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I have managed to find 3 polls querying people on their attitudes towards radical life extension. By far the most comprehensive one is PEW’s August 2013 Living to 120 and Beyond project. The other two are a poll of CARP members, a Canadian pro-elderly advocacy group, and by Russia’s Levada Center. While PEW and Levada polled a representative sample of their respective populations, the average age of the CARP respondents was about 70 years.

On the surface, public opinion is not supportive of life extension. 38% of Americans want to live decades longer, to at least 120, while 56% are opposed; 51% think that radical life extension will be a bad thing for society. Only 19% of CARP responents would like to take advantage of these treatments, and 55% think they are bad for society. Though a somewhat higher percentage of Russians, at 32%, want to live either “several times longer” or “be immortal” – as opposed to 64% who only want to live a natural lifespan – their question is phrased more positively, noting that “youth and health” would be preserved under such a scenario.

For now, these figures are a curiosity. But should radical life extension cease being largely speculative and move into the realm of practical plausibility – Aubrey de Grey predicts it will happen as soon as middle-aged mice are rejuvenated so as to extent their lifespans by a few factors – public opinion will start playing a vital role. It would be exceedingly frustrating – literally lethal, even – should the first promising waves of life extension break upon the rocks of politicians pandering to the peanut gallery. This is a real danger in a democracy.

Still, there are three or four strong arguments for optimism in those same polls:

First, while people may not want to live much longer themselves, their pro-death sentiment isn’t as strong towards relatives; 44% of Russians want their family members to live factors longer, versus only 32% for themselves. Americans and Canadians both assume that while they might not want radical life extension for themselves, the majority of their countrymen would. And there is widespread support for research. 63% of Americans agree that “medical advances that prolong life are generally good”; there is no identifiable line that separates those advances from radical life extension itself. 45% of Russians would support a social movement advocating for radical life extension, whereas only 33% wouldn’t.

Second, the younger demographics appear to be more supportive of radical life extension. While 48% of American 18-29 year olds think treatments to extend life by decades would be a good thing for society, the sentiment is shared by only 31% of 65+ year olds. Though the gap in personal preferences for radical life extension is much lower – 40% for 18-29 year olds versus 31% for 65+ year olds – this could partially be a reflection of young people in their 20′s thinking that they are virtually immortal anyway. This is of relevance because by the time we can feasibly approach actuarial escape velocity, the vast majority of present day 65+ year olds will likely be already dead. So their fatalism, you can say, is not an irrational sentiment. (Unless they make arrangements for cryopreservation, but this is a digression).

Third, it appears that a significant chunk of the opposition is motivated by mistaken ideas of what radical life extension is about. To be honest, I’m not a fan of the term. It gives some the impression that they’d continue aging indefinitely, slowly becoming a withered, creaking husk of their former selves. Like in those countless tales and fables where an immortality wish is granted, only for its recipient to become a ghost, or a crazy evil old man, or a metal statue. The reality is that radical life extension, in practice, means rejuvenation, or at least “freezing” the patient at one specific age. Ironically, eking out a few more years of substandard life is what the bulk of modern medical research is about. Medical research that the vast majority of people everywhere approve of. Radical life extension research, to the contrary, is mostly about identifying the aging processes, actively repairing the damage, and eventually mitigating them through genomic interventions. This is a very important distinction that was only made in the Russian poll. In contrast, one of the big two worries of elderly Canadians – apart from resource shortages and overcrowding – was that they would outlive their savings of human life was to be radically extended. This entire point is moot because if and when we pass the actuarial event horizon, the human clock will start ticking backwards and there would no longer be any need for pensions.

Finally, Americans who heart a lot or a little about radical life extension were more likely, at 45%, to say they would undergo such treatments than were people who hadn’t heard anything about it, at 32%. However, this point is weaker than the others, because presumably people who have at some point idly wondered if they could live forever would have been more likely to go Googling and stumbled across all that SENS and H+ stuff in the first place.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Editorial note: This article was first published at Arctic Progress in February 2011. In the next few weeks I will be reposting the best material from there.

