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One of the central (I would argue, the central) conundrum of all discussions about Russian elections fraud at the macro-scale is that the major pieces of evidence simply don’t fit together.

On the one hand, you have pre-elections polls that uniformly gave United Russia 50% or more of the vote; in fact, the last Levada and VCIOM polls revealed before the elections gave it 53% and 54%, respectively. The real result was 49.3%. The 0% Club then argued: “Of course fraud must have been minimal, just look at those polls! If anything, United Russia rigged the elections against itself!”

These polls, of course, present big problems not only to the 15% Club – who tend to dismiss them out of hand, or conspiratorially (and implausibly) claim they only give the results the Kremlin orders them to – but to the 5% Club. After all, the polls’ margins of error are only 3% or so, and besides, there are dozens of them – if they consistently give United Russia an average of about 53% and the 5% Club (by definition) believes its honest result should be 44% or so, then that’s a big problem!

Reconciling these contradictions has been neglected, but is highly necessary in a time when questions about the true extent of fraud are becoming burning political issues. I will try to provide a short preliminary hypothesis here.

If you take a look at the detailed breakdown of the polls, you will notice that 25%-30% of respondents consistently say that either they would not participate in the elections or that they did have not decided yet. This implies a turnout of 70%-75% (in terms of answering an opinion poll). However, also note that the real turnout is, in fact, 60% (and more like 55% when adjusted for fraud, if the 5% Club are correct).

Then remind yourself of what the 15% Club are always hollering about: As turnout increases, only United Russia benefits. (Before we get sidetracked by their claims that this must be a result of fraud, however, recall that the 0% Club and the 5% Club both have perfectly innocuous and natural explanations for this pattern: Namely, the “silent majority” that supports United Russia, but is far more politically apathetic than supporters of the opposition. Successfully mobilizing this “silent majority” is the Kremlin’s main challenge, and this has been a constant throughout modern Russian history; recall the 1996 election when Yeltsin was appealing to the Russians to go out and vote to forestall the Communist victory that would have resulted had they remained at home in large numbers. In contrast, a party like the Communists has a hard core of supporters who tend to turn out reliably; thanks to proportional representation, their votes are never “lost” even though the KPRF has no real chance of winning.)

Now participating in a poll is somewhat less bothersome than going out and voting. Besides, many people – when answering questions – may be conforming to the social expectation that elections are a civic duty, whereas in real life nobody is actually watching whether or not they actually fulfill that duty. As a result, real turnout is around 20% points less than turnout as implied by opinion polls.

But those people who would say they’d vote but then not bother doing so are the apathetic ones – the exact electorate that United Russia most appeals to!

Let’s illustrate this with a quick and dirty numbers experiment. Say you take an opinion poll of 1,000 Russian citizens. 250 of them are undecided; 750 reveal a political preference, of which 400 are for United Russia. (This all correlates to your typical VCIOM or FOM poll). 400 of 750 is 53%, i.e. the typical support shown for United Russia in pre-elections polls from October 2011 onwards.

Now, assume that in the real elections, only 550 turn out – some 200 fewer than the 750 who revealed a preference. These 200 were mostly people who are not very interested in politics and passively support United Russia, but not to the extent that they can be bothered sacrificing their Sunday for this elections nonsense. Say 75% of them, that is 150, would have voted for United Russia had the opinion pollster carried the ballot box round to their house, but didn’t. That means that United Russia now has only 250 votes, that is 400 less 150, out of a total of 550, that is 750 less 200. United Russia has 45.5%, quite a lot less than the opinion polls predicted it.

That happens to fall within the 5% Club’s range. The results would be rounded up to 49.3% by stuffing in 50 false ballots, of which 46 would be for United Russia. The official turnout at 60% now also corresponds to real world figures.

These are admittedly very crude, back of the envelope calculations, but I think they do convincingly explain the variation between high opinion poll scores for United Russia (low to mid 50%’s); the official result (49.3%); and the range of reasonable estimates for the fraud-adjusted result (40%-47%). What do you think?

The Case for Compulsory Voting

One final point I would like to make is that, especially given its recent legitimacy problems, the Kremlin would be very wise to legislate compulsory voting. In Australia, where this is implemented, voter turnout is at a constant 95%; by eliminating the big segment of non-voters, the Kremlin achieves at least three major aims:

  • It substantially increases support for United Russia and the Kremlin candidate since many more of its passive supporters will be jolted into voting; none of the opposition parties stand to benefit likewise.
  • It makes fraud a lot more difficult. Stuffing ballots is one thing, redistributing votes between parties is another. I assume that the Kremlin realizes it is in its own interests to be perceived as holding credible elections. Besides, the extra support from passive voters means that stuffing will become even less necessary for getting good results.
  • It can use the change to portray itself as a promoter of civic responsibility.

