Monday, December 10, 2007

Back to Belavezha?

A union between Russia and Belarus with Putin as president? Those are the rumours presently at sway in Moscow, as Dmitri Medvedev has just been nominated Putin's successor as Russian president. According to Ekho Moskvy, Putin is to sign an agreement on a full political union between the two countries during his visit to Minsk this week.

One would normally be inclined to agree with the Kremlin spokesman who characterised these rumours as coming "from the realm of speculative fantasies," but one never knows what might come out of Moscow these days. Still, the idea seems far-fetched and appears to arise from those who simply cannot imagine a Russia without Putin. Fears are wide-spread among the security structures that the choice of Medvedev as new Russian leader might topple the delicate balance Putin has ensured. Still, in recent years, the security structures have gained many of the system changes they have so eagerly wanted.

Putin's presidency has been an era of stabilization for Russia. However, from 2005 the influence from security structures have been felt by the so called new democratisation or the development of sovereign democracy - effectively ridding Russia of political rights and freedoms. Now, having attained stability and control of the country, Russia's next project is modernization, as expressed by the so called Putin plan. Then, the choice of Medvedev comes naturally.

Letting go of influence to enable socioeconomic development is no minor matter for the security structures, especially if it means giving power to so called liberals. As has however been demonstrated, there is little liberal politically in Russian elite liberalism. Or, as James Carville once put it: "It's the economy, stupid!" Russian elite liberalism today is all about economic growth and development and has little to do with liberal rights and freedoms.

Still, despite an impressive economic growth in recent years, there is a long way to go yet and many obstacles to overcome. The main problem on the way ahead might actually be to deal with the consequences of dismantling Russian democracy. Paradoxically, the greater political control the Kremlin has gained, the more severe are the potential consequences for the economy. As surveys from the World Bank has shown, the 2005 policy of new democratization coincides with a general downturn for the systems supporting a good business climate. Would this trend continue, it might become a mounting obstacle for the economic growth and diversification envisioned by the Putin plan as the coming era of modernization. Then, both security structures and Kremlin liberals are in for trouble.

To even consider a union with Belarus under these circumstances appears mere wishful thinking by soviet nostalgics, but might well be a test-balloon to see what room there is for a new political project by the security structures. Reunification of the Slavic lands - Belarus, and perhaps eventually Ukraine and even Kazakhstan - would be exactly the kind of task that would topple the construction of a new and successful Russia the entire Putin presidency has been about. If Putin were to sign an agreement on political union with Belarus, it would be as if reverting the 1991 Belavezha accords, signifying the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That would be a thoughtless revanchist act of the magnitude of Compiègne, but perhaps those are the sentiments in Russia presently.

A union between Russia and Belarus fundamentally contradicts the Putin plan's policy of modernization, and the only reason why it might still be seriously considered, would be as a concession from the liberals to the security structures for letting Medvedev succeed Putin as president of Russia. The question one must then ask, is if the ongoing Kremlin power struggle has been allowed to go so far, as to enable even the craziest ideas. If the union and similar ideas would materialise, people will in a few years time look back with nostalgia to the relative peace and quiet of the Putin era.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Georgia shoots down Russian plane?

According to Georgian TV-channel Rustavi 2, Georgian interior ministry forces today shot down a Russian fighter over the Kodori gorge of breakaway region of Abkhazia. The interior ministry tonight confirms that its forces has indeed shot down a Russian plane in a remote part of Georgia. Russia, on its part, emphatically denies any such incidence and representatives of both the Foreign and Defence Ministries speak of Georgian provocations. Pending furhter information, contradictory statements cease the day. Still, it seems that the conflict between Russia and Georgia is about to heat up even more, though hopefully not in armed confrontation.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Russia: Going Off the Air or Out of Air?

When the BBC goes off the air, civilisation is at an end. At least, so seems to have been the British view during the Cold War, as submarine captains had orders to open the envelopes for the nuclear arms' codes when the BBC fell silent. Now, this bastion of free speech and independent media is silenced by authorities in Russia, BBC reports.

On Friday, the BBC announced that its Russian partner, Bolshoe Radio, has been ordered by the authorities either to take Russia's last FM-relay of the BBC's Russian Service off the air or be shut down. That would make Bolshoe Radio the third and final Russian radio station, in the last months, that has been forced to quit BBC broadcasts in Russian.

Bolshoe Radio, which was recently purchased by the Finam investment group, was "allowed for 18% of --- content to be foreign-produced." Now, the radio station has been ordered to produce all its programming itself. The new owner of Bolshoe Radio denies that the decision to take the BBC off the air was made with outside prompting, and instead states that the radio station cannot send foreign propaganda. According to the BBC, a spokesman for Bolshoe Radio said it is "well known that the BBC was set up to broadcast foreign propaganda" and that "any media which is government-financed is propaganda."

However, it is beyond doubt that the BBC Russian Service was taken off the air by the Russian Federal Media Monitoring Service, Rossvyazokhrankultura (cf. "Russia silences its free voices?"). The head of the Russian authority, Boris Boyarskov, thus plainly states that his agency was behind shutting down the BBC in Russia, according to Interfax news agency:

The licensee who was organizing broadcasting on this frequency should have indicated the name of the mass media outlet, the BBC, in its plan, which it failed to do. We carried out checks on this and issued the broadcaster with a warning that it should only be giving air time to those mass media outlets which have been stipulated in the programming plan and that it should bring its broadcasting into line with this programming plan.
The statement that the BBC would broadcast "state propaganda" is surely a novelty in fabricating pretexts for smothering media freedom. The BBC is renowned throughout the world for its independent news coverage, and any attempt by a British government to limit the BBC's freedom would likely result in its eventual resignation. Such is considered the power of the free word in Britain, that when the BBC goes off the air - freedom is presumed at an end.

Thus, another free voice is silenced for Russians, eventually smothering the souls of the people. Is it a coincidence that the lyrics of Vysotsky's song "Спасите наши души" (Save Our Souls) come to mind?

Спасите наши души! - Мы бредим от удушья.
Спасите наши души! - Спешите к нам!
Услышьте нас на суше! Наш SOS все глуше, глуше...
И ужас режет души. - Напополам...

