05 January 2012

Solidarity For Never

In December, This American Life broadcasted a fascinating story on divisions in Polish society, using the "Battle of the Cross" as the example of how divisions are taking place. The story noted the somewhat new divisions in society, that between "Poland A" (urban, educated, young, liberal) vs. "Poland B" (rural, Catholic, older, conservative) and how the tone of the country has shifted from that unity during the time of Solidarity to a country divided.

I would add that the biggest cause of this is the fact that Poland is still incredibly homogeneous. It is a country where there are crucifixes in public places (i.e. post offices). It is not so much that Poland A is rejecting the values of Poland B. It seems to me that Poland A is comfortable with multi-cultural Europe, and Poland's place in that mix. It embraces the heterogeneity of the internet and has experience working in English-speaking countries.

It is clear that these divisions exist in the U.S. There are the red states (beer drinking, Fox News, gun-toting, Christian church of your choice, Walmart, deer hunting, Chevy trucks, corn-munching, blue collar, etc.) and there are blue states (latte-sipping, New York Times, gun control, sleep late on Sunday, Whole Foods, indie films, Prius, organic arugula, white collar, etc.). Two parties represent America A and America B.

Although both Red State America and Poland B claim themselves to be the "real America" or the "true Poland," the fact is that the U.S. remains incredibly diverse. There are blue oases in red states (Lawrence, Kansas and Austin, Texas) as well as purplish bits all over the map.

The December demonstrations in Moscow indicate that something similar is afoot in Russia. The protesters have been written off as iPad-toting, middle class (read affluent) hipsters. Many of the slogans and posters at the December 10 and December 24 demonstrations were internet memes rather than ancient internalized nationalism. It seemed that the cultural undertone was "we are here, we are connected to the outside world, get used to it."

This cultural message is powerful in a one-party state, not just among elite urbanites. The traditional trope that "certain foreign entities" are to blame for Russia's ills no longer resonate among a growing part of society connected to the internet and ideas outside Russia (after all, Putin admitted that he doesn't use the internet because he doesn't have time for it). Much like Poland A embracing heterogeneity, protesting Russians (most of whom are young) are voicing too that they are part of the "real Russia," no longer tethered by the Soviet legacy.

07 December 2011

Strange Things Happening in the Land

Something is afoot in Moscow, and the city is abuzz of what it means and what will happen. Many species of black helmeted and camouflaged individuals appeared seemingly out of nowhere in central Moscow on Tuesday night: OMON, police, militsia, MVD. Green trucks, yellow buses, suspicious looking old & dirty “service” vehicles, paddy wagons, water cannons. Many people, including myself, walked near the area out of curiosity rather than support. 50,000 guards and 2,000 troops in total.

If official reports are correct that there were around 2,000 people at Triumfalnaya Square on Tuesday night. According to alternative reports, the number was around 5,000. If so, this would mark the largest anti-government/opposition protest in many, many years. 596 were arrested. On Monday night, 7,000 attended protests at Chistie Prudy and Lubyanka Square, and 300 were arrested.

For a long time, I’ve been less interested in politics, because analysts sitting behind their desks are engaged in meta-politics. There are other, better resources to report on these issues. I find myself lucky to be witnessing another set of highly interesting political developments, and so I’m interested in what people on the street are feeling and thinking.

These protests represent a parallel of many things, and simultaneously they are completely unique. They are not to be hyped, but they are not to be dismissed. An investor note from Troika today was entitled "Moscow is a long way from Cairo," a true statement. However, there are striking parallels to the Orange Revolution (I know from personal experience), but at the same time this is no Maidan. Neither is it another 31 protest of die-hard oppositionists. Russia is not Egypt. Russia is not Ukraine. Russia is not Occupy.

But this is something. Taking a step inward, I will note some very crucial observations.

All politics is local. At a certain point, the argument that “certain foreign countries” are interfering and that the Western media is anti-Russian falls on deaf ears because people see in front of them 9% inflation and corruption. The Moscow Times, which is usually critical of United Russia, wrote: “For example, you can convince people that the West is out to destroy Russia and that the dollar will soon collapse. But you cannot convince people that Russia is building new roads, hospitals or schools, that the authorities are reducing corruption or that people's democratic rights are being protected. It is easy for the Kremlin to dupe the general population concerning abstract things. But when it comes to concrete matters, it is useless trying to convince people that their lives have improved.”

One of my Russian colleagues brushed off the gatherings as “bloggers and Twitterers.” This comment is valid. The protests have been grassroots, viral, born and nurtured (and hyped) in the internet space alone. Those with the knowledge have access to it (educated, urban). So far, there is no cross section of the Russian population engaged in these protests (elderly, poor, nationwide). Technology – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook – makes it much more difficult to conceal charges of fraud.

One argument goes that this is only a Moscow phenomenon. So far, this is true. However, access to information is powerful and it levels geography. When a rector in Omsk is telling students to vote for United Russia (or else) that will not create protests. But when those students see on the internet that in Moscow protests are happening, it causes them to think... we have access to the same information, despite being far away from Moscow. In addition, Moscow is the city of transplants home to aspiring young professionals from all across the country.

The mass media is not covering any of the protests, which is no surprise. National TV is covered the pro-United Russia rallies last night. They looked strangely like Maidan – Russian flags, smiling crowds, pleasant speeches on a stage, neatly printed party banners. As a result, no one in the regions knows about the opposition protests in Moscow. Unless they get on the internet. Or talk to friends in Moscow. So then they think, “if NTV or Channel 1 isn’t covering this, but I’m seeing it on the internet, they must be hiding something.”

Another colleague noted that “bloggers and Twitterers” are nerdy, passive types. If the die-hards can get the digiratti out on the streets, the nature of the protests may change into a more inclusive one. There are reports that many of the protesters were first-timers and not particularly active.