The Arctic to become a pole of global economic growth? Image credit – Scenic Reflections.

Behold! Far north along the shores of the Arctic a quiver of upspringing settlements fringes the coast. Boats swarm around canning factories, smoke flutters above smelters, herds of reindeer dot the prairies… And here or there, on every street-corner, glimmer out the lights of theaters where moving-pictures entertain white people through the sunless weeks of the midwinter dancing-time, the singing-time, the laughing-time of Eskimo Land.

- Northward ho!: An account of the far North and its people.

In 2003, Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill wrote the now famous paper Dreaming with BRIC’s, predicting that Brazil, Russia, India and China would overtake the developed G8 nations within a few decades and make astounding returns for faithful investors. The BRIC’s concept entered the conventional wisdom, spawning a host of related acronyms (BASIC, BRICSA, etc) – and if anything, realizing its promise well ahead of schedule. Last year, China’s real GDP possibly overtook America’s, and Russia’s approached Germany’s.

Yet for all their successes, the BRIC’s may not fulfill their expected roles as the stars of the global economy in the 21st century. The level of education is horrid in Brazil and atrocious in India; without the requisite human capital, these two countries will find it difficult to rapidly “converge” to developed world standards. China is much better off in this respect, but its high growth trajectory may in turn be disturbed by energy shortages and environmental degradation. China produces half the world’s coal, which is patently unsustainable given its limited reserves. But since coal accounts for 75% of China’s primary energy consumption and fuels the factories that keep its workforce employed, there is little it can do to mitigate this dependence. Meanwhile, China’s overpopulation, pollution and climate change predicament is so well known as to not require elaboration. Many other countries flirting around the edges of BRIC status – Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam, etc. – face serious challenges in the form of low human capital, uncertain energy and food supplies and a rising incidence of AGW-induced droughts, floods and heatwaves.

There is one global region that may hold the key to resolving these intertwined problems – and even to become a major pole of global growth in its own right. For the most part, it is now an empty wilderness, but climate change is opening it up as potential living space. Its exploitation has the potential to halve the length of global freight transport routes while increasing their security, uncover sizable to gigantic new sources of hydrocarbons and minerals, and stabilize global food prices through the expansion of arable land. Its experience of management and conflict resolution may inspire a global model of cooperation – or it may degenerate into an economic, legal, or even military battlefield over shipping routes and sub-sea resources.

This global region is the Arctic Rim, and its adjoining ARCS: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia. The ARCS of Progress in the 21st century.

Arctic sea ice extent on September 1, 2010 – both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage are clearly open. Image credit – The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.

From North Pole to Growth Pole

The core reasons behind the Arctic Rim’s bright prospects are global macro-trends: climate change; peak oil and resource nationalism; overpopulation in the South. These “push” and “pull” factors will induce a decades-long Arctic boom, starting with shipping, energy and mining, and culminating in a fundamental northwards shift of the center of the world economy. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Breaking Ice For Shipping

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a northwest passage to the sea.

- Northwest Passage song, Stan Rogers, 1981.

Typically, the cryosphere – the frozen part of the world – remains stable, because its snow and ice reflect much of the Sun’s heat, thus cooling itself. This process is called the ice-albedo feedback.

However, when the high-albedo ice melts, it leaves behind darker-hued earth, flora or sea that absorb far more heat. Local air temperatures soar and inhibit the reformation of the ice during cold seasons. From working to keep the system stable, beyond a critical threshold the ice-albedo feedback begins to reinforce a runaway dynamic of melting and warming.

The ice-albedo feedback largely explains why the Arctic is warming about twice faster than in the world as a whole.

In summer 2007, Arctic sea ice extent fell 38% below average since records began – an area the size of six Californias. The next year saw both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route clear of ice for a short period in late summer. As of December 2010, sea ice extent was the lowest for the month on satellite record, even surpassing the 2007 melt.

