannot but pause to wonder, why this very gifted man does not master also rocket science, but perhaps not even Lukashenka can be omnipotent. Therefore, someone else has to take the blame for failure. Yesterday, Belarus opposition leader Milinkevich was arrested by police. It will be interesting to see whether he will be charged for sabotaging Belarus glorious space programme. After all, the motto of the regime is: "Together towards a strong and prosperous Belarus!" Then some insignificant little opposition leader should not be allowed to sabotage Belarus' glorious and bright future under the wise leadership of president Lukashenka. Or should he?

Russia Convicted by Court of Europe

On Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights made its first ruling on Russia's war in Chechnya, BBC reports. The verdict, which rules Russia guilty of the disappearance of a Chechen man in 1999, is a landmark in dealing with human rights violations in Chechnya. Above all, it sets a precedent for the some 200 similar cases that are pending ruling by the Court of Europe.

In 1999, 25-year-old Khadzhi-Murat Yandiyev disappeared in Chechnya after being detained by Russian troops. In 2000, his mother, Fatima Bazorkina, was shocked by seeing her disappeared son on television. The footage shows how Russian troops have detained her son in the village of Alkhan-Kala, and how a Russian general questions him. In the end, the general shouts: "Take him away, finish him off, shoot him, damn it!" Since then, there are no reports of Yandiyev's destiny, and he is supposed dead. The general giving the order, Alexander Baranov, has later been promoted and awarded the order Hero of Russia.

In 2001, Yandiyev's mother filed a complaint against Russia to the the Court of Europe. As many other relatives of the estimated 5000 people who have disappeared in Chechnya since 1999, Bazorkina has fought a long and arduous legal battle to find out what happened to her son. Even if the European Court ruling will not reveal this, the verdict still serves to recognise the tragic deaths of individuals bereft of their human rights in Chechnya.

The ruling thus signifies the rehabilitation of human value in the face of extensive Russian war crimes in Chechnya. Above all, however, it comes as a welcome sign that Chechnya has not been forgotten, and that law eventually will prevail - this at a time when both the EU and the US have remained silent on Chechnya since 2001.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Russkoe Bistro vs. McDonald's

Great fortunes are made by catering to the basic needs of people. This is a fundamental economic fact. What all people need is what all people buy. This is why potatoes during famines have been more expensive than meat. People buy first what they think is most needed, even if better alternatives are cheaper. Alternatively, if there is a choice, subjective factors such as taste and image play an important role in consumer behaviour. The company that succeeds in combining needs and tastes truly sits on a money making machine.

Fast food is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of basic needs, but today the industry generates massive profit worldwide, because an increasing number of people find the relative price in time of fast food lower than that of home-cooking. The niche of fast food manufacturers has broadened to such an extent in many industrialised countries, that the industry is on the verge of catering to the basic needs of people.

One has only to think of the McDonald's saga to realise the enormity of potential revenues if one succeeds in getting a cut of the fast food market. McDonald's success relies on great sensitivity in forming and doctoring a positive trademark for its consumer target group by a common and dynamic concept worldwide. This is McDonald's success story no matter what one may think of how the food chain generates profits. In big-busines, morality has no place when it comes to making money.

So, are McDonald's products significantly superior to those of all other fast food chains as to earn it the market share it has. No, certainly not. What McDonald's offers is simply a well-tuned concept - balancing pricing and trademark - to make customers prefer their products. One always knows what one gets at McDonald's. It is a safe bet. Objectively, though, there are certainly many other better alternatives for consumers. What most alternatives however lack is the concept that continuously draws new generations of customers.

In 1995, Russkoe Bistro was founded as Russia's first fast food chain. The concept was simple and elegant, namely providing high-quality traditional Russian cuisine in a fast food package at lower prices than its competitors. The products on offer were what customers in Western Europe and the US paid several dollars more for at more up-market restaurants than what they would if having a hamburger at McDonald's. Russkoe Bistro simply offered better products at lower prices - real food and not the junk offered by most fast food chains.

The menu was meticulously elaborated by the All-Russian Food Institute and little effort was spared to present customers with an appetising assortment of cheap but tasty traditional Russian dishes made entirely out of high-quailty domestic products. The simple and wholesome menu seemed a sure recipe for success.