The current situation is not the Orange Revolution. It does not have the same DNA to turn into that animal. There is no oligarch-financed and credible opposition party in parliament to battle for the presidency. There seems to be an absence of national-patriotism (far fewer Russian flags, no singing of the national anthem). There is certainly less freedom of movement given the amount of police and MVD presence.

However, there are some very striking parallels in the cultural elements:

• Protests are due to anger at voter fraud and against the current power structure.
• Protestors chanting “police are with the people.”
• There is a sense of awe about the number of people involved in the demonstrations. This would not have been seen as possible only days ago.
• People are on edge, but feeling out where the line is drawn by the authorities.
• There is no "color" name yet, but some are using the R-word (albeit quite liberally) even at this early stage.

Let’s not forget that Nashi and Moldaya Gvardia were created to stave off such threats. In any event, these protests seem more like the Ukraine Without Kuchma protests in 2000-01 in Ukraine, a prequel to the Orange Revolution. It seems that it is plausible that the events in Moscow and St. Petersburg could be only the beginning of a bigger shift.

Despite images of protestors being hauled away (Molodaya Gvardia didn't get this treatment), a small degree of fear has been lifted for now. I saw one girl on the steps of an underpass who pulled out a camera and snapped a photo of a bunch of OMON guys. Look at all the cops! Click! It is a curious example of political tourism, one that has cultural implications beyond politics.

Questions: How many resources do the authorities have to keep arresting people? How many arrests will it take? Do they have the resources? How many nights will the opposition be out there? Can we assume that the response strategy from the authorities has been in place for a while? What will be the breaking point? Charging protesters under the criminal code? What’s changed since Sunday? Why isn’t the western press picking this up with live TV?

The concept that the “opposition” implies that there is some unity and purpose. It does not necessarily. Navalny, Yashin and others are in jail for 15 days, presumably under administrative violations. But the authorities have not cut off the head of what could be a larger gathering. On Saturday, there will be another rally on Revolution Square. On its Facebook event page, more than 15,000 people have said they would attend.

13 July 2011

State of the Blog, Twitter Edition

Is Twitter for bloggers who've now gone lazy? If so, then I am one of them. Back when Blogger began, it was a complete novelty. With Wordpress, Tumblr and countless other newfangled tools, Blogspot is now becoming more and more of an ancient relic. This blog has always been (and always will hope to be) an archive. But for now, everyone's tweeting while blogging has become more about careful and thoughtful analysis.

For now, check out www.twitter.com/_Leopolis_.

06 July 2011

Nuclear Option

Not all countries have the option of scrapping their nuclear programs:

"The price for nuclear energy in Ukraine is two American cents a kilowatt, whereas energy from coal plants costs six cents and that from renewable energy 11 cents," said Komarov. "If Ukraine were to shut down all its nuclear plants, that would be the end of the Ukrainian economy."
(Reuters, July 1).

And according to a Forbes blogger, Ukraine is the world's fourth worst-performing economy:

Ukraine has rich farmland and generous mineral resources and could become a leading European economy — yet per-capita GDP trails far behind even countries like Serbia and Bulgaria. The U.S. State Dept. blames “complex laws and regulations, poor corporate governance, weak enforcement of contract law by courts, and particularly corruption.”

22 June 2011

Shale Gas: A Bonanza of Hot Air

Today's WSJ featured a polemic op-ed by Holman W. Jenkins about the merits of shale gas in undermining Vladimir Putin with lots of geopolitical wishful thinking, and basically saying nothing about the economic aspects of the industry in Poland itself. I will spare you the Murdoch Wall of Payment and reprint some of the arguments:

Western governments have not cut profiles of exceptional courage in dealing with Putin's Russia. Yet, beyond our merits, the Lord has recently smiled on us in the form of shale gas. First, thanks to the unexpected shale gas boom in the U.S., liquefied natural gas cargoes once planned for the U.S. have gone looking for new buyers. Result: European customers have been able to shake off Russian long-term contracts linked to the price of oil.
The moral of the story seems to be: We [read "U.S. companies"] need to exploit shale gas in Poland without addressing any legitimate environmental concerns in order to rebuke Vladimir Putin. Anyone who is familiar with the oil and gas industry will immediately say that this line of argument is based on geopolitical wishful thinking, not market realities.

So what's wrong here? Besides the polemics, pathos and imagined geopolitics (Stalin, Chechnya, Litvenenko, even Saddam Hussein are mentioned breathlessly along with some clumsy Tandemology), a lot. While the piece serves as a geopolitical wish list of how the Europeans can beat back the evil Putin with the help of oil companies, there is conveniently no mention of the economic viability of producing shale gas.

Unfortunately, the Lord has shale gas buried deep within the ground. I attended a briefing last month at the Polish Embassy in Washington and while there is a lot of excitement, the optimism among the IOCs is cautious. The key question among the oil majors for Polish shale gas is whether it will be profitable.

It is also counterproductive to talk about shale gas reserves as a factor in reducing energy vulnerability when the game could change once again by the mid-2020s, when the first gas would theoretically be exploited. Poland could either sell their gas for export or consume it themselves.

If the former, then it needs to invest millions in pipeline infrastructure. In this case it could be more profitable to sell the gas to the Russians. According to Mikolaj Budzanowski, secretary of the Polish treasury, which owns state energy company PGNiG, 2,000 kilometres of gas pipeline needs to be built and if such investments can't be realized, then Poland won’t be able to benefit from the potential offered by shale gas.

If the latter, then an ungasified economy is stuck with lots of gas. Poland still burns coal for 60% of its total energy mix and 90% of its electricity generation. Is Warsaw willing to invest the money to create gas-fired power plants to replace its coal ones? If so, a fundamental industrial transformation from coal to gas would be needed. The powerful Silesian coal lobby is likely to fight this tooth and nail. Poland is not serious about such radical options, and finds it easier to block EU efforts to reduce carbon emissions rather than switch to gas.

