Friday, February 24, 2012

Putin's evolution

In the early 2012 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin published a series of articles elaborating his proposals. has found few differences between the proposals made by Putin after he first took power in Russia in 2000-2001 and now, 12 years later.

I identified 6 out of 11 pairs of quotes correctly. I doubt many in Russia can do much better, where Putin is maintains almost 50% support without any significant change in his demagoguery. After all what can the public do - vote Communist?

In order to avoid boring the readers, the quotes are presented in random order, allowing you to guess which came from speeches in 2000-20001 and which from early 2012. In each pair of quotations one quote is from younger and one from older Putin. The answers are at the bottom. 

I translated the selected quotes from article (original in Russian).

On the economy:
1. Today the government's involvement is excessive in regards to property, entrepreneurship, even consumption. And on the other hand, the government remains passive in building of a unified economic space for the country, universal enforcement of the laws, defense of property rights.

2. Russia differs from many other countries by a rather large government sector in the economy and more intrusive involvement in regulations, while the methods of the latter lag behind existing alternatives. Our economic policy needs to be corrected in the direction of lowering the scale of government regulations, replacement of mandates by market mechanisms, and of administrative control - to insurance of responsibility.

3. Regrettably, business climate in our country is improving too slowly, and remains unfavorable.

4. During the last few years ... we started a range of reforms, directed towards improvement of business climate. But, there have been  no major breakthroughs yet.

5. A major reserve [of tax dollars lies] in stopping tax evasion through one-day businesses or 'off-shore' accounts. Honest business will only benefit from this - it won't have to compete with those, who flourish by engaging the shady operations and deceit of government.

6. The tax system today contributes to mass evasion of taxes, movement of economic activity into shadows, reduction of investment activity, and eventually - fall of competitiveness of Russian businesses.

7. The economy remains based on the price of raw materials. The government budget depends on the dynamics of world prices on energy. We are losing competitiveness in the global markets, which is oriented more and more towards innovation, on the new economics based on knowledge and technology.

8. We need to overcome the inertia of our locally invested capital, which - let's be frank - is unaccustomed to innovation, research projects and experimentation.

9. Hence, such a 'short breath' of politics, its narrow focus on self-preservation and division of power and property. This situation is traditionally the result of weak societal control over politicians, and under-development of civil society in Russia. This situation is gradually changing, but still very slowly.

10. The root cause of many of our failures is under-development of civil society and in inability of government to communicate and cooperate with it. The government is constantly grasping for the extremes - sometimes it forgets, other times it indulges the society. Meanwhile, there's the belief that in Russia everything depends on the government. The government is not responsible for everything. A great deal depends on Russian citizens themselves. Developed countries are characterized by the degree of responsibility, maturity of political parties, social organizations, and civil positions of mass media.

11. We will conduct social policy based on principles of all-inclusiveness and adequate quality of basic social benefits. First of all, we need to help those, whose income is considerably lower that the living minimum. Children of ministers can do without child's tax credits, and wives of bankers - without unemployment benefits.

Владимир Путин проводит первое заседание президиума Госсовета РФ, 2000 год. Фото из архива РИА Новости, Владимир Родионов
Vladimir Putin conducts the first meeting of the cabinet of Russian Federation. (year 2000)
From RIA News archive, photo by Vladimir Radionov.

12. In Russia we need to have a functional system of social mobility - social elevators - befitting a modern society. We need to learn to compensate for negative sides of market economy and its endemic inequality. We need to do it, as have learned other countries, which have long been living with capitalism. That means special support is received by children of poor families for education.

13. The letter of the law and real life and often far from each other.  In Russia, we have only a bare carcass of a civil society. Now we need patient, collaborative work for it to become a fully-fledged partner of the government. But - we're not always able to combine patriotic responsibility for the fate of the country with what Stolupin once call "civil frivolities".

14. ... we have enacted programs in support of social non-governmental organizations. In the future, we plan to considerably enlarge the scope of these programs. But, for them to work properly, we need to strongly counteract an innate distrust of bureaucrats for non-governmental organizations. Behind this bias is the desire not to share resources, and to avoid competition, and fear of actual responsibility for affairs entrusted to them.

15. About 40% of worlds' natural resources lie on our territory. Our population comprises only 2% of the world. The implications of this situation are clear. Without realizing a massive, long-term project of demographic development, growth of human capital, development of our territory, we risk becoming in a real sense "an empty space", the fate of which will not be decided by us.

16. We - the citizens of Russia - grow fewer in number every year. For several years already the population of the country shrinks annually by approximately 750 thousand people. If believe the prognoses ... in 15 years there will be 22 million fewer Russians. Think about this number: that's a seventh part of the country's population. If the current trajectory continues, the survival of the nation could be at stake. We are seriously in danger of becoming an ageing country. Today, the demographic situation is one of the most worrying.