While the relentless fall in sea ice extent over the past three decades is remarkable enough, what’s stunning is the 55% decline in summer sea ice volume. Once the thick, multi-year ice is gone, then it’s really gone – the low albedo of the ocean water will raise local temperatures, preventing all but a thin film of sea ice from reforming during the cold winters. It is thus a near certainty that Arctic sea ice is already deep in its death spiral.

Inland, earlier snowmelts enable the ground to absorb more heat, while dark-hued shrubs and boreal forests encroach on the tundra.

Many of the effects will be negative. The polar bears will probably go extinct, either drowning for lack of sea ice, or starving, or migrating south and merging with their grizzly cousins. Invasive species from the south will drive out Arctic flora and fauna off the top of the world. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks.

But the new Arctic merchants will be making a killing.

Shipping routes during ice-free Arctic summer . Image credit – Laurence C. Smith.

In 2010, the Baltica became the first high-tonnage tanker to sail with petroleum products by the Northern Sea Route, steaming from Murmansk to China. This was followed by the voyage of the MV Nordic Barents, the the first vessel to sail from one non-Russian port to another through the Arctic, cutting 5,000km off the traditional Suez route. It carried 41,000 tons of iron ore from Kirkenes, Norway to feed the steel mills of China. One upping them all, the year ended with the first round-trip voyage without icebreaker assistance via the Northern Sea Route. The Norilsk Nickel-owned ship Monchegorsk carried the metal from the north Siberian port of Dudinka to Shanghai, taking just 41 days of steaming (the Suez route would have lasted as long as four months).

The opening of the Northern Sea Route and rising demand for metals and petroleum products from China and other emerging markets is set to continue spurring the development of Arctic shipping. In January 2011, a Sovcomflot executive said the Russian shipping company has already received 15 requests for icebreaker assistance in the Arctic for this year, compared to just four in 2010*. The governor of Murmansk, Dmitry Dmitriyenko, predicts that cargo transport through the Northern Sea Route will increase tenfold by 2020. This expansion will be sustained with private investment funding: both Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk are to be partially privatized in the coming years.

Similar trends are in play with the opening of the Northwest Passage across Canada. It has been conquered by cruise ship in 2006 and the commercial ship MV Camilla Desgagnés in 2008. Exploitation of the Northwest Passage will likely go slower than of its north Eurasian counterpart, because of lower demand and the (relative) underdevelopment of Canada’s icebreaker fleet. But there is still a wealth of opportunities there.

Black Gold or Fool’s Gold at the Top of the World?

Use it or lose it is the first principle of Arctic sovereignty.

- Speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, 2007.

Our first and main task is to turn the Arctic into a resource base for Russia in the 21st century.

- Speech by Russian President Medvedev in September 2008.

Global oil production has now either peaked or is close to peaking, and will now either continue on its present “undulating plateau” – or begin to decline at an accelerating pace. The specifics are intensely argued over and the debate is far too extensive to detail here. But suffice to say, the “cornucopian” position that technological ingenuity and market forces will always conjure more and more resources out of a finite planet is untenable.

Any number of factors – global production exceeding new discoveries since the mid-1980′s; the world’s inability to significantly ramp up oil production despite soaring prices for the commodity; the rising costs of oil production due to the falling EROEI of the remaining oil sources; massively inflated reserves numbers from OPEC members; growing resource nationalism – militate against a business-as-usual future of increasing production in the oil industry.

These mounting challenges are the reason the big oil majors are pushing into the deepwater drilling that produced the Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and partnering with Russian state oil companies to develop offshore gas deposits in the Kara Sea, and sinking millions of US dollars on prospecting off Greenland despite no returns to date. They need to maintain their reserves numbers to prevent their stocks from tanking – but to do so, the oil majors are forced into taking escalating financial, environmental and political risks.