Second, Jenkins brushes aside the environmental concerns:
A "land grab" is under way in Europe, says a new study by the European Center for Energy and Resource Security. Having missed the shale boom in the U.S., ExxonMobil has been drilling in Germany since 2008. In France, Toreador Resources and its partner Hess Corp. are prepared to seek oil and gas under the Eiffel Tower. Poland—a country whose energy captivity to Russia is especially irksome—may be sitting on 300 years worth of shale energy. Chevron and ConocoPhillips are among the companies already drilling there ... But what the Lord giveth, European politics may fritter away. French campaigner Jose Bove, having failed to kick McDonald's out of Paris, is now jawboning Poland against developing its reserves, handing a Polish-subtitled copy of "Gasland," the U.S.-made antifracking documentary, recently to Poland's president.

The rallying cry of "drill, baby, drill under the Eiffel Tower" is not the one to get skeptical Europeans on board with shale gas exploitation. According to Jenkins, "Gasland" is a dastardly plot by hirsute anti-capitalists to infect the mind of Komorowski. From the PR perspective, industry has done a miserable job of explaining to the public that shale gas is a breakthrough technology and that environmental concerns are a top priority. The shale gas industry is sitting on its hands waiting for the public to accept the problems that have arisen in the fracking process rather than addressing them head on. If this is not done and, say, water is contaminated in the Mazurian Lakes, the shale gas dream will be a real nightmare.

Moving away from the op-ed pages, Poland needs to do much more to make the shale gas promise a reality. Inside the Sejm, legislation needs to be written from scratch. Externally, the relationship between Russia and Poland is a turbulent but tested one; the relationship between profit-seeking IOCs and the Polish state is new territory entirely. A recent article in European Energy Review addresses these concerns:

The Poles are eagerly counting their chickens, but even so they’ve left it too late: foreign oil majors have already staked their claims. Unlike the Polish state. Leader of the opposition Jaroslaw Kaczynski last month demanded a guarantee that companies cede 40% of the revenues from shale gas to the Polish state. It’s a percentage that sounds attractive to the electorate, but it won’t solve the problems of the Polish state.
The caution of top geologist Jezierski stands in stark contrast to the eagerness with which foreign companies have snapped up Polish concessions in recent years. Drilling rights have already been granted for almost the entire region where the shale layers are located. The mosaic of concessions stretches in a broad swathe from the port city of Gdansk on the Baltic Sea right to the Ukrainian border in the south east. ‘If there isn’t anything in it, the big boys really wouldn’t be here’, opines a delegate at the umpteenth shale gas conference in Warsaw. ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’, he says, tucking into the buffet paid for with US money.
The takeaway of this assessment is: "Americans cashing in on production and Russians creaming off the transport revenues while Poland looks on from the sidelines." Much work is to be done.

20 April 2011

Chernobyl Tourism: Time to Put an End

In the runup to the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and the crisis at Fukushima, there have been a deluge of reports from journalists tracking the legacy of humanity's worst nuclear disaster. Once underneath a veil of secrecy, the fourth reactor has been photographed by photojournalists perhaps more than any epicenter of disaster. Initial forays into the zone provided a window of a lesson that should not be forgotten. Photographers, including Gerd Ludwig, Yuri Kosin and Igor Kostin -- even "Kid of Speed" -- handled their subject with care and intensity. Their work, and the work of many others, raised awareness of the ongoing suffering and warned humanity that the nuclear genie has still not been put back into the bottle.

That is until the rise of Chernobyl tourism. It has been branded as extreme tourism. The only problem is that as opposed to jumping off a cliff, you see the site that caused, and continues to cause, lots and lots of suffering. Business Ukraine magazine wrote an op-ed that is spot on:

They will no doubt then publish breathless accounts of their trip which highlight the apocalyptic scenes which they encountered in the ghost towns of the evacuated area, accompanied by artsy photo galleries depicting poignant scenes of abandoned playgrounds and decomposing children’s toys ... There is an argument of sorts to be made that tours of Chornobyl are educational in nature and should therefore be encouraged, but in reality this is intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind that deliberately ignores the uncomfortable realities of today’s Chornobyl tourist trade. We all know that the vast majority of people paying for coach trips to the exclusive zone are doing so not out of some high-minded desire to be better informed about the potential horrors of atomic energy, but rather in order to goggle at the devastation and pose for ironic holiday snaps in front of the sarcophagus encasing of the ill-fated reactor. It is the tourism equivalent of drivers who cannot resist slowing down in order to gawp at the grizzly aftermath of a particularly gruesome car crash – understandable perhaps on a human level, but hardly the kind of thing which civilized societies would usually condone or encourage.

Certainly, a few press tours could be arranged every year. But with Chernobyl tourism any photojournalist hack and day tripper can get in a minivan and drive to the zone and snap away. Seriously, how many more pictures of the dilapidated apartment blocks, the Pripyat kindergarten, the ferris wheel, the planted gas mask, the weeds with geiger counters do we have to see? The images of nuclear apocalypse are now, sadly, cliche.

On another note, encouraging such tourism is completely counterproductive to the minimal efforts Ukraine is trying to make in attracting visitors for Euro 2012. I'm sure the Ministry of Tourism spent a good deal of money on its latest effort "It's All About U," but Chernobyl tourism has chipped away at the attempt to create an image that Ukraine, indeed, has worthy tourism sites aside from ogling at a blown-up RBMK.

12 April 2011

Gagarin: 1961-2011

Starman part 1 -- a documentary of Yuri Gagarin.

First Orbit... a film released hours ago with a great concept -- to piece together what Gagarin would have seen during his flight.