Save our souls! We are slowly smothered. Save our souls! Make haste to us! Hear our sorrows! Our SOS grows unheard... And horror cuts our souls in halves.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Yeltsin: Selling out Russia

Now it is official what everyone in the business has known for the last 15 years. Back in 1991, Boris Yeltsin offered Finland to buy back Karelia - lost to the Soviet Union in WW II. This public secret has now been "revealed" by Finnish paper Kainuun Sanomat, which breaks a silent understanding in Finnish establishment of suppressing public debate on relations with Russia.

In late December 1991, the Soviet Union awaited its final dissolution. Earlier in the month, the Belovezha agreement had effectively torpedoed the USSR, and republic after republic ceded from the Union. On 25 December, president Gorbachev resigned, and by New Year the red flag was lowered from the pinnacles of the Kremlin. In its place, the Russian tricolor was hoisted, signalling a Russia of uncertainty. As a new nation, Russia was in dire need of recognition as a sovereign and successor state of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, its economy was in free fall, with food shortages and an industry in total disarray. In both respects, Russia needed to become a player on the new world stage.

All this is well-known history now, but still serves to contextualise the situation when Yeltsin - allegedly - offered the return of Karelia in exchange for much needed money. On an ideological level, Russia's new leadership needed to part with the past and the injustices of history to build a new nation. Yeltsin had thus previously supported the independence of the Baltic states, partly out of personal conviction, and partly to further undermine Gorbachev's position. There was also a liberalising belief that one way out of the problems was by local and individual initiatives. Thus, in June 1991, Yeltsin had urged Russia's regions to take as much sovereignty as they could digest. Also, a similar offer was made to Japan for the return of the Kurile islands, which the Soviet Union had conquered in 1945. The offer to Japan was still on the table until May 1993, when Yeltsin cancelled a visit to Japan for further talks on the issue, whereafter no mention has been made on it from the Russian side.

According to Kainuun Sanomat, in response to the Russian offer, Finnish president Mauno Koivisto appointed a secret group to analyse the costs for regaining Karelia. An initial cost of reconstruction was estimated to 13 billion euro, but subsequently the price tag increased to 71 billion euro. Obviously, this was too high a price to pay for Karelia, and - even though Russia repeatedly reiterated the offer during spring 1992 - president Koivisto in the end told Yeltsin in July 1992 that "Finland cannot afford Karelia."

Obviously, there were also security policy considerations, as the return of Karelia would bring Finland within sight of St. Petersburg - a problem that Russia historically had taken issue with. Also, Finnish public opinion seemed ambivalent or straightout negative to the idea, so it might have proven politically hazardous to raise the issue publicly. Still, regaining Karelia was publicly discussed in Finland at the time, even though few may actually have realised that there was a concrete offer on the table. Then, the main proponents for the this cause were nationalist Karelian exile organisations, which only served to make the generation having lived through the war increasingly apprehensive. The price in human lives and suffering had been too high to once more risk the chance of having Finland's great neighbour too close at hand. The price once paid by the loss of Karelia - 10% of Finnish territory and 400,000 refugees - was simply too high to risk its reiteration in the future. A final reason why the Russian offer was turned down might have been an impending economic crisis - partly due to the total loss of trade with Russia after soviet demise - bringing mass unemployment to Finland.

So, how has the Finnish establishment reacted to these news? Well, denial seems to be the word of the day in Helsinki. Despite the fact that Koivisto on numerous occasions has both said and written things, strongly supporting that there actually was a Russian offer, he simply states through his secretary that these news "do not feel familiar." Also, most high-ranking politicians and diplomats of those days vehemently deny anything of the sort of a Russian offer to return Karelia. It is more than obvious that official Finland now closes it ranks in face of an alternative to official history.

Why the Karelia affaire is disclosed right now is unclear. Ever since 1991, information about the Russian offer has been covered by media and documentaries, although often more as a footnote than as the main story. The difference this time over though, seems to be that now there may be detailed information exactly about how the entire affaire was handled. Another motive may be that some Finnish interests now want to discredit the last moral justifications for Finland's post-war appeasement policy in relation to the Soviet Union. With an increasingly menacing Russia at its borders, and a debate on Finnish accession to NATO out in the cold, this may prove an opportunity for NATO-adherents to undermine proponents of more accomodating relations with Russia, in contrast to what would be the result of Finnish NATO-membership.

So, why these massive denials. If there was a Russian offer on the table - as much now indicates - it seems the only decent and sound decision would nevertheless have been to turn it down. Opting for status quo instead of staggering costs in a dire and uncertain economic situation in addition to the great uncertainties of how a future Russia would develop, seems the most secure and responsible decision to make. If so, president Koivisto would once more have risen to the task of being a statesman of the best Finnish tradition.

Still, memory is short, and presuming that the public in retrospect would be able to correctly assess the situation in the early 1990s is perhaps too much to ask for. Therefore, what is at stake is the reputation and historical verdict of an entire generation of politicians in Finland, which only serves as a driving-force to making the Karelia affaire into a true scandal. Perhaps, the right thing to do - instead of continued denial - would simply be to proudly confess that this was the only responsible thing to do given the historical circumstances. This would though not be in line with Finnish tradition, which perhaps is the reason why it is good that this affaire now comes out into the open. As Russia is returning to the past it parted with in 1991, Finland may need to part with a past it never totally left behind. As long as this is not the case, Finland will continue to walk a thin line in its relations with Russia.

Finally, as for Yeltsin's part in the Karelia affaire, most Russians would today claim this as further evidence that he sold out Russia. Yeltsin's sense of a historical role and obligation to part with and try to make good for the crimes of communism is something current Russia wants to forget. Paradoxically, exactly this morale and courage of the early Yeltsin, to stand up for his beliefs in a democratic and just Russia, is what he will go down in history for. To this should also be added Yeltsin's attempts to put Finlandisation behind in relations between Moscow and Helsinki.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Putin: What a Man...

Beware female readers. Putin does it again. In a widely published photo "strip", Russian president Putin poses to the cameras with his shirt off, during a visit to Tuva together with ex-playboy, prince Albert of Monaco. So, should one swoon and - like the pop-group "Singing together" exclaim: "I want a man like Putin"? Probably not. Instead, Putin succeeds in making himself an object of ridicule as a would-be international statesman.