Regarding the pension system

17. In conditions of significant reduction of country's population of the working age, and increase of of older population, it becomes essential to cardinally raise the effectiveness of social spending. If we wish to retain and even, to quantitatively improve, the situation we have not other choice.

18. Under the current system we cannot provide a descent quality of life to our pensioners, therefore we have to, without delay, establish mechanism of transfer to a really effective pension system. People are ready for this: the polls show that over 60% of Russian citizens consider it essential to drastically alter the very principles of our pension system.

Regarding education
19. Among national priorities I see the following ... to provide social equality in education. We are already used to the fact that selection of children into prestigious schools (and corresponding competition of their parents) starts in the first grade. Meanwhile, in many of our major cities there are school with persistently low educational results .... Children should not be hostages to social and cultural status of their families.

20. Education should rely only at the budgetary dispensation of resources. Non-budgetary financing of educational institution, in other words - and let's put it plainly - payment for education, has become the norm.  However, this market remains non-transparent, and that is an illegal market. Directors of schools use it at their own risk. Officially free education, in combination with real, but hidden payments corrupts students and educators. We need to clearly delineate the spheres of free education, access to which should be just and guaranteed, and paid education by giving it an adequate legal basis.

Regarding the foreign policy
21. Russia remains the nucleus of integration processes in the Cooperative, during the period of economic uplift in Russia new possibilities open up... The signing of an agreement for the establishment of a Eurasian economic Cooperative is only the first major step, but we're ready to continue to walk further in this direction.

22. We offer a model of major supra-national union, capable of becoming a pole of a modern [multi-polar] world, and the play a roll an effective "link" between Europe and the dynamic Asian-Pacific region. This means, among other things that ... we need to transition to a closer integration of economic and foreign policies, to form a fully-fledged economic union.

Years 2000-2001: Questions 1,3,6,7, 10,11,13,16,18, 20,21
Year 2012: Questions: 2,4,5,8,9,12,14,17,19,22

If consider myself knowledgeable about Russia, but I only got 12/22 correct, barely over 50%.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From Russia with arms

The Russian arm sales to Syria have continued despite Western protests. The photo on the right shows the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited Syria shortly after vetoing the proposal of UN Security Council that called for Assad to give up power in Syria. 
From Russia with lovely arms (and a veto)
What kind of arms has Russia been selling to Syria?

One of them is the most powerful mortar system in the world that fires 240 mm shells weighing nearly 300 lbs. The shells come in multiple types, including cluster munitions, with a lethal area equal to four football fields - great for crowd control.

The residents of Homs dig out fragments of large mortar shells from the rubble of their houses.

The tell-tale tail of 300 lbs mortar
240 mm mortar shell, with its distinctive tail
Origin of the shells falling on Homs is unambiguously Russian - no country makes mortar shells exceeding 160 mm. Russian army used these mortars to level Chechnya's capital Grozny in 1990's. 

Syria is known to have purchased the mobile launcher designated 2S4 "Tulip" (Tuylpan in Russian, shown below on the left). The purchase of advanced weapon systems like 2S4, S-300 anti-air rockets, and Yak-130 fighter-bombers shows that Syria has bolstering its capabilities for stand-off fighting. Because the urban fighting will not go well for Syrian army (see below on the right), it is likely to rely on the super-heavy mortars to wipe out entire neighborhoods, as Assad's father has done in Hama by shelling it for three weeks.

2S4 Tuylpan fires man-sizes projectiles
Burned-out BMP-1 in Homs 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

EU betrays Greece

Over the last couple of weeks the Greek leadership pushed through all the painful cuts demanded by the EU. I have written that this effort is misguided, and the enforcement of these austerity deals will require heavy-handed enforcement, because the majority of the public rejects (and resents) the EU diktats.

By the early February, the Greeks have agreed to virtually all of the cuts demanded by the troika, including a 22 per cent cut in the minimum wage (to less than 600 euros a month), firing 15,000 civil servants and an end to dozens of job guarantee provisions. They couldn't bring themselves to cut an estimated €300 million ($396 million) in pensions.

The EU Finance Ministers reacted with frustration and refused to sign off on the deal, demanding that Athens make up for a shortfall created by the refusal of political leaders to slash supplemental pensions — before their next meeting, which was scheduled for February 15th. "The agreement, as far as I understand, is not at a stage where it can be signed off," said the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble leaving the bailout in limbo and the threat of bankruptcy high.