Whatever one’s views on the concept of compulsory voting from a personal liberties prospective, I think that in Russia at least there is a strong case to be made that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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So you know how the Western commentariat carries on about how Russia Today fawns over the Kremlin and propagates anti-Western propaganda, while shamelessly peddling itself as a paragon of universal truth and uncompromising objectivity? Welcome to the next installment in the never-ending annals of Western media hypocrisy, brought to you courtesy of Dorothée Olliéric, hack zhurnalizdka extraordinaire of state TV station France 2.

On the morning of August 10, at the height of the Great Russian Heatwave, Olliéric contacted Alexandre Latsa, a Moscow-based French blogger*, through Facebook. “I’m in Moscow again for a few days,” she said, “I’m looking to interview someone on the failure of the Putin system in this crisis, if possible a blogger who goes to the real news away from Russian state TV, etc”. After a few hours, in response to Latsa’s queries, she clarified that the interview’s purpose would be to link the news on the wildfires and deaths to “explain the failure of Putin’s system” and on how to get access to information in a country where the state “says nothing, hides everything”. She concluded by asking Latsa if he or a Russian friend could participate in an interview.

In the late evening, she asked Latsa if he had received her message and asked him if he could do an interview the next morning on the subject of “bloggers who are looking for true information to report on the crisis and on the failures of the Putin system”. After failing to get a response after a little more than an hour, a seemingly flustered Olliéric wrote, “Well then Alexandre, no longer responding to France 2???”

You can find Latsa’s answer to Olliéric in French, Russian and English at his post France2 – Франс 2 и Я… In my view, this fictionalized response from Olliéric, written by one of the commentators, just about sums it all up: “I’m too lazy and incompetent to do my dirty work myself, so I’m looking for someone who is silly enough to do my dirty work for me and lowly enough to distort the facts to please my editor… If I fail to cook the story his boss wants, I’ll fail to sell it to my editor. And if my stories fail to sell with my editor at France 2, I’ll be outta my job faster than you can say independent western media“.

In the event, the presenter Olliéric had to do most of the cooking herself. On the next day, the day that Latsa’s interview may have been, she was “semi-obsessively repeating the assertion that Putin’s system failed” and (falsely) claiming that the Kremlin wasn’t accepting international aid.**

As I noted in my own post on Russia’s torrid summer, the main reason for the savage wildfires was the unprecedented magnitude of the heatwave, which may have been the most severe to hit Central Eastern Europe in 15,000 years! Barring findings to the contrary by objective researchers – as opposed to the hack journalism purveyed by Dorothée Olliéric or Julia Ioffe (who even found a way to blame the poor Mongols!) – it is not unreasonable to posit that, in general, the Russian state made the best it could out of a bad situation.

Yes, I know. There were many cases of of unresponsive authorities, of information censorship, of outright corruption in saving the homes of rich dacha owners before state property. But consider this from another angle. Why did more than three times fewer Russians die of wildfires than did Australians in their (milder) Black Saturday bushfires last year?

Ultimately, even most Russians themselves – the people, you know, who actually had to live with the wildfires – would disagree with the stories peddled by the Western media about them. The two most attributed causes of the wildfires, according to an opinion poll by Levada, were the unprecedented severity of the heatwave and the Soviet-era policies of draining the peat bogs. And, contrary to the many proclamations floating about last month that the regime’s popularity was crumbling in the heat, the latest approval ratings indicate that the wildfires made nary a dent in the tandem’s political fortunes.

* And latter-day Walter Duranty, if Ukrainian nationalists are to be believed. ;)

** For more on the rigorous standards of French coverage of Russia’s wildfires, see also Le Figaro et la Russie… ou comment des grévistes de la faim sont choisis pour illustrer la canicule.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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This post is a meta-commentary on media coverage of Russia’s drought and wildfires. Now make no mistake, I admire the yeoman work of some journalists in covering Russia burning: no doubt a few will even make their way into the classical cannon such as The Saga of the Burned Foot (Miriam Elder) or The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich (A Good Treaty). :) But in my opinion, they almost all fail to consider the key facts that render their Kremlin criticism moot and fail to grasp the “big picture”: the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010 as a mere herald of things to come.