And for added measure, the film of Alexei Leonov's first spacewalk, including extended footage.

16 March 2011

RBMK Roulette

The creepy aluminum and concrete statue doesn't help either.

A week before the current Japan nuclear crisis, I found this article in a wonkish energy website reporting that Rosatom plans dangerous thermal capacity increases at Russia's nuclear plants, including the 11 RBMK reactors still in operation. These are described as "Chernobyl-style" reactors that lack containment structures around the reactors. Since Rosatom now is a joint-stock company it must make money. The reactors in operation, already beyond their lifespan, are expected to run for another 30 years. It is therefore alarming that Rosatom is considering operating these reactors at capacities exceeding design-basis levels. Under the proposed plan:

Rosenergoatom, Rosatom’s structure in charge of operating Russia’s nuclear power plants, is soon expected to apply for a license to operate Kursk’s Reactor 1 at an increased thermal capacity. The application will be filed with Russia’s industrial oversight authority, the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological, and Atomic Supervision (or Rostekhnadzor, in its Russian abbreviation). Bellona has at its disposal documents that were used as the basis for the application. An analysis of these documents shows that a large-scale dangerous experiment has been devised that threatens to create risks of the kind that precipitated the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

This is all outlined as part of the "Program for Increasing Electric Power Output at Generating Units of Nuclear Power Plants in Operation by Concern Rosenergoatom for 2007 to 2015.” At the Kurchatov NPP, the reactors are already running beyond intended capacity.

Meanwhile, Rosatom is playing a different game abroad. In the wake of the crisis at Fukushima, Russia is forging ahead with building reactors abroad, including in Bulgaria, Belarus and Bangladesh. While these countries are certain to benefit from Atomstroyexport's best technology, the case inside Russia is a different matter.

14 March 2011

Roll Me Under New Madrid

In 1811 New Madrid, Missouri was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake. Iban Browning predicted that a major quake would strike on Dec. 3, 1990. We were all prepared for it. All the schools had emergency bins full of granola, water and supplies. We were terrified but prepared. The date came, and went. The quake never came. Browning died. We grew complacent. The bins were thrown out.

The Big One could still hit. A 2008 FEMA report warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in "the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States."

25 February 2011

Muammar and Lyudmila

Looks like Gaddafi and Ukrainian First Lady Lyudmila Yanukovycha have a lot in common: whenever there are thousands of protesters on the streets demanding change it could only be one thing -- the work of nefarious foreigners drugging them to do their every bidding.

Yesterday, Gaddafi blamed a revolt against his rule on Osama bin Laden and that al-Qaeda "give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe."

It only reminds me of Lyudmila Yanukovycha, who in 2004, stated that the protesters on Maidan were being drugged by the Americans.

"Дорогие друзья, я из Киева, я могу сказать, что там происходит. Там просто оранжевый шабаш! Значит, стоят валеночки рядами – все везде американское! От! И горы оранжевых апельсин. И это на фоне: "Оранжевое море, оранжевое небо..". От такое от! Это просто... Это кошмар! И хочу вам сказать, шо эти апельсинки не простые, а наколотые. Люди берут апельсин, съели – взяли другой. От!"

"Dear friends, I am from Kiev, I can tell you what's going on there. There's nothing but an orange orgy! There are rows of felt boots - everything is American! Yup! And there are mountains of oranges. And in the background [the song] "Orange sea, orange sky..." Yup! It's just ... It's a nightmare!" And I wanna tell you that these aren't just normal oranges, but drugged. People take an orange, eat it, and take another. Yup!"

Maybe Gadaffi has no where else to go, but Kyiv. He'll be in good company.

21 February 2011

TNK-BP Looks to Lotos

TNK-BP is looking closely at Poland's Grupa Lotos as the Polish government plans to sell its 53.2% stake in the group in 2011, three sources close to the company and the Polish Cabinet say. In January TNK-BP representatives travelled to Poland for talks, they say. A company representative did not comment on its plans of involvement in the contest (bidding is open until March 18) but said that it is considering options of involvement in foreign processing projects. Grupa Lotos is the third biggest company in Poland in terms of receipts ($4.9 billion in 2010). Its main assets are 317 filling stations (including jobber) and an oil refinery in Gdansk. It expects to win up to 30% of the oil product wholesale market in Poland and 10% of the retail market by 2012. (Vedomosti, February 21)

29 January 2011

"Arab World's Berlin Moment"

Egypt is burning.

First of all, I've barely been blogging in the past year. It is hard to keep up and write thoughtfully about big developments. But the crisis in Egypt reminds me that this blog is still relevant, and that it needs a bigger push and integration into social media. Any suggestions, please let me know.

I'm glued to Al Jazeera English, which has provided remarkable coverage of the protests. They are being highly professional compared to the hacks at CNN ("Mubarak rules Egypt with an iron fist" middle school talking points.)

Twitter has gotten some criticism during Moldova and Iran events. With 97% of internet access shut down, the 140 character microblogging site is really provided on the ground information. The world is watching. Whatever you think about Twitter, the world is watching and reading closely. And even if the result of this crisis turns out like Tienanmen Square, all information is too free. Even CNN is using Twitter to get information from on the ground (think about it -- international bureaus have been shut down since the end of the Cold War). The messages remind me of the Orange Revolution. People from all backgrounds are demonstrating, all socio-economic backgrounds.

People are demonstrating, completely peacefully, in front of the White House and the Egyptian Embassy for Mubarak to leave. And in Los Angeles. They are Arab-Americans who are expressing themselves under our Bill of Rights. It matters none whether they hold Egyptian passports or U.S. documents. No matter what the armchair pundits in their cushy homes in Washington, DC NW and its Montgomery County suburbs say: this is about revolt, anger, hope for change and hatred of the same Regan-era old Arab strongman. Not about Israel. Not about Palestine, Soros, CIA or whatever. Ignore those pundits who want to make this a U.S. story. It is not.