Furthermore, Russkoe Bistro's trademark was carefully chosen to align with an image susceptible to Russian tastes also on the subjective level. The company logotype portrayed a cossack, which in combination with its name - Russkoe Bistro - conveyed positive historical connotations to consumers.

There is a well-known popular story on how the Russian troops that defeated Napoleon in the 19th century, sat about the Paris cafés and restaurants urging the waiters for food by shouting "быстро, быстро!" (fast, fast!). Thus, the world-renowned Paris "bistros" would have originated from Russian troops in Paris celebrating one of their country's greatest historical victories. This was the positive image Russkoe Bistro exploited. Russia was simply the origin of fast food, so why not reconquer it?

The backside of the logo, some people argued, was however that portraying a cossack in full uniform also brought forth visions of extreme Russian nationalism. Still, having a military as symbol is not unique to Russkoe Bistro. The well-known logotype of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) portrays an image of its founder - Colonel Harland Sanders. Even if his title was honorific, many Americans still refer to him simply as "the colonel" without thinking the least about the propriety of a military man being the symbol of a fast food chain. It thus seems that the choice of symbol for Russkoe Bistro was truly ingenious, while most consumers would associate the image with the historical pride of how Russian culture once set a postive landmark far beyond the country's borders.

So, did the company owners realise that they were sitting on a potential gold mine? Regretfully not, by all appearance. Originating as a pet project of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Russkoe Bistro had a grand opening intended to score political points for its founder. Its commercially viable trademark was used for political purposes to the degradation of its worth. In a few years, the fast food chain - based on franchising as McDonald's - grew from a mere three to 37 restaurants only in Moscow. This was not least because of massive financial backing from Moscow City. The financial feasibility of the project was a completely different matter as it was run as a quasi-public service.

Instead of generating the big profits that the Russkoe Bistro concept might have vouched for, little effort was made either to exploit the company's true potential or bring in the revenues that were so close at hand. Russkoe Bistro was simply mismanaged. This became evident by the August 1998 financial crisis, when the company quickly found itself on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to respond to crisis, the company management - in contradiction to sound economic judgement - vastly expanded the menu, making it even more difficult for franchisers to break even financially.

The very concept of the fast food industry is to offer an easy-to-make menu with a limited quantity of dishes at low prices for as many customers as possible. The opposite is tantamount to increased costs, higher prices, and much more complex logistics. Expanding the menu is simply a textbook recipe for failure for a fast food company facing crisis. It is no wonder that the turnover of Russkoe Bistro and its franchisers alike dropped even more drastically than was the case for competing fast food chains.

As the company attracted increasing losses after the 1998 crisis, questions started to amass why Moscow City should keep on funding a defunct enterprise on the verge of collapse. It seemed clear to all, that if Moscow withdrew its support, the company would fall apart within days. Still, the City continued its support in contradiction to financial soundness. Soon, however, other dark clouds started to gather over the company. Thus, the Interior Ministry started an investigation on the imbestlement of Moscow public funds to the amount of $1,3 million. Apparently, large funds had been transferred via the company in a complex string of financial transactions to foreign bank accounts. The case of Russkoe Bistro soon became part of the 1999 fraud and money laundering investigation that came to be known as the Chase Manhattan Bank scandal. To this day, many of the financial irregularities surrounding the scandal remains buried by politicians and businessmen that have no interest in the truth being made public. Needless to say, mayor Luzhkov assumed no responsibility for the Russkoe Bistro part of the scandal and came out of the affaire scots free.

Still, somehow Russkoe Bistro managed to survive. The company brand had however become strongly tarnished and the fact that it was so heavily associated with public services and handouts, resulted in consumers never feeling that there was something special about the company. Instead of prouding themselves of a food chain that in objective terms was far superior to McDonald's, Muscovites regarded Russkoe Bistro as an improved version of the traditional Russian stolovaya - poor quality workplace restaurants. In 2005, the company was sold by public auction at a bargain price. The restaurant chain still exists and is highly recommendable for its good and cheap food. However, the very real chance of creating a contender to McDonald's in Russia was lost, and the value of the company both financially and as a trademark does not vouch for any rapid expansion.