It is becoming embarassingly obvious that Russian president Putin has gone fishing in anticipation of next year's presidential elections. Instead, he seems to be cultivating his image as Russia's strong man in more aspects than one. Thus, during a visit to Siberian republic of Tuva recently, Putin took the opportunity to flex his muscles to photographers on the banks of the river Yenisey.

As recently reported, covering the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic games, Putin's generation is influenced by a cult of strength fostered by soviet sports: "that this cult of masculine strength had homoerotic overtunes --- is still evident in current Russian society. --- It would be quite impossible to even imagine Putin's Western contemporaries - such as Schröder, Chirac, or Blair - posing for 'swimsuit pictures' as a means of improving their political image. Still, this kind of pictures of Putin and other Russian politicians are easily available on the Internet." A funny coincidence this time is that Putin took Monegasque prince Albert on a wildlife adventure in gratitude of his support for Russia's 2014 Olympic bid. One wonders who of them won the playboy competition - Putin or Albert.

So, is Vladimir Putin "Siberia's Marlboro Man"? Well, the image of Putin as attractice to women is far from new. In 2002, Russian girl pop group "Singing together" had a one hit wonder with its "I Want Someone Like Putin" with such catchy phrases like ''If only I could find a man like Putin, full of strength." That the song shot to the top of the charts when launching the Putinist movement "Working Toghether" - a forerunner to today's Nashi - was considered a mere coincidence by Putin aides.

Still, we have seen cases of denial and false modesty many times before, when talk about a Putin cult has been at sway. It is no real secret that Putin's spin-doctors put down a lot of work on cultivating the Russian leader's image as a strong man, even though Putin himself always "reacts" with dismay and calls for restraint in too overt idolisation. This time over, it might well be that Putin - in contrast to most world leaders - simply saw it natural to pose like this to photographers, given the setting. Still, seeing the pictures of Putin, one cannot help asking: What a man of sound judgement would do something like this? Regrettably, most Russian would reply: "What a man, what a man, what a mighty good man."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Poland's Political Purgatory

This week, Polish president Lech Kaczyński called for early parliamentary polls this autumn. However, it is unlikely that elections will put a stop to Poland's political crisis. Instead, early polls may propel Poland into a prolonged political purgatory - further polarising positions between parties and political generations.

For long, there was unity to avoid early elections within the ruling coalition government. The dominant party in cabinet, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by the Kaczyński twins, has shunned the option of early elections, while going to the polls this autumn, would cause the next elections to coincide with Poland's 2011 EU presidency. For remaining coalition partners, the Self-Defence Party and the League of Polish Families, early elections hold the prospects of potential political annihilation.

Therefore, it is only after months of cabinet turmoil that the Polish president has finally concluded that there was no other way out than to take the drastic step in calling for early elections. Still, having sacked Self-Defence Party leader, Andrzej Lepper, from government earlier this summer, the for long put off outcome seems unavoidable. What long-term consequences early elections will bring is still unclear, but one might suppose Polish politics will see further crisis and upheaval in coming years. What is at stake is how the generation shift in Polish society will be managed - either purging the communist legacy or leaving history behind.

Poland's transition from communist rule was established by the 1989 Round Table Agreement between the outgoing communist regime and the ascending Solidarność movement. The Round Table resulted in a "contract" for social unity in the face of Poland's democratisation and economic liberalisation. In essence, the communists traded immunity in exchange for ceding power to Solidarność. The Round Table agreement has, over the years, been heavily criticised, but must still be regarded an instrument for the peaceful transition of power in Poland, which in effect meant the end of a divided Europe by the 1945 Yalta agreement.

How to deal with the past, has become the central issue in Polish politics with the rise to power of the Kaczyński twins. Their policy of lustracja represents the wrath of the malcontents - a revanchist policy for all those former dissidents, members of Solidarity, or ordinary people, who never got a slice of the pie during the 1990s' privatisation. Their populist target is the "Salon" - communists, apparatchiks, bureaucrats, and collaborateurs, who were able to benefit from the privatisation schemes as only the very top echelons of the communist system were removed from power. However, having not previously dealt with history, has made most politicans potential victims of persecution, as more or less fabricated scandals about a communist past have often come in handy when populists or others have wanted to permanently discredit next to any public figure. Being able to taint leading personalities of the Solidarity generation, has become a method for young and aspiring politicians to make careers and gain power by removing their seniors by rumours and allegations.

Lustracja also illustrates the generation gap in Polish politics. Today, the Kaczyńskis' PiS is probably the party in Poland with the largest proportion of young people among its ranks. Most other parties represent "have-beens" like former president Aleksander Kwasniewski's Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej (SLD), the intellectual Unia Wolności (UW), or Platforma Obywatelska (PO). It is true, opinion polls often give PO high figures as the main opposition party, but come election day, voters may well turn their backs to this market-oriented liberal party.

The simple truth is most likely that few of the opposition's potential activists or voters among the young generation either do not care or have found a future abroad instead. If you want to do a fast political career in Poland today, PiS' populist policies - and not the opposition parties - offer the best chances for advancement. Ignoring politics seems to be the mindset of many Poles. In the 2005 parliamentary polls, PiS gained 28% of the merely 40% of the electorate participating in the elections, and has in effect been running Poland on this weak basis ever since.

For many young Poles, they see their future in the European Union. Still, that does not mean that they equal Poland's future with that of the EU. Instead, many educated Poles in this generation seek a future abroad, in Ireland or Great Britain, producing at least a temporary brain-drain, as in the case of the Baltic States. Domestic opinion about the Union has, to the contrary, for long been skeptic, and the Kaczyński twins are no exception to this rule. In the EU, Poland has thus come to be associated with extreme partisanship, to the point that the country has even been willing to jeopardise the future of the Union. Until recently, playing the nationalist card towards the EU has been both popular and accepted by the Polish people, which has seen little in return for its membership. However, recent EU support to Poland in the meat-war with Russia may be a first sign for swaying opinion more in favour of the Union. Still, with parliamentary elections coinciding with the Polish EU presidency, many European politicians may have reason to fear what Poland might come up with in 2011.