The army doesn't know what it is doing. Looting is on the rise, including wealthy neighborhoods. 19 private jets have landed in Dubai -- likely to be businessmen with interests in the Mubarak order.

Faith in humanity restored: The Egyptian people appealed for the army to protest the Museum of National Antiquities. The museum holds the death mask of King Tutenkhamun. The army, even though it hasn't received orders from Mubarak and the Minstry of Interior, is now guarding the museum containing humanities greatest treasures. However, some bandits broke into the building from the roof and two mummies were damaged and one case was opened.

People are shouting "We are with the Army." There is yet no crackdown from the army on the people.

17 December 2010

File Under "Bardak"

Yet another brawl in the Verkhovna Rada, the second this year. It's not even kooky anymore -- just sad. Carrying on the tradition of childishness in the parliament, Batkivshchyna and BYuT deputies blocked the rostrum to protest Tymoshenko's recent legal problems.

What a circus. They all deserve to be fired.

13 December 2010

Banned in Uzbekistan

So WikiLeaks released yet another "shocker" -- Washington thinks Karimov is a sunuvabitch but really doesn't care so much because he is helping in GWOT and is thus our sunuvabitch.

More fascinating is the news that Uzbekistan has officially released its list of banned films, ironically on the world wide interwebs. In a top-down and Type A manner, the government agency UzbekKino was kind enough to put the exhaustive list online.

While it makes sense that this Central Asian dictatorship would make sure its citizens in a Muslim-dominated country are not exposed to the German classic Durchgefickt or the French masterpiece Les Perversions it is not so clear why Shrek 1 and 2 has to be banned (perhaps there is a sinister anti-Semitic conspiracy going on?).

More interestingly, the list is picky without explaining why. We all know that Troy was a turkey, but why not include Alexander on the list? The 744 films don't include every B-grade VHS porno in existence, only a handful. While no one recall's Ashton Kucher's 2004 The Butterfly Effect, we can all be certain that there was no part 2 or 3.

Erica Marat at the Jamestown Blog wonders:

UzbekKino has not explained why certain films are banned or what type of punishment can be expected for breaking the rule. Inevitably, some movies that could have made it onto the list but for some reason were left out, are in the grey zone. For example, most of Quentin Tarantino’s films are banned, but “Pulp Fiction” is not. Does UzbekKino recommend that people avoid watching it?

Maybe it is a move against piracy? Then again, why only a few pornos and not a blanket porno ban, or a decree against all films featuring digitally-produced green goblins with Scottish accents? My theory is that the list of 744 is simply the movies that got chucked into the degenerate bin by some custom official at the border. Bureaucracy is lazy and Uzbek bureaucracy is corrupt and lazy. I seriously doubt that there is some commission that watched American Psycho, then judged it to be too risqué for the general Uzbek public.

UzbekKino apparently lists 8-16 approved movies every year. If you have a job in the Uzbek film industry, the threat of perhaps more entertaining fare would certainly threaten your job -- even if it was Jim Carrey's forgettable The Number 23.

In any event, Uzbekistan has Googoosha and our emboffs have reported on her exploits and other juicy bits. So who needs any other form of infotainment?

09 December 2010

Bronek's Tour

It's been a busy week for President Bronisław Komorowski.

On Monday, he met with President Dmitry Medvedev for a two-day visit on December 6 as part of a visit to warm relations. Concretely, the two presidents signed several economic agreements, including cooperation to combat pollution in the Baltic Sea and a MoU collaboration in postal services and telecommunications. Russia is now eyeing the purchase of oil Lotos with Rosneft and Gazprom having expressed interest.

Opposition leader Jarosław Kaczyński said the meeting didn't change anything regarding the thorny issues of the Smolensk crash, Katyń, the sale of Mažeikių refinery to Russia, and the trade imbalance. This, despite the fact that it marked the first visit of a Russian president to Poland in 8 years. Not surprisingly, PiS is fixated on the first two issues and politicizes the latter two. No matter that in November, the Duma declared that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and other Soviet officials ordered the massacre in 1940. For PiS, Smolensk will remain a permanent blight on mutual cooperation with Russia and a renewed chance to voice its grievances toward Russia (several protests were held).

It is clear that Russia wants a reset with Poland on mutually beneficial terms. Being the only growing economy in Europe last year, Russia recognizes Poland's new role as a gateway to the EU -- a sea change from its role as the euroskeptic nationalist in Europe's east under Kaczyński (bilateral trade surged 50% y-o-y to $10 billion in H1 2010). Surrounded by doom and gloom, Warsaw is emerging as the region's financial center.

On Wednesday, Komorowski met President Obama in Washington. First, the visit provided a valuable photo op: the leader of Poland shaking hands with the U.S. president is a powerful signal that needed to be sent amidst the whinging and griping that Obama is throwing Poland under the bus. Face time matters for U.S.-Poland relations, and this week proves that Central Europe remains on the agenda.

Second, Obama voiced commitment for Poland to enter the visa waiver program. For the administration, Obama made the strongest statements yet regarding Poland's entry into the visa waiver program: "I am going to make this a priority ... And I want to solve this issue before very long. My expectation is, is that this problem will be solved during my presidency." For Poles, support and expectations are another part of the faded romance; action on this issue is better. This deal may never happen ("during my presidency" may be construed by cynics as getting a waiver by 2012).