The Arctic’s natural resources. Image credit – Global Research.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic may hold as much as 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil (90 billion barrels) and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas. Unsurprisingly, the Arctic is rapidly becoming central to oil exploration. That said, capitalizing on these resources – even assuming they are as big as estimated above – will be exceptionally difficult. For a start, some 84% of these sources are likely to be offshore. Second, according to more recent USGS calculations, developing them will be prohibitively expensive: “Assuming production costs of up to $100 per barrel, only 2.5 billion barrels of oil could be lifted… and only with a 50% probability.” For perspective, an average oil price of $92 per barrel broke the world economy in 2008.

Talk of the Arctic becoming the next Saudi Arabia is unrealistic. Its oil reserves are smaller, more dispersed, more remote, of worse quality, and far more challenging to exploit. But this isn’t to say that its black gold is fool’s gold. Technological progress on Arctic drilling, as well as a lack of better options elsewhere, will draw Western oil majors and National Oil Companies north.

The Arctic isn’t only of interest to shippers and oilmen. Confronted with inexorable rises in demand from China, the global mining industry is rushing to add metals and minerals production capacity wherever they can. Just to take a few Arctic examples, there are plans to start or expand iron ore production on Canada’s Baffin Island, Norway’s Kirkenes and the Kola Peninsula. Coal production is resuming at Svalbard. Just in case the whole oil thing doesn’t work out, Greenland is looking to exploit its potentially vast mineral resources. The Coeur d`Alene Mines Corporation recently opened a gold mine near Juneau, Alaska ahead of schedule. Though volumes remain small, this will change as depletion becomes as evident for minerals as it is now for oil.

Towards an Arctic Civilization?

… Before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

- James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis.

Beginning with the shipping and energy industries, the influence of the Arctic will eventually come to encompass the entire world. Assuming that efforts to quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions are unsuccessful, and that geoengineering is either not attempted or doesn’t work, then many of the middle regions will become too hot and dry for sustained agriculture (and maybe human survival), and masses of climate refugees will try to migrate north. The center of global economic growth, politics, and perhaps – in the far future – population, will come to rest within the Arctic Circle.

The North Pole may become the spatial center of the world. Image source – Trausti Valsson.

This process will likely be accompanied by mass upheavals, societal collapses, famines, border conflicts, maybe even bigger wars. But as usual misery contains the seeds of opportunity. It is not impossible that the farsighted individuals who are now buying up Hudson Bay territories or Siberian riverside lands are positioning themselves or their heirs for lordships and kingdoms in 2200.

But let’s focus on just the next three decades. The opening of the Arctic by various “push” factors (overpopulation, global warming) and “pull” factors (shipping routes, resources) will create demand for infrastructure, housing, associated services, etc. Buying up strategic lands, routes and infrastructure in the Arctic region offers one of the best, and most overlooked, rates of return in the world today. Take inspiration from OmniTRAX, a Colorado-based company that bought the derelict Port of Churchill and its railway from the Manitoba government for a bargain basement price of $10 in 1998. Now that Hudson Bay has become clear of sea ice during the summer, these assets are receiving tens of millions of dollars of investment from the Canadian government.

How can you benefit from the coming Arctic boom? In the coming years, Russia is going to partially privatize lucrative state assets, such as shipping company Sovcomflot and the Port of Murmansk (which handles 60% of shipping across the Northern Sea Route). New ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, dams, oil and gas fields, aluminium smelters, LNG plants, etc. are springing up over the entire region.

Enter the ARCS of Progress: Why Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia are Positioned to Dominate the Polar-Centric World

Идут на Север срока огромные,
Кого ни спросишь – у всех указ…
Взгляни, взгляни
В глаза мои суровые,
Взгляни, быть может, в последний раз.

- Soviet GULAG song, 1947.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

- National Anthem of Canada.

Watching the economic news these days is a sure path route to depression. Anywhere you seem to look in the developed world there are awning budget deficits, soaring debts, depressed output, and stagnation. We’ve established that putting your money into the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) isn’t such a good idea. But the US is the “safe haven,” right? Unfortunately, its fiscal sustainability indicators are actually worse than the PIGS average. In 2009, the US got $0.6 in tax revenue for every $1 of outlays, or a receipt-to-outlay ratio of 0.6; the equivalent ratio for the PIGS was 0.78. Maybe Japan? With a 0.52 receipt-to-outlay ratio, it makes the US look like a paragon of fiscal discipline.

