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Commentator jimmyriddle finds statistics about the ethnic composition of scientific cadres in the Soviet Union in 1973 via Cassad (the original comes via the blogger Burkino Faso).

ethnicity-of-soviet-scientists-1973

 

Drawing on earlier statistical data, although on a more limited sample of different ethnicities, we have the following sets of correlations:

  • 1926 Census, literacy amongst 50 years olds+ – r = .92
  • 1926 Census, overall literacy – r = .72
  • 1939 Census, overall literacy – r = .61
  • 1939 Census, high school graduation – r = .93
  • 1939 Census, higher education – r = .99

Considering this without Jews who are huge outliers everywhere here:

  • 1926 Census, literacy amongst 50 years olds+ – r = .82
  • 1926 Census, overall literacy – r = .74
  • 1939 Census, overall literacy – r = .72
  • 1939 Census, high school graduation – r = .91
  • 1939 Census, higher education – r = .93

So the two best predictors are:

(1) The literacy rate amongst the last Tsarist era generation, i.e. people who were 50+ years old in 1926, hence were born before 1876. That was before the advent of mass schooling in the Russian Empire, so I suspect that was when the literacy rate amongst the various regions of the Russian Empire was also the most “g loaded” (apart from places where the Protestant factor was also at play).

(2) Even more so, the share of people with higher education according to the 1939 Census. This stands to reason.

***

PISA suggests that the Georgians have very low IQs. I mean literally India-like, in the low 80s. However, the above suggests that its underperformance is more a result of massive brain drain – as in other countries that score ridiculously lower than expected based on their ethnic composition, such as Moldova and Puerto Rico, and before the 1990s, Ireland – as well as possibly the collapse of the schooling system to an extent that didn’t happen elsewhere. Probably the two most highly achieving Georgians today are historical detective fiction writer and political oppositioner Boris Akunin (Chkhartishvili) and the controversial but undoutedbly very talented Moscow based sculptor Zurab Tsereteli.

Armenia does not participate in PISA, but its results from TIMSS were significantly lower than Russia’s, at around Ukraine’s or Romania’s level. However, it might be grossly underperforming for the same reasons that Georgia is. First off, a massive amount of the brainier Armenians have emigrated to Russia and the West. In both places they are prominent relative to their numbers, with a powerful lobby in the US (even if it has nothing on the Jewish lobby) and a very powerful lobby in Russia that one could argue stretches all the way to Sergey Lavrov himself, who is half-Armenian. Former chess champion and oppositionist Gary Kasparov is half-Armenian, while the older Soviet chess champion Tigran Petrosian was fully Armenian. They are also the closest cousins of the Jews in terms of genetic distance. A mischievous observation one can make is that like the Jews, Armenians also seem to be unduly prone to political radicalism when abroad, from Sergey Kurginyan and Gary Kasparov (in their own ways) in Russia to Maoist nutjob Bob Avakian and SJW figurehead Anita Sarkeesian in the US, but maintain a safely homogenous and culturally rightist (if dumber) society at home.

In the overall scheme of things, from Jews down to Gypsies, there are no really big surprises.

 
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Today a ceasefire has been agreed upon between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which unlike the unilateral ceasefire declared by Azerbaijan three days ago seems to be holding.

This allows us to make some more conclusions observations on what happened.

map-nagorno-karabakh-april-2016

Source: http://caucasus.liveuamap.com/, via Cassad.

Nagorno-Karabakh War 1.5

First, the Azeris have made gains, but their advance was ultimately quite modest – only around a quarter of a kilometer across a narrow stretch of the northern front – and ultimately ground to a halt. A total of eight defense positions were lost, as well as the village of Talish in the north. There are conflicting reports on whether Mataghis was captured – the weight of the evidence suggests that the Azeri assault failed with high casualties – while the main town and operational center for that front was never seriously threatened. It did suffer a bombardment, and was the target of intensive Azeri drone surveillance. Several Azeri drones were shot down around that area. The conflict also saw the first use in anger of the Israeli Harop “kamikaze” drone by the Azeris, which was remotely steered into a bus carrying Armenian volunteers, resulting in seven deaths.

Second, as has become familiar from the War in Donbass, official and unofficial casualty figures differ by an order of magnitude. Oficially, there had been to date 35 Armenian military deaths 37 Azeri deaths, although each side claims 300-400 enemy casualties. I suspect it is closer to around 50-75 for the Armenians (especially once the 28 listed as MIA, most of which usually end up dead in the end, are accounted for) and up to 150 for the Azeris. The photographic evidence appears to show a lot more Azeri than Armenian troops, and in any case it stands to reason since it was the Azeris who were assaulting well-fortified positions.

Furthermore, the NKR’s tally of how many tanks it lost – some fourteen of them – are virtually the same as Azeri claims of how many tanks it destroyed. In contrast, Azerbaijan implausibly acknowledges the loss of only one tank, whereas the Armenians claim they destroyed 29 tanks. Since it is harder to hide hardware losses, this suggests an NKR-Azeri combat loss ratio of 1:2. Apart from this, the Azeris have also lost several APCs, 1-2 Mi-24 helicopters, and tons of Israeli UAV’s (one of them was apparently downed by a hunter with a rifle! Not very good PR for Israel’s defense export industries).

old-armenian-soldier

Armenian volunteer.

deluded-aliyev All in all, it’s safe to say that at least so far, this has been a comprehensive defeat for Azerbaijan, regardless of how earnestly President Ilham Aliyev prevaricates on Twitter and the rather unconvincing assertions of Azeri propaganda.

Their purely military gains were insubstantial, and attained at the cost of much higher losses in personnel and equipment than the worse-armed but far more motivated, skilled, and dug in NKR Army. This was accomplished without any reinforcements from Armenia proper. Any hopes for a blitzkrieg campaign have been dashed. Consequently, if the Azeris also intended to test the limits at which Russia would start moves to intervene, they failed at that as well through their failure to achieve any major military successes against NKR in the first place.

Political Aspects

The Azeris also lost the information war. Although this flareup elicited very little European or American official commentary, it was clear that public opinion outside Turkey and Azerbaijan itself – at least as gauged by social media on Twitter and Reddit – was overwhelmingly on Armenia’s side. This was especially so after evidence of Azeri war crimes began to crop up, including the execution and mutilation of three Armenian civilians in Talish and the ISIS-style parading of the decapitated head of a Yazidi soldier from the NKR ranks (note that both links are probably NSFW). While the provenance of the former is uncertain, the latter appears to have definitely happened, appearing on a pro-Azerbaijan military Vkontakte page. There were also claims from pro-Armenian media sources that many Azeris in the ranks of Islamic State were turning to Azerbaijan. There is reason to be skeptical about this since it is unlikely that the sorts of Azeris who would go off to Raqqa would return to fight for a secular Shi’ite state.

If the intent was to use military assault to catalyze the diplomatic process, that too must be considered a failure. Apart from Erdogan’s boorish but entirely predictable expression of unconditional support for Azerbaijan, nobody else followed suit. Instead, everybody from Russia and Iran to NATO and the US issued formulaic injunctions to observe the ceasefire and resolve the issues through the OSCE Minsk Group (i.e. back to the status quo of doing nothing).

Even the US was noncommital, with a State Department spokesman saying that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be determined on the principles of “non-use of force or threat of force, territorial integrity of states, and the equal rights and self-determination of people.” The second and third points are of course self-contradictory in this case, but the reference to “threat of force” might have been a veiled rebuke against the Azeri Defense Minister for his threats to bomb the NGK capital Stepanakert.

The only countries of note apart from Turkey to assume a decidedly pro-Baku position were Pakistan, Georgia, and Ukraine – but this ghost of the GUAM alliance is not really a diplomatic triumph by any stretch of the imagination.

There was however one Azeri success, though. Or rather an Aliyev success. In Azerbaijan’s current economic circumstances, one might think the ruling dynasty could certainly do without is the media quacking about its offshore network of secret holding companies revealed by the Panama Papers. And unlike with Putin, Aliyev’s family members are directly mentioned as owners. It is worth noting that Mossack Fonseca had informed its clients of the data breach several months in advance, and they would have been aware of the approximate dates of its publication.

Is there a conspiracy theory here? Who knows. It need not have been a decisive factor, since the mainstream media doesn’t have the freedom to talk about such things anyway, while foreign journalists can be fobbed off with the always reliable “[the children] are grown up and have the right to do business” excuse. Even so, it might well have been a significant contributory factor.

After all, it is better to have people rhapsodizing about a “short victorious war,” or failing that at least about “our heroic shahids,” than grumbling about the plummeting currency and the offshore secrets of the elites.

A Final “Optimistic” Note

As I pointed out in my last post, this year represents the likely peak of Azeri military power relative to Armenia for at least the next decade. With Baku getting engulfed by financial crisis in the wake of the collapse of oil prices, it is cutting its military budget by 40% this year, in addition to already substantial cuts in 2015. This means its military modernization efforts will crawl to a stop. Those hi-tech toys its been “testing” these past few days are probably not going to be replaced anytime soon. Meanwhile, while the Armenian economy is hardly booming either, it can at least expect to maintain spending at similar levels or even increase them further considering the rising incidence and fierceness of its clashes with Azerbaijan.

This means that for Azerbaijan, it is a question of now or later… where later might either be decades down the line, or even more likely, never.

On the other hand, though these skirmishes were a far cry from what a real large-scale war would look like between Azerbaijan and Armenia-NKR, they were exceedingly useful from a calibration point of view in that they allowed the Azeris to get a good gauge on the actual combat effectiveness of their rebuilt army. They might well have concluded that the oil-splurge spending of the past decade didn’t automatically translate to much higher proficiency or combat effectiveness, with all that it entails for the prospects of a future large-scale operation to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh (even putting to the side the issue of Russian intervention).

In this sense, the continued bellicose rhetoric of the Azeris – and the Turks – regardless, the chances of a serious war in the future for Nagorno-Karabakh may well have actually diminished in the past few days.

EDIT 2016/04/06: Now that the fog of war has cleared up, it has become clear that the Azeris even failed to retain the village of Talish. What a debacle.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Corruption, Military 
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azeri-tanks

Column of Azeri tanks around the Talis region. Via Cassad.

Another Flareup in the Caucasus

The past two days has seen some of the most intense fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire that froze the conflict. It was a typical post-Soviet tale: Illogically drawn up borders, stranded Armenians in the historically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the flareup of nationalist tensions in the late 1980s that resulted in the outbreak of anti-Armenian pogroms, and the slide into war between two collapsing states as Nagorno-Kabakh declared independence and deported its Azeris.

As it was, Azerbaijan collapsed faster. Composed of incompetent generals and unenthusiastic soldiers and facing a highly motivated enemy with support from Russia and the vast Armenian diaspora, the Azeris were unable to make gains in the region’s mountainous terrain and eventually retreated after being bled dry by a 5-1 casualty ratio. The Azeris continue to pine for revenge. There are monthly small-scale artillery exchanges, their borders are sealed (Turkey also blockades Armenia), and there was an infamous case in 2004 when an Azeri officer axed a sleeping Armenian to death while they were both on a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest.

Officially, there were 18 Armenian dead and 12 Azeri dead in the recent clashes, as well as the loss of some military equipment. The Azeris claim this was provoked by Armenian bombardments. However, the higher number of Armenian dead plus the fact that the Azeris were the ones who seized a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh territory throws some doubt on these claims. (That said, the usually well informed Colonel Cassad claims that both sides’ losses were substantially higher, especially those of the Azeris).

azeri-gains

The territories Azerbaijan has taken on April 2 according to an Azeri news source.

Three graphs that explain the renewed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh

First, Russia is in a precarious position. The situation in Syria can change at any time while the conflict in Donbass has again been simmering up (recent reports from NVF troops indicate intense Ukrainian Army attempts to seize the E50 highway from Donetsk to Gorlovka and dozens of deaths on both sides). It is also apparently committed to keeping a low profile until the next EU vote on extending sanctions. Although Russia is formally committed to come to Armenia’s defense as part of its CSTO obligations, it has been carefully ambiguous on whether the guarantee applies to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized by noone. All of this will be factors that the Azeris are sure to be weighing and considering.

Second, since the 1990s, the Azeris have massively increased their military preponderance over the Armenians. It may by now be cliche, but it is true nonetheless that Azeri military spending exceeds the entire Armenian state budget. Although Armenia enjoys preferential rates for Russian weaponry – it is something like Israel with regards to the US in this regard – ultimately soaring oil revenues matter more. The two biggest spurts, around the mid-2000s and the early 2010s, were clearly associated with high oil prices.

armenia-azerbaijan-military-spending

According to the Comprehensive Military Power (CMP) index, which integrates personnel quantity, equipment stocks, and technology to provide an assessment of each country’s military potential across time and space, Azerbaijan’s preponderance over Armenia has climbed from a multiple of no more than 1.5 in the 1990s – nowhere high enough to force a breakthrough across heavily defended mountainous terrain – to a multiple of 3 in the last few years. At this degree of disparity, formerly impossible things become possible.

cmp-armenia-vs-azerbaijan

Third, the Azeri economy is extremely fragile. The collapse in oil revenues has forced Baku to impose capital controls and devalue the manat twofold, but nonetheless, foreign currency reserves have plunged from a peak of $15 billion to $4 billion by January. Its credit ratings have been reduced to junk. Discontent is beginning to brew with the Aliyev dynasty, which is criticized for corruption and the ineffective use of Azerbaijan’s oil wealth.

azerbaijan-forex

 

Most tellingly, military spending is going to be axed by as much as 40% in 2016. This will allow Armenia to tilt the balance of power back in its favor a bit.

What next?