Obama's pledge, according to The Cable is part of greater horsetrading; last month, outgoing Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) tied in GOP support of New START if Obama finally granted Poland visa waiver status. Such conjectures are Beltway blogger material; the Poles have been pleading for visa waiver status for years and Sen. Voinovich is leaving Washington. Last month, Sen. Voinovich gave a bizarre speech on the Senate floor, referring to CEE countries verbatim as "Captive Nations," (as opposed to "former Captive Nations," or just "EU countries in Central Europe"), denouncing the reset with Russia, decrying Obama's "abandonment" of the BMD system in Europe, and opposing New START (never mind that Poland is pursuing its own reset with Russia, Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski endorses the treaty, Obama reaffirmed pledges for missile defense in Poland, etc.).

Speaking in the White House, Komorowski said "If you live just next door with somebody for 1,000 years, it is not possible to reset all the past relations using just one push of the reset button. We are not able to fully reset and delete 1,000 years of uneasy history with Russians." His statements will certainly be interpreted by the American right wing as continued mistrust of Russia, despite his meetings with President Medvedev only days earlier in Warsaw and a further invitation from Medvedev for an official trip to Moscow.

In any event, Obama reminded the opposition that the ball is in the court of Congress, not the president, to remove the final barriers for Poland's visa waiver status. It does seem, however, that this issue is now top on the agenda from the U.S. side. Previous meetings have centered on missile defense and now it appears that Washington is finally willing to offer Poland what it really wants within the context of the solidifying U.S.-Poland Strategic Dialogue.

08 December 2010

Batman is not only a city in Turkey...

Thanks to the pinstriped cookie pushers, we can get a read out of current Russian politics in cartoon form without all the annoying analysis and nuance. Thanks to Russian photoshoppers, we can visualize it, like diplomatic cables were TV shows!

27 November 2010

Medivka / Żubrówka

Two luxurious items: homemade Ukrainian medivka and Żubrówka. First time I tried each of these spirits was during the Orange Revolution in a cafe in Lviv. Dzyha, before it renovated and became less of a 90s feeling western Ukrainian kavarnya. It's been six years to the day that I wrote "Day 6: Ukraine is not Africa," a journal entry from the Lviv 2004 notebook:
Symonenko and the Commumaniacs denounced oligarchic and bandit clans. He urged that falsifications hurt the KPU. Zaiets of Nasha Ukraina called for an open criminal court because the vlada promised free and fair elections but did not deliver. Ultranationalist Shkil of BYuT called Party of Regions criminals, and vowed that the Supreme Court would not rule in their favor. Ioffe of Party of Regions said that if this was democracy, it’s a strange type of one.

Several days, later on December 3, the Supreme Court would designate the 2nd round of presidential elections invalid, allowing Viktor Yushchenko to win the 3rd round of elections.

Back then I was sitting in the cafe straining Turkish coffee through my teeth. There was a moratorium on alcohol sales to make sure that the demonstrators were sober taking the orange events seriously. The barman said that he couldn't serve me brandy or vodka but that I could taste shot of medivka.

After getting back from Ukraine I happened to find some of this amber nectar at the Baltimore Ukrainian Festival (they even put cinnamon schnapps and use everclear). The recipe is here:

1-1/4 cups water
Zest of 1 orange, tangerine and/or lemon
3 whole cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup buckwheat honey
2-1/2 to 3 cups vodka

Place the water, citrus zest, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg in a small saucepan. Cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain the water through a clean cotton cloth into another pot and add the honey. Bring to a simmer and skim the foam from the top. Add the honey mixture, and combine well. Cool, pour into bottles. Freeze.

27 October 2010

Election Time...Again

America is yet again in the thick of a particularly nasty election campaign, characterized by propaganda ad spots that would make Goebbles proud. It is inescapable, especially here in Washington, and nastier than ever.

Living in the Beltway Bubble (don't charge me of "elitism" – I was bred in the Midwest and the product of a state university) it is important to remember that while have achieved the dubious distinction in the U.S. of attaining democracy nirvana (we love lecturing other countries about our enlightenment, do we not?), other countries in the world have even nastier election campaigns. Ukraine is the ultimate case study, perhaps. If any Tea Partier, progressive die hard, or liberal-cynic wants to see a brutal and extreme campaign, it is in Ukraine.

Ukraine, like the U.S., is once again in the throes of yet another election (democracy overload). This time, local officials are battling it out for the first vote since Yanukovych took power in March. According to on-the-ground reports, these elections are quite significant. Reports suggest not only that democracy is receding, but that continued regression may solidify opposition to Yanukovych, a man of the ancien régime.

Despite the gains of Yanukovych early this year, the party of power (vlada) will ensure that it receives the outcome it wants for the October 31 local elections. It is using virtual politics from the Kuchma era: refusing to register candidates due to "incorrect applications," selling ballots, and "carousel" voting. Authorities are particularly active in preventing Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party from participating in the elections. In Lviv, a clone of Batkivshchyna was registered, while real Batkivshchyna had to fight in courts for the right to be the "real" party. Ironically, members of Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tihipko's Strong Ukraine party are being denied registration.

There are also anecdotes of economic pressure told to me by one Ukrainian professor. One director of publishing house in Lutsk was simply "substituted" by another guy who came from Lugansk. And the reason is very simple - an old director cooperated with the former administration, while the new guy represents the current political force in power. Another had to leave his post as a newspaper editor after publishing a critical material about the Yanukovych – despite the fact that it was an interview and not even his own material.

Not surprisingly, Tymoshenko says that people will go to the streets if polls are rigged (only 8.5% of Ukrainians believe that local elections will be fair). There is merit to these statements beyond the usual oppositional cries. During the crisis, Ukrainians were busy with survival and still are – prices for some products have doubled in the past few months, while everything else is "stable." Extolling the benefits of stagnation – as opposed to the 2009 pledge to ensure stabilnist' after the crisis and dysfunctional orange government – is hardly a viable election campaign platform.

The past few years have shown that disappointment and disillusionment in politics leads to a pendulum swing. Rada elections, likely to take place in the spring, are a prime opportunity to do this – barring the vlada doesn't steal votes. Ironically, the Constitutional Court's recent decision to tinker with the institutional framework of executive/legislative power increases the likelihood of early parliamentary elections.