But within all that mess there’s a few, sparkling gems. Not only are they at the heart of the opening Arctic, but they are all excellent investment destinations on their own merits. They are the ARCS countries: Alaska, Russia, Canada, and Scandinavia.

Alaska

In contrast to the rest of the US, Alaska was barely dented by the economic crisis, its GDP declining by just 0.3% in 2009 and recovering 0.6% in 2010. Employment is lower than the US average. While states like California and Illinois flirt with state bankruptcy, Alaska has accumulated $40 billion in its Permanent Fund. Finally, it is – along with Greenland – the most demographically vigorous of the Arctic states, with a total fertility rate of 2.32 children per woman in 2006. It won’t be afflicted by the First World’s looming aging crises any time soon. Alaska is well set to fulfill its motto: “North to the Future!”

Russia

Though the poorest of the ARCS, Russia is also its fastest growing one, with 5% annual GDP growth during 2001-2010. Its high level of human capital (around 70% of Russians continue to higher education, a First World rate), vast resource wealth and decent macroeconomic management set it on a promising path to convergence with developed countries.

Additionally, Russia has a predominant population, economic and military presence in the Arctic. The Murmansk region by itself has more people than all of Alaska, while the Russian Northern Fleet is by far the strongest Arctic force. State policy is to transform the Arctic into Russia’s “strategic resource base” within the next decade.

Criticisms of Russia’s prospects typically center on allusions to its “Zaire with permafrost”-like corruption levels, plummeting population, crumbling infrastructure, “legal nihilism” and Putinist authoritarianism. While each of these has a grain of truth, taking them as gospel fundamentally misrepresents the country. For a start, if Russia really was more corrupt than Nigeria or Zimbabwe – as implied by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – then it would still be deep in debt as in the late 1990′s, and its $480 billion foreign currency reserves would be in Cayman Islands accounts instead of the Central Bank’s vaults.

What about Russia’s demographic “death spiral”? A quick glance at Rosstat will show that its population grew in 2009, and that its total fertility rate, at 1.6 children per woman, is now higher than the European average.

One can spend pages upon pages unraveling the double standards, misrepresentations and outright lies which the Western media and political class use to attack Russia. But if you’re unconvinced, and refuse to buy into Russia’s undervalued market on principle, it’s your loss.

As t he professional Russia investor Eric Kraus wrote in Business Week in July 2010, “Russian markets are fashion victims, and are currently both unfashionable and cheap. You can own them now, or wait and buy the next time they surge back into vogue. And I will be selling out just about then.” I’d trust him – that’s exactly what he did in 2008!

Canada

Canada combines the American spirit of free enterprise, with a greater safety net and social mobility. It is also on far better fiscal footing. In 2010, its cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit was -2.7% of GDP (US: -7.0%), and its net debt was 32.7% of GDP (US: 65.2%; Japan: 104.6%). Possessing huge energy, mineral and freshwater reserves, as well as a well-educated and growing population, it is surely one of the better investment bets in the developed world.

Scandinavia (and Nordic)

The Nordic region is one of the richest, most educated and socially cohesive on Earth, frequently coming at or near the top in any global index of freedom, social mobility, environmental sustainability, and technological modernity.

In 2010, Sweden’s GDP grew the fastest in Europe at a blistering 5.2%, while maintaining a balanced budget throughout the crisis. Norway’s fortunes are far more directly tied to its oil industry, but peak oil, excellent state management of reserves and a low population make for bright prospects. Norway is the second richest European country after the banking center of Luxembourg.

Even apparent basketcases like Iceland may be a good investment to buy up on the cheap. While its international banking career might be over, it still has massive freshwater and geothermal energy reserves, that make it an attractive center for energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelters.

Finally, contrary to right-wing depictions of social democracies as retirement homes full of effete, aging liberals, all the Nordic states have fertility rates that preclude major aging crises (they range from 1.8 children per woman in Finland to 2.2 in Greenland).