What is perhaps the most tragic element of the Russkoe Bistro saga is that Russian business for once had a winning concept on their hands, which did not involve the usual easy-to-get profits emanating from natural resources. Russian entrepreneurs stood to gain the great fortunes associated with catering to basic needs. The Russkoe Bistro concept was not only competitive on the domestic market, but could also have been exported with great succees to Western consumers longing for higher-quality fast food. The paradox is perhaps that a concept so well-tuned to consumer preferences in the West, was not valued highly enough by Russians themselves.

All things that come out of Russia must not be grandiose. Even small things can be great. Regretfully, lack of vision, self-confidence and entrepreneurship remain hallmarks of Russian business to this day. It is true, that the aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis was an eye-opener for the ability of domestic high-quality production of consumption goods. Still, Russia is far from realising that its businesses may be internationally competitive also when it comes to areas beyond exports of natural resources.

With Russkoe Bistro, Russia had a potential McDonald's on their hands, but lost it due to lack of vision and sound management. If Russia had believed in itself, Russkoe Bistro might well have reconquered the boulevards of Paris - or for that sake the streets of London, Berlin or New York. Still, just like the cossacks in Paris in 1814 felt ill at ease in a foreign sorrounding, Russian entrepreneurs today may feel that the international market is foreign to them. The question is also if hypothetical current "business cossacks" would bring back unwelcome ideas of reform to Russia as their predecessors once did after the Napoleonic wars. Perhaps Russia will never be ready for the international business battle bringing back ideas for the transformation of economy, society and politics. Or is this what is gradually happening as western-educated Russians now are increasingly returning to do business on their home-turf? Only future can tell.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ukraine: No Juice in Orange Coalition

Earlier this week, Ukrainian Socialist leader Moroz again proclaimed the death of the Orange Coalition and the formation of a new coalition between the Socialist, the Communists and the Party of Regions. Together, the three parties control 239 out of the total of 450 seats in the Ukrainian parliament - the Verkhovna Rada. Thereby, it now definitely seems as if the last juice has been squeezed out of the orange coalition.

By his action, Moroz has abandoned his allies of the Orange Revolution and turned to the inheritants of the old regime. On Tuesday, the so called anti-crisis coalition nominated Yanukovich for Prime Minister, and the parliamentary committee chairmanships were divivded between the parties in the Rada.

The political turmoil in Ukraine since the March parliamentary elections have left the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution totally discredited. A recent poll, by the the Kyiv International Sociology Institute and the Kyiv Political and Conflict Studies Center, shows that Ukrainians now have more confidence in Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, than they have in President Viktor Yushchenko and political bloc leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Thus, since February, the confidence for the president has shrunk from 37% to 20% in July, whereas the support for his opponents has increased from 35% to 43% during the same period. Being previously portrayed as a scoundrel during the Orange Revolution, opposition against Party of Regions' leader Yanukovich has shrunk from 42% to a mere 35%.

Due to the political crisis in the country, there have been widespread speculations that president Yushchenko would use his constitutional right to proclaim new elections. However, support for such a measure is low among the population. Thus, 54% of Ukrainians oppose such an option whereas new elections are supported by not more than 26%.

What is evident is that the ideals of the orange revolution now have been permanently buried in Ukrainian politics. Events during spring instead show how cynic realist politics once again stands as victor over the will of the people for democratic change. The heroes from Maidan are now pilloried and exposed to a public ridicule they certainly deserve. Still, politics is distant from popular sentiment.

Then, were the Ukrainians too naïve in their belief in change and reforms? The answer must be an unequivocal no. The people rose to the challenge. It was their leaders who were not equal to the task of transformning Ukraine. Thus, the people has been robbed of its beliefs - if not by its ideals - due to the petty self-interest of its leaders. Still, for the children of the Orange Revolution something has fundamentally changed. Even though there is little trust in their erstwhile leaders, they have experienced that they may take their destiny into their own hands and form a new Ukraine. This will take time, but the time will also come when a new generation with new ideals will reach power to conquer Ukraine's rightful place in European politics.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Latvia: Will Riga Allow 2006 Pride Parade?

The 2006 Riga Pride Parade, planned for tomorrow, seems to become a repetition of last year's chaos and homophobic protests in the Latvian capital. On Tuesday, the Riga City Council decided to ban the parade referring to threats of violence, the Baltic Times reports.