To conclude, with populists in power, an opposition representing the past, and an increasing institutionalisation of political purges, Poland seems set for a prolonged political purgatory in the coming four years. The only remedy would be if the country's voters would use the ballot box to oust the Kaczyński twins from power in the upcoming autumn elections, but then the question is if the opposition might have a viable future to offer the Poles, nationally and as a truly integrated part of the European Union. Regrettably, the odds seem to be on the side of continued political turmoil.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sochi 2014: Burden or Blessing?

What will Russia be like in 2014? This is the first thought arising, after the initial joy of learning that Sochi won its candidacy for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The next thought is what the games will do to wonderful Sochi, sprawling by the Black Sea at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. And, indeed, what will the Olympics do to Russia?

As much as one feels joy for Sochi and Russia, one is filled with apprehension of what role the Olympics might play in the development of future Russia. On the positive side, though, it is delightful that nowadays major sports' events go to Eastern Europe. Earlier this year, Kiev and Warzaw were granted the UEFA 2012 soccer championship, and one might expect similar events to take place in other East European countries in the future. This is a clear sign that Eastern Europe has come out of the shadows of the 1990s, and that these states are now on the verge of being considered equals among nations, in the very subjective eyes of the world.

Also, arranging the Olympics will bring jobs, growth, and development to the Russian Black Sea region. The downside of it is, of course, the negative side-effects of exploitation, and Greenpeace has been an ardent opponent of Sochi's Olympic bid, fearing devastating consequences to the unique and fragile natural environment of the region.

The major fear though, is what political role an Olympic game may play for an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Historically, the Olypmpics have too often been exploited for political reasons, and used as a vehicle for competition instead of cooperation between states. Starting with the Berlin 1936 Olympics, the games have at times been an instrument of propaganda, instead of the vehicle to bring nations together in the peaceful exercise of sports, as intended by the Olympic ideals. At the peak of the Cold War, the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 summer games serve to illustrate how far from these ideals states may go - even in sports - to pursue petty propaganda interests.

The Soviet discovery of the propaganda value of sports also has a tragic history. Already in the 1950s, Stalin initiated what, by some, has been called the Soviet sports' war, as part of the growing international tension of the early Cold War period. In the 1960s, a whole generation of soviet children was screened for athletic aptitude, and thousands of potential talents were put into special sports' schools from an early age. However, far from everyone can become a champion, and the ones - the overwhelming majority - that failed in the constant competition were discarded with little education or ability else than the mere force and tenacity they had acquired through a life-long existence of training. It was simply a spoil-system beyond imagination.

The reality facing the outcasts of soviet sports was a downfall from the pinnacle of society to the bottom of the social ladder. The only alternative to the sort of menial labour, where physical strength was demanded, was to enter a life of crime. Thus, the sportsmeny formed an ideal breeding-ground for organised crime. They possessed all the qualities - cultivated from an early age - needed for success within this line of business: ambition, competitiveness, ruthlessness, discipline, resolution, loyalty, and team-spirit. As society had turned their back on them, they now turned their backs on society, and in the chaos of soviet demise achieved many of the successes in crime that they had been denied in sports.

However, what was most frightening with the development of soviet sports, was how it excacerbated the elitist ideology of the system. Sports came to epitomise the cult of strength associated with totalitarianism. It was an ideology thriving on the comtempt for weakness, in which masculinity was associated with strength and purity, and femininity with weakness and impurity. That this cult of masculine strength had homoerotic overtunes - as was the case in Nazi Germany - is still evident in current Russian society. With no intention of offence by such a comparison, it would be quite impossible to even imagine Putin's Western contemporaries - such as Schröder, Chirac, or Blair - posing for "swimsuit pictures" as a means of improving their political image. Still, this kind of pictures of Putin and other Russian politicians are easily available on the Internet. Even an upright liberal as former SPS-leader Boris Nemtsov - and incidentally also the great son of Sochi - posts "glamour pictures" on his personal website. What Putin and Nemtsov have in common is that they both belong to the generation of soviet sports, which now forms the leadership of Russia. How the élitist ideals that formed Putin's generation will express themselves in tandem with the 2014 Sochi Olympics is only for the future to see. Still, sports and politics is not a good mixture for a state in authoritarian spin.

It is true that the father of the Olympic movement, count de Coubertin, formulated the motto of the games as Citius, Altius, Fortius - Swifter, Higher, Stronger. However, this expresses an ambition for the common improvement and development of mankind through sports, instead of the competitive elimination between individuals and nations that signifies élitism. Indeed, the very symbol of the games - the olympic rings - represent the unity of the continents, and in ancient Greece, the Olympics stood out as a period of peace, even during times of turmoil and war. As count the Coubertin himself stated: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

As Russia has now been awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is an invaluable opportunity for the country to reach recognition among nations by striving to fulfill the Olympic ideals also for its people and politics. One can thus only hope that Russia's leaders will be wise enough to embrace these ideals for the benefit of society, instead of using it for purposes of political propaganda in an era of increasing international tension. Or else it can become a burden for future Russian generations, instead of the blessing it might bring. However, nobody knows what Russia will be like in 2014.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Swedish East European Blog Update 2007

Should a foreign minister be allowed to blog? This has been a burning issue in the Swedish media and blogosphere this year. The blog in question, Carl Bildt's Alla dessa dagar, is a personal weblog, describing the daily chores and reflections of his life as foreign minister. His critics, mostly representing traditional media, hold that this sort of one-way-communication belittles the critical role of media, and that Bildt runs Sweden's foreign policy through a blog.

That Bildt is next to the only prominent Swedish blogger, who regularly writes about Eastern Europe, is a little recognised fact. With a life-long commitment to regional issues, support for the independence of the Baltic States in the early 1990s, and role as EU mediator in former Yugoslavia, Bildt has insights and knowledge in this area unique to Swedish politics. Regrettably, and in contrast to his dormant Bildt Comments, his current Swedish-language blogging efforts at Alla dessa dagar are but daily notes dotted down in the margins of a life as a travelling salesman in foreign policy, and lack the clear views and analysis that he previously provided his readers with. It would probably have been much more interesting if Bildt's critics had been proven right, viz. that he would actually run Swedish foreign policy through a blog. Instead, it might seem that Bildt has fallen victim to the noblesse oblige of his office, by self-imposed censorship. The truth of the matter may, however, be much closer at hand: As foreign minister, life is simply too demanding to write analytically in the precious little spare time available.

