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.