The organisers - Latvia’s Mozaika gay rights group - yesterday appealed the decision in court, but will not go through with the parade if authorities decline to grant permission.

The Pride Parade is very controversial in Latvia. The country's LGBT-movement right to public assembly is backed by the Latvian President, but Christian leaders, conservative politicians, and a large part of the public opposes the the Pride Parade on moral and religious grounds.

Last September, the Latvian parliament - the Saeima - initiated a process towards a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. However, in contrast to Latvian populist politicians, Latvian president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is adamant in her support to civil rights also including gay people:

The refusal to authorize this parade is unacceptable in a democratic country because Latvia's priorities are those articles of the Constitution, which enable people to express their opinion and the state should make it possible for them.

Last summer, Latvia's first gay pride parade was arranged, provoking violent protests from rightist groups throwing eggs and tomatoes at gay demonstrators. Then, some 30 people participated in the march, whereas several thousands had gathered to protest against it or to watch it as a freak event. In contrast to last year's low turnout, some 500 people are now expected to participate in Saturday's march.

It is with reference to the 2005 events, that the Riga City Council this year argued that the city cannot safeguard the security of gay demonstrators. A similar decision to ban the 2005 pride parade was overturned by court, why organisers are confident that they will be able to carry through also with this year's event.

If organisers will not be able to go through with the 2006 Riga Pride parade, Latvia's international reputation seems destined to be tarnished. Riga has been chosen as the venue for the NATO-Summit in November, but if Latvian authorities fail to safeguard civil rights in the country - regardless of sexual preference - voices will inevitably be raised to move the Summit.

President Vike-Freiberga, along with several leading politicians, clearly realises that Latvia must shoulder its responsibility in becoming a concomitant part of European democratic culture also on this point, and will therefore most likely support the struggle for gay rights despite widespread popular resistance. Thus, the prospects for gay people in Latvia seem destined to improve gradually over coming years, even if the country will have a very long way to go before acceptance and tolerance of gay people will prevail.

On Friday, the Riga court of appeals ruled against allowing the 2006 Pride Parade, thus infringing civil rights for public order reasons. The ban on the Pride Parade effectively prevents the 2006 parade and leaves future events much in peril.

On Saturday, participants of the Riga Pride festival had to take refuge in buildings were remaining events of the festival took place. Thousands of homophobic demonstrators had turned out into the streets, throwing eggs and human excrements at the about 100 Pride participants.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lithuania: End of the Brazauskas Era

Last Tuesday, Lithuania's Parliament - the Seimas - voted for Gediminas Kirkilas as new Prime Minister. This effectively marks the end of the Brazauskas era in Lithuanian politics, and possibly also a new climate on how to run state affairs. The Seimas' decision to elect Kirkilas as new PM comes after period of political crisis and scandals, which in the end ousted Brazauskas from power at the end of May.

Lithuania's new Prime Minister, Kirkilas, is a 54-year old professional Social-Democratic politician with a background in the Communist party - as was also the case of Brazauskas. Until chosen PM, he served as Defence Minister. In contrast to his predecessor, Kirkilas is considered a soft-spoken and EU-oriented politician with good knowledge of English. Furthermore, he still lives with his family in an old Vilnius flat, whereas most high-level Lithuanian politicians have acquired stately mansions on relatively low wages. However, rumours about Kirkilas have already started to surface. Apparently, he has a BA from a party school, which would not have granted him a place at Vilnius university, where he earned his MA. Even though this is comparatively little to form even the nucleus of a scandal, one cannot but wonder what will come in a few months, when this has been disclosed even before coming into office.

The appointment of Kirkilas as Prime Minister ends a lengthy political crisis in the country. Since Brazauskas resignation on 31 May, president Lithuania was edging towards early elections. However, only the Conservative Party wanted early elections, as the other parties feared being cast out of parliament by popular vote. So what remained was to patch up what could be saved and nominate a new PM. Just two weeks before Kirkilas appointment, the president's nomination for the Premiership, Zigmantas Balcytis, was rejected by the Seimas. This was just another proof of the political turmoil that has hit Lithuania this Spring.