So to sum this all up, as I noted at the start of the year, now would not be the absolute worst time for Azerbaijan to engage in some geopolitical adventurism, to take minds off economic woes. If there ever was a time for reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s now. All the more so if in addition to the factors listed above Azerbaijan also enjoys support from a Turkey (and even Ukraine? Though tying the clashes around Yasinovataya to this would be a long stretch, and is probably connected mainly to Poroshenko’s visit to the US) whose relations with Russia have collapsed in recent months.

But there are reasons for be optimistic. The recent clashes are appearing to die down instead of escalating into something bigger. Neither side has declared a mobilization. Instead, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is appealing to the Security Council with a renewed demand for Armenians to vacate the “occupied territories.” And the fate of the late President Abulfaz Elchibey – whom Ihham’s own father replaced in a coup after his string of losses during the Nagorno-Karabakh War – must weigh heavily on President Aliyev’s considerations.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Military 
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In recent days, some Armenians have been up in arms over increases in electricity tariffs by the evil Russian-owned electricity monopoly that will bring them up to… well, a level slightly higher than in Russia and about 2-3x lower than in most EU countries (don’t you love comparative context?). Discourse in both Russia and the West has now shifted to the familiar template of color revolution. Cookie girl Victoria Nuland was in Armenia last February in a closed meeting with NGOs, which is never a good sign, and the Maidanist Ukrainian elites are salivating over the prospect of a color revolution in Yerevan, with Interior Minister (and ethnic Armenian) Arsen Avakov going so far as to express his support for the “Electromaidan” couched in a bizarre anecdote about his adventures with a thermos in (Ukraine’s) Euromaidan.

Does this presage the overthrow of Russia’s colonial “puppet” in Armenia and its inevitable transition to the promised land of freedom, prosperity, and end-of-history that all such revolutions inevitably entail? At first, one might have cause to be skeptical. The numbers of protesters has been few so far: No more than 1% of Yerevan’s one million strong population. And while they do include the usual young pro-Western and anti-Russian types, there’s also plenty of older leftists and apoliticals, so for the most part it could be said to be a domestic political affair with no particular connection to questions such as Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union or its hosting of a Russian military base in Gyumri. In opinion polls, Armenians are highly positive towards Russia. On the other hand, pretty much of all of this could also have been said of Ukraine’s Euromaidan before November 2013.

There is however one very critical difference between Ukraine and Armenia and it is summarized in the following chart (figures are from SIPRI):

armenia-azerbaijan-military-spending

Azerbaijan does not much like Armenia. The two fought a war in the early 1990s soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was officially Azeri but populated by Armenians (thanks to Georgia’s Stalin). Occupying favorable defensive positions and enjoying high morale and funds from the diaspora, the Armenians got by far the better of the exchange, and Nagorno-Karabakh has since been de facto theirs, albeit that is hotly disputed by the Azeris and unrecognized by the world community. Azerbaijan is fully committed to revanche, and relations between the two countries are poisonous to an almost slapstick degree. This is mostly amply demonstrated by the case of an Azeri military officer who murdered an Armenian counterpart while on a NATO exchange program in Hungary. Upon being sent back to Azerbaijan to serve the rest of his life sentence, he was immediately set free by Presidential decree, named a national hero, and given a free flat. Azerbaijan is backed to the hilt by Turkey, but is constrained by uncertainty over Russia’s possible response to overt aggression.

The two countries maintained a rough parity in military spending until the mid-2000s, with Armenia also benefitting from below market cost Russian weapon supplies. Since then, however, Azerbaijan has surged massively ahead, and its oil-fueled military spending is now higher than Armenia’s entire state budget. It now enjoys an approximately threefold preponderance in air and armor, and its equipment is on average more modern. Once relatively isolated, Azerbaijan now enjoys good relations with Turkey, Israel, the US (especially its neocon/corporatist nexus), and even Russia. A new war between them – absent Russian support – will almost certainly no longer be a repeat of the early 1990s when the Azeris suffered debacle after military debacle.

As a result, any even minimally sane Armenian administration will take great pains not to alienate Russia, even if they should come to power as a result of a color revolution. For a country surrounded by two avowed enemies (Azerbaijan and Turkey), a neutral (Georgia), and one lukewarm friend (Iran), alienating Russia would be so phenomenally stupid and counterproductive that it would be functionally close to treason. The discomfiting thing, though, is that said stupidity and chiliastic fanaticism is a feature of all Maidan-like movements in Eurasia. If the Washington Obkom commands them to sacrifice their national interests just to spite and undercut Russia, they will generally do so with pleasure – as happened in Saakashvili’s Georgia and (twice) in Maidanist Ukraine – since if worst comes to worst ,they can always retire to a comfortable position at Columbia University, while it is the ordinary people who are left to pick up the pieces.

 
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There are some massacres that are clearly genocides, such as the Holocaust, and there are some massacres that are clearly not, such as Katyn, but in between there is a vast, gristly spectrum that in the absence of any strict and universally accepted definition of the term is dominated by quacks and cranks driven more by politics, competing ideologies, and petty ethnic grievances than by anything that approaches an altruistic commitment to humanism and historical memory.

This becomes very evident when you look at a map of global recognition of what are perhaps the two single most contentious “genocide debates” today: The Medz Yeghern (“Great Crime”) against the Armenians and other minorities in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which is seeing its centenary this April, and the Holodomor (“Death by Hunger”) against Ukrainians – and quite a few Russians, too – in the early 1930s USSR.

World Holodomor vs Armenian Genocide Recognition

Now I don’t want to wade into a debate about whether or not the Armenian Massacres and the Holomodor were specifically genocides or not. It’s been overdone, and frankly the whole thing is rather banal. Instead, through this map I compiled, I want to demonstrate just how politicized these things really are, just how closely recognitions and non-recognitions of genocide hew to geopolitical faultlines.

One could, more or less validly, argue that both the Armenian Massacres and the Holodomor were genocides. One could also – with some difficulty – argue that neither were genocides. And one could also very legitimately argue that the Armenian Massacres were genocide, but the Holodomor was not. But the one thing that you cannot do with any degree of intellectual consistency is argue that the Holodomor was a genocide while the Armenian Massacres were not. By the end of the Armenian Massacres, there were practically no Armenians left in what had once been been Western Armenia. 75% of the Armenian population in Turkey was destroyed under conditions that arguably pretty clearly fell under Article 2 (c) of the UN’s Genocide Convention. The factual argument that the Holomor was a genocide against Ukrainians is mainly underpinned by harsher regulations on internal migration in the region, but set against that, excess famine mortality in several ethnically Russian regions was also very high and weren’t far from Ukrainian levels*. And after Stalin’s death, Ukraine was larger and more coherent as a nation than it had ever been as the region of Malorossiya in the Russian Empire.

Nonetheless, it should be accepted that under a sufficiently loose definition of genocide – one that would presumably qualify the Irish Famine as such – that the Holomor could indeed be described as a genocide. The assumption I am making in this post doesn’t hinge on whether the Holodomor was a genocide or not, but on a much more minimal argument: That the Armenian Massacres were pretty unambiguously more genocidal in nature than the Holodomor. Recognizing the latter but not the former is illogical and inconsistent at best.

In reality, though, plenty of countries have recognized the Holodomor as a genocide while refraining from the doing the same with the Armenian genocide – and most of them aren’t exactly surprising: East European nations with historically hostile relations with Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Hungary); the GUAM group (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – though it should be stressed that Ukraine only pushes the Holodomor as a genocide against Ukrainians line when it is under anti-Russian Orange regimes); and Western countries with large Ukrainian diasporas, such as Australia, Spain, and the United States. But diasporas by themselves can’t account for everything. The Armenian Lobby is a lot more influential in the US than the Ukrainian Lobby, but Obama nonetheless weaseled out of using the G-word so as not to upset Turkey too much. Turkey is of course for all the ups and downs in the relationship still a major US ally, while American relations with Russia are… quite another matter. Really, the only two puzzling features here are the tendency of Latin American countries to only recognize the Holodomor as a genocide – in particular that of Brazil and Ecuador, both socialist-lite countries who can’t be described as close friends of the US – and Romania’s failure to do so.

Still, even though the positions of the above countries are by far the more hypocritical, I don’t wish to give off the impression that most of those countries which do recognize the Armenian Massacres do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Russia’s own position on this is 90% dictated by geopolitics, 10% by its own domestic Armenian Lobby, and 0% by any humanist concerns. Likewise, geopolitics underlies Armenia’s friendliness with Russia in the first place; it has two hostile powers to the west and east, Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which are quite friendly with the US and Israel (and the Jewish Lobby) to boot**. And it would probably surprise no-one that the recognition of the Armenian genocide by Greece, Cyprus (which recognized the Armenian genocide a year after its northern part was occupied by Turkey), Bulgaria, Lebanon, and Syria is more of a “fuck you” towards Turkey than a result of any commitment to humanism and historical memory. Likewise it is too much to hope for that Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s recognition of the Armenian genocide is about something other than asserting their ideological independence from the United States.

This is why I have some understanding towards Turkey’s essentially tu quoque response to Russia’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, and its wider strategy of whataboutism in response to accusations of genocide. After all, if the Armenian Massacres were a genocide (in which ~75% of the targeted Armenians died), then it’s not entirely obvious why the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians under the Russian Empire is not (in which ~50% of the Circassians died); and by the same chain, it is then not obvious why the Trail of Tears is not a genocide (in which ~25% of the Cherokee died). Russia strenuously denies the Circassian ethnic cleansing was a genocide, after all, and the US immortalized Andrew Jackson on its $20 bill. What’s the magic number at which ethnic cleansing becomes hardcore genocide? Did Poland commit genocide against its Germans after the end of World War Two (in which ~10% of them died)? Do the Serbs count – of whom ~0.5% died – who were cleansed from Krajina after Operation Storm with the enthusiastic connivance of the West?

So this, ultimately, is why all this international rhetoric about whether this massacre or that massacre is a genocide or not are so utterly banal, pointless, and ultimately nauseating. It has very little to do with any detailed and dispassionate statistical and comparative analysis of the historical facts. Instead, it’s all about my genocide being so much bigger than yours, it can walk right through the door.

It’s enough to make one a misanthrope.

* If you really wanted to find the closest candidate for a proper genocide – as opposed to democide – in Russian history, it would probably be the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians in the late 19th century, which were ironically not that dissimilar from the Armenian Massacres.

** It should be noted that during Soviet days, Armenia was actually a relatively restive province, with nationalist terrorists going so far as bombing the Moscow Metro in the 1970s.

 
• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Armenia, Genocide, Ukraine 
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Despite the unremitting hostility of its Russian neighbor, which crescendoed in a military occupation of a chunk of its territories, plucky Georgia’s commitment to reform and democratic values will ensure its rapid development into a “booming Western-style economy.” Under its charismatic Western-trained President, Saakashvili, it has rooted out corruption, ushered in untold prosperity and freedoms, and left dictatorial Russia in the dust. ““There are barbarians there and civilization here,” summarizes Saakashvili himself, “There they have mongoloid brutality and ideology while here we have the true, the oldest Colchis Europe, the most ancient civilization.”

At least, that’s the picture you might have of Georgia if you read Saakashvili’s speeches, Western op-eds, Russian liberals like Cato Institute flunky and global warming denier Andrey Illarionov, and a sundry host of Georgian ambassadors and lobbyists shilling for all they’re worth in major Western newspapers. But rhetoric and reality can be two very different things. To what extent do objective indicators (e.g. statistics) bear out this neocon vision of Tbilisi as the shining city on the Caucasian hills?

By the numbers… Let’s start with the economy. Saakashvili deserves some credit for maintaining respectable GDP growth rates, albeit they are far from the awe-inspiring figures of China or, for that matter, several other post-Soviet republics. From 2004 to 2011, the Georgian economy grew at an average of 6.0% per annum, which is only modestly higher than Russia’s 4.5%.

However, this comparison becomes much more unfavorable once Georgian growth is adjusted for other factors. First, Russia is already much richer than Georgia – its GDP, however you measure it, is more than three times higher – so by basic economic theory, ceteris paribus its growth rate should be much higher as poorer countries have many more easy opportunities to increase productivity. (Illarionov, by the way, is ignorant of convergence theory, a fairly basic macroeconomic concept; it’s frightening that this “economist”, who is more accurately a libertarian ideologue, was once a major economic adviser to the Russian government). Second, Georgia had by far the biggest and sharpest decline in GDP during the early 1990′s of all the Soviet republics, and even as of this year, its gross output is still 20% below the peak levels of 1989. This should also, in principle, help Georgia grow much faster than Russia – which surpassed its peak Soviet-era output sometime in the mid-2000′s – because in a sense it is still “recovering” from an economic depression.

A much more appropriate comparison would be with Armenia. Both are in the unstable Caucasus region. Georgia has intermittently faced sanctions from Russia, whereas Armenia is under permanent economic blockade from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Unlike Azerbaijan, neither Tbilisi nor Yerevan enjoy an oil windfall. Their GDP per capita is almost exactly the same: About $3000 nominal, and $5000 in purchasing power adjusted dollars. Unlike Georgia, Armenia has recovered its Soviet-era production levels and then some; its GDP is now more than 50% as big as in 1989, so it is well past the period of mere “recovery growth”. Both countries suffered from destructive wars in the early 1990′s, and both remain highly militarized to this day. Nonetheless, with the exception of the past three years, when it was crushed by the economic crisis, Armenia has consistently clocked up higher GDP growth rates than Georgia. In sum terms, during the 2004-2011 period, both countries grew at approximately the same pace: 6.0% for Georgia, 6.3% for Armenia.

In the graph above, GDP per capita is indexed to 100 at 2003 for a range of post-Soviet countries. It is clear that Estonia and Armenia, despite their deep recent recessions, are highly successful transition economies; both are a lot more prosperous now than in 1989. Russia is only moderately successful. Along with Ukraine, Georgia is still well below Soviet-era peak output levels, and its growth under Saakashvili wasn’t exceptional by the standards of other post-Soviet republics, despite its twin advantages of starting from a low base (unlike Russia, Estonia) and still being in the process of recovering lost output (unlike Armenia).