The outcome of October 31, exactly 6 years after the first round of the Yushchenko-Yanukovych presidential election, may be that there is a strong possibility that Ukrainians will be convinced that changes are needed and they will be ready to get rid of the current power.

21 October 2010

Moving Central Europe from the Backburner

In a Heritage Foundation blog post, the author reminds us once again that Central Europe has taken the backburner on the U.S. policy agenda. While I fully agree that this region is suffering from benign neglect that could morph into neglect, the familiar platitudes on promoting democracy and supporting our friends are repeated. Let me use Poland as the example.

The post title "Russian Advances in Central Eastern Europe" implies that U.S. interests in the region should be viewed through the prism of containing Russia rather than forging any unique policy breakthroughs toward the region. In typical partisan fashion, the blame lies with the current administration:

“Among the population, enthusiasm for U.S. leadership under President Obama has waned significantly, rating now behind Western Europe, a reversal from the Bush years.”

The implication here is that Obama started or was the catalyst for this decline. Conservative commentators in Washington and Warsaw often point to the fact that the scrapping of the BMD plan in September 2009 signaled Obama's "betrayal" of the region. If anything, this was a symbolic marker, not the cause, of Poland's disillusionment toward the U.S., already beginning to wane in the latter half of Bush's presidency. As they worked to shore up NATO credentials after accession in 1999, the Poles mistakenly approached all of their contributions to the U.S. (Iraq and ISAF troops, buying F-16s) expecting a quid pro quo (visa waiver, heightened partnership status) in return, which never happened. They grew disillusioned well before Obama took office.

Poland's entry into the EU created massive tangible benefits for ordinary Poles beyond the security paradigm. In short, Poland’s changing relationship was an inevitable factor in its EU accession and its "faded romance" toward the U.S. The question, therefore, is what to do about this that hasn't already worked.

One solution is scrapping visa requirements. Last week, Poland was once again angered by its exclusion from the visa waiver program. Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland's Secretary of State for European Affairs, said "maybe one day here in Washington people will treat Poland as a reliable and important partner in the European Union, not just some country with sentimental links." There is no political will in Congress to move ahead on such immigration reform allowing Poland (which does not meet the 10% thresshold of visa rejections) waiver status. I can’t imagine Congress loosening immigration policy for the Poles, or Heritage Foundation backing immigration reform.

Finally, the magic word on everyone's lips is shale gas. The mere thought of Poland sticking it to the Russians increases the excitement:

“Support the exploration of gas shale [sic], which Poland possesses in abundance, and which would provide an alternative to Russian gas as Sikorski suggested. There is currently only $2 billion in U.S. business investment in Poland. Gas shale [sic] could give Poland energy independence; perhaps even make it an energy exporter.”

But what kind of support? U.S. companies (Exxon, Chevron, Conoco) are already exploring for shale gas in Poland. Economic viability and navigating through regulatory hurdles will get these projects up and running, not U.S. State Department or think tank hot air. Gazprom's policy of using energy as a geopolitical (or domestic political) tool has led to disastrous effects. The U.S. shouldn't play the same game.

Despite the excitement, industry is cautious. Shale gas is still in the early stage and it could not give Poland energy independence given the current energy mix. 60% of Poland’s energy mix is coal, 90% of electricity is generated by coal — all domestically produced. Shale gas would only help Poland reduce vulnerability in case of indirect natural gas shutoffs from Russia. That is not the same thing “energy independence.” The goal of shale gas projects will be to make money, not restore the promise of the U.S. geopolitical position in Central Europe vis-a-vis Russia.

I would also argue that one reason why there is only $2 billion in U.S. investment is partly to do with the Bush administration’s preoccupation (obsession) with BMD in bilateral relations for the past years at the expense of advancing economic ties. For years, the U.S. positioned itself as Poland's security pillar and guarantor. Obama inherited a relationship that was narrowly focused on missile defense and shoring up Russian influence in the region. No surprise either that the Heritage post refers to "Russian advances" without specifically naming them, as if this existential threat is enough to materialize a coherent Central Europe policy or make shale gas profitable.

Lech Wałęsa, used to say: "we want American generals to be dispatched in Poland ... generals like: General Motors and General Electric." This advice may be too little, too late.

10 September 2010

Świnoujście Under Fire

Germany is demanding that the European Union conduct an environmental assessment of a project to build a liquified natural gas terminal in the Baltic port of Swinoujscie. Germany has reportedly sent Poland a formal protest, saying that the project could violate the Espoo convention on environmental protection. Earlier Poland failed to use the same convention to block the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany along the bed of the Baltic Sea. At the end of August, Berlin voted against the European Union allocating 80 million euros to build the terminal, which is very close to the German border. According to Warsaw, the terminal in Swinoujscie will be built by 2014 at a cost of 800 million euros. The terminal will make it possible to satisfy 40 percent of Poland's needs for natural gas. The gas will be supplied by Qatar. However, Germany fears that the energy complex just three kilometers from its border will threaten the environment on the fragile Baltic coast. (Oil and Gas Eurasia, Sept. 10).

09 August 2010

A Break

To anyone who may read this little blog (all 5 of you): I'm still here but not feeling it. It's another long hot summer of discontent.

First there was the spy scandal. This is the type of fodder that Russian area experts, last of the Cold Warriors and ex-Kremlinologists all love and live for. It started off with two fascinating DoJ complaints describing the activities of mysterious "illegals" that described cool little details like a roll of TACMA film found in a safe deposit box to add to their cover. It ended up with headlines that wrote themselves: "The Spy Who Shagged Me." I've been reading Oleg Kalugin's book The First Directorate, though, as a reminder of a time when stakes were really high.