In summary: 1) There is nothing the Russian government could have done to contain a natural disaster of such magnitude, 2) many of the lectures about how Russia could have done better to prepare itself would have been counter-productive had they actually been implemented, 3) the hysteria about Moscow turning into a giant morgue from heat stress and smog or radioactive ash clouds is overblown, and 4) the real problem, or rather predicament, is global warming, the effects of which are expected to transform Russia’s heartlands into Central Asia within the next few decades.

Unprecedented Drought, Reductio ad Putinum

I’m going to be using Julia Ioffe as a foil in this section (not because I hate her but because I’ve actually read her articles). In her August 5th shock piece, Russia on Fire, she writes:

A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out.

So assume that the Kremlin had listened to forestry expert Ioffe, and restarted the Soviet practice of forest fire suppression whenever they sprang up. That would have solved the problem, right? No. It would have made it a lot worse.

Left alone, forests experience small, contained fires every few years, which clear out excess undergrowth, replenish the soil and maintain the resilience of the forest ecosystem. But as soon as you start playing Canute to the woodlands, layers of dead biomass accumulate on the forest bed. Eventually, it reaches such a critical mass that the next heatwave is bound to create a conflagration, made catastrophic of the interventionist’s own hubris.

But that too would inevitable have been the Kremlin’s fault, according to the Gospel of Julia. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. In her discourse, the main things are personalities, Tsar-Batyushka, the Tatar-Mongol yoke… As Mark Chapman remarked on AGT’s blog:

If Russia’s leaders stay remote and aloof from their subjects, they’re cold and indifferent. If they make any attempt, even one that looks suspiciously scripted, to connect, they’re Janus-faced Tsars.

Now I’m not denying the possibility that the current fire suppression efforts have been riddled with corruption and incompetence. Time will tell. But consider this from another angle. This drought is unprecedented in its severity for at least the last 140 years, if not the last 500! Some much needed facts and figures (as opposed to anecdotes) from Jeff Masters:

At 3:30 pm local time today, the mercury hit 39°C (102.2°F) at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Moscow had never recorded a temperature exceeding 100°F prior to this year, and today marks the second time the city has beaten the 100°F mark. The first time was on July 29, when the Moscow observatory recorded 100.8°C and Baltschug, another official downtown Moscow weather site, hit an astonishing 102.2°F (39.0°C). Prior to this year, the hottest temperature in Moscow’s history was 37.2°C (99°F), set in August 1920. The Moscow Observatory has now matched or exceeded this 1920 all-time record five times in the past eleven days, including today. The 2010 average July temperature in Moscow was 7.8°C (14°F) above normal, smashing the previous record for hottest July, set in 1938 (5.3°C above normal.) J uly 2010 also set the record for most July days in excess of 30°C–twenty-two. The previous record was 13 such days, set in July 1972. The past 24 days in a row have exceeded 30°C in Moscow, and there is no relief in sight–the latest forecast for Moscow calls for high temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) for the next seven days. …

Dr. Rob Carver has done a detailed analysis of the remarkable Russian heat wave in his latest post, The Great Russian Heat Wave of July 2010. A persistent jet stream pattern has set up over Europe, thanks to a phenomena known as blocking. A ridge of high pressure has remained anchored over Russia, and the hot and dry conditions have created helped intensify this ridge in a positive feedback loop. As a result, soil moisture in some portions of European Russia has dropped to levels one would expect only once every 500 years.

Furthermore, consider the vast territorial extent of Eurasia’s drought.

[Russia blanketed by forest fire smoke. Source: NASA.]

In retrospect, the current death toll from the fires, at 50, might well be remarkably low, considering the extreme circumstances (compare with 173 deaths in the Black Saturday bushfires last year in Australia, a country Russia’s critics would all consider “civilized” and developed).

But what do I know? According to Julia Ioffe and Foreign Policy, forest fires only happen in countries with non-liberal Presidents.

Moscow Morgues & Radioactive Ash Clouds

Two rather hysterical stories doing the rounds. Make no mistake: premature deaths from heat stress are tragic. Moscow’s mortality rate rose by 29.7% in July 2009, relative to the same period last year. August might be even worse if the searing temperatures continue into next week. The morgues are overflowing, with the numbers of daily deaths multiplying by 2-7x over normal in recent days (the sources differ).