In comparison to the 2006 review of Swedish blogs on Eastern Europe, Bildt is one of the few bloggers remaining. Only about half of the blogs in the 2006 survey are still active. On the positive side though, the number of Swedish East Europe bloggers has expanded, including some very promising new blogs, forming potential nuclea of blog clusters. The evolving pattern is thus a division into media, politcal, Slavophile, organisational, and expat blogs.

A decisive point for the expansion of the issue specific blogosphere was probably the October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya. The leading Swedish evening paper, Aftonbladet, intensified coverage on Russia, and started cooperating with Novaya Gazeta. Recently, some experiments have also been made with blogging, by Johanna Melén's Moskva direkt, and one might expect this to become a recurrent feature of reporting.

The most regionally initiated blogger among Swedish journalists is indisputably Kalle Kniivilä of the Sydsvenska Dagbladet daily. He regularly posts stories, mainly about politics, in Swedish, Finnish, Esperanto, and Russian at his blog diVERse. Kniivilä's enthusiasm for his subject clearly shines through, and despite clear and strong views, he delivers a reasonably balanced coverage. The only downside of it is that you never know which language to expect, potentially discouraging regular reading. Still, it is definitely worth the effort.

Another journalist blogging about Russia is Sylvia Asklöf of Barometern-OT daily. She regularly blogs in Swedish at Sylvanien - a title obviously alluding to both her own name and the subjects she covers. The intention is to deliver her own reactions to our time, developments in Russia, and some tidbits about Swedish politics. By blogging, she shares her reflections and experiences of some 15 years as a russophile.

An infant Swedish East European blog cluster is the political, totally dominated by liberals. With the Swedish International Liberal Forum (SILC) as a base, a number of blogs about the region have been started. The first was Tobias Ljungvall's blog on Belarus, which regrettably closed down about a year ago. Instead, SILC activities have given rise to e.g. Amanda Lövkvist's blog Lindrig huliganism (Swedish), which main focus is on the situation of the Russian liberal opposition. Lövkvist - as was the case with Ljungvall - had also a book published by SILC on the topic of her blog. It also seems Amanda is running a blog in Russian called olydiagron, with views from Stockholm and St. Petersburg.

Another liberal in the blogosphere is Andreas Ribbefjord, with Andreas's Blog on Russian and Swedish foreign policy and current affairs. Coverage on Russia is, to a great extent, based on experiences from cooperation between the Swedish liberal party and its Russian counterpart Yabloko and the dissenters' movement.

Similar to both the political and media blogs are a few Slavophile blogs, which often offer interesting views and insights. Mi Lennhag at provides really good coverage of Eastern Europe with a focus on Russia. Anna-Maria Norman posts various pieces on the Ukraine at en salig blandning, and currently also runs a summer 2007 Ukrainian travelogue - ukraina 2007 - with her friend Hanna Söderbaum. Norman has both commitment to and insight into the Ukraine, which hopefully will encourage her further publishing efforts. A recent Slavophile addition is blogger Bjolso, who writes about politics and society at Ett annat Ryssland and about music at Russian music video blog.

The third tendency is that organisations and institutions dealing with the region are beginning to discover the blog media. Already last year, the Swedish Union of Journalists used Fredrik Nejman's Ukraina-blogg to cover a cooperation project with its Ukrainian counterpart. Now, as this cooperation seems finalised, its blog will probably go into hiatus. An NGO-activist, Swedish Amnesty Russia coordinator, is Johanna Lärken, who runs Med blicken mot öster, which regularly presents views and reflections on Russian politics and civil society. Also, Gunilla Lindberg - a member of the Swedish-Polish Association - publishes Bulletinenbloggen, as a complement to a Swedish-Polish online journal. A nascent Polish exile blogger community is also discernible, revolving around the foremost Swedish expert on Polish politics, Jakub Święcicki. At the Święcicki blog, he writes about politics and society - currently Poland under the reign of the Kaczyński twins. Politics, culture, and society are also the subjects of choice for other bloggers in this promising group of Polish exile kulturnye and intellectuals. Furthermore, the special Swedish system of adult education - the Folk High Schools - leaves its imprints on the blogosphere by Ove R. Eriksson's blog Eurasia Studies, reflecting on the experiences of East European studies at Österlens folkhögskola. The organisational category may also include Göran Dalin's Allt om Georgien - a hub for the Georgian diaspora community in Sweden - covered already in last year's review.

Then, there are the expat blogs. A blogger already known to many interested in the area is Erik Petersson's Dushanbe Pictures, which is still going strong in contrast to his Moscow blog Samtidigt i Moskva that seems to have gone into indefinite hiatus. With Dushanbe Pictures, Petersson regularly posts pictures from Tajikistan, and his photos are really worth seeing. The Central Asian perspective is complemented by a Caucasian, with C-G Erixon's CG Bloggin' - until recently based in Abkhazia.

Among the seniors of Swedish East European bloggers is Murmansk-based Wictoria Majby's Ryska Rövarhistorier, which after a period of hiatus, has recently resumed posting Russian cock-and-bull stories. A welcome addition is A Russia of my own, by Josefina - an aspiring writer based in Yekaterinburg. Writing in English, she posts stories and reflections from a provincial perspective of the Russian Urals, with the motto "Ambition mixed with vodka gets me up in the morning." However, she is not exclusive among regional reporters. Erik i Ryssland is a Swedish expat who has been living in and reporting from Rostov-na-Donu ever since 2005.

Turning to the big cities, another fine newcomer is Expat i Ryssland by female boxer Anna Ingman, who blogs about a training-existence in St. Petersburg. She also contributes with regular chronicles to the Västerbottens-Kuriren daily. Guran i Moskva and Thomas i Moskva are two blogs by Swedish teachers, telling about life and school in Russia. Furthermore, Kina i Moskva blogs about experiences and fashion in the Eastern metropolis. Turning west, Mats i Warszwa writes about his endeavours in the Polish capital. Last but not least, Sweden has - for the last year - had a welcome visit by one of the long-standing Russia bloggers, namely American expat Megan Case. Her unpretentious and down-to-earth accounts of life in Russia have gradually developed into an indispensable component of the expat Russia blogosphere, and she has also recently started blogging in Russian at американка, к сожалению.

