Friday, December 3, 2010

Snippets: Life in the Near Abroad

Please accept my apologies for this post, a series of fragments about nearly contemporary life in Russia and other former Soviet republics. When family members hand me a stack of Economists, I feel compelled to scan them for a description of how things are going seventy years after the October Revolution. The past is prologue, and vice versa.


According to the book, Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal, this area, birthplace of Stalin, has the highest density of languages in the world. In 1900 it was the world’s biggest oil producer. In 1917 three Caucasus states briefly became independent. The area was fortunate to have largely missed direct involvement in the Second World War. After the war, it became a playground for the Soviet elite. The area is home to several "frozen" conflicts; talk of NATO expansion in the area ended after the recent Russian-Georgian War.


NATO intends to have have polish troops defend Lithuania in the event of a war with Russia. Poland and Lithuania, two countries that were united only 440 years previously, maintain frigid relations. Poland has ten times the population of Lithuania and Lithuanians still resent Polish cultural hegemony in the Vilnius area during the Interwar period. Important Polish assets may be sold to Russia, alarming some Lithuanians.


Estonia maintains flat taxes, free trade, and a strong currency board. In 2004 it achieve NATO and European Union membership. In 2011 the country is scheduled to begin using the Euro as its official currency.


Latvia has been practicing relative economic usterity. According to the Economist, it's made sound economic decisions and even wants to adopt the Euro.


Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries to emerge from the wreckage of the USSR, is divided by ethnicity and held together by two roads that link the north with the south of this mountainous country. The north is more ethnically Russian the south, and less Islamic. The country, whose boundaries emerged as late as 1924, must decide whether it prefers a parliamentary democracy or a strong presidency. It has 5.4 million people. Its emigrant remittances are crucial to its economy and, according to the Economist, represent a full 22 percent of GDP. Half a million Kyrgyzs work in Russia and up to 100,000 Kyrgyzs work in Khazakhstan. Most of the country's food is imported. Uzbekistan sometimes closes borders in response to unrest in the country. This, despite that Uzbeks are often a persecuted people in Kirghistan.

Kirghistan has no history of democracy, though a recent election was hotly contested. The Economist says its leaders don't seem to know how the president, 120 seat parliament, and prime minister should work together, if at all. Kirghistan's undemocratic neighbors fear revolution and democracy. Russia, despite a strategic interest in the area, would be unwilling to risk another costly intervention in the area. In some ways, Russia may benefit most from democracy, since this would allow it to gain needed local allies. The states are divided against themselves, the result of Stalin's successful effort to carve up the area into competing ethnic states. The area is awash in water disputes, spies, ethnic enclave rivalries, nomad/farmer tension, and great power intrigue.


Minsk and Moscow claim to love one another but there's tension behind the scenes. Oil prices are one source of friction. Alyakashandr Lukashenka is also upset about documentaries that portray his leadership, and Belarus, in a negative light. Belarus has retaliated by allowing the Georgian president to be interviewed on Belarus TV. There is also some friction about a possible customs union between Russia and Belarus. For their part, Russians are wondering what they have gotten in return for their policy of giving subsidized oil to Belarus. Belarus, for instance, didn't recognize the independence of Georgian breakaway areas.


In April 2010 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of the oil company Yukos faced two trials for the same alleged crime, or "double jeopardy." He was being accused of underpaying his takes and stealing his company’s oil. The man's website outlines his position. The Economist believes the man is being punished for refusing to submit to Putin as other oligarchs did. He had, for instance, financed some opposition parties. At this time, Khodorkovsky is unpopular with the Russian people as a whole, but very popular with intellectuals and human rights activities. The treatment of this famous dissident and former oligarch is a defining moment for Putin's legacy.

Moscow represents ten percent of the Russian population and a quarter of its economic output. It's also polluted, and full of traffic. The summer was the hottest on record, thousands died from heat stroke or drunken swimming as they attempted to escape the sun. There are 142 million people in Russia, and 400,000 of die from alcohol each year. The population may be shrinking as fast as 700,000 a year according to the Economist. A new road is being built that should speed up traffic between St. Petersburg and Moscow, but are forests being cut down wantonly? Is correction at work? There's a new Moscow mayor now that Yuri Luzhkov was sacked after 18 years on the job. The new mayor, a Putin loyalist, is Sergei Sobya-nin. Oddly, he has no security or oil background and hails from Siberia.


Russian signed a deal with Ukraine to give it gas in return for the use of Sevastopol for its Russian fleet. The majority of Ukrainians support this deal, which blocks Ukraine from joining NATO--but the Economist maintains that this wasn't really going to happen anyhow. The fleet is week but has great historical significance to the former superpower.


President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 70 year old "leader of the nation"--ruler since 1989--is a man invested with special powers for life. Notwithstanding widespread corruption, Kazakhstan's economy maintains a solid rate of growth. It's benefiting from a market economy, banking reform, a generally free market, sound educational policies, and healthy direct investment. There is some uncertainty about who will succeed the president in in Astana.

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