But this does happen when record-breaking heat waves strike, anywhere. I was unfortunate enough to be in Paris during the 2003 heatwave, when temperates hit 40C and more. It was a torrid hell of heat and concrete: I remember taking several cold showers per day and avoiding sun-drenched spaces like a vampire. But I had it good. People with pre-existing medical conditions were dying early. The French capital observed a 142% mortality increase in August 2003, with deaths spiking to 2-8x their normal levels during the week of the heat wave.

[Number of deaths in Paris during August 2003 heatwave.]

But at least Parisians are more used to hot summers and didn’t have to contend with the smoke. Neither can be said for Muscovites. So a high number of excess deaths – estimated to reach 40,000 by Jeff Masters – is regrettable, but to be expected.

[The 2003 European Heatwave and the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 compared.]

What about the fires releasing radioactive ashclouds from the areas around Chernobyl? Pure hysteria. Even if the inferno spread there, the radioactive particles released in 1986 have long since become diluted in the environment. Rinse and repeat if taken on an airborne ride by the fires a second time.

The Real Meaning of the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010

Most commentators prefer to spend their time discussing Putin’s ownage of the Sovok citizen blogger or the destruction of the naval aviation storage base that spawned a firestorm of blame and recriminations. It certainly doesn’t shed a good light into the nefarious workings of the Russian bureaucracy (few things do), but guys, this is largely irrelevant. What’s really significant is that this once-in-a-century (or is now once-in-a-millennium?) drought is a symptom of global warming, a few more degrees of which will transform the Russian heartlands into Central Asia.

So here are the really important things:

1. The collapse of Russia’s grain production, estimated to fall from 100mn tons in 2009 to just 65mn tons this year. This is huge. It reverses practically all the agricultural revival (in volume output) achieved in the past few years, bringing Russia back (maybe even below) its post-Soviet agricultural nadir. Furthermore, the depression may continue for another two years, if the earth is baked too hard for sowing the winter crop: a nation accounting for 25% of the world’s wheat exports will be out of business for two years. Coupled with agricultural decline in other countries (e.g. floods in China to reduce its rice crop by 5-7% this year) and rising food protectionism, social welfare in poor food importers like Egypt and Pakistan will plummet. The conditions aren’t in place for a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, but this does confirm that our age is now one of increasing scarcity.

2. This year is unprecedented everywhere: it is the hottest July on record (and the hottest year on record). Thermometers have been snapping left, right and center as new temperature records are set from Belarus to Sudan. The Arctic has given up the ghost, with sea ice volume plummeting into oblivion.

["Daily Sea Ice volume anomalies for each day are computed relative to the 1979 to 2009 average for that day. The trend for the 1979- present period is shown in blue. Shaded areas show one and two standard deviations from the trend."]

This is despite the fact that we are at a periodic, deep minimum in solar irradiance. One can only imagine the kind of havoc we’ll see in 2012-15 as it bounces back to its maximum.

And that’s not all the bad news. The Russian fires will have burned an unholy amount of biomass, which is even now making its way into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Historically, heatwave years are associated with above-average increases in atmospheric CO2 as the carbon cycle reverses direction. It is not impossible that 2010 will be the first year in which atmospheric CO2 increases by more than 3ppm (the previous record was 2.93ppm in 1998, a scorcher year that saw massive peat bog fires in Borneo).

The general agricultural and climate crisis is the context in which Russia’s wildfires must be framed.

3. The extent to which Russia benefits from global warming surely ought to be reassessed. Most climate models predicted a moderate increase in agricultural output on the cold Eurasian steppes with up to 2C of warming, making up for declining yields in the mid-latitudes and tropics. These assumptions might have to be reassessed if Russia’s Black Earth metamorphoses into a Dust Bowl. Though mass migration to the Arctic is a possible (and probably inevitable in the long-term) adaptation, it needs generations to be effected.

The preparations have to begin now. The sooner Putin and Medvedev realize this, the more favorably history will judge them; minor things will be forgotten. (I intend to write a post on Russia’s future as an Arctic civilization sometime in the next few weeks).

Russia is unlikely to ever have problems feeding itself, as long as its agricultural policies remain more or less sane. Nonetheless, its massive drought (which may become the norm rather than the exception sooner rather later) and grain export ban indicate it’s unwise to rely on it to bring big food surpluses to the global dinner table in the next few decades.

UPDATE, August 10: So it really is not just a one in a hundred years but a once in a thousand years event: Russian Meteorological Center: There was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.

(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.