To sum up, the Swedish blogosphere on Eastern Europe is undergoing expansion and some of the necessary stabilisation to form the dynamic density needed for a blog community. What is also positively surprising is that the number of women blogging about Eastern Europe equals that of the men, which seems an exception to the international East European blogosphere. A disadvantage for the international audience is that blogs, with few exceptions, are in Swedish. For Swedish bloggers though, the domestic audience seems larger than the international, even when blogging about events and phenomena taking place abroad.

As for contents, it is obvious that the Swedish blogosphere on Eastern Europe is much more Swedish than it is East European. For better or for worse, much of it reflects both the norms and values of Swedish society, and its views and perceptions of Eastern Europe. This is especially so when it comes to Russia blogging, where the idealistic often takes precedence over the realistic, which may prove dubious in the long-run, as Swedish views and Russian realities become too divergent. Still, despite this caveat, the Swedish blogosphere on Eastern Europe seems to meet with a bright future - a situation unforeseen but a year ago.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kars at Cultural Crossroads?

Kars, at Turkey's border to the Caucasus, is today mostly known as the place where Pamuk's novel Snow takes place, among raging snowstorms and conflicts between the modern and the tradtional. Kars is a contrast and a crossroads - a natural anomaly in current Turkey, where it roughly symbolises "the back of beyond." Pamuk's hero Ka obviously alludes to Kafka's Joseph K - the lonely male hero entwined in a chaos of events beyond his control, which rules his life and actions. The Turkish name of the novel Kar (snow) carries that reference as well as a pun of the city name.

The real Kars lies beyond the rapid development and increasing growth of modern Turkey, but is also at the centre of its historical identity crisis and rolling borders. Pamuk's Kars bears an important likeness to reality: The situation for women appears depressing. Despite the open-minded girls that address you in English in the streets, women's organisations active in the region speak about staying customs that makes one think of the historical and mythical Caucasian bride robberies. That the city has received a university, in Turkish called the "Caucasian," naturally instills much hope for the future, regardless of evident poverty and barren highlands.

Citizens themselves speak about how local economy would benefit from opening up the border to Armenia, with an injection to local businesses as an expected effect – a northeastern parallel to Gaziantep's rise to the position of industrial hub of southern Turkey, focussing on border trade with Syria and beyond. The border to Armenia has only been kept open during 1991-93, viz. after the fall of the Soviet Union but before the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabağ conflict. Turkish-Armenian relations are infected by the echoes of history. Attempts made at regional integration, e.g. within the area of infrastructure, containing both railway lines and pipelines common between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, are apparently formed to circumvent Armenia. That it is easier to step closer to Georgia is illustrated by the fact that Turkish Airlines this year opens a domestic route to Batumi, whose new airport has been constructed by a Turkish company, in order to serve the northeastern provinces of Turkey.

Beyond Kars – literally on the border to Armenia – is Ani, a medieval city in ruins of magnificent proportions, which previously was an Armenian capital and a trade centre of importance along the Silk road. The city, during its height, was challenged only by Constantinople in power and splendour. Here the name of the princely family Bagrationi – so familiar in Russian history – still echoes, even though Ani in the course of history changed hands between Armenian, Georgian, and Seljuk rule, before the hordes of Timerlane finally laid the city in ruins at the end of the 14th century. Ever since, Kars has been the regional hub. Today, the main threat to Ani paradoxically emanates from Armenia. The quakes and splinters from a quarry on the Armenian side of the border allegedly threaten to damage and destroy remaining cathedrals, with Turkish protests as a consequence.

The architecture, culture, history, and art of Kars are characterised from having been molded over the centuries at the crossroads of three empires – the Russian, the Turkish, and the Persian – which in different ways are still present. Georgian, Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish influences are visible in the underlayer of these. Carpets and rugs bear resemblance to the Caucasian, and the Tula samovars still simmer in the cafés. The modern city plan is clearly Russian, as the city belonged to the Russian empire during 1878-1921, when there was an ambition to build a "petit Peterbourg" at the foot of the Caucasus. Straight boulevards lined with proportionate Russian 19th century architecture still remains an emblem of Kars. Above the city, the castle dating back to the Bagrationi era hovers. Beneath it, the mossy Armenian cathedral of the Apostles soars aloft, saved for posterity as a mosque, with iconostasis remaining and the addition of wall-to-wall prayer carpeting.

With Russian rule from 1878, the modern history of Kars was begun. Having been a century old bone of contention between the Ottoman and Russian empires, with recurrent Russian sieges and conquests in 1807, 1828, and 1855, Kars eventually was awarded Russia due to the San Stefano peace agreement concluding the 1877-78 Turco-Russian war. Thus, the Turks were driven out of the region until the Russian revolution.

In 1892, the population of the Kars region consisted of 24% Turks, 21.5% Armenians, 15% Kurds, 14% Azeris, 13.5% Greek, 7% Russians, and 5% Turkmen. After the 1918 peace of Brest-Litovsk, Kars faced turbulent years. At first, the region befell the Southwest-Caucasian Republic, only to be occupied by the Democratic Republic of Armenia in 1919. By the 1920 Turko-Armenian war and the Alexandropol agreement, Kars was returned to Turkey. Still, before the ink had dried, the Bolsheviks conquered Armenia and the Kars issue was yet again unresolved.

It was only by the 1921 Kars agreement, between the RSFSR and the even younger Turkish Republic, that the border was finally regulated and Turkey regained its reign over the region. In the light of history, it was an agreement between two in many ways strikingly similar new regimes that had been made: Revolutionary Russia and Republican Turkey – both infant states after the imperial downfalls caused by WW I. That this legacy is still cherished is evident by the fact that the train wagon, in which the Kars agreement was signed, still remains in the city, as a memorial to the imperial struggle over the region. A question of interest in this context is how Turkeys' and Soviet Russia's obvious ability to enter into international agreements (for Turkey this might actually have been the first as the Republic was formally proclaimed several years later) influenced world perceptions of the growing capacities of these new states.