Then there was the (boring) Polish election. I've been gobbling up Ryszard Kapuściński instead. There is the never-ending Russophobes vs. Russophiles factionalism, the zero-sum mental gymnastics and political grandstanding on New START, Putin riding Harleys while Moscow burns, Medvedev blogging about Frisco and Twittering, etc.

All of it is now a chore. Reading about it all is even more excruciating. Writing about it? Forget it.

There are many bloggers who enjoy writing about Russia and the region as a hobby. I am not one of them. I do it for a living for 9+ hours a day. So am I obliged to follow all this stuff? Am I not supposed to get excited, even defensive, about the latest pseudo-stripper as Foreign Minister scandal, the latest comments from think tankers after the lunch buffet, or the latest ghostwritten op-ed from some get tough-on-Russia Washington politico?

Not really. I don't really care so much. I don't really have much to say that anyone else hasn't already written about, except this: it all seems to be a side show.

23 June 2010

Yet Another Gas War

The gas dispute brewing between Russia and Belarus has turned into another gas war. On June 21, Gazprom cut gas supplies to Belarus by 30% and threatened to cut it to 85% of shipments to Belarus in response of Minsk's failure to pay a $187 million gas tab. Today, Gazprom reduced the flow by 60%. Lukashenka responded by cutting off the flow to Europe to pressurize the Russians and put the blame on them.

All the while, Gazprom played a delicate PR game: no wintertime cutoff, emphasizing that only 20% of Russia's exports to Europe transit through Belarus and promising that Europe would not be affected. A bne commentator says: "...the demand for gas in Europe is at its absolute nadir for the year and so even if Moscow followed through on its threat to cut 85% of Belarus' supplies, it would make no noticeable difference to Gazprom's clients in Western Europe. TV station Russia Today interviewed the head of one of Germany's gas company who said the gas in storage was more than enough to cover any shortfall." German Economics Minister Rainer Bruederle said he wasn't worried at all.

The problem is that not all European countries are the same. While Poland imports a tiny amount from Russia (over 16 million cubic meters per day via the Yamal pipeline) a gas cutoff from Belarus has disproportionate effects on Polish industry that one in a major consumer like Germany. PGNiG and Gaz System announced that reductions in amounts would be offset by deliveries from Ukraine. Lithuania's Lietuvos Dujos reports that gas flows have already decreased 30%.

In 2006, the Russia-Ukraine gas wars were interpreted in the West as a great geopolitical contest -- the Russian bear threatening the pro-Western Yushchenko government. This conflict confirms that Gazprom still uses energy as a (geo)political tool, but demonstrates that this lever is now being applied to revive Russia's economic prowess.

Gazprom's fortunes have changed radically since 2006. The past several years of crisis have inflated Gazprom's lofty investment program, and EU demand has plummeted. The amount of money in question (around $200 million is demanded by Gazprom, and $260 million is demanded by Belarus for unpaid transit fees) is a chump change compared to the amounts Russia was attempting to extract from Ukraine during previous gas wars. In fact, $200 million is five times less than what Gazprom lost by shutting off the gas in the 2009 gas war with Ukraine.

While it is true that Gazprom needs to squeeze all of the lost revenue it can, $200 million is a blow to the Belarusian economy. According to Rzeczpospolita, Belarus has already transferred $200 million to Gazprom, but that's where the problems begin. Apparently, this cash was borrowed from "friends." Belarus does not have a free-floating currency to repay its debt. It cannot use foreign exchange reserves because it must maintain the rate of the Belarusian ruble. It cannot take money from its budget because spending has already been allocated. In essence, shaking $200 million from Batsko will go a long way. Taking it further, it is certain that if Gazprom raised prices to European levels, its economy would collapse (not to mention Ukraine's which depends on IMF loans to keep its economy afloat).

Second, this gas war suggests that the Russia-Belarus sblizhenie since the end of the USSR has failed miserably up until now. Fyodor Lukyanov notes that the current gas war is one sign of the failure of the Union State economic project. Russia's attempt to create a Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus works better on paper than in reality. While the Customs Union came into effect on January 1, Minsk and Moscow continued to tussle over oil export duties and milk imports, which Moscow refused to do. In response, Belarus threatened to withdraw from the Customs Union, leaving the Medvedev-Putin duumvirate in the dust. Such disagreements are symptoms of the current gas conflict.

22 June 2010

Poland Votes: The First Round

I promise that a more nuanced analysis will follow...

20 May 2010

Change of Heart

Speaking at Warsaw University (a fine institution I had the privilege of attending), Gazprom deputy CEO Aleksandr Medvedev announced that his company is "examining the possibility" of entering the shale gas market by buying a U.S. based company. “We are not against shale gas ... Shale gas opens possibilities of expanding the usage of gas in energy generation and fuel for vehicles.”

It appears that Medvedev's position on shale gas has radically changed. In a classic quote, Medvedev in February expressed concern about the impact of shale gas on the U.S. and European water table stating, "Not every housewife is aware of the environmental consequences of the use of shale gas ... I don’t know who would take the risk of endangering drinking water reservoirs." In October, he told Petroleum Economist "there's a lot of myths about shale production" -- notably its economic feasibility.

Concrete details of Gazprom's move into the shale gas market, currently being explored by ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron, were not revealed. Depressed demand and lower prices have forced Gazprom to delay its Shtokman and Yamal flagship natural gas projects. Belatedly, Gazprom is realizing it is too late in the game.

It seems that the core focus of Medvedev's trip to the Polish capital, however, was a PR action to bring awareness to a scholarship funded by Gazprom and Europolgaz at the University of Warsaw's Center for International Relations. Not surprisingly, a handful of Warsaw University students, staged a colorful anti-Putin protest.

If Poland's shale gas boom indeed takes off, such protests in the future will be completely unnecessary.