On Friday February 10th, the Greek cabinet agreed to the pension cuts and on Sunday the Parliament approved it. It was not an easy decision after two days of rioting and burning in Athens. The Parliament had to discipline (i.e. to fire) 40 members who refused to vote for the additional €325m of fiscal austerity.However, the troika demanded proof that the Greeks would would stick to the deal, and the mood has been poisoned by EU demands for an escrow account to seize Greek budget revenues at source.

Greece took a step closer to meeting those demands when George Papandreou, the former prime minister who remains head of Pasok, sent a letter to the EU leaders vowing to implement the austerity measures included in the €130bn bail-out. The letter, which came along with a similar missive from
Antonis Samaras, head of the centre-right New Democracy party and the presumptive next prime minister, was demanded by EU leaders as a condition of the deal. Mr. Samaras letter to European Union leaders reiterated his stance that “modifications might be required” to the bailout plan.

The pleas from the humiliated Greeks were received coolly in Brussels. Luc Frieden, Luxembourg's foreign minister, indicated that Greece is disposable for the EU: "If the Greek people or the Greek political elite do not apply all of these conditions, I think they exclude themselves from the eurozone. The impact on other countries now will be less important than a year ago." Mr. Frieden even suggested a return to the drachma. "It might be something which would allow Greece also to get a new start, to create an economy that can create jobs," he said.

The tone of these comments, along with those from Germany, Holland and Finland suggest that the creditor powers have already decided to eject Greece, causing great bitterness in Athens. After the Greek politicians went again the popular will to push through harsh austerity laws, they seem likely to walk away with nothing.

There are rumors that a “Secret Troika Report” showed that even if the most optimistic scenarios are met, Greece will not achieve the desired debt ratio, nor get even close. I have long believed that allowing Greece to default is the best solution, but abrupt withdrawal of EU support is nothing short of a stab in the back.

The cards have been dealt - risks of 'contagion' have been minimized, and Greece is about to be ushered out of the EU. There is going to be an ordinary meeting of the Eurogroup tomorrow on Monday, 20 February. Will we hear the final rejection of the bailout, or will the drama drag on? The outcome is no longer in doubt, only the timing of its revelation.
German cartoon: 'Togetherness'/unity - this is it!

This breakup also belies the attempts of the EU project not to follow, but to generate political zusammenhalt. German people have become tired of this type of 'unity', and the cartoon above illustrates what they think of their role and they are about to take advice from the title of Ayn Rand's masterpiece 'Altas Shrugged' literally. Too bad about the dog.

Iran's dangerous gamble in Syria

Iran has recently decided to deploy 15,000 troops to help Syria’s dictator Assad. A prominent Syrian lawmaker said that the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force has already arrived in the country to help manage Assad’s regime brutal suppression of an 11-month-long popular unrest.

A number of news sources, including al Arabiya news channel and Jewish newspaper Haaretz have reported the Iranian intervention, but neither has called for involvement of Western or Arab powers to counterbalance the Iranian involvement or to entrap Iran in a civil war. On the other hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaida, has called on Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join fight against 'pernicious, cancerous regime' of Assad.

The Arab requests for UN involvement in Syria have been stymied by Russia and China, which vetoed the latest resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSC) called for a transition to democracy in Syria. To Syrian people the impotence of the Western powers is indistinguishable from a fundamental lack of concern for human rights.

The side effect of the over-reliance of US to the UN has be to allow Al-Zawahiri, the leader of the Sunni fundamentalists of al-Qiada, to take advantage of the resulting silence of the UNSC and to claim the high moral ground. There's is another cost to this American lapse - Al-Zawahiri's call will further contribute to the increase of sectarian (Sunni-Shiite) tension. It is ironic, but many of the Sunni insurgents who were given free pass by the Syrian dictator Assad to enter Iraq to fight in a jihad against the Americans are now flooding back and joining the Free Syrian Army. These insurgents are turning the weapons and expertise against the Syrians and Iranian regimes, which first set them loose upon the Americans.

Another sign of sectarian conflict is that Sunni Hamas, which had its safe-haven in Damascus, has been forced to find another home for its headquarters. Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mashaal met Jordan king Abdullah II at the Raghadan Palace in Amman at the end of January 2012. King Abdullah refused to take Hamas back onto the Jordanian territory, from which Palestinians were forcibly ejected in late 1970's.

The religious fault-lines between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority of the rulers in Syria, and its Shiite enablers (Hezbollah and Iran), has the potential to widen the civil war in Syria into a religious conflict that could engulf the Middle East.