The loss of Kars for long remained an open wound in Soviet self-image. After WW II, Stalin thus prepared to reconquer the region. He was prevented in this ambition only by the determined veto of Churchill.

Kars forms part of current Turkey, but still remains in its periphery. Gradually, the city sets its imprints on the mental map even beyond the literary legacy of Pamuk. Last autumn, it hosted an international film festival on a European theme. The city takes part in cross-border cooperation activities in the Caucasus and within the Black Sea cooperation. In today's dynamic Turkey, Kars might perhaps find its own way to link its multi-faceted historical heritage to the challenges that future brings.

Text: Vilhelm Konnander & Josa Kärre
Pictures: Josa Kärre

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Горькая чаша?

During his recent visit to Sweden, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, was obliged to drink a cup of malice, literally and in terms of Russian foreign policy implementation. Attending a dinner of CBSS-ministers, the wine on the menu was Georgian. It thus seems that Lavrov took this opportunity to enjoy something banned in Russia, in a parallel to US politicians smoking Cuban cigars.

The source is none other than Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, who mentions this on his blog. Apparently, Georgian wine was served for dinner during a boat trip with foreign ministers of the Baltic Sea region, within the context of the CBSS. What Lavrov thought about this, Bildt does not tell, but at least the Swedish schnapps was a hit.

The Swedish wine monopoly, Systembolaget, recently introduced its first Georgian wine - a 2005 Teliani Valley Saperavi, which evidently was the wine enjoyed by the Russian foreign minister. The Saperavi grape is the most common in Georgian wines, which is used for brands like Kindzmarauli and Mukuzani from the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia. The Saperavi grape - often associated with one-year wines - is sweet in taste and often produces high alcohol levels. Besides Georgia, Saperavi is also nowadays to be found in Australian vineyards. Except the Saperavi, other popular grape varieties in Georgian wines are Alexandrouli and Mudzhuretuli, to be found in the famous Khvanchkara wines of Western Georgia.

Which type of Georgian wine Lavrov prefers is unknown, but it is safe to say that he did not - as generations of Russians - venture into any deeper discussion about the qualities of various Georgian wines. Probably he was wise not to, as some Stockholm malice might be better than Moscow's bitter cup, would it be known of Lavrov's wine consumption when abroad.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Gerontocrat Ghostbusters?

A spectre is haunting Eurasia - the spectre of Gerontocracy. All the Powers of new Europe are deserting a divided Union to shy away from this spectre: Bruxelles and Rome, Merkel and Blair, French anti-globalists and German Federalists.

The new Great Game over Central Asia between Russia and the West is becoming a struggle to either raise or exorcise the ghosts of gerontocratic systems. Russia's sphere of vital interests in the near abroad can only be preserved by control over infrastructure, and above all the flows of energy from the region. This is achieved by catering to the needs of a gerontocratic and corrupt system, originating from the soviet heritage, which Moscow has left the states of Central Asia with.

The West, to the contrary, has a vested interest in exploiting regional resources of oil and gas, and produce safe passages for receiving them. For long, the West was pragmatic in its approach to authoritarian regimes in the region, in order to reach the overarching goal of access to the coveted energy resources. Now, the realisation that it is impossible to work with corrupt and Machiavellian regimes is starting to dawn.

The summit between presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in May was bad news for the European Union and the United States. Presidents Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan spoke in favour of closer energy relations with Russia, and against developing the westward trans-Caspian gas project. As previously reported, the trans-Caspian gas project is the key to long-term profits for the Western alternative of transferring gas from Central Asia - the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC). Among BTC-investors are British Petroleum (BP) and American Chevron. Also, Royal Dutch Shell is about to lose its controlling stake in the Russian Far East Sakhalin-2 project, and BP is in trouble with its investment in the Siberian Kovykta gas field.

Western energy companies are certainly experiencing heavy setbacks in the FSU these days. As there is little to do as concerns Russia, the importance of Central Asian resources increase. Still, there is the question of the gerontocrat ghost - the inability to deal with the corrupt regimes of Central Asia. Then, what is companies such as BP and Shell going to do? Well, as the old movie tune goes:

If there's somethin' strange in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call - ghostbusters!
If it's somethin' weird an it don't look good
Who ya gonna call - ghostbusters!

So, who might be such a ghostbuster? Who are the energy moguls going to call to exorcise the spectre - get rid of the ghosts of gerontocracy? A qualified guess might be a traveller in political revolutions, with experience of dealing with the old post-communist foe. Who then would be a better candidate than former US Ambassador Richard Miles? That ambassador Miles was posted to Serbia before the overthrow of Milosevic, and to Georgia during the Rose revolution is, by many, regarded as no coincidence. Some even claim that Miles figured in the outskirts of Ukraine's Orange revolution. After retirement in 2005, ambassador Miles worked as Executive Director of the Open World Leadership Center - headed by James "Icon & the Axe" Billington. Now, it seems, Richard Miles is a man without a mission. So, why not take pity on this old man and turn to him for advice - even give him a job? Miles might just be the ghostbuster who - with a little help from his friends - could get rid of some of Central Asia's gerontocrat ghosts. Who would be more fit to bring democracy and market economy to Central Asia and, in the process, safeguard western energy interests in the region?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Pride & Prejudice

Gay rights are human rights. It is a paradox that the same rights, that served as the moral basis of liberation from the communist yoke in Eastern Europe, are now denied a group most in need of them. Still, today this is the case in large tracts of our continent, remaining a stain on the very same shield of liberty set to protect the right of the individual.

During the last few weeks, events related to LGBT-rights have given rise to both concerns and hopes about the situation of homosexuals in Central and Eastern Europe. Developments have clearly shown that homophobia is still rampant in the region, but all the same there are promising tendencies in some countries that at least some authorities have started to respond to international critique against official homophobia. Reviewing recent events, gives a somewhat more hetereogeneous picture than was the case only a year ago.

