Thursday, 31 May 2007

Corpses: metaphorical and real

In Ukraine - and, yes, I recognise that Red-Exile these days writes about as much on UKR as on RUS, but whatever - Yuschenko seems to be about to grab total-defeat from the jaws of mere humiliation: the Rada seems to have him dangling on a rope. A late night email exchange may give some little clue as to why:

[my man in Kyiv, 12.54 am MSK]: "Yanukovich said 'f*** you' to Yushchenko at midnight [Midnight Wednesday - Exile] and slammed the door. Timoshenko is partnering with Yanukovich to impeach the President. Never endless fun..."

[Exile, in reply]: "Yulia Timoshenko knows now that White House support is hers for the grasping, because they’ve lost confidence in Yush. Yush is finished as a serious political force."

Meanwhile, frankly gormless alleged murder, Andrei Lugovoi, has reached new depths of absurdity in proclaiming his innocence... Not least because - as any former member of the KGB's First Chief Directorate (now independently run as the SVR) would know: UK SIS ('MI6') never, ever plots to kill people...that's what we have the SAS for (LOL)...

Personally, I am bored of the Litvinenko thing. I haven't seen anything yet to go against my belief that someone in the Oligarch diaspora - not necessarily old-barking-Berezovsky - paid for some keystone cop hangovers to mount an operation more than anything likely to embarrass VVP in the eyes of the world. Not least, as they correctly guessed, they would be caught and could rely on the fact that the Kremlin would never allow extradition of a former KGB officer; even one who only served only in the relatively lowly 'ninth directorate' (the Securicor of the KGB). It leaves the Kremlin exactly where the plotters want: looking guilty, totally framed.

Not Russian, just wonderful

Via Popbitch, the scurrilous British gossip-meisters, this advert is delicious genius:

This week's popbitch also has a video of drunk Russian policemen dancing which is mildly amusing, in a lame kind of way...

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Moscow cheers as Yuschenko implodes…and other weekend Eurasian mayhem

On the face of it, it's not been a 'great' start to the week in any of the countries in my 'patch'...

Kyiv went to the brink and back this weekend, yes? Well, not quite. There was, frankly, something quite Wag the dog about the breathless news reporting I watched on the BBC and CNN, in our Kyiv apartment and the streets of Kyiv itself. I scarcely saw any troops and there seemed no more security on the streets than usual.

When Mr Orange Revolution grabbed control over the Interior Ministry troops – memo to wannabe democracies: why do you need 40,000 ‘interior ministry’ troops if not to use against your own people? – and summoned them to Kyiv he looked, if just for a moment, as bad as the Kuchma regime he had replaced.

Sunday, of course, we all woke up to see that Yush and Yank have finally agreed an election date. But here’s what I heard Sunday: the American, German and Polish governments were furious with Yuschenko – summoning troops to Kyiv? Way bad move! – and the US told him it would ‘pull the plug’, more or less publicly, on backing him further. Faced with that calamity, President Yuschenko had no choice but to cave in and accept Prime Minister Yanukovych’s proposed date for Verkhovna Rada elections.

If this is your thing do check out Foreign Notes, the Ukrainian political blog in English which has been quite brilliant on this stuff recently.

Events having rather overtaken things, my lunch Friday with a sometime Yuschenko adviser (an economist running a local NGO) now seems rather academic; but these gobbets are maybe worth passing on:

- There is no meaningful electoral law in Ukraine and no-one is legitimate; the constitution is something of a farce and is not a sustainable rulebook for what happens next
- The Supreme Court is a useless hive of cronies and “neither side” [there are only two sides? - Exile] sets much store in what it says; if it actually says something (the cronies go-run-hide when real chaos emerges).
- People on both Orange and Blue sides are coming round to the idea that there needs to be a Constitutional Convention, before the Elections, to decide which of the laws passed by the, technically dismissed, Verkhovna Rada to keep – some are quite good - as well as to agree a proper electoral law
- The move to ‘Parliamentary’ over Executive Presidential government seems unstoppable
- At some point, one side has to lose and that will be when the ‘fun’ will begin.