The Arctic when all the ice melts.

From an Ultimate Dim Thule…

By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.

- Dreamland by Edgar Allen Poe.

Even in our day, science suspects beyond the Polar seas, at the very circle of the Arctic Pole, the existence of a sea which never freezes and a continent which is ever green.

- The mystic H. P. Blavatsky.

Before the rise of the world economy, spatial perspectives were local, at most extending to the boundaries of their cultural sphere or world-empire: The Ecumene for the Ancient Greeks and Romans; Dar al-Islam for the Muslims; Christendom for the Franks; the Great Wall for the Chinese. Medieval European geographers referred to any lands beyond the borders of the known world as Ultima Thule.

Globalization from the 19th century bound the entire world together, for the first time in history, but its flows and links of labor, capital and commodities passed the Arctic by. Unattractive to sustained private investment, the region’s development was always fitful and unbalanced, from the Yukon Gold Rush that petered out almost as suddenly as it flared up; to the penal camps, subsidized settlements and military bases of the Soviet Arctic, now decaying away except where hydrocarbons extraction has thrown them a lifeline.

But now the world is changing. No longer will opening the Arctic have to be a hubristic project, as with the chiliastic visions of Soviet planners; or a costly and unprofitable strategic necessity, as with the Cold War submarine patrols beneath the Arctic sea ice or the bomber flights over it. Today, it is global macro-trends such as global warming, resource depletion and overpopulation that will ensure the rapid but organic development of the Arctic.

With the growing human presence, the Arctic will inevitably begin to lose its luster of mysticism, foreboding and darkness. As the years turn into decades, and 2050 approaches, the polar-centric view of the world will become increasingly central to human spatial consciousness. The world’s trade, energy and capital flows will have been largely rerouted north.

The ARCS of Progress, their numbers swelled by climate refugees, and their economies bolstered by a flood of capital investment, will be amongst the leading Powers in the world. This assumes they retain their present political configurations. For instance, could an independent Greenland, with just 56,000 people today, retain its own national identity? Facing resource shortages and droughts in the south, would China encroach on the Russian Far East? Would the US try to assimilate Canada?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is near certain. The vision of a northern Ultima Thule is dissipating, and will soon dissolve altogether (thought teh concept may be resurrected to describe a desolate, uninhabitable South many hundreds of years into an extreme AGW future). In its place there will emerge a polar world-economy of open seas, farms and growing cities by 2050.

There will arise an Arctic ecumene.

* According to more recent data, there were 34 transits of the Northern Sea Route in 2011, up from just 4 in 2010; with 820,000 tons of goods transported relative to 111,000 tons in 2010. Volumes are predicted to double again this year. This goes in tandem with record breaking sea ice melt in 2012.

Edit Jan 28, 2013: There were a record-breaking 46 vessels making the transit through the NSR this year.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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Via The Economist, I’ve come across some fascinating research by Orley Ashenfelter and Stepan Jurajda (Comparing Real Wage Rates, 2012) showing how real wages can be meaningfully compared across different regions by taking notes on prices and wages in McDonald’s restaurants.

The methodology seems solid. Big Macs are a very standardized product, hence they are already used in the so-called Big Mac Index to assess international price differences (and whether currencies are undervalued or overvalued) and REAL wage rates (prices tend to be lower in poorer countries, mitigating the effects of lower nominal wages). By combining these two measures, you can derive the quantity of Big Mac a McDonald’s worker can buy through one hour of his labor (BMPH). This in turn is a good proxy for real median wages, i.e. the life of the average Joe and Ivan in comparative perspective. While we might not want to people to buy too many Big Macs it’s a positive thing if they can actually afford to.

The results for Russia are stunning, and no doubt go a very long way why Putin has retained 70% approval ratings since 2000. Russia’s BMPH increased by 152% (!) from 2000 to 2007, and a further 43% through to 2011, leaving all other economic regions in the dust, even despite a sharp recession in the latter period. The only major region with a comparable performance is China. In contrast, the BMPH has stagnated throughout the developed world since 2000; and Not So Shining India joined them from 2007.