Another relevant comparison is with the “corrupt” and “nepotistic” Shevardnadze administration from 1995-2003, which was overthrown to great fanfare in the “Rose Revolution”. What was Georgia’s growth rate then? 5.9%. That is within rounding error of growth under Saakashvili. It should furthermore be noted that growth was accelerating throughout Shevardnadze’s Presidency, reaching a peak of 11.1% in 2003. So there are valid questions as to the extent the high growth rates of the early Saakashvili Presidency were due to his neoliberal reforms.

What about life for ordinary people? There is no doubt that the average Georgian became significantly better off, as was the case everywhere in the former USSR during this period. Georgian statistics show nominal wages almost quadrupling from 2004-2010, from 157 lari to 598 lari per month, albeit adjusting for inflation would reduce it to only a bit better than a doubling.

However, higher wages can only be enjoyed by people who actually get them. During the same period, unemployment grew from 12.6% to 16.3%. Despite neoliberal reforms that undercut the bargaining power of labor, unemployment in Georgian urban areas – approaching 40% in the capital, Tbilisi – is now as prevalent as in the most impoverished provinces of the Russian Caucasus. About half of the Georgian labor force is “self-employed” in sustenance farming, which is a higher figure than two decades ago. In contrast, unemployment in both neighboring Armenia, and “corrupt” and “stagnating” Russia is around 6%-7%.

So bearing in mind actual statistics, does Georgia still deserve the status of a “miracle economy” conferred to it by libertarians and neocons? Don’t get me wrong, 6% is not bad. It’s no worse than under (maligned) Shevardnadze, and modestly better than the 4% average growth rates observed in Moldova, the very worst performer in the entire post-Soviet space. But even so, Georgia is not going to catch up with the developed world at its current pace of development – not like China, which has comparable income levels but is growing at 10% rates, or Russia, which is already three to four times richer.

Moving on, Georgia has also been lauded for excoriating previously endemic corruption, and becoming one of the world’s most “economically free” and business-friendly locations. The latter may well be true; objective ratings such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which measure the number of days and permission slips required to start a business, place Georgia 16th globally. This seems a genuine achievement, albeit as real world data shows, these things have at best only a marginal influence on economic growth rates, which are primarily determined by a country’s initial development level relative to the quality of its educational human capital.

On the Corruption Perceptions Index, Georgia improved its score from 1.8 in 2003 to 4.1 by 2011, which is a very significant change (in contrast, Russia languishes at 2.4, and Armenia at 2.6). But some Georgian businesses report government agents demanding political “donations” to Saakashvili’s ruling party to avert hostile raids, and in any case it must be borne in mind that the CPI is a proxy of corruption perceptions, not corruption realities per se. The CPI rating can thus be unduly influenced by good PR and lobbying. As a Western-trained lawyer, Saakashvili appreciates their importance, and has over the years paid millions of dollars to PR firms like Aspect Consulting, Orion Strategies, Public Strategies, and the Glover Park Group to burnish Georgia’s reformist, anti-corruption and democratic image abroad.

Other indicators that are not as reliant on the perceptions of anonymous experts show a somewhat different picture. In the Global Integrity Report, which is based on blind review, Georgia does only modestly better than Russia, scoring 76/100 as compared to Moscow’s 71/100. On the Open Budget Index, which assesses the transparency of government accounts, Russia actually does better, scoring 60/100 to Georgia’s 55/100. And according to Transparency International, the same outfit behind the CPI, the percentage of Georgians who reported paying a bribe in the past year in 2004 was only 6%; as of 2010, this had declined to 3%. A positive and appreciable change to be sure, but the data indicates that petty corruption was not that much of a problem in Georgia to start off with.

Didn’t Saakashvili at least democratize Georgia? Well, no. The fact of the matter is that Georgia was already a democracy under Shevardnadze, if a highly imperfect and illiberal one. The same remains true today. Unofficial protests are brutally broken up, independent TV stations have their licenses revoked, and opposition figures have their citizenships canceled or forced into exile abroad. Georgia has also become a revisionist and highly nationalist power under the charismatic President, whose actions have ranged from the petty and incompetent, e.g. blowing up a Soviet war memorial to Georgian war dead, and in the process killing a mother and her daughter in the blast, to the criminally deranged and incompetent, e.g. the invasion of South Ossetia and carpet bombing of Tskhinvali, even though virtually no Ossetian wants to live in a Greater Georgia.

If one doubts that Saakashvili is in fact rather far from being a nice liberal democrat, all one has to do is look at the indicators of political freedoms. In the Polity IV rankings, the most comprehensive democracy indicators database assembled by political scientists, Georgia increased from 5/10 to 6/10 on a scale from -10 (zero democracy) to 10 (full democracy) under Saakashvili. This is hardly the glorious transformation the Rose Revolution is often made out to be; nor is it very much different from the Evil Empire’s. Russia’s current score is 4/10, for whatever reason down from 6/10 after Medvedev’s election in 2008.

There are however two socio-economic indicators under Saakashvili that did register highly visible, concrete changes. If not for the better.

From 36% in 1991, the tertiary enrollment rate remained steady until the late 1990′s, when it began to grow, reaching 43% by 2003 and peaking at 47% in 2005. Then it plummeted to 25% by 2009, edging up to 28% in 2010. This seems to have been in substantial part due to an increase in the cost of annual university tuition from 500-600 lari in 2003 to 3000-4000 lari by 2009, an eight-fold increase far exceeding the quadrupling of salaries during the same period (even disregarding increased unemployment). Bearing in mind that the average salary was 557 lari in 2009, it is clear that for many families university education became unaffordable. Government grants have also plummeted: From wholly financing the educations of 9,700 students in 2003, by 2009 they were subsidizing only half the tuition costs of 1,000 students. University access has dropped by more than 80% in some regions.

This is particularly catastrophic for Georgia because international student assessments indicate that their schools are almost useless at imparting real world skills. According to PISA 2009, only “31% of [Georgian] students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways that are considered fundamental for their future development.” The equivalent figure for Russia was 72%, and about 78% for the OECD as a whole. On Reading, Math, and Science, Georgian students came, respectively, 67th, 66th, and 70th out of the 75 countries in the PISA assessment. Other international student assessments paint a similarly dire picture. For instance, in TIMMS 2007, Georgian students got an average score of 410 in the Math component, relative to Armenia’s 499 and Russia’s 512. The gap is not substantially different in the Science component, or in the PIRLS 2006 literacy survey. This is unlikely to improve any time soon, as under Saakashvili, the number of public libraries more than halved.

While Georgia was disinvesting in its future workforce, tertiary enrollment has risen in Georgia’s neighbors. In Armenia, it rose from 24% in 1998 to 52% by 2010; the percentage of Russians undergoing university education rose from 55% in 2000 to 76% by 2009. That is because the leaderships of these countries, as in much of the rest of the civilized world, appreciate the importance of human capital to fostering economic growth. In Saakashvili’s world, presumably, praying to the souls of Hayek, Mises and Rothbard would suffice. More education is the road to serfdom.

But in the end, I guess it’s all a matter of priorities. The Georgian army and police are now well fed. Who needs math, science, and literacy anyway? “Military-patriotic education means training in civil defense,” Saakashvili says, “Stimulating soldierly spirit, which historically was always in nature of people in Georgia; as well as courses in Georgia’s military history” is what is really important. Hear hear? Meanwhile, the prison population has tripled from 182/100,000 in 2004, to 536/100,000 in 2011. Under Saakashvili’s democratic guidance, Georgia has acquired the dubious distinction of being the European country with the most prisoners per capita, displacing Russia (the irony!) in the process.

This is not to say that Georgia is a corrupt, stagnant tinpot dictatorship, its tottering foundations stabilized by huge inflows of American capital (though the latter sums, ranging in the billions, are very substantial relative to the tiny size of the Georgian economy). Saakashvili has maintained a mediocre level of economic growth, wages have risen substantially, and corruption has been reduced. Nonetheless, its performance is far less impressive than that of a comparable neighbor, Armenia, and on almost every socio-economic indicator it massively lags Russia. It is a democracy, but the quality of its democracy is not substantially better than that of Russia, which countless Western pundits describe as an authoritarian kleptocracy returning to the USSR.

In place of building the foundations for sustained long-term growth, Saakashvili has instead been busy undermining what little of it exists. No amount of reforms to make life easier for capitalists can compensate for the abysmal quality of the Georgian education system, and Saakashvili’s wanton curtailment of the only partial remedy for it, university access. He is at essence a blowhard, passable perhaps as a mercenary lawyer, but utterly unqualified for the work of statesmanship. He pontificates about building huge new cities on swampland (complete with “seven star hotels”), demands Slavic countries stop calling his country “Gruzia” as they have done for centuries, and arrests Russian tourists who dare holiday in his country for the mere suspicion of having passed through breakaway Abkhazia. Russian language schools are closed down, and the main Tbilisi boulevard is renamed in honor of G.W. Bush, while the latter was still President to boot!

What emerges of Saakashvili is a small, petty and vainglorious man, who blames all of Georgia’s problems on his “Mongoloid” northern neighbor and deflects all criticism of his ham-fisted rule by arresting the critics as Russian spies. He presides over “Potemkin Georgia”*, hyped as a tiger economy of the Caucasus by ideologues and paid-up PR men, but in reality fast becoming an isolated Cuba of the Caucasus.

If the good people of Georgia accede to this, it is of course their right as a sovereign people. It is also understandable that neocons who appreciate his irrevocably pro-Western science, libertarians dreaming of culling labor laws and defunding public services, sundry Russophobes operating on an the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend basis, and plain paid-up PR men would defend Saakashvili’s record. But it is also then incumbent on people of honesty and integrity to publicize the lies of his apologists (Andrey Illarionov, David Hamilton, Garry Kasparov, Valeriya Novodvorskaya and Vladimir Bukovsky, Giorgi Badridze, Randy Scheunemann, Jennifer Rubin, Eli Lake, Melik Kalyan, etc), and continue revealing Saakashvili for what he really is – an emperor with no clothes.

Because even if Saakashvili is hellbent on undermining the future of his own country, he should not be allowed to do the same again to Abkhazia or South Ossetia – or for Potemkin Georgia to be portrayed as a model of good and effective governance for other countries to follow.

* Yes, I’m aware that “Potemkin villages” are probably a historical urban legend. But as the term is regularly and uncritically used as regards Russia in the Western press, I don’t see the problem in turning the tables on them.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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One of the staples of the neocon-Russophobe narrative is that Russia is alone in the world, utterly bereft of friends, left only with the likes of Nicaragua and Nauru to indulge it in its anachronistic “imperial fantasies”. Not really. Conflating the West with the world won’t change the fact that amongst the peoples of China, India, and most of the Middle East and Latin America – that is, the regions containing the bulk of the world’s population and future economic potential – Russia is actually viewed rather favorably. But what about peoples recently liberated from the oppressive, iron boots of Russian chauvinism – surely they dislike Russia? Not that simple. Some sure do – Estonians, Poles, West Ukrainians, Georgians… But plenty more don’t (Armenians, Bulgarians, East Ukrainians). It’s a complex picture of significant political and geopolitical import.

Back in November 2008, the VTsIOM polling site released some very detailed results about what peoples in the former Soviet Union think about each other. The first graph below asks people which countries they consider to be friends or allies of their country.

And these were the results. Some 74% of Belarussians, 58% of Ukrainians, 49% of Moldovans, 82% of Armenians, and 67-89% of Central Asians named Russia as a friend and ally. In contrast, only 11-17% in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Lithuania like Russia this way, but that is hardly surprising. (The Latvians are rather higher at 26%, presumably because of their large Russian minority, though far higher numbers, almost half of them, orient themselves with the other Baltic states).

The poll below is even more telling. It asks peoples in the former USSR to name which countries or blocs they would like to unite with, the main contenders being Russia, the EU, and “independence”.

Russians are mostly split between those favoring some kind of Slavic or Eurasian bloc (37% – Belarus, 29% – Ukraine, 24% – Kazakhstan), and Russia-as-is (32%); the European Union really isn’t that popular at 15%. This isn’t much different in Ukraine or Belarus. Some 56% of Belarussians and 47 of Ukrainians would like to unite with Russia, while 25% and 22% favor the EU, and 18% and 25% favor independence, respectively. Some 51% of Kazakhs favor Russia and 32% independence.

The Moldovans are equally split between Russia and the EU or independence (which in practical terms would mean the Romanian sphere of influence). The Azeris identify most strongly with Turkey, with 31% expressing a desire to join it, followed by 24% yearning for the EU and 24% for continued independence. Big majorities (65-73%) in the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan would like to rejoin Russia, which is unsurprising given their relative underdevelopment and the relative success of Russification there. Georgia has always had a strong sense of national identity, including during the Soviet period, so by far the majority there wants independence (38%) or the EU (37%); only 10% wouldn’t mind falling back into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Why is this important? Because to some extent, even in semi-authoritarian systems, national leaders are to some extent beholden to popular sentiment. This is not to say, of course, that this is the only factor – an objective assessment of national interests (which are often synonymous with the interests of the ruling elites) almost always trumps anything else. But it does illustrate that the much ballyhooed “Russian resurgence” across the former USSR rests on firmer foundations than just political pressure or economic takeovers – of at least equal importance is that many of the peoples in its path back to regional hegemony aren’t actually that averse to it*.

PS. Another useful survey of attitudes towards Eurasian regional integration by Gallup: “In all countries except Azerbaijan, the median average wants at least an economic union across Eurasia”.