In May, first the Social Liberals and then the Labour Party left the Brazauskas-led coalition government, making the PM's position impossible. The Labour Party was also under police investigation on suspicion of having received economic backing from Russian interests and for imbestlement of EU-funds. The Labour Party chairman, Viktor Uspaskich, who had gone into exile in Russia, then resigned the leadership of his party. One of the key scandal factors was the fight for control over the Mazeikiu Nafta oil refinery, which strong Russian interests were keen on buying. Without going too much into details, the heritage Brazauskas left behind was far from enviable.

All the same, it is indisputable that Brazauskas has made great services to his country. As first secretary in the Lithuanian Communist Party, Brazauskas made the party break away from Moscow in support of the Lithuanian independence movement. He transformed the party into a modern Social-Democratic party and led it to victory in the 1992 parliamentary elections, once Lithuania's independence had been regained. In 1993, he became Lithuanian president, which he served as until 1998, when he chose not to run for reelection. He was succeeded by present president Valdas Adamkus. Despite the fact that Brazauskas had declared his retirement, he had difficulties to keep out of state affairs, and eventually returned to politics to become Prime Minister in 2001.

As Brazauskas has now left the Premiership, many would feel that his retirement is long overdue. In fact, he has been speaking of retirement over the past year, but of course did not realise that it would be forced upon him. Brazauskas great role in the history of Lithuania is arguably also what eventually caught up with him.

During Soviet reign, Lithuania was relatively spared from Russification. Therefore, it was a national communist party in Lithuania that had to come to terms with perestroika in the late 1980s. As the leadership and political class of Soviet Lithuania were almost exclusively of Lithuanian origin, the choice to support independence and reform the party was closer at hand than in most other Soviet republics. However, this also meant that the country's political élite remained almost intact. The consequence was that independent Lithuania inherited the soviet political culture to a greater extent than other republics. It is the effects of this culture that now eventually has caught up with Brazauskas and sealed his fate in Lithuanian politics. Hopefully, Lithuanians will remember him as the leader that brought independence to them, and not for the many scandals that engulfed his last years in office.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Belarus Opposition Leader Sentenced to Jail

Today, a court in Minsk sentenced Belarus opposition leader and former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kozulin to five and a half years' imprisonment, according to his wife. Kozulin was charged with organising protests in March against the reelection of Alyaksandr Lukashenka as president of Belarus. Lukashenka received some 83% of votes, which provoked widespread public protests and demonstrations.

The now sentenced Kozulin remains somewhat of an enigma to most analysts. In contrast to the other presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Kozulin unexpectedly appeared as a candidate at a late stage of the runup to the March elections. His populism and provocative slandering of president Lukashenka was something new to Belarus politics. Many also wondered why he was allowed to attack the president on state TV, which is strictly controlled by the regime.

The initial assumption was that the regime had Kozulin run for the presidency in order to split the opposition. A more likely explanation is that he was Moscow's man. Accordingly, Russia would have used Kozulin to replace the increasingly difficult Lukashenka. Such assumptions are supported by an apparent power struggle within the regime in connection to the elections.

Thus, it seems that Lukashenka might just have averted being ousted from office by political forces allied with Moscow. His disappearance from the public after elections and the postponement of the presidential inauguration are further circumstantial evidence of a power struggle. That Belarus authorities now crack down so hard on Kozulin would serve as the final confirmation of the Russian connection. However, as is often the case with authoritarian regimes, one should be careful with taking rumours for granted. What is obvious is the increasing desperation of the Lukashenka regime to hold on to its grip on power.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

US Pays Off Russia For Iran?

According to the New York Times, Washington is about to broker a deal with Moscow on Russian storage of US nuclear waste. In exchange, the White House expects the Kremlin to support its stance towards Iran on potential nuclear weapons' development. Thus, the US would bribe Russia to turn a blind eye on Washington's Iran policy.

The real issue at stake is, of course, Iran's plans to develop its nuclear capabilties. The Bush administration claims that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, whereas Teheran argues that it is only exercising its right to develop nuclear energy. During the last year, this issue has become so heated that it on several occasions has become a concern for the UN Security Council. Therefore, as new of US-Russian negotiations on a bilateral nuclear deal broke last Saturday, speculations peaked how this would affect Iran.