Yuschenko? Sell / Yanukovych becoming a statesman in spite of himself? Buy

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, Dariga Nazarbaeva and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev, have finally cut the cord and are striving for political power themselves. Now, personally, I think the son-in-law is a scum-bag (only my opinion, natch, and one I'll have to...ahem...revise, I guess, if he emerges victorious) and my people in Astana say some serious locals are backing away from her Institute of International Modern Politics (the well-funded, if shadowy, ‘NGO’ that is really her prototype opposition party HQ): daughter number one seems to have seriously miscalculated.

Kazakhstani Offspring? Sell.

Whatever else you might think about her father – no prize from the Kennedy School of Government for developing pluralist democracy, maybe – Nursultan Nazarbayev is probably the best and most successful statesman to have emerged from the collapse of the USSR: and yes, that includes VVP. He is genuinely respected amongst the Kazakhstani, especially the ethnic Kazakhs, and has prevailed over staggering economic transformation and a much better civil rights environment than any of the other ‘Stans.

President for Life? Buy

Meanwhile, in Moscow – to which I flew back Sunday night - apparently the gays had been at it again…lemming-like, a small band seems intent on inviting disaster upon themselves. This annual ‘gay riot’ photo-opportunity has already got tiresome… Personally I think every ‘world city’ benefits from a pink-quartier, but this is Moscow, people. Never, ever, here.

Civil rights are a tricky thing. Martin Luther King dragged America towards the civilized treatment of its fellow citizens. But for him, and heroes like Rosa Parks, American blacks would not have the civil rights they have today (whether they can afford to enjoy them being, of course, another thing….). They got those rights through protest.

But in the case of gay rights, the Russian gay community has to consider this: it is clinging on to the decriminalization of homosexuality by its fingertips. By going out to ask for more rights, it might just lose the one ‘right’ it has.

As I recall, a Bill, introduced February 12th by Liberal Democratic Party Deputy, Nikolai Kuryanovich, sits before the State Duma to repeal the decriminalization of homosexuality. So far, I believe, the Government lets it linger there actif, mais en repose. Kuryanovich – who is not exactly the most liberal human being imaginable – has a penchant for popularist legislation: not long ago he proposed stripping citizenship for any Russian woman who married a foreigner.

This is not an area of policy I follow, but I think there is a 30-40% chance that, if United Russia senses that an extra dose of popularist measures is needed before the Duma elections in December, the Bill could well be activated and passed. Such a move would be wildly popular with the Russian electorate – the bit that actually votes that is - which would never have supported the decriminalization of homosexuality in the first place (one of the noteworthy examples, actually, of how Yeltsin’s Young Turks led liberalism in Russia, rather than reflected it).

Rather than protest in the streets, Russian gays would be best advised to lay low until this political cycle is over and the Duma/Presidential elections completed. Alternatively, they might consider moving abroad.

La vie en rose? Hold/Sell

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Итак, товарищ, что за цветную геометрическую фигуру вы хотите на меня надеть?

The title of this post translates as: "So, comrade, just what sort of brightly-coloured, geometric shape would you like me to wear?"

In a brief diversion from matters political in Ukraine, I wanted to share - and I realise I am so not the first to do this - my mounting unease over Nashi; the "pro-Kremlin" Youth group whose antics recently have begun to get a little out-of-control. [I would have given you the link to Nashi's own site but, incredibly, it is usually blocked for access outside Russia].

First, it was picketing the British Ambassador in punishment for his attending the the not-the-G8 Summit last year, held by 'The Other Russia'. Not, IMHO, the wisest actions unless he set out to deliberate provoke VVP and friends.

Then we had all this demonstrating outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. Now, let me be clear, I think the Estonians ought to be ashamed of themselves -like most the other Baltics states actually - for what they been doing to the ethnic Russians 'left behind' in their countries after the collapse of the USSR. Their latest action - de facto comparing the Soviet troops, who extraordinary sacrifice really won WWII, to the Nazis with whom many Balts collaborated - was truly outrageous.

And that is the cleft stick I find myself in: Russia was right to be furious at the way the EU allows the Baltic states to dick around with the human rights of the ethnic Russians in their country. As an EU citizen, I am ashamed at our selective approach to human rights in this area. But, it is the way a minority of the Russian political establishment goes about reacting to these provocations that often times does more harm than good.

The latest thing, of course, has seen Nashi been picketing the European Commission's 'Embassy'(sic) in Moscow; demanding the release from an Estonian prison of some young Nashi thug who - quite rightly - was arrested in Tallinn after committing violent affray there on 9th May.