* The big exception is Georgia. This is where there is both a clash of primary geopolitical interests (the irreconcilability of Georgia westward path and Russia’s desire to anchor itself in the South Caucasus) and of civilizational values (AFAIK, the only social grouping in Georgia with a real pro-Russia tendency are the monarchist “People’s Orthodox Movement“). Coupled with simmering border tensions, it is probably not surprising that this developed into a flashpoint for armed conflict.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In a recent post, Mark Adomanis pointed out that the Russian economy has done significantly better than many other East European nations during the recent crisis and is now mounting a strong recovery. He also speculated on the effects of the crisis on the demography of badly-affected countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltics, on the basis that “Russia’s experience during the 1998 debt default amply demonstrates that cutting healthcare budgets and pensions in the midst of an economic catastrophe causes a lot of excess deaths among vulnerable sectors of the population”.

Now I’ve never really worried about the consequences on mortality of an economic recession, because I don’t buy into The Lancet‘s arguments that it was the reduction in Russian social spending in 1998 that contributed to the mortality wave of 1999-2002, since the increasing affordability of, and consumption of, alcohol was by far the more convincing factor. (Also, in industrialized states, recessions tend to correlate with falls in mortality rates). On the other hand, hard recessions – especially ones which result in reduced public spending on social welfare – usually are associated with substantial reductions in fertility. In this post I’m going to take a look at how valid these observations and theories are in light of the recent economic crisis in Eastern Europe.

Russia. At the start of the crisis in late 2008, I expected Russia’s fertility rate to fall slightly – though nowhere near the magnitudes predicted by Russia’s “demographic doomers”, of course. (Though even for that I got a lot of flak). Yet ironically even my predictions turned out to be too pessimistic, probably because increased government spending meant that Russians’ social welfare hardly suffered at all during the crisis. Even Russia’s fertility rate continued to climb, reaching 1.56 in 2009 (2008 – 1.49, 2007 – 1.41, 2006 – 1.30), a level last seen in 1992. And like I said, Russia’s trends towards falling mortality actually accelerated, with life expectancy for both genders hitting 69.0 years in 2009 (2008 – 67.9, 2007 – 67.5, 2006 – 66.6, 2005 – 65.3) – a level that was only ever previously observed in 1963-1974 and 1986-1991. Most encouragingly, Russians’ mortality from “vices” – homicide, alcohol poisoning, and suicide – have fallen back to their late Soviet levels. The decline in alcohol poisonings is particularly good because much of Russia’s “hyper-mortality” (including the high rate of heart disease) is tied to excessive alcohol consumption.

[Source: Rosstat].

Demographic improvements relative to the same period last year continued in Q1 2010, with the birth rate up another 1.3% and mortality rates falling by 2.0% (inc. by about 10% for external causes). (The figures on fertility are particularly significant when you recall that Russia reached the nadir of its economic crisis in H1 2009). According to Sergey Slobodyan’s demographic model, the data indicates that a projection of 1.9-2.0mn deaths and 1.8-1.9mn births in 2010 is feasible, meaning that natural population decrease will almost cease (the total population should grow, as last year, due to immigrants).

Conclusion – contrary to hysterical predictions of economic and demographic apocalypse propagated about Russia in late 2008, the real impact on social welfare was very marginal and the demographic situation actually continued to improve. This year, Russia’s life expectancy will probably approach 70 years (still very low for an industrialized country) and its total fertility rate will hit around 1.6 children per woman (as in Canada). Although the mortality rate remains very substandard relative to the industrialized world, current healthcare and anti-alcohol initiatives are helping usher in rapid improvements.

PS. There has been a small update to Rosstat‘s demographic projections. Its middle projection now indicates a population of 140.9mn and its high projection a population of 146.7mn in 2025, relative to 141.9mn in 2009; in the last few years, Russia’s demography has tracked between the High and Medium projections. (This is in line with my own forecasts).

Ukraine. Mark Adomanis claims that Ukraine has a “much more serious demographic crisis than Russia”. But much as one can condemn Orange mismanagement of the economy and social relations, it can’t really be said in good faith that its demography is a lot worse. Whereas its birth rates are lower and its death rates are higher than Russia’s, this is in large part because Ukraine has a marginally older median age than Russia.

Let’s instead use measures that cancel out the effects of specific population age structure. Ukraine’s life expectancy (68.3) was marginally better than Russia’s (67.8) in 2008 (World Bank), and its big mortality reductions in 2008-09 indicate that it kept the lead. Similarly, Russia’s fertility rate (1.49) is not awesomely bigger than Ukraine’s (1.39) in 2008, and may be partly or wholly explained by the fact that Russia’s demographic collapse in the 1990’s was both quicker and sharper than Ukraine’s. Finally, both countries have been displaying very similar demographic dynamics in recent years, despite their political differences – a moderate recovery in fertility rates (from a low base), and plummeting death rates (from a very high base).

[Source: World Bank Development Indicators. Note that for all the vast differences in the political economy and post-transition success of Russia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine, their fertility (and overall demographic) dynamics are remarkably alike].

Now what about the crisis, which hit Ukraine much harder than Russia? (Ukraine’s GDP declined by 15% in 2009, compared to Russia’s 9%, and it wasn’t cushioned by increased government spending on social welfare). Ukraine’s birth rate increased ever so slightly from 11.0/1000 in 2008 to 11.1/1000 in 2009 (but fell from 11.2/1000 in Jan-Feb 2009 to 10.7/1000 in Jan-Feb 2010). Meanwhile, its death rate decreased from 16.3/1000 in 2008 to 15.2/1000 in 2009 (and from 17.2/1000 in Jan-Feb 2009 to 16.4/1000 in Jan-Feb 2010). In crude terms, Ukraine had a higher rate of natural population decrease than Russia (-4.2/1000 versus -1.7/1000 in 2009), and its overall population is still falling fast because unlike Russia it does not have many immigrants.

Nonetheless, the Ukrainian crisis is now easing and the new government seems to be moving from concentrating on historical grievances to modernization and stability. Given the inherent similarities between and increasing integration of Russia and Ukraine, their demographic dynamics will probably be likewise similar – a recovery of fertility rates to 1.7-1.8 within a few years, a rise in life expectancy to 75 years within a decade, substantial net migration to Russia and zero net migration to Ukraine. The result would be a slowly rising or stagnating population in Russia, and a stagnating or slowly falling population in Ukraine.

Conclusion – Ukraine is experiencing a demographic recovery, with particularly impressive gains in life expectancy during the crisis. Though its fertility rate remained more or less stagnant, it now again shows signs of improvement – a good sign, since nine months ago Ukraine was still at its economic nadir.

Belarus. Thanks to its isolation from the global financial system, Belarus did not experience much of an economic crisis at all. It’s GDP even grew by 1.5% in 2009, and has since expanded by 6.1% in Jan-Apr 2010 relative to the same period last year. But ironically, its demographic improvements have been modest.

The birth rate rose from 11.1/1000 to 11.6/1000 and the death rate rose from 13.8/1000 to 14.2/1000 from 2008 to 2009*. (In Q1 2010 relative to the same period last year, the birth rate fell from 11.3/1000 to 11.2/1000 and the death rate fell from 15.3/1000 to 15.1/1000). The rate of natural increase eased slightly to -2.5/1000 in 2009, from -2.6/1000 in 2008.

This means that Belarus retained a fertility rate of about 1.45-1.5 children per woman in 2009, compared to Russia’s 1.56 and Ukraine’s 1.4-1.45, and its life expectancy was somewhat higher than both at 70.5 years in 2008 (very slightly lower in 2009), compared with Russia’s 69.0 years in 2009 and Ukraine’s 68.3 years in 2008 (maybe a year higher in 2009).

Conclusion – despite emerging from the crisis largely unscathed, the demography of Belarus showed no significant improvement (or deterioration).

Latvia. Latvia saw a catastrophic decline of GDP of 18% in 2010 and its welfare state has been decimated to a degree unparalleled anywhere else in Europe (at least so far). From 2008 to 2009, births fell by 9.5% and marriages, a very rough indicator of future fertility, fell by a truly stunning 23.3%. The decline continued into 2010, with births in Jan-Mar falling by 11.6% and marriages declining by 22.4% on the same period in 2009. Since Latvia’s total fertility rate was a not too healthy 1.45 back in 2008, this means that it is now in one of the deepest demographic chasms in Europe.

[Source: Latvijas Statistika].

On the positive side, Latvia did see modest improvements in its mortality rates, which fell by 3.6% from 2008 to 2009 (though they’ve remained almost stagnant so far in 2010). Unsurprisingly, after a period of demographic recovery in the 2000′s, Latvia’s rate of natural population decrease has started opening up again, rising from a loss of 7058 people in 2008 to 8220 people in 2009, and almost certain to increase further this year.

Small consolation. Going by the experiences of other countries in the region, the falling marriage rate in Latvia should have been accompanied by a simultaneously falling divorce rate, so the post-2008 annual decline in net couple formation should have been less than 20%.

Estonia. Estonia’s had a milder recession than Latvia with a GDP fall of 14% (it’s all comparative!) and it did not decimate its welfare state to quite the same extent. It also started from a position of significantly greater affluence and its fertility rate was at 1.66 children per woman in 2008. The number of births fell by 2.6% from 2008 to 2009, and by a mere 0.9% in the first four months of 2010 relative to the same period last year. This decline was outpaced by improvements in longevity, with mortality rates falling by 3.7% in 2009 relative to 2008, and a further 3.5% in the first four months of 2010 relative to the same period in 2009. Since it now shows signs of mounting an early recovery, the crisis should not make a big dent in Estonia’s long-term demographic prospects.

Lithuania. Their situation seems to have become somewhat worse, based on the monthly estimates of the population size for 2009. But their national statistics site is bad and doesn’t have detailed recent data so I can’t really say much more than that it is worse than in Estonia but far better than in Latvia.

Conclusion – the crisis has been a demographic disaster for Latvia, with its total fertility probably falling to a “lowest-low” rate of around 1.2 children per woman by 2010. Since its economic crisis seems to be deep and long-lasting, with deleterious effects on social welfare, we can expect a resumption of demographic free fall and perhaps a rise in ethnic Russian emigration to (fast recovering) Russia. In contrast, Estonia’s stronger foundations weathered the crisis well and its total fertility rate, now at perhaps 1.6 children per woman, is still relatively healthy by East and Central European standards.

Caucasus. In Armenia, the crude death rate remained unchanged at 8.5/1000 from 2008 and 2009, while the birth rate rose from 12.7/1000 to 13.7/1000, despite its big decline in GDP during the crisis. Given that its total fertility rate was at 1.74 in 2008, it is doing fine. Georgia is probably doing OK, since their population actually rose in 2009 – the only other post-Soviet year in which Georgia experienced population growth was in 2006, which happened to coincide with Russia’s deportation of illegal Georgian immigrants.

Moldova. Doesn’t have vital stats for 2009. Its overall population fell by five thousand people in 2009 relative to 2008, which is lower than usual, since on most years it falls by around ten thousand. I don’t think this was due to demographic improvements – don’t forget that many Moldovans were returning from their work in Russia during its recession in 2009.

Rest of post-Soviet space. Azerbaijan and Central Asia don’t need to be considered since they have healthy demographics anyway.

The Balkans. Birth rates and death rates seemed to have remained essentially stable from 2008 to 2009 in Bulgaria and Romania, with a slight improvement overall. Crisis hasn’t affected them much – at least, not yet.

Final conclusion – overall, the crisis did not greatly affect the demography of the Eurasian region. There continued to be modest improvements in the two most populous nations, Russia and Ukraine. The death rate has fallen rapidly during the crisis almost everywhere, the sole exceptions being Belarus and Romania where it increased by a tiny amount. On the other hand, birth rates have either risen slowly (e.g. Russia), stagnated (e.g. Ukraine), or fallen slowly (e.g. Estonia). The major exception is Latvia, where birth rates have collapsed at an amazing rate from regional average to “lowest-low”. This reflects the particular severity of the economic crash in Latvia.

* The real rise in the birth rate and the death rate from 2008 to 2009 are actually slightly exaggerated. That is because from 2009, Belarus lowered its total population (on the basis of which birth and death rates / 1000 people are calculated) to correlate with the preliminary results of the 2009 Census. The actual number of births rose from 107.9 thousand to 109.8 thousand and the number of deaths rose from 133.9 thousand to 135.0 thousand.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I have long noted Russia’s resurgence back into the ranks of the leading Great Powers; I predicted that the global economic crisis will not have a long-term retarding impact on the Russian economy; and within the past year I have bought into Stratfor‘s idea that the defining narrative now in play in Eurasia is Russia’s intention to reconstruct its empire / sphere of influence / call-it-what-you-will in the post-Soviet space. This “resurgence” is advancing along several major fronts: geopolitical, economic, demographic, military, and ideological. In this post I will cover recent major news on the first four.

Ukraine Returns to the Empire?

The most consequential big event is the electoral victory of Viktor Yanukovych (35%) in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko (25%), Serhiy Tihipko (13%), Arseniy Yatsenyuk (7%), and Viktor Yushchenko (5%) – a result that I called 100% accurately. Disillusioned with the incompetence, economic decline, and “anarchic stasis” of five years of Orange rule, polls indicate three times as many Ukrainians now favor a “strong leader” over a “democratic government”, so no wonder that the liberal ideologue Yushenko, though the only major Ukrainian politician who is consistent and sincere in his views, suffered a crushing defeat as the last true representative of the Westernizing “Orange” movement. This marks a threshold in the accelerating “regathering of the Russian lands”*.

Below is an electoral map of the first-round Ukrainian presidential elections. As is always the case, the urban, Russophone / Surzhyk-speaking, Russian Orthodox Church-affiliated south and east voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych, head of the Party of Regions, while the more bucolic, Ukrainian-speaking, Kyiv Patriarchate-affiliated / Uniate center and west favored Tymoshenko.

[Click on map to enlarge].