A few weeks ago, a celebrity homosexual was beaten beyond recognition in Lithuanian capital Vilnius. The only reason was that he was openly gay. He might as well have had a pink triangle stitchted to his chest. Homosexuality is simply not socially accepted in this deeply Catholic country, and people and parliamentarians alike do not hesitate to openly condemn this "pariah to society."

Last week, Amnesty criticised Lithuania for not respecting gay rights, actively hindering an EU-sponsored campaign "For Diversity - Against Discrimination" - in celebration of the Europan Year for Equal Opportunities for All. Now, the campaign has had to be delayed in anticipation of permission from Lithuanian authorities. Last week, the Vilnius Rainbow festival was denied the right to assembly in the capital. In response to the exposed situation for the Lithuanian LGBT-community, the European section of the International Gay and Lesbian Association (ILGA) has decided to arrange its annual conference in Vilnius this autumn.

Turning East to Moscow, a group of LGBT-activists - including several western parliamentarians - were brutally beaten by anti-gay groups, when trying to hand over a petition to mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Their simple plea was to argue for the permission to march through central Moscow during the 2007 Moscow Pride festival. While being beaten by skinheads, Russian police stood idly by watching the "spectacle" afar, only to afterwards arrest some thirty gay rights' activists, including two members of the European Parliament.

However, what might be considered a slight improvement was yesterday's Pride march in Latvian capital Riga, organised by the Mozaika network. With the experiences from last year's violent anti-gay protests in fresh memory, authorities now allowed some 1,000 activists to march the streets under heavy police protection. Still, the march has created a deep rift in the Latvian LGBT-community, and ILGA-Latvia has publicly denounced organisers as provocateurs and profiteers, whose actions will only worsen the situation in the country.

Another partial success was the 19 May Warsaw Pride festival, where some 5,000 LGBT-activists were, for the first time, allowed to undertake the march. Despite massive anti-gay protests, the Pride parade went by without the extensive violence we have got used to see in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. However, Poland remains a fundamentally homophobic country, and the Kaczyński twins, ruling Poland as President and Prime Minister, are among the country's foremost opponents of gay rights. Polish homophobia is, to be quite frank, on the edge of the ludicrous. Thus, last week, Poland's Children's Ombudsman considered banning the kids' show Teletubbies. Why? The reason is laughable: Apparently, one of the "male" characters in the show carries a handbag. Such a role model might prove a negative influence on Polish children, the Polish Ombudsman argued, as it might indicate the small blue figure was - GAY! Lo and behold! It was only after widespread ridicule in international media, that the Ombudsman decided to reconsider her position.

Gay Rights are Human Rights
Protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has gradually become a self-evident part of international law over the decades. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has been judged applicable on sexual orientation, thus safeguarding the same political rights to the LGBT-community as any other social or political movement.

In a regional context, the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms nowadays covers protection against sexual orientation discrimination, and the European Social Charter safeguards the social and economic rights of homosexuals.

In the framework of the European Union, the Treaty of Amsterdam enables the EU to fight sexual orientation discrimination as does the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The list is far from exhaustive, and serves only to illustrate how current international law protects the human rights of LGBT-individuals. Still, although many states of Central and Eastern Europe pride themselves with becoming part of Europe, prejudice prevails against homosexuals in large tracts of the region. It simply is not acceptable when politicians and people alike pursue a policy of public homophobia, as is the case in many of the abovementioned countries. Becoming part of Europe means becoming party to the humanistic social and cultural heritage of Europe. As long as this is not the case, the road to true integration remains long. The tragedy about sexual orientation discrimination in Central and Eastern Europe is however that it often is the same dissidents and democratisers who, during the soviet era, fought for human rights, that today deny one of the most exposed groups in society the very same rights they once held so dear. Obviously, the fruits of freedom are sown unequally.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Estonia-Russia: Maskirovka Demasked?

Strange rumours come out of Moscow these days. Indeed, would one believe in all gossip on the current power struggle in Russia, the world as we know it would be transformed. It is obvious that competing politico-financial interests are producing an increasingly incoherent and incomprehensive political landscape for the upcoming 2007-2008 elections. This is especially true when it comes to effects on foreign policy.

A recent rumour coming out of Moscow relates to the crisis between Russia and Estonia over the removal of the Bronze Soldier from central Tallinn. According to unofficial sources, some forces in Moscow were preparing a political initiative towards Estonia prior to the crisis to permanently defuse the explosive issue of this old soviet war monument. Thus, Moscow would actually have been preparing to offer Tallinn participation in moving the Bronze Soldier on the 9 May Soviet Victory day, provided that Russia would be allowed to play an active role in such a ceremony. Some people even claim that the Russian Ministry of Defence had ordered an honorary military guard company to train for such an event.

What an Estonian source claims happened - based on the same rumours - is that the Estonian government got wind of the Russian plans, and that Premier Andrus Ansip therefore opted for a quick removal of the Bronze Soldier. Ansip would thus have won over Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who had previously opposed removing the monument. As the argument allegedly ran, letting Russian troops once more march on Estonian soil, especially in connection with a Victory Day ceremony, would simply have been unacceptable to Estonian national sentiments. Still, actively refusing a Russian offer to - once and for all - defuse the Bronze Soldier issue between the two countries, might have proven even more difficult for Estonia in the European and international contexts. Tallinn might then have earnt a reputation as an unconciliatory state on the margin of Europe. Accordingly, these rumours hold that the Estonian government decided to remove the Bronze Soldier in good time before 9 May, in order to preempt a potential Russian initiative, as described above.

Well, rumours are not always to be believed, and this time they seem too fantastic to even consider being true. Still, the example serves to illustrate how hard it is to deliberate on current Russian policies to draw any credible conclusions. Also, the same or similar rumours are echoed both in Russia and abroad. Perhaps, the recipe should be to follow the example of the French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchainé, and start any discussion on current Russian politics with "Le Canard Enchainé ne dit pas, que..." - The Fettered Duck does not say that..." - thus safeguarding against being fooled by mere rumours. Then, at least one would be on the safe side in not believing all that comes out of Moscow these days, and at the same time not completely writing everything off as desinformation. The world is surely becoming an increasingly strange place, and hopefully rumours like these might amuse someone.

Note: The term "maskirovka" refers to the art of deception in soviet intelligence and military operations.