Consider this headline from UK's Telegraph : "Assad's gunmen 'murder three entire families in Homs'". Islam is a major force behind the Arab Spring, and has long been of the major elements which define and separate people in the Middle East. When these people think about involvement of Iran in Syria they see them through the prism of religious terms, which I've added in italics into a quote from the article:
[Alawite and Shiite] Gunmen loyal to President Bashar al Assad murdered three entire families [of Sunni's] in Homs on the night of Ferbruary 7th, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
How should the U.S. and Europe act in this situation? To help the Syrian opposition openly, means to become responsible for its conduct, which entails problems such as those of newly liberated Libya. To remain on the sidelines, as the Obama administration has done in 2009 after the Green Revolution in Iran, when the youth protested a stolen election was clearly a lost opportunity, which further diminished the American standing in the region, in terms of both Realpolitik as moral authority. There is a middle ground, which Obama has (inappropriately) pursued in Egypt -- calling for the ouster of a brutal dictator.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the civil war in Syria, the U.S. should be on the record doing everything possible politically to provide support to the people's right for self-determination. That Syria is becoming an Islamist country, unlike Egypt, would not be such a grave loss for the American interests in the region. Egypt's authoritarian rule was friendly to the U.S., while Syria is a key ally of Iran, and one of the main sources of volatility in the region.

Iran's support of the bloody repression of a civic uprising in Syria showcases the brutal nature of theocracy and its willingness since its inception to export violence outside its borders. The involvement of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and especially of its handlers in Al Quds Force (a part of the are Republican guard) in helping Assad's forces to butcher his people, presents a unique opportunity for the West to reclaim the moral high ground, and the deliver a strong blow to the Iranian regime.

Iranian hand in suppression of a civil uprising in another country exposes it to similar dangers that entrapped the Americans in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan. Conflicts against people and ideas are much more complicated to win than conflicts against armies and governments. Syrian diaspora is a reservoir of opposition and a permanent lobby for Arab and Western support at the grass-roots levels, beyond Assad's control. Such a movement is virtually impossible to stamp out. Iran needs to prop-up Syria, but bringing in its forces into the ravaged country holds great risks for the mullahs. It is an opportunity for the Saudis and Turks, among other Sunnis, to push back against the Iranian hegemony in the region.

The West should not miss the opportunity provided by direct Iranian involvement in Syria. The former chief of Mossad Efraim Halevy, said two weeks ago that the Syrian unrest an "enormous opportunity", because "what happens in Damascus will impact all the Middle East." The same day, WSJ columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote about Syria: "It’s not just about freedom".

I would go further - the Syrian situation should be viewed by the West through the prism of national security - it is an opportunity to deliver a body blow to Iranian theocracy. It is important for the West to act in accordance with its belief in the right of people for self-determination; however, such altruism is not sufficient to warrant action by itself. Furthermore, West has a terrible record trying to transplant democracy in the Middle East (and is struggling even to maintain democracy in its own lands). The only thing the West can do is to provide a principled stance - to deny the murderous Assad's regime any legitimacy, and deliver a potentially fatal wound to the Iranian theocracy.

For the US to really take bring pressure on Assad would require the Obama administration to admit that it's hopes to turn Assad into a 'reformer' of Syria were completely naive, as was its cuddling of Russia and soft approach to Iran. The opinion of the top Republican on the Armed Services committee, Arizona Senator John McCain, that the U.S. should consider "all options including arming the opposition" did not sway the Obama administration, however. "We never take anything off the table. The president does (or) doesn't. However, as the president himself made absolutely clear and as the secretary has continued to say, we don't think more arms into Syria is the answer," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

This is the cheap defense of an equivocation trying to conceal a negative answer - the administration refused even to send medicine to the embattled Syrians.In a recent article in The Huffington Post, Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, wrote that there is a double standard in the United States' reaction to the unrest in Syria compared to Libya: "We're not doing enough." "It's clear that this administration is sitting back on its laurels in Libya, and as a result the Syrian people are paying the price for the administration's reluctance under the argument it doesn't want to militarize the situation any further. It really needs to get more involved".

'Stimulus', Iranian-style.
There is no shortage of naivete in the West, so its leaders may not wise up to the dual benefits of siding with the majority of the Syrian people in time. It's ironic, that almost exactly five years ago the Syrian dictator Assad repeated his lies about lack of involvement in facilitating terrorism in Iraq to ABC's Diane Sawyer. Assad said, "If you stoke [terrorism], it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria … So saying this [that Syria aids Iraq's insurgency], it's like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest."

The Iranian's made a great strategic mistake by getting involved in Syria, because now the Sunni insurgents have something truly worthwhile to do - save their coreligionists from butchery by apostate Shiites and Alawites. The two dictatorships will stoke the antagonism of the Sunnis and undermine their standing in the region. Fortunately, the West cannot cut any deals with either the butchering Syrians or the intransigent Iranians to muck this up.