This reflects the civilizational fault-line riveting Ukraine in half – commonly assumed to be along the Dnieper River, but more accurately, dividing the country into a pro-Russian south and south-east, the independence-minded Ukrainian center, and the pro-Western south-west.

Back in 2004, there was a clearly defined pro-Russian (Yanukovych) and pro-Western (Yushscenko) force. Yushscenko prevailed thanks to incompetent vote rigging on the part of the Party of Regions and a Western-supported popular uprising known as the Orange Revolution. The oranges are now regarded as rotten and nothing of the same sort can happen in 2010, since both Presidential contenders are now, for most purposes, beholden to Russia.

Yanukovych supports closer political and economic ties with Russia, would renounce NATO and EU accession plans, and enjoys the support of the Donbass oligarchs (including Ukraine’s richest man and king-maker, Rinat Akhmetov) and the senior managers of the Ukrainian military-industrial complex. There has been talk of a possible political union between United Russia (Russia’s “party of power”) and the Party of Regions, which will lay the institutional foundations for closer union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, involving joint membership in Eurasec, a customs union, and even the CSTO. Finally, there have been rumors that Yanukovych will retain Yushenko in some minor political position, as a placebo for the west Ukrainians in order to nip secession movements in the bud and to undercut Tymoshenko’s support in a crucial region.

Tymoshenko is the unprincipled, chameleon-like politico par excellence, repeatedly reinventing herself from hard-hitting gas oligarch / robber baroness, to Lesya Ukrainka-inspired Orange liberal nationalist, to Putin-friendly aspiring Czarina. She has negotiated a well-publicized gas deal with Russia, took part in the sale of the major Ukrainian steelmaker, the Industrial Union of Donbass, to a Kremlin-friendly Russian industrial group, and publicly backed away from NATO membership. In doing this, she has tried to ride the geopolitical and emotional wave of the Russian resurgence, and succeeded in gaining the firm support of the central regions. However, although singularly charismatic in the gray world of Ukrainian politics, she has been unable to significantly penetrate into the Party of Regions electoral base. Coupled with low voter turnout in Ukraine’s western regions, due to their disillusionment with her newly-discovered Russophilia, this means that she will almost certainly lose out to Yanukovych in the second round of elections scheduled for February 7th** (assuming no extralegal interference from the 3000 strongarm Georgian “election observers” who are in Ukraine just for the girls, supposedly).

Geopolitically, this Ukrainian reversal marks declining US influence in the region and the imminent resurgence of Russia as a Eurasian hegemon. This is producing reverberations, with independence-minded countries throughout the region – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, even Georgia – now accepting their eventual reintegration into Eurasia, or attempting to reach a new accommodation with the new reality of Russian power. Here is Peter Zeihan (Stratfor) on Ukraine’s Election and the Russian Resurgence:

These are all important factors for Moscow, but ultimately they pale before the only rationale that really matters: Ukraine is the only former Russian imperial territory that is both useful and has a natural barrier protecting it…. Without Ukraine, Russia is a desperately defensive power, lacking any natural defenses aside from sheer distance… The (quite realistic) Russian fear is that without Ukraine, the Europeans will pressure Russia along its entire western periphery, the Islamic world will pressure Russia along its entire southern periphery, the Chinese will pressure Russia along its southeastern periphery, and the Americans will pressure Russia wherever opportunity presents itself…

Ukraine by contrast has the Carpathians to its west, a handy little barrier that has deflected invaders of all stripes for millennia. These mountains defend Ukraine against tanks coming from the west as effectively as they protected the Balkans against Mongols attacking from the east. Having the Carpathians as a western border reduces Russia’s massive defensive burden. Most important, if Russia can redirect the resources it would have used for defensive purposes on the Ukrainian frontier — whether those resources be economic, intelligence, industrial, diplomatic or military — then Russia retains at least a modicum of offensive capability. And that modicum of offensive ability is more than enough to overmatch any of Russia’s neighbors (with the exception of China).

Incidentally, this episode brings to mind what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote about the future of the “Orthodox civilization” in his well-known work The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. He predicted that Western attempts to orchestrate an artificial divide between these two members of the same civilization would have only deleterious results, perhaps resulting in a “Great Split” – quoting a Russian general, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” Yet the more stable and likeliest arrangement would be the following:

The third and most likely scenario is that Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally cooperate closely with Russia… Just as the [Franco-German relationship] provides the core of the European Union, the [Russian-Ukrainian relationship] is the core essential to unity in the Orthodox world.

With all major Ukrainian political blocs re-orientating themselves to Russia and the two countries increasing their cooperation in spheres ranging from politics to the military-industrial complex, Huntington’s prediction could be said to have been fulfilled.

PS. The (relative) silence about the total collapse of the Orange party in Ukraine on the part of normally Russophobic outlets has been deafening. Since everyone loves the West and liberal ideologues, how on Earth could this have happened? It’s like a bad dream. ;)

The Eurasian Energy Map Redrawn

Russia, China, Iran redraw energy map by the always-insightful Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar.

The inauguration of the Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline on Wednesday connecting Iran’s northern Caspian region with Turkmenistan’s vast gas field may go unnoticed amid the Western media cacophony that it is “apocalypse now” for the Islamic regime in Tehran. The event sends strong messages for regional security. Within the space of three weeks, Turkmenistan has committed its entire gas exports to China, Russia and Iran. It has no urgent need of the pipelines that the United States and the European Union have been advancing. Are we hearing the faint notes of a Russia-China-Iran symphony? …

Second, Russia does not seem perturbed by China tapping into Central Asian energy. Europe’s need for Russian energy imports has dropped and Central Asian energy-producing countries are tapping China’s market. From the Russian point of view, China’s imports should not deprive it of energy (for its domestic consumption or exports). Russia has established deep enough presence in the Central Asian and Caspian energy sector to ensure it faces no energy shortage. What matters most to Russia is that its dominant role as Europe’s No 1 energy provider is not eroded. So long as the Central Asian countries have no pressing need for new US-backed trans-Caspian pipelines, Russia is satisfied.

During his recent visit to Ashgabat, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev normalized Russian-Turkmen energy ties. The restoration of ties with Turkmenistan is a major breakthrough for both countries. One, a frozen relationship is being resumed substantially, whereby Turkmenistan will maintain an annual supply of 30bcm to Russia. Two, to quote Medvedev, “For the first time in the history of Russian-Turkmen relations, gas supplies will be carried out based on a price formula that is absolutely in line with European gas market conditions.” Russian commentators say Gazprom will find it unprofitable to buy Turkmen gas and if Moscow has chosen to pay a high price, that is primarily because of its resolve not to leave gas that could be used in alternative pipelines, above all in the US-backed Nabucco project.

[Click on map to enlarge].

Third, contrary to Western propaganda, Ashgabat does not see the Chinese pipeline as a substitute for Gazprom. Russia’s pricing policy ensures that Ashgabat views Gazprom as an irreplaceable customer. The export price of the Turkmen gas to be sold to China is still under negotiation and the agreed price simply cannot match the Russian offer. Fourth, Russia and Turkmenistan reiterated their commitment to the Caspian Coastal Pipeline (which will run along the Caspian’s east coast toward Russia) with a capacity of 30bcm. Evidently, Russia hopes to cluster additional Central Asian gas from Turkmenistan (and Kazakhstan). Fifth, Moscow and Ashgabat agreed to build jointly an east-west pipeline connecting all Turkmen gas fields to a single network so that the pipelines leading toward Russia, Iran and China can draw from any of the fields.

Indeed, against the backdrop of the intensification of the US push toward Central Asia, Medvedev’s visit to Ashgabat impacted on regional security. At the joint press conference with Medvedev, Berdymukhammedov said the views of Turkmenistan and Russia on the regional processes, particularly in Central Asia and the Caspian region, were generally the same. He underlined that the two countries were of the view that the security of one cannot be achieved at the expense of the other. Medvedev agreed that there was similarity or unanimity between the two countries on issues related to security and confirmed their readiness to work together.

The United States’ pipeline diplomacy in the Caspian, which strove to bypass Russia, elbow out China and isolate Iran, has foundered. Russia is now planning to double its intake of Azerbaijani gas, which further cuts into the Western efforts to engage Baku as a supplier for Nabucco. In tandem with Russia, Iran is also emerging as a consumer of Azerbaijani gas. In December, Azerbaijan inked an agreement to deliver gas to Iran through the 1,400km Kazi-Magomed-Astara pipeline.

The “big picture” is that Russia’s South Stream and North Stream, which will supply gas to northern and southern Europe, have gained irreversible momentum. The stumbling blocks for North Stream have been cleared as Denmark (in October), Finland and Sweden (in November) and Germany (in December) approved the project from the environmental angle. The pipeline’s construction will commence in the spring.The $12-billion pipeline built jointly by Gazprom, Germany’s E.ON Ruhrgas and BASF-Wintershall, and the Dutch gas transportation firm Gasunie bypasses the Soviet-era transit routes via Ukraine, Poland and Belarus and runs from the northwestern Russian port of Vyborg to the German port of Greifswald along a 1,220km route under the Baltic Sea. The first leg of the project with a carrying capacity of 27.5bcm annually will be completed next year and the capacity will double by 2012. North Stream will profoundly affect the geopolitics of Eurasia, trans-Atlantic equations and Russia’s ties with Europe.

To be sure, 2009 proved to be a momentous year for the “energy war”. The Chinese pipeline inaugurated by President Hu Jintao on December 14; the oil terminal near the port city of Nakhodka in Russia’s far east inaugurated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 27 (which will be served by the mammoth $22-billion oil pipeline from the new fields in eastern Siberia leading to China and the Asia-Pacific markets); and the Iranian pipeline inaugurated by Ahmadinejad on January 6 – the energy map of Eurasia and the Caspian has been virtually redrawn.

And from Pipe dreams come true (bne):

Putin ordered construction to start on Nord Stream at the end of last year after the pipeline got the last environmental permits from Germany. And in January, Gazprom started building the first pumping station at the mouth of the first of two parallel pipes, which is supposed to be operational by 2011 with a capacity of 27.5bn cm/y. Thanks to Nord Stream, 2009 should be the last episode of the Russo-Ukraine “Gas for Cash” soap opera, which usually ends with Europe freezing. [AK: see also What difference would Nord Stream mean to European energy supply?].

South stream, the other pipeline project, will close the circle, but this pipeline has had a harder time getting off the drawing board and is competing with the EU-sponsored Nabucco pipeline, which is supposed to source Caspian region and Middle East gas and send it to Europe without crossing Russian soil. The problem is that there’s probably only enough demand to support one pipeline.

The R of the BRIC’s Remains Solid

Many of the economic predictions I made in Decoupling from the unwinding and Russia Economic Crisis are coming to fruition. See RUSSIA 2010: Slow build over first half to boom in 2011 (bne):

Russia was undoubtedly far more affected by the international crisis that started in September 2008 than anyone had expected – especially the Kremlin. It also stands out as the only one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) to show negative growth, leading to calls from the likes of analyst Anders Aslund to remove the “R” from BRIC.

This is rubbish, so Jim O’Neill, the man that coined the term in the first place, told bne at the 2009 International Monetary Fund (IMF) conference. “The only reason that Russia was hurt so badly was unlike the others, it borrowed heavily on the international capital markets and, of course, it is dependent on the price of oil.”

This was one of my major themes. When the Western financial system ground to a standstill in late 2008, the first countries to be cut off were the emerging markets. Having access to deep indigenous credit systems, the likes of Brazil and China were understandable far less affected than Russia, whose corporations had come to rely on Western intermediation of their credit inflows.

And in the longer term, excluding Russia from the BRIC’s makes little sense given its major growth potential (educated workforce, resource windfall, modernization policy, economic gains from global warming).

The Russian economy contracted by a bit less than 9% in 2009, but as the year came to a close it was already starting to recover – six months later than analysts were predicting at the start of the year. However, despite the pain of the crisis, the prospects for 2010 are looking much better than many had dared hope.

One should also note that this “pain” was insubstantial compared to the 1998 crisis, which is what many analysts were (unfavorably) comparing it to. While the percentage of the population barely making ends meet went up from 29% in July 1998 to 40% in December 1998, this figure remained stable at around 10% throughout the recent crisis. The main shift occurred amongst Russia’s “consumer class” (the ones who buy cars, PC’s, etc), whose percentage of the population tumbled by a quarter from 19% to 14%, and perhaps explains the reason for its large drop in GDP for 2009, i.e. the drop in large purchases. The silver lining is that this implies inequality has decreased during the crisis.

bne’s annual survey of investment bank outlooks suggests that growth will return to at least 4% and possibly go as high as 6% by the end of 2010. Inflation will remain low at about 5% while overnight rates at the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) will become real for the first time, finally giving the central bank a second tool to manage the economy and so be able to tackle Russia’s twin perennial headaches of inflation and ruble appreciation more effectively. …

The much discussed problems of the reappearance of a budget deficit will be much milder than appears now, coming in at something under 5% of GDP. This means the Kremlin will drastically reduce its international borrowing and has already cut the amount it needs to raise from $18bn to $10bn, but this could fall to $5bn or even nothing at all if oil prices rise to around $80 per barrel, which most of the banks bne surveyed believe will be the average price for 2010. Indeed the state will be able to raise all the money it needs to plug the deficit at home and pave the way for a return of private issuers to the international capital markets.

I predicted an oil price of around 90$ for 2010 (“oil prices in H1 will remain at 70-90$, and will rise to 90-110$ in H2″), so this is completely realistic considering my stellar record on oil price forecasting.

Finally, the RTS had a spectacular performance, rising over 120% in 2009 from its spring lows to end the year at about 1400. Unlike last year, the investment banks all agree that the index will end 2010 at around 1900-1950 and some say that it will reach and pass its all-time high of 2600 by 2011.