Technically, Nashi is not the Kremlin - we must remember that - and I remind myself of it each time they ratchet up the nastiness. Nastiness? "Surely," say the Russophiles, "that's a bit harsh old thing."

Well, no, I don't think it is. Until recently, on LiveJournal, there was a translation of a Nashi recruitment brochure. Very scary: very lets-bring-back-the-cold-war. The blogger has protected his post now, so you can't see it: attacking Nashi can be a dangerous thing to do in Russia.

For the first time in three and a half years several of my expat friends are beginning to get anxious in Russia. Through new visa rules, visa registration procedures with the local police, absurd medical tests for residency renewal, more police checks etc - even I am beginning to think that Russians truly dislike us foreigners and want. us. out. Not that, I hasten to add, the Russians I know and deal with are like this at all: but, they tend not to be the ones demonstrating in the street, with State approval.

All joking aside, I have even begun to consider, if it came to it, what stuff I would abandon and what stuff I would want to get out of the country and how quickly it could be done. In Haiti we all had 'one small bag' packed on standby. It is not, I think, going to come to that (God, I hope not); but how would I achieve one-week-notice extraction? The trick, my friends, is in the planning. 'Cos, you know, waiting 'til the brown stuff hits the proverbial fan? Too late then...

Now, this was one of those posts I was really planning to upload during my blogging here it is

This 9th May I was taking a very pleasant day off. Usually, I work Russian public holidays, because in the UK and USA people are working and, as I have posted before, a day off email is a nightmare because of the backlog one returns to...

However - and this is happening more and more as we enter the tense political season, in prelude to Federal elections to the Duma in December and, of course, the Presidential elections next March - central Moscow where I live was sealed off tight. Roads and even some Metro stations are closed in and out. This means I really cannot easily get from my flat to any of our two offices in Moscow: one is on Kadashevskaya Naberezhnaya, close by the famous Baltchug Hotel (and newly infamous GQ Bar); while our main office is in the up-and-coming, soon-to-be-hip (read: still pretty grim) Paveletskaya area.

So, being sort of 'imprisoned' in my enclave of expats, New wealthy Russians, soldiers and some veterans, I decide to hang out. In any case, I had tickets for STOMP! which was, BTW, more exhilarating fun I've had in a theatre for years.

So, pre-theatre, I was hanging out in my third favourite Novikov restaurant, Peperoni [that's how they spell it!]. It's pretty good Italian food - I am half Italian, OK?, I need my regular 'fix' - and is about the only place in Moscow that can make acceptable ravioli. Sitting upstairs, in the window that overlooks the Moscow City Duma (parliament), I am Skype texting on my PDA when I notice a police escort for a bus, and then another bus, and then another and another. 14 buses in all.

Each filled with young Nashi members - no doubt being bused into a rally on Red Square - it was the creepiest thing. They were all wearing identical red t-shirts with their white symbols emblazoned across their chests.

Some looked surly, a lot looked bored (rumour pretty much has pinned down that many Nashi members join up to get paid to rally and protest, as well as, allegedly, get preferment at university: if you're a guy dodging conscription through one of the shrinking legal means, joining Nashi can cover your ass with some authorities). Some had clearly coupled up, and looked like a school busload of teens would anywhere else in the world, except this lot had a police escort, were being driven through Moscow streets closed to the traffic of ordinary civilians and, of course, and were all wearing their uniforms.

Perhaps because it was 9th of May (Victory Day) - and the streets were full of WWII veterans - but God forgive me, this was literally the first thought that entered my head as I watched this sinister cavalcade...

So, you see, in rightly wanting to stamp out the first, frankly tiny, signs of Nazi extremism in Russia, and have a vehicle for young Russians to express the pride they rightly should have in their country - and, yes, celebrate much of the good VVP has done - it all gets gnarled up and they risk becomming the thing Nashi's founders profess to loathe and want to prevent.

I just fear the next twelve months in Russia could be be pretty hairy for us foreigners at times...

On a lighter note, I'll sign off with some STOMP! for you to enjoy:

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Just a bad day, politically, or the start of something more interesting?