During the boom years of 2000-2007, real wages for lower-class workers appear to have risen sharply in Russia, China, and India; while stagnating or declining in Japan, the US, and Canada.

Furthermore, the MBPH continued rising sharply in Russia throughout 2007-2011, despite a very deep recession; and to a lesser extent, in China and the rest of Eastern Europe. Two of the BRICS, India and South Africa, had very deep declines.

The result of this growth is that even by 2007, the Russian BMPH was already at about 50% of West European and American levels; while its wages were still much lower, this was mitigated by concurrently low prices for its Big Macs.

Another noticeable thing is that the effects of higher West European minimum wages disappear as they are mitigated by higher Big Mac prices relative to the US. As a result real wage rates across the developed world seem to be remarkably similar, with Japan’s somewhat higher. But Japan too would converge by 2011.

BMPH 2000 BMPH 2007 BMPH 2011
U.S. 2.59 2.41 2.19
Canada 2.41 2.19 2.06
Russia 0.47 1.19 1.70
South Africa 0.81 0.56
China 0.36 0.57 0.71
India 0.23 0.35 0.30
Japan 3.03 3.09 2.22
The rest of Asia 0.53 0.50
Eastern Europe 0.8 0.86
Western Europe 2.23 2.12
Middle East 0.39 0.39
Latin America 0.35 0.36

Using data on BMPH growth rates from the original publication, I calculated the BMPH for 2000 and 2011 in addition to 2007 to get the figures above.

This shows the BMPH for 2000, 2007, and 2011 for each major economic region. What’s remarkable is that even in many of the countries lauded as “emerging markets” there was hardly any visible progress, and in a few cases, outright decline.

But what’s most fascinating is how Russia, whose economy has never received much in the way of praise, has emerged from Latin American-like destitution in 2000 to perch fairly close to the BMPH of the US, Canada, Japan, and Western Europe by 2011. If that is not an “economic miracle” then I don’t know what is.

This convergence is reflected in many other aspects such as Internet penetration (now equal to Greece and Portugal), new car sales (Czech Republic), GDP in PPP terms (Poland). Furthermore, as the MBPH directly reflects the earnings of lower income workers, it implicitly accounts for the relatively high – but by no means exceptional – levels of inequality in Russian incomes.

That said, the finding that Russian real incomes (as per the BMPH) are now at about 80% of American and West European levels has to be treated with some caution. After all, the Big Mac is domestically produced, but to buy stuff like quality cars or take foreign holidays you have to pay international prices which are far higher than Russian domestic prices. E.g. only 8% of Russians will vacation abroad in 2012 (5% if you just include the ex-USSR Far Abroad), compared to 20% of Americans.

As shown in the graph above, originally compiled by Sergey Zhuravlev, Russian consumption of food products, meat, fish, milk, and fruit is now essentially equal to US and West European levels. (Consumption of tobacco and alcohol is unfortunately significantly higher). But spending on clothing, housing, furniture, healthcare, transport, holidays, and restaurants is below 50% of US levels, even after accounting for price differences. (The situation vis-a-vis Western Europe is slightly better).

On the one hand, this means that whereas Russians now have full bellies, the country still lags on life’s perks and luxuries – most especially on restaurants and holidays. On the other hand, it may well presage strong growth in the years to come as Russia during the past decade has laid the base for a rich consumer society.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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In the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections, the Russian blogosphere was abuzz with allegations of electoral fraud. Many of these were anecdotal or purely rhetorical in nature; some were more concrete, but variegated or ambiguous. A prime example of these were opinion polls and exit polls, which variably supported and contradicted the Kremlin’s claims that fraud was minimal. But there was also a third set of evidence. Whatever problems Russia may have, a lack of highly skilled mathematicians, statisticians and programmers certainly isn’t one of them. In the hours and days after the results were announced, these wonks drew on the Central Electoral Commission’s own figures to argue the statistical impossibility of the election results. The highest of these fraud estimates were adopted as fact by the opposition. Overnight, every politologist in the country – or at least, every liberal politologist – became a leading expert on Gaussian distributions and number theory.