The themes for 2010 include: a turning inwards to growth driven by domestic demand, a push to introduce some real bottom-up economic reforms, a new focus on improving Russia’s productivity, increased inter-regional crediting, a shift towards closer ties with China, consolidation within many sectors and most important a gradual reassessment of Russia’s risk.

Again, much of this will not be new to S/O readers. I’ve already called the consolidation of Russia’s financial system, the shifting emphasis on domestic manufacturing, its decoupling from the insolvent Anglo-Saxon system, the imminent purge of corrupt siloviki, etc…

The collapse of the Russian economy in 2009 was dramatic, but emerging market crises are intrinsically less “sticky” than those in the West, largely because of the shallow penetration of debt in all its forms into the economy. As Liam Halligan, chief economist at Prosperity Capital Management, points out Russia’s fundamentals remain extremely strong and stand out from the rest of emerging Europe. And despite spending $200bn on rescue packages, the Kremlin still have $400bn in the bank, which was increasing again towards the end of the year, and remains the third richest country in the world after China and Japan, against the US and UK, which are 18th and 19th with a bit more than $80bn each. As the story going forward for the next several years will be all about the credit worthiness of countries, Russia finds itself, along with its newest buddy, China, in an enviable position.

Feel free to read the whole article.

Russia’s Population Grows in 2009

Russia registers its first year of population growth in 2009 since 1994.

Russia has registered the first population increase since the chaotic years which followed the fall of the Soviet Union, bucking a long-term decline that has dampened economic growth projections, officials said on Tuesday. Russia’s population increased by between 15,000 and 25,000 to more than 141.9 million in 2009, the first annual increase since 1995, Health Minister Tatyana Golikova told a meeting in the Kremlin with President Dmitry Medvedev. …

Russia’s dire population forecasts — some of which predict sharp declines over the next few decades — are a key function of economic predictions which see Russia growing much slower over the next 20 years than the other BRIC countries; China, Brazil and India.

a) None of this should be too surprising to my readers, given that back in mid-2008 I predicted:

I will make some concrete, falsifiable demographic predictions (something Russophobes going on about Russia’s impending demographic doom wisely avoid doing).

  1. Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest.

I was totally correct, and even better, a year early! (well, just about). Meanwhile, the Russophobe commentariat continues their happy life in la la land.

b) Russia’s approaching demographic doom is a major staple of pessimist and Russophobe assessments of its future prospects in areas like economic modernization and geopolitical power. To the contrary, far from the steep fall produced by most demographic models, a more realistic scenario is for Russia’s population to stagnate or grow very slowly in the next two decades, as a fall in the numbers of women in child-bearing age is balanced out by rising fertility rates and falling mortality rates. See 10 Myths about Russia’s Demography for my detailed exposition of Russia’s demographic prospects.

The Volatile Caucasus

Saakashvili’s megalomania probes new depths, so no wonder the opposition – who are no Russophiles, it should be said – are holding their noses and reaching out to their erstwhile enemy. Taking a cue from the Party of Regions:

The leader of Georgian opposition party the Movement for a Fair Georgia, former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, said Jan. 26 that his party would like to form a partnership with United Russia, the ruling party in Russia led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

See also this Russian-language report, Танки августа (“Tanks of August”) analyzing the buildup to, chronology, and course of the 2008 South Ossetian War, which is called “The Five Day War” in this publication. This is no pro-Kremlin propaganda, the Russian Army receives acerbic criticism for its performance.

However, most interesting, at least for me, was the chapter “Настоящее и будущее грузино-российского конфликта. Военный аспект” (pp. 85-109), a serious analysis of post-war dynamics in the balance of power between the two countries, is worth checking out. I’ll summarize it here.

a) Though Georgian military spending has fallen somewhat from its 2007-08 high of 8% of GDP, its military potential has continued growing at a fast rate and now exceeds its level in August 2008. Anti-partisan training has been deemphasized in favor of preparation for a hot conventional war against Russia, especially emphasizing the anti-tank and air defense aspects; battle-hardened troops have been returned from Iraq, the reserves system is being reformed, and military contracts concluded in 2007-08 are now bringing in masses of new Soviet and Israeli military equipment from abroad. The authors believe it is not unrealistic that Georgia will make another attempt at a military resolution of the Ossetian issue after 2011.

b) Counter-intuitively, the authors believe that though the revolutionary reforms now being implemented by the Russian Army will enhance its long-term potential, in the short-term there will be a certain loss of effectiveness due to the ouster of experienced officers, a shortfall which will not be immediately made up by the extensive NCO-training program which is only now getting started. The effective number of Motor Rifle and Tank battalions in the Caucasus military region has fallen from 65 in August 2008 to just 40 at end-2009, albeit their quality has been somewhat improved thanks to the rapid acquisition of modernized tanks and helicopters. Furthermore, their forward-positioning in Abkhazian and S. Ossetian bases will give them an advantage missing in 2008.

c) Finally, the authors also note the growing military superiority of Azerbaijan over Armenia. The two countries hold a long grudge over Armenia’s occupation of the ethnically-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Revenues from the BTC pipeline have enabled Azerbaijan to massively increase its military potential, acquiring a panoply of modernized late-Soviet and Israeli weapons systems. Azerbaijan’s military budget now exceeds the entire Armenian state budget. However, Armenia is allied with Russia through the CSTO, hosts a big Russian base, and receives subsidized weapons systems from Russia, as well as some old Soviet stocks for free. The authors note that due to ethnic majority-Armenian unrest in the southern Georgian province of Samtskhe-Javakheti (which I noted in my post on the possibility of a new Russia-Georgia war), Russia would be wise to increase its military presence in Armenia and accelerate the modernization of the Armenian armed forces in order to be able to exploit Georgia’s soft southern underbelly in a new war***.

Power Projection & Military Modernization

Two more military things. Frustrated with the sorry state of Russian military shipbuilding, the Kremlin is considering the French Mistral, a helicopter carrier & amphibious ship. Such an acquisition will enhance two important Russian capabilities.

First, if deployed in the Barents Sea, it will reinforce its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, which are growing in importance with its increasing strategic interests in the Arctic linked to the region’s oil-and-gas deposits and potential trade opportunities as the sea-ice melt accelerates. Second, these vessels would enable Russia to insert crack military forces behind enemy lines much quicker than had previously been possible. In the event of a potential conflict with Georgia or the Baltics, this capability will be incredibly valuable.

EDIT to add PAK-FA news: Second, Russia unveiled the PAK-FA prototype fighter, the first 5th-generation fighter to be produced outside the US. Below are some informative articles on the subject.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovoo-n9b5Bs&w=425&h=344]

Despite delays and questions over its effectiveness, Russia being the 2nd nation in the world to test a 5th generation fighter after the US does prove that elements of the Russian MIC, especially military aviation, remain robust and capable of innovation. (Besides, one shouldn’t neglect to mention that the American MIC also has its own problems: cost overruns, questions over the JSF’s real utility, etc). As pointed out in earlier posts, Russia’s main challenge is now rooting out corruption and modernizing the MIC’s machine tools and management culture to enable high-volume production of state-of-the-art military equipment such as the PAK-FA, so as to modernize its armed forces by 2020 without returning to a Soviet-style militarized economy.

* To forestall criticism, this is not, of course, an expression of “Great Russian chauvinism”, but a historical reference to the state centralization and “gathering of the Russian lands” undertaken by Muscovy from the time of Ivan III (1462-1505). This formed the palimpsest for all future restorations of Russia’s empire, including the current one.

** Why Yanukovych will almost certainly win the Ukrainian Presidency – just a matter of beans-counting. In the first round, he got 35%, Tymoshenko got 25%. Yanukovych will net many of the Tihipko voters (13%), while Tymoshenko will get support from some of the Yatsenyuk (7%) and Yushenko (5%) voters. The rest of the electorate will split roughly in half, most likely. But even if Tymoshenko gets very lucky, it is hard to see her closing the awning 10% gap separating her from Yanukovych in the first round.

*** I would also add that though unlikely, it is not impossible that Armenia and Azerbaijan will fight a new war in the near future, as the Azeris despair of their long-term chances of ever reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and the hard reality of rising Russian power over the Caucasus. They could yet make a desperate gamble, perhaps in the context of the chaos unleashed by a US-Israeli war with Iran and its proxies. That said, the far likelier possibility is that the realistic-minded President Aliyev will reconcile himself to Russia’s growing power over the Caucasus.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I would like to wish all Sublime Oblivion readers a very happy and successful New Year. One of my major motivations for writing is getting comments and feedback, so please continue – the more you inflate my ego, the more time I will feel compelled to spend on the blog. ;)

Year in Review: 2009

All in all, 2009 was rather less interesting that 2008, which saw three thresholds of portentous significance – the final peaking of global oil production, the discovery of the magnitude of the Arctic methane meltdown, and the collapse (and partial recovery, abetted by prodigious state credit infusions) of the global financial system. Simultaneously, Russia, China, and other rising powers have begun presenting a rising challenge to Western hegemony on an ever broader front. The key trends of 2009, whether leaders and pundits recognized it or not, were about managing the consequences and realities of 2008.

From the American viewpoint, 2009 was the year of Obama. He realized that the “cowboy diplomacy” pursued by Bush alienated key allies on perceived vital issues (Afghanistan, stimulus spending, etc), and sought to reinvigorate relations with its traditional allies and reach out to its enemies. Though publics tended to be enthusiastic, governments were not as moved; the European states continue stalling on commitments to Afghanistan, whereas Russia, China, and the Muslim world have decidedly spurned him on the basis that actions speak louder than words. They have a point. Obama has essentially continued post-2006 Bush policies based on a “realist” appraisal of American interests – prodigal military spending, “occupation” of the Middle East (as perceived by Muslims), support for Israel, resistance against Russian neo-imperial ambitions for the former Soviet space, engaging with China without reference to human rights, supporting sanctions against Iran while leaving “all options on the table”, etc. This creates a certain impression of schizophrenia to the administration’s actions – popular abroad but spurned by friend and foe; repudiating the Bush legacy but continuing it in practice; talking of reforming healthcare and closing Guantanamo, but stymied by discredited Republicans at home. It’s all a muddle.

So is the bind that the US is stuck in regarding Iran. Officially it supports gasoline sanctions, but they are unlikely to have much effect if Russia circumvents them (which it is likely to do given its continued geopolitical jockeying with the US) – and even if Russia acquiesces to the sanctions, enforcing the sanctions will be difficult. Israel is a loose cannon. It cannot allow the possibility of a radical Islamic regime acquiring a nuclear capability, and will do everything – including striking its nuclear installations – to prevent it. As a consequence, the US will be drawn in because of their fears that in the aftermath, the Iranian military will mine the Strait of Hormuz and interdict the Gulf oil shipping which carries 20% of world oil production. This may usher in a general Middle East war whose geopolitical, economic, and financial ramifications may veer wildly out of control, possibly culminating in the fall of Pax Americana itself. In both the US and Iran, domestic forces are driving the two countries to a confrontation. This is a geopolitical predicament that is becoming increasingly clear, with the US issuing greater threats and Iran intensifying its nuclear brinkmanship in the last few months of 2009.

Even as the US was focused on the Middle East, the Kremlin has been using the resultant “window of opportunity” to continue reasserting its influence over the former Soviet space – expanding the scope of the CSTO military alliance, strengthening ties with Ukraine’s Russia-friendly political forces, pressuring Uzbekistan with a new military base in Kyrgyzstan, and making a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Though its economic crisis was deep, it did not have major negative internal effects either humanitarian or political, which put Russia in a yet stronger position relative to its Near Abroad. With the Kremlin’s simultaneous strengthening of internal control (e.g. over the oligarchs), Russia continued to return to its past-and-future as a Eurasian empire.

Driven by desperate credit infusions and fiscal spending, the US and Europe began to experience an anemic recovery in mid-2009, – but one that cannot be sustained, especially since the resource fueling it (yes, oil) has peaked, and will decline at an accelerating pace after 2010. The price of recovery is massive new debt, transferred from private to sovereign hands, and a widening of the same imbalances that caused the crisis in the first place. Yet a far worse example of eating the seed corn is the debacle of the Copenhagen summit, where the nations of the world failed to agree on emissions cuts to check runaway global warming. We need to limit the temperature rise to no more than 2C, because after that there are numerous tipping points that will make an accelerating Klimakatastrophe inevitable; this implies that at the minimum, global emissions should peak by 2015, and decline by 80% by 2050 over 1990 levels. The commitments made at Copenhagen are feeble, more so even than Kyoto – largely thanks to Chinese sabotage. (Well, at least we didn’t die of swine flu). In related news, the increasing habitability of Greenland has driven it to make further strides towards declaring formal independence from Denmark.

Riding roughshod over Ireland and the Czech Republic, the EU finally passed the Lisbon Treaty, which gives the large, pro-strong-Europe countries like Germany, France, and Italy far more voting power relative to Euroskeptic nations. Should the Franco-German bloc wish, it now has many of the tools to dominate Europe and present an economic and cultural challenge to US hegemony; whether they will manage to do so is very much open to question, given the rising pressures on European unity presented by trends such as: 1) the rising power of France relative to Germany and 2) the deep-grained economic predicaments of the Mediterranean Rim.D

The skylines lit up at dead of night, the air-conditioning systems cooling empty hotels in the desert, and artificial light in the middle of the day all have something both demented and admirable about them: the mindless luxury of a rich civilization, and yet of a civilization perhaps as scared to see the lights go out as was the hunter in his primitive night. – Baudrillard

There is perhaps no better metaphor for the spectacle of Dubai going bankrupt just as it completed the greatest monument to petro-fueled Gulf vanity, the 818-meter tall Burj Dubai.

Though the Gulf states have increased moves to band together in a customs union, and are slowly but surely transferring their alliance to China – the country likely destined to be the last hegemonic power of the industrial age.