From the updated Foreign & Commonwealth Office Travel Advice for Ukraine, posted tonight:

"Political Situation

The political situation has been tense since the President dissolved parliament on 02 April 2007. Visitors should avoid political demonstrations. There are reports that internal troops may be deployed to the capital on 26 May 2007."


I have been out and about Kyiv today seeing what's going on. Although it is now getting dark and many are pretty boozed up - it's the start of a three day holiday here and the annual Kyiv Day celebrations in downtown - everything is as it should be.

Actually, while the security forces on the streets are about average in number, all the embassies have their diplomatic cars out front...they're all working, which they don't usually do on a Saturday.

If anything, I thought Kyiv Day crowds were smaller than on the last two Kyiv Days I have seen. I think as reports hit Ukrainian media this morning that the President had ordered Interior Ministry troops to the capital, some people decided to stay out of the centre of town.
I am thinking of extending my stay in Kyiv: I smell coup d'etat in the air...but I have tickets for the Bolshoi tomorrow in Moscow...decisions, decisions...

I'll post about the UKR situation tomorrow; based on a fascinating lunch I had Friday...
For the time being the situation I think was best summed up by a contact I have at an Embassy: "What is Yush doing? Oh Boy, has he gone 'off the reservation' on this one!"

Friday, 25 May 2007

Sorry, was I away a while?

I think it happens to every ex-pat but, every 9-12 months or so, one goes through a "I hate [the country I'm in] phase"; it only lasts a couple or weeks or so; has nothing to do with the country concerned and is usually only a temporary thing, before all love and harmony is returned. It doesn't matter which country I am in; happens every time, every year or so.

I guess most people are the same about the job they are in; or the relationship. The trick, I have found, is not to have all these coincide. Usually, if two or more do, it's time to move on from those concerned.

It's not a home-sick thing: I am never homesick for the UK, and haven't been since I moved abroad in 2001, it's just a sort of long-cycle emotional thingy I guess: a sort of quasi-PMS for expats.

Anyway, I am just emerging from mine now, which is why I haven't posted much recently, having been rather glum. C'est la vie. I am also working in lovely Kyiv (yesterday and today and spending the weekend) and, despite the seemingly inevitable slide into dangerous political chaos here, it's impossible not to be smiley in Kyiv...This Saturday is Kyiv Day: it'll either be a carnival or the backdrop to a coup; which is why weekends, in the post-Soviet space, are never dull.

So (a) Yes, Morocco was fantastic: I bought a lot of contemporary art (a lot, according to my bank manager) and spent an hour with Russian customs and the airport rep from the 'State Committee on Cultural Heritage', on my return, getting temporary import licenses for it all so I can take it all out again when, one day, it's time to leave...

(b) Yes, DC [your comment to the last post] it does refer to Western prejudice.

Don't get me wrong, Russia often does itself no favours with its habit of treating foreigners with a choice of only two emotions: bored indifference or outright hostility. Like Moscow weather (hot, humid Summers or vicious icy winters, but no significant Spring or Autumn), Russia's foreign dialogue often lacks nuance. I have come to learn that, in the Russian psyche these two, lonely emotional gears represent sophistication in the case of the former; and decisive patriotism in the case of the latter. Go figure! The fact it's not really working for them doesn't seem to occurred to anyone...

(c) Sorry, Krusenstern, but this blogger just doesn't do team sports. Your Blog-Carnival Russian Media is a great idea and I wish you the best of luck! Quite courageous though, I think, to link the carnival to some rinky-dink award for Новая Газета [Russian site]: the Novaya Gazeta [Wiki listing] newspaper is almost tiresomely anti-President Putin and, let's just say this:

Expats living in Russia, who go-bang-drum for Novaya Gazeta, had better not be banking on Russian visa-renewal any time soon ;-)

So anyway, in my head many 'stellar' (sic) posts have come and gone and have been left unwritten. My bad. But it's a blog, not a marriage vow, after all: get over yourselves!

Speaking of which, Red Exile wishes Chris a great wedding this weekend...and enjoy the month-long honeymoon you're going on. And thank your lucky stars you don't work for Americans (who would never give you a month's nuptial leave no matter how long you'd worked for them: to who, BTW, I say; enjoy Memorial Weekend'.

Anyway, I am not going to bore you with holiday snaps. OK, just this one: what a clever PSA advert for such a conservative (and Muslim) country like Morocco, don't you think?