So, why is Iran's nuclear affairs of concern to Moscow? Except Russia's seat on the Security Council and strategic concerns, the great reason is that Russia is Iran's biggest supplier of fuel, equipment, and expertise to the country's nuclear programme. As previously reported, Russia's nuclear industry is one of the few technically advanced sectors where Russia can still compete for shares on the international market with other technically developed states. The steady flow of incomes from nuclear supplies to Iran has been an indispensable and reliable factor for the survival of Russia's atomic sector.

If the prospects of a Russian-American nuclear deal would prove much more lucrative and stable to Moscow than continuing nuclear supplies to Iran, the US might stand a chance of turning Russia's position on Iran. This would be to pay off the Russians. However, it ignores that competing interests in Russia might complicate Moscow's ability to keep to such a deal. Still, the US has obviously been very ingenious in elaborating its proposal based on the fundamental paradigm of contempoary Russian society: When money talks - politics is silent.

By the way, today the UN "permanent five" - USA, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia - declared that they had agreed to bring Iran's nuclear programme before the UN Security Council.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Russia: Chechen Rebel Leader Killed

According to Interfax, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev was killed by Russian special forces in Ingushetia last night. Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia's security service (FSB), said Basayev was killed while preparing a terrorist attack in Ingusheti capital of Nazran on occasion of the St. Petersburg G8 Summit this week.

Apparently, Basayev and his fellow insurgents were caught in the act, riding an accompanying car to a lorry filled with explosives intended to blow up the republic headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Nazran. However, it was only after Russian troops had blown up the lorry that Basayev's body - decapitated by the blast - was found and identified. An initial impression is thus that Russian troops came across Basayev more by chance than by anticipation.

President Putin was quick to congratulate "all members of the special unit that prepared and carried out this operation" and continued saying that "this is a well-deserved retaliation against the bandits for our children in Beslan, in Budennovsk, and for all the terrorist acts that they have performed in Moscow, and in other Russian regions, including Ingushetia and the Chechen republic."

Basayev's predecessor as Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov was killed in March last year. This broke Russia's apparent tendency to avoid killing leading Chechen guerilla leaders. Until then, it was simply more worth keeping them alive as a threat and an object of hatred, motivating the Russian people to continue their support for the war in Chechnya.

Basayev's death will most likely mean little for the conflict. With Moscow-backed Ramzan Kadyrov as leader of Chechnya, criminality as a form of government has been institutionalised. When Kadyrov turns 30 in October, he will most likely succeed puppet president Alkhanov to rule Chechnya without much restraint from Moscow.

Who will succeed Basayev as rebel leader is too early to say, but guesses are that this will have little significance for the continuation of the conflict. A potential candidate is obviously Doku Umarov, who recently was appointed president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria - the rebel government, although Basayev in reality was the man in charge.

Basayev was the man to change the the goals of the Chechen insurgence from national liberation movement to the formation of an Islamic caliphate in the Caucasus. He also changed tactics from conflict within Chechnya by bringing warfare to Russian soil by terrorism in Moscow and other parts of the country. His justification was tit-for-tat: Russian troops targeted civilians in Chechnya, why Chechen resistance should target civilians in Russia.

The coincidence that Basayev's corpse was decapitated only serves to symbolise the decapitation of the Chechen guerilla. Basayev's combination of strategist, military commander, and ideologist will be hard to replace. However, one should not forget that without leaders there is nobody to negotiate peace with.

Thus, by the death of Basayev, Russia will get even less of a counterpart in the Chechen conflict. The effect might be that the fragmentation, criminalisation, and proliferation of warfare to other parts of the Caucasus as the rebels will lack cohesion to contain the conflict. However, Moscow lost the interest in any negotiated settlement of the conflict in Chechnya long ago and by the death of Basayev, it appears that this has become a policy of no return. The Kremlin thus gives the Chechen people little hope of peace in an increasingly self-perpetuating conflict.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Moldova: Transnistria Blast Kills Eight

On Thursday, at least eight people were killed in an explosion in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, BBC reports. Local authorities believe the blast, hitting a city minibus in early morning, might have been caused by a bomb, triggered by accidence. If so, this only adds to the picture of Transnistria as a region tarnished by violence and criminality.

Transnistria constitutes an ignored and absurd anachronism in contemporary Europe. It is still, officially, a part of Moldova, although the region de facto seceded as early as in 1990. Then Transnistria declared independence with assistance of the Russian 14th Army, making its commander, Aleksandr Lebed, a folk hero in Russia. This was followed by low intensity warfare, until a ceasefire was reached in 1992, putting an end to hostilities. Since then, the Transnistrian question is considered a frozen conflict by the international community.