Edit 1/5/09 – There is a better metaphor (or personification?), and best of all it was probably unwitting. From Facebook: Vilhelm Konnander has just (LOL) read today’s “The National” about Burj Dubai: “The tallest tower in the world, its feet anchored in the UAE and its crown floating in the clouds, was inaugurated in an eruption of fireworks last night.”

2010 Predictions

1) World economy continues an anemic recovery, though there are significant risks to the downside.

2) Obama’s honeymoon period is over, his approval ratings are on the downslide, and his major domestic and foreign policy initiatives have almost all failed. Republicans will carry the mid-term elections in 2010, but there is a strong mood of apathy and a sense that what is really needed is a new party, a new politics – though this will only start playing a great role in the post-Obama, or post-2012, era. Rising violence in Iraq (perhaps abetted by Iran, to demonstrate to the US the dangers of attacking it); a false quiet in Afghanistan, as the Taleban limit activity to conserve their strength while the US presence in Afghanistan is strong (they know the Americans will retreat the bulk of their forces soon enough anyway).

In the UK, Gordon Brown (New Labour) will almost certainly lose to James Cameron (Conservatives) in the mid-2010 elections.

3) Possible wars. Foremost looms the shadow of Iran and the bomb, of course. I doubt the US will attack in 2010, unless Israel forces its hand. It will first exhaust its options with sanctions, etc, which will almost certainly be ineffective. The Iranian IRGC-linked hardliners in power (figurehead – Ahmadinejad), under pressure from the Rafsanjani / Mousavi clerical clan, will not yield, and will remain defiant internationally to justify increasing their hold on internal power. There will be tension, but no war – especially since the US still needs to develop its Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the next-generation bunker-buster, to have a high level of confidence that a bombing raid on Iranian nuclear installations have truly done their job. (True, postponing the strike to 2011 or 2012 makes the world economy more vulnerable to disruption because oil prices will be higher then and oil supplies tighter, but then again I highly doubt the administration takes “peak oil” into consideration in its strategic planning). Likelihood: 25%; Severity: 6.

What is much more likely to happen is a new war between Israel and Hezbollah. Since 2006, Israel may have infiltrated Hezbollah, aided by internal splits within the organization, and has taken stock of lessons learned during the unsuccessful last war; it may now want to send a signal to Iran and preemptively incapacitate one of its most effective means for retaliating against Israel into the bargain. Israeli special forces are more than capable of producing a false flag, even if Hezbollah refrains from doing it for them. Furthermore, Hezbollah is causing Saudi Arabia trouble by sending fighters and weapons to the Shia insurgency in Yemen fighting the Saudis; SA would appreciate an Israeli crippling attack on Hezbollah, and may give concessions to Israel, such as allowing it to use its airspace in a strike against Iran (the US has said it will shoot down Israeli planes flying to Iran over Iraq). This further increases the incentives for Israel to pummel Hezbollah, this time round with a real, large-scale ground invasion. Likelihood: 50%; Severity: 3.

A new Russia-Georgia war remains a serious possibility, if Saakashvili uses his rapidly rebuilding military forces to make another megalomaniac lunge at reclaiming South Ossetia, or if Russia orchestrates a false flag to give itself the justification to roll in the tanks to Tbilisi and set up a puppet regime. In the latter case, the “new cold war” atmosphere of August 2008 will begin to appear to be distinctly jovial. Likelihood: 10%; Severity: 4.

Finally, we should note that a) Azerbaijan and Armenia have a bitter rivalry, cultural and geographic over the Armenian-populated and -occupied Azeri enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, b) though it lost a war to Armenia in the early 1990′s, Azerbaijan has been implementing a rapid military modernization since 2006 with the help of oil pipeline transit revenue from the BTC, and its military budget alone is now equivalent to Armenia’s entire state budget, c) Armenia and Turkey are slowly moving towards a reconciliation under Russian brokerage, which threatens Azerbaijan’s strategic position, and d) Armenian-Azeri talks over Nagorno-Karabakh have recently collapsed. The obstacle to war is that Turkey and the US, though friendly with Azerbaijan, are very unlikely to give it direct support; but Armenia is in the CSTO military alliance with Russia. An Azeri attack will almost certainly lead to a decisive Russian response, furthermore there is a large Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia. Unlike Saakashvili, Aliyev is a rational leader, and for now Russian and Turkey have a mutual interest in keeping things contained. That said, the possibility of a new war cannot be fully discounted – especially if it is simultaneous with the chaos unleashed by a US-Israeli war with Iran and its proxies.

Expect instability, but not collapse, in Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, some or all of the Baltic states. Despite the occasional rhetoric, there is very little chance of a new Korean war, a Venezuela-Colombia war, or an Israel-Syria war.

4) Given that Russia’s demography has continued improving even in 2009, a year of deep economic contraction and scare stories (false) of an abortion apocalypse, it is almost certain that it will continue improving further in 2010 and that the year will see the first year of positive population growth since 1994 (or 2009). Birth rate = 12.5-13.0 (reasons), Death rate = 13.5-14.0 (a reason), Net Migration = 1.5-2.0, all / 1000. Economic growth of around 3-5% of GDP sounds reasonable. Lots of privatizations and corruption investigations as part of the Surkov clan’s struggle against the siliviki and “their” state companies. Ukraine under Yanukovych will join Eurasec or the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, but is yet unlikely to join the CSTO or give Russian 2nd language status.

5) Oil production in 2010 will be around the same as 2009 – increased demand will collide with geological depletion to keep output stable. Oil prices in H1 will remain at 70-90$, and will rise to 90-110$ in H2 on the basis that background geological depletion will be cancelled out by OPEC going back on its 2009 production cuts to fuel the ongoing global recovery. Of course, if there are serious confrontations with Iran, the oil price will veer right off the historical charts.

6) No major AGW-related physical events (except for a heatwave or two), given that solar irradiation remains at an unusually long trough – expect the fireworks by 2012-15. AGW skepticism will become more popular in the wake of Climategate. China and its proxies will prevent any more significant action being taken at the next UN climate change summit in Mexico, than was “achieved” in Copenhagen. By year-end the performance of the world’s top supercomputer will exceed 3 petaflops (repeat of 2009 prediction).

7) China’s growth will slow from around 8% in 2009, to perhaps 5% in 2010 as it cuts back on the loose credit in recognition of the problems this is going to create further down the line (this is already happening). Otherwise, expect China to continue keeping a low profile as the US insists on shooting itself in the foot.

What about the 2009 Predictions?

How did my previous set of 2009 predictions go?

1) Correct about the American H2 2009 stimulus-boosted recovery, though too pessimistic about its strength. That said, doesn’t change the fact it’s unsustainable, even in the medium-term.

2) Correct about the end of deflation, resumption of credit flows, and rebounding commodities.

3) I was completely, 100%, totally right on my oil price predictions.

However, an incipient global recovery in the second half will result in a rebound in oil prices from around 40-50$ per barrel in the first half, to 60-80$ in the second.

Not so much on food, admittedly.

4) Right on Germany’s and Japan’s steep GDP declines, not so much on China’s anemic growth – massive credit expansion and fiscal stimulus in the People’s Republic has resulted in the building of ever more unneeded capacity, resulting in a growth rate of around 8% instead of the predicted 2%. Correct on rising protectionism, and the economic collapses in the Baltics and Ukraine.

5) The “flight to safety” ended, and as predicted the US $ weakened relative to the Euro (1 Euro = 1.41$ on Jan 1st 2009, = 1.46$ on Jan 1st 2010, now with an upward rather than a downward trend). The pattern for the yen has been similar. The latest CBO figures suggest that the US budget deficit will be 9.9% of GDP for 2009, within my predicted band of 8-13%.

6) Very wrong on Russia’s GDP growth – instead of 1%, it will decline by around 7-9%. I misunderestimated the depth of its consumers’ and companies’ reliance on credit, and the extent of its credit crunch. Nonetheless, the core of what I predicted, such as the declining influence of the oligarchs and the lack of any significant fall in real wellbeing, has been correct. There have been no serious political challenges to Putvedev, as Russia’s ruling tandem retain extremely high approval ratings. And as predicted, the RTS has recovered to above 1000 (to around 1500 in fact).

7) Wrong that Yushenko and Saakashvili would not survive 2009 as political leaders. Well, Yushenko will almost certainly (95%+) be kicked out of the Presidency in the coming Ukrainian elections, probably in favor of Yanukovych. Saakashvili, with his deepening megalomania, has managed to hang on, despite spirited defiance from the opposition and an attempted military coup. If he survived 2009, most likely he will survive for a few years more.

8) My optimistic forecasts on Russia’s demography, which bucked the conventional “wisdom”, have been fully validated, and in the case of the death rate even substantially superseded.

In Russia, the birth rate will be between 11.5 and 12.5 / 1000, the death rate at 14.5 and 15.5 / 1000 and net migration will fall substantially to 0.5 / 1000. For comparison, the figures for the first ten months of 2008 were 12.1, 14.8 and 1.7 respectively.

According to Rosstat figures for Jan-Nov 2009, the birth rate was 12.4, the death rate was 14.1, and the net migration rate actually rose to 1.8 / 1000 during Jan-Oct.

9) No major new wars.

10) Slightly wrong on supercomputer performance, totally correct on oil production fall. Contrary to prediction, no major AGW physical “event”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The most important development has been Medvedev’s election to the Presidency with 70.2% of the vote. While it has not been squeaky clean (and as such, no different from any other Russian election under either Yeltsin or Putin), the more hystryonic claims of voter intimidation are to be treated with a pinch of salt – for a start, it’s a secret ballot, and as such authorities can have no control over how people vote in the booth. Even Nigel Evans, a British parliamentarian and member of PACE’s monitoring team, admitted “There does not seem to be any voter intimidation“.

Media coverage has been skewed towards Medvedev (who was a key government official – deputy prime minister – as well as election candidate), but this is not surprising in a country where opinion polling typically put his popularity at around 80%, in contrast to Zyuganov’s c.10%, Zhirinovsky’s c.10% and the ‘Liberals” c.1%. (This is also the reason Medvedev refused to participate in TV debates). The elections followed the polls, which heavily suggests that they were free. In fact, the major upset was Zyuganov, who managed to scrape 17.8% (well above what most polls predicted) to the detriment of Medvedev.

Now Russians do get coverage of the latters’ platforms and as such it is not surprising they are rejected – the Communists talk the talk but can’t walk the walk; the Liberal Democrats are too crudely clownish to have genuine popular appeal; and the ultra-low ratings of ‘liberals’ is largely of their own making. After all, the media reflects, as well as manufactures, consent.

Edit: now the Western media resorted to whining about police detaining opposition protestors in Moscow. All I will say on the matter is that the Moscow protest was unsanctioned and as such is illegal, and any self-respecting country would enforce that. In contrast, the St.-Petersburg liberal faction did bother getting official permission to hold a rally, which went off peacefully. Of course, if you do get permission, then you won’t get to see your face in the Western press whining about the injustice of it all – a particularly pertinent point, because it often seems that ‘liberals’ like Kasyanov and Kasparov care more about their Western constituencies than Russians.


An oligarch dies in his Surrey mansion. Although at first he supported the new reforming President with financial and media resources, he later turned against him, accusing him of sliding into authoritarianism. In turn, he was charged with plotting a coup in his native country and has since lived in self-imposed exile in the UK and Israel. He claimed he was the target of an assassination attempt orchestrated by elements of his homeland’s government, and this was even supported by a tape (albeit of uncertain authenticity). Which country?

Not Russia. (But I bet that’s what you were thinking, right?). Georgia. The death I am referring to is that of Badri Patarkatsishvili, who collapsed of a heart attack. The Times covered it extensively and quite fairly. The nuts and and bolts are covered in Badri Patarkatsishvili: exiled oligarch who lived in the shadow of death, Georgian billionaire found dead in Surrey feared plots and Tycoon tells of plot to kill him in London, as well as some rather interesting connections. For instance:

Mr Patarkatsishvili lived in Russia between 1993 and 2001. In the 1990s he was wanted by Russian authorities on charges of theft from the country’s largest car factory, AvtoVAZ, which he ran with Mr Berezovsky.

He was also accused of plotting to arrange the escape from custody in 2001 of Nikolai Glushkov, deputy director of Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, who had been accused of fraud.

The man charged with breaking out Mr Glushkov was Andrei Lugovoy, who was arrested and jailed after the attempt failed. Mr Lugovoy is wanted by the British Crown Prosecution Service for the murder of Litvinenko, the dissident former Russian spy poisoned in London with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006.

Mr Lugovoy was responsible for protecting Mr Patarkatsishvili and Mr Berezovsky at the time as head of security at the Russian TV channel ORT, which the two men controlled.

Mr Patarkatsishvili remained good friends with Mr Lugovoy, a former KGB officer who is now a member of the Russian parliament. The pair were seen socialising together in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, shortly before Mr Litvinenko was poisoned.

Mr Litvinenko also had links with the Georgian businessman. Sources in Tbilisi have told The Times that he stayed at Mr Patarkatshvili’s residence in Georgia en route to Turkey when he fled Russia to seek asylum in London in 2000.

Russian prosecutors claim that Mr Litvinenko also visited Mr Patarkatsishvili as well as Mr Berezovsky in London shortly before he was poisoned. They accuse Mr Berezovsky of involvement in the murder of the former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent as part of a plot to damage President Putin’s international image.

Georgia’s former Defence Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, accused Mr Saakashvili of encouraging him to kill Mr Patarkatsishvili in 2005, although he later retracted the claim.

Really makes one wonder who’s for who in these circles. If indeed he was murdered (there are, after all, chemical agents capable of causing heart attacks without detection), who did it and what was the motive? Georgian security officials concerned at his plotting of a new color revolution (they claim he was caught offering 100mn $ to a police chief to support opposition demonstrators; Badri claimed it was a honeytrap)? (For – want Saakashvili to remain in power, cast suspicion on Russia; against – risky, does Georgia even have the means?)? Elements of Russian intelligence services to discredit Georgia (For – despite recent thaws, Saakashvili is still set on NATO accession; against – Badri is damaging enough to Georgia alive, wouldn’t they have made a Georgian connection much more explicit than a random heart attack, risky)? Berezovsky (For – discredit Russia, last person to see Badri alive, a history of people inconvenient to him dying; against – risky, Badri is enemy of Saakashvili who is enemy of Putin, as is Berezovsky)? Some mafia or another (Badri’s own past is far from squeaky clean – many Georgians consider him a mobster)?

But ultimately I suspect this was a genuine heart attack, his feud with Saakashvili not rising above black PR. He had a family history of cardio-vascular disease, didn’t exercise, chain smoked and probably subsisted on a traditional (read: lethal) Russian/east European diet. But ultimately this is a murky case and I doubt anything definitive will ever come out of it.

The same cannot be said of the Western media, which is transparently Russophobic. Far from blaming the ‘authoritarian’ Georgian government (about whom, after all, there is direct evidence in the form of aforementioned tape), some totalitarian publications kicked their smear campaigns into full gear immediately – against Russia! Mixed in with unrelated rants against Russia’s closure of British Council offices and its constitutionally mandated refusal to extradite Lugovoi, the point is implicitly made that the FSB, if not Putin himself, are behind the death of Patarkatsishvili – ‘a sworn enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’. No mention of Georgia. Eventually, all memory that Saakashvili and elements of the Georgian security forces are also linked to Patarkatsishvili will be erased. Russia will stand guilty before the world, because who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future. Just like in 1984. And so the Annals of Western Hypocrisy go on. Talking about hypocrisy, lunatic Lucas also insisted on having a say in the British tabloid Daily Mail. I’ve replied to it on his blog.

Speaking about assassinations and stuff, it seems the traitorous slime Gordievsky has crawled out from under his rock to whine about how he fears he will be next Alexander Litvinenko.


The other main news is the declaration of independence by Kosovo from Serbia, which has been recognized by the US and the major West European countries. I’ve compiled a map below (dark green = recognize; green = say they’ll recognize; red = states insisting on further negotiations under UN auspices; dark red = don’t recognize). Note: Georgia, Azerbaijan should be dark red – forgot to add them in. Sorry.

Firstly, we are against recognizing Kosovo because it a) violates the principle of national sovereignty – the dominant paradigm of international affairs since the Congress of Vienna, b) sets an unwelcome precedent in which aliens can take a chunk out of a country by outbreeding the original denizens over generations (particularly pertinent to places like the US South-West or Londonistan), c) unfairly punishes a politically modern Serbia for the transgressions of a previous regime and d) rewards the likes of Thaçi and his KLA cronies, the former terrorists and drugpushers who now run Kosovo.

Unfortunately, Serbia has little choice but to acquiesce to this as a fait accompli. However, if I were a Serbian policymaker, I would continue down the road to European integration (after all, no need to cut off the nose to spite the face), but refuse to recognize Kosovo, assert it as eternal Serbian territory in the Constitution and maintain charges of treason against the Kosovar leadership. Similarly, if Serbia joins the EU or even NATO, it will remain a Russian ally and can function as a Trojan horse in these organizations (as Bulgaria is alleged to be). As such, this is the best course for Russia to pursue, at least until it regains its superpower status.

Finally, no, this does not mean that Russia should now recognize de facto independent states like Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the Dniester Republic. Since it has positioned itself firmly on the side of state sovereignty (as opposed to Western ‘liberal interventionism’), appearing to switch sides on particular cases like Abkhazia or South Ossetia will undermine its principled stand (as seen by the international community). Furthermore, this is compounded by the fact that both Georgia and Moldova, quite wisely, have also refused to recognize Kosovo. The same applies to Crimea and the Ukraine.


Lenin once said that the capitalists will sell us the rope by which we’ll hang them. Russophobes kindly give it away for free. The BBC World Service has conducted a poll across 31 countries to assess Putin’s legacy as he steps down from the Presidency – you can read it here.

As for the analysis, Fedia Kriukov’s excellent Russia in the Media blog beat me to it in A Charmed Profession. Might as well quote in extenso:

The first part of the poll, conducted in 31 countries including Russia and the G7, dealt with the influence of President Putin on various aspects of Russian and global affairs. Two of these aspects stand out in particular: They are the quality of life in Russia and democracy and human rights situation in Russia. Why do they stand out? Simply because they are an internal Russian matter, i.e. one has to actually be in Russia in order to form a sufficiently educated and hopefully accurate opinion on the topic. Global affairs are anyone’s fair game, but internal situation in any country needs to be assessed from within. Logical, isn’t it?

So what data are we dealing with here? When it comes to Putin’s influence on the quality of life in Russia, 77% of Russians hold a positive view of it, and 8% — negative. Of the residents of G7 countries, on the other hand, only 39% hold a positive view, while 44% are negative. On to democracy and human rights: 64% of Russians think Putin’s influence was positive, while 12% think it was negative. The residents of G7 countries, once again, beg to differ: only 26% have a positive opinion, while 56% think that Putin strangled the nascent Russian democracy, personally butchered 200 Russian journalists and 500,000 Chechens, and also poisoned the “KGB spy” Litvinenko with polonium had a largely negative influence.

It’s all clear with Russians: if a Russian wants to form an opinion of his quality of life, for starters he can open his fridge and compare its current contents with what was in it in the 90s. Or he can look at his paycheck. Or vacation time. Or the feeling of security. Same with democracy — in Russia, one can simply look out the window, and there they are, Russia’s democracy and human rights, out in full force! But if one lives in a G7 country, how can you look into a Russian’s fridge? How can you look out a Russian’s window? Well, probably a million of G7 countries’ citizens have visited Putin’s Russia by now. Tens of thousands have stayed long enough to form an educated opinion of what it feels like to live in Putin’s Russia. But that is such a drop in the bucket compared to the entire population!

You can figure out what it says about the state of Western journalism by yourself. (If not, continue reading Fedia’s post).

The Economist has also joined the party with this graph of leaders’ approval ratings. Putin, quite literally, stands head and shoulders above the rest. (Note how those who preach to Russia the most about democracy tend to put up less than impressive performances).

But one shouldn’t expect too much from the Economist, who attribute this to ‘beating the nationalist drum’ (I suppose Russians don’t give that much of a damn about 10-15% annual real increases in salaries). Nor from their contributors (I give a few succulent quotations):

Putin’s popularity can be partially attributed to the fact that he has closed down, taken over, and otherwise muzzled the media in Russia and that some of his most vocal critics have been silenced in the most permanent and brutal of ways. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya serves as a warning to any who dare to criticize Putins policies and chills all substantive debate on what is best for the Russian people.vfisher. Love this – just the right blend of ignorance and self-righteousness, of truthiness. A true Westerner.

In fact Putin’s popularity will last as long as crude oil stay high. In reality most of the Russians live at a very low standard compared to developed countries and even countries like Poland, Greece etc. But combination of oil money ingections though social payouts and massive propaganda makes Russians feel happy. Believe these Russians that can think independently are not fan of Putin and his totalitarian state.Olexiy, Kiev. A Ukrainian talking to Russians about prosperity. Rolls eyes.

Rather than rqnking leaders by popularity (usually ephemeral, often suspect), why not rank them by policies and performance in dealing with their countries’ problems. Harder work, longer term, but surely much more worthwhile. After all, Hitler was pretty popular in Germany until he lost the war.Plein d’Espoir. At least they’re very reliable at proving Godwin’s Law.

Have you considered for a moment that most Russians would be afraid to say they didn’t like Putin? I’m sure Hu Jintao also has wonderful approval ratings too.cdicanio. Brilliant. Now we’re being compared to China.

Sometimes I wonder why they bother. Why don’t they just cut the crap and say it straight – Russians are seduced by Putin’s smile because they don’t share western values.


Finally, other news in brief.

Armenia’s capital Yerevan has seen protests again alleged rigging of the elections, which Western observers said was generally free and fair. Eight people were killed and martial law was imposed. I don’t have any detailed knowledge about the finer nuances of Armenian politics, so I’ll let this pass.

The Economist has released an interesting map showing places where Internet content is blocked. Note how Russia is the freest country in the world, at least by this measure.

Russia’s population down 0.17% in 2007 to 142 mln – another nail in the coffin for the Myth of Russia’s Demographic Meltdown. Not that population decline is in itself disastrous (what matters for prosperity is the dependency ratio, for which Russia’s future projections are no worse than that of the G7); but it seems that population decline itself is nearing an end as birth rates rise and death rates fall. I would like to point out that I was almost completely right when in one of my first articles, Reading Russia Right, I said ‘totaling up the figures would give a rate of population increase in 2007 in Russia of around -0.15%’.

On the military front, the US expresses concern about growing Russian military spending. Let them; I don’t care much. This is a natural response to the underspending in the 1990′s, when the military-industrial complex languished (although they did not stop R&D); even today most military modernization goes towards upgrading older systems (e.g. extending service life for ICBM’s) rather than new purchases. On the topic of military spending, the US is still the world’s top leader by far, spending 712bn $ in 2007; nonetheless, it should be mentioned that official figures understate Russian (and Chinese) military spending due to a) purchasing power parity differences, b) accounting tricks and c) some of it being structural.

In related news, Russia has launched its first nuclear submarine since Soviet times, the Yuri Dolgoruky – two more are currently under construction, and a dozen are planned to be commissioned within the decade. Since the US is steadily building up its ABM capabilities at Fort Greely (Alaska), Vandenburg (California) and now Poland (as is likely), it would make sense for Russia to concentrate more efforts on the submarine part of its nuclear triad (as land-based ICBM’s are more vulnerable to being successfully shot down by ABM) and eventually its bomber force (on the subject of which, Russia is developing a new stealth bomber, possibly a resurrection of the Soviet Ayaks project).

Russia has agreed to write off 91% of Iraq’s 13bn $ Soviet era debt, no doubt in return for Lukoil salvaging its Qurna deal. Russia’s telecoms industry is also acquiring a global presence – AFK Sistema set to become pan-Indian mobile operator, a market with the potential for massive growth in the immediate years ahead.


Not related directly to Russia, but an interesting development – Chavez orders ten army brigades to the Colombian border in response to a Columbian strike against FARC within Ecuadorian national boundaries, which killed Paul Reyes, one of its main leaders. Ecuador and Venezuela also terminated diplomatic relations with Colombia.

Now this is still, for all Chavez’ rhetoric, unlike to escalate to all-out war – after all, Columbia doesn’t want it, while Venezuela must consider the American response, not to mention its own chances. Nonetheless, I’ve looked at the stats for these countries and this is what I found:

Columbia vs Venezuela, Ecuador, FARC

Armed forces: 207,000 (145,000 excluding non-combatant support personnel) vs 87,500 (+recent 100,000 militia) / 59,500 / 11,000 = 158,000. Columbia will have the numerical advantage, at least in properly trained personnel; however, assuming Ecuador joins in, they’ll have to fight on three fronts. Both Columbia and Venezuela have undergone intensive military modernization the last few years.

Tanks: none vs. 86 outdated MBT’s, 154 outdated Venezuelan light tanks and 140 very outdated Ecuadorian light tanks. Personnel carriers on both sides obsolete. While Venezuela leads, its armored advantage is irrelevant. This is because tanks are unsuited for jungle warfare. Granted, Venezuelan wargames demonstrate that their most likely avenue of attack would coincide with conventional armored thrusts into the La Guajira peninsula, which is flat – however, this is negated by RPG’s and the large amount of Colombian fortifications there. At most it will be a diversion.

Air: 30 vs 76 fighters; mostly outdated mishmash with 90 Black Hawks vs. mostly mishmash, but with 14 modern Su-30MK2′s (with 10 more to be comissioned this year) and 10 operational F-16′s, so Venezuela will possess air superiority – its ace. Unless the US decides to get seriously involved.

Naval: 3 destroyers/12 frigates/4 subs vs. 6 frigates/2 subs, 2 frigates/6 corvettes/2 subs. There isn’t sufficient naval strength on either side to effect a blockade – at least for now. (In June 2007 Chavez confirmed he intends to procure five modern Russian Kilo-class 636 subs). Hmmm…if I were Chavez I’d also try to obtain Moskit anti-ship missiles as soon as possible to deter the US from becoming involved, taking a cue from Iran.

Population, GDP: 44mn, 264bn $ vs. 28mn, 263bn $, 14mn, 62bn $.

Venezuela and Columbia have similar levels of socio-economic development, although Venezuela has oil – which pushes its GDP levels up to Colombia’s level, which has a larger population.

Colombia’s army has little heavy equipment, being mostly designed as a counter-guerilla type force; Venezuela’s is more traditional, geared towards winning conventional wars, with extensive recent efforts at military modernization. Venezuela will possess air and probably naval superiority. Assuming no big outside actors become involved – a big if – Venezuela will very probably comprehensively defeat Colombia, especially if Columbia still has to face off FARC and Ecuador on other fronts.

I doubt the US will get overtly involved, at least not unless Colombia begins to lose badly (but not too quickly). Ground invasion, of course, is out of the question – the US does not have the necessary reserves, while projecting air and naval power will take weeks. (Of course, Venezuela can play the oil card, what with today’s very tight supply – cutting out Venezuela would make oil prices sky-rocket).

In conclusion, if the US doesn’t get involved – Venezuela will win. If the US does get involved, Venezuela can still win, but it will have to be quick about it. Otherwise, it will lose its key advantage – air superiority – and will end up with a stalemate at best, albeit with the world in turbulence from 200 $ / barrel oil prices.

Edit: actually found an analytical article on the topic of If Colombia and Venezuela went to war, who’d win? The author is bullish on Colombia; some of the commentators lean more to my way of thinking.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.