During its roughly 15 years of independence, Transnistria has become a centre of organised crime and trafficking in people, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, weapons and whatever contraband one might imagine. The region is led by Igor Smirnov, who won a landslide victory in the 2001 presidential elections - even to the extent that he reportedly gained over 100% of votes in some districts. Smirnov's eldest son runs Sheriff, one of Transnistria's biggest and most lucrative businesses. As the dedicated football fan he is, he has founded his own professional football team and constructed an international standard football stadium in the capital of Tiraspol - a city numbering a mere 150,000 inhabitants. Such extravagance contrasts to the average income of some 100 USD a month for Transnistrians, which is roughly half that of Moldova - Europe's poorest country.

For long, Transnistria has been able to go about its business relatively undisturbed, not least because of massive backing from Moscow. In 1999, Russia however agreed to withdraw its troops from the region by the OSCE-negotiated Istanbul agreement. To this day, Russia remains reluctant to honour these commitments. During the last year, the tide all the same seems to have turned for Transnistria.

One of the key factors of Transnistrian subsistence has been smuggling. For this, the region was dependent on Kuchma's Ukraine turning a blind eye to such activities, especially as the Ukrainian port of Odessa served as a great outlet of contraband. Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has - with international assistance - made great efforts to curve smuggling, why the Transnistrian regime may slowly be approaching the brink of ruin. Also, in December 2005, the EU launched a monitoring mission to supervise the border between Transnistria and Ukraine.

This was followed in March 2006 by Ukraine imposing new customs regulations, demanding all imports from Transnistria to be processed by Moldovan authorities. The new regulations were an effect of the enforcement of a joint customs protocol between Ukraine and Moldova. In effect, this constituted a Ukrainian-Moldovan economic blockade, which both Transnistria and Russia were quick to point out. However, from an international law perspective, Ukraine and Moldova were in the right for the simple reason that Transnistria is still regarded part of Moldova by the international community.

As things now stand, the Transnistrian economy increasingly seems to lose out on its incomes from smuggling. This puts the very existence of Transnistrian independence in peril, which in the end might trigger the change that is so long overdue. It remains to be seen whether Russia will accept such change or if the country will step in to support the breakaway region to avoid yet another coloured revolution in its sphere of vital interests. Until then, Transnistria tragically remains an Absurdistan of Europe.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Russia: Foreign Wines Dry Up

After July 1, the imposition of a new law on liquor combined with usual bureaucratic tardiness threaten to dry up the Russian wine market by making imports of foreign wine virtually impossible for several months.

The new law aims at blocking the wide spread of counterfeit liquor by requiring mandatory excise labels on all wine and liquor bottles sold in the country. Despite the fact that the law has been long expected, Russian authorities have been slow in taking practical measures for it to work. Earlier this year, Russian liquor consumers were hit by a similar bureaucratic foulup, when there was a sudden lack of equivalent labels. Someone had simply forgot to order the labels in time for producers to put them on their bottles, which created a short but shaking "vodka crisis" for Russian society. Whether the issue was solved by postponing implementation of the law until now or if it is a case of separate laws with similar content is unknown. Nevertheless, the result is once again more or less the same.

This year, Russian liquor vendors have been especially hard hit by misdirected or poorly implemented government measures. In April Russia imposed an embargo on imports of the vastely popular Georgian and Moldovan wines, tendering a more traditional and low-price market. This might have been an eye-opener for consumers, but after some confusion Georgian wines were substituted with wines from other countries. This option now seems to peter out.

Indeed, representatives of liquor retailers do not expect that the market on imported alcohol will work properly again until November. Retailers expect a loss of some 900 million USD in revenues and that up to a third of Russian liquor stores might close indefinitely. Why the government has so blatantly bungled the issue remains unclear. Favouring a next to inexistant domestic wine production can hardly serve as an explanation, if the foulup is not directed at supporting Russia's vodka producers. The latter would, however, make no sense while such a move would but incur higher state costs for the consequences of alcholism. So, in lieu of any better explanation, one may only assume that this is yet another blunder of the infamous Russian bureaucracy.