While I don’t want to decry Churov, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, for making subjects many people gave up back in 8th grade fun and interesting again, I would like to insert a word of caution: lots of math and numbers do not necessarily prove anything, and in fact – generally speaking – the more math and numbers you have the less reliable your conclusions (not making this up: the research backs me up on this). Complicated calculations can be rendered null and void by simple but mistaken assumptions; the sheer weight of figures and fancy graphs cannot be allowed to crowd out common sense and strong diverging evidence. Since the most (in)famous of these models asserts that United Russia stole 15% or more of the votes, it is high time to compile a list of alternate models and fraud estimates that challenge that extremely unlikely conclusion – unlikely, because if it were true, it would essentially discredit the entirety of Russian opinion polling for the last decade.

In this post, I will compile a list of models built by Russian analysts of the scale of electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. I will summarize them, including their estimates of aggregate fraud in favor of United Russia, and list their possible weak points. The exercise will show that, first, the proper methodology is very, very far from settled and as such all these estimates are subject to (Knightian) uncertainty; but second, many of them converge to around 5%-7%, which is about the same figure as indicated by the most comprehensive exit poll. This is obviously very bad but still a far cry from the most pessimistic and damning estimates of 15%+ fraud, which would if they were true unequivocally delegitimize the Russian elections.

The Magical Beard (16% fraud)

The long-time elections watcher and phycist Sergey Shpilkin (podmoskovnik) has probably written the most popular article on the use of statistical analysis to detect electoral fraud. The first piece of evidence of fraud is that as turnout increases, so does United Russia’s share of the vote; the effect is not observed for the other parties, whose share remains constant or even declines. Below is the graph for Moscow.

And below, courtesy of Maxim Pshenichnikov (oude_rus), is the same graph as a “heat map” for all Russia.

But that’s not all. A second problem is that turnout in Russia does not follow a normal, or Gaussian distribution. The laws of probability dictate that if you throw a coin 100 times, it is fairly unlikely that the “heads” will turn up exactly 50% of the time; however, as you repeat this experiment a dozen, a hundred, and then a thousand times, the average should converge to 50%. A graph of all these experiments should be in the form of a bell curve, with a peak at the midway point and falling away rapidly on either side. Theoretically, this should also hold for turnout, and this is in fact what we see in for elections in countries such as Mexico, Bulgaria, Sweden, Canada, Poland, and Ukraine. As we can see, there are suspicious peaks at 100% turnout in some of the less developed democracies like Ukraine, Bulgaria, and even Poland; and Ukraine’s Gaussian distribution breaks down beyond about 90% turnout altogether. Nonetheless, the overwhelming indications are that all these countries conduct almost fully free and fair elections.

But these laws do not seem to apply to Russia, including for the most recent Duma elections. Not only does the normal distribution break down on the right hand side of the graph, from about the 60% turnout point, but there begin to appear consistent peaks at “convenient” intervals of 5%, as if the polling stations with 70%, 75%, 80%, 90%, and 100% turnout were working to targets! Though the most recent election seems marginally better than the 2007 Duma election and the 2008 Presidential election, the overall indication is one of rampant shenanigans and fraud.

Graphing the number of polling stations, as done by Pshenichnikov, at which every party got a certain percentage of the votes, exposes United Russia as the black sheep of the political family. Regular spikes at 5% intervals begin from 50% onwards, at which point the Gaussian distribution breaks down and is stretched away into oblivion – producing what is now jocularly referred to as “Churov’s beard.”

And in Moscow, United Russia’s curve looks even more ridiculous. The twin peaks that Yabloko has are either because their vote was stolen at some places and not at others, or they did not have a proper Gaussian to begin with. (Note how practically all the Moscow polling stations with machines cluster at around 30% for United Russia, strongly indicating that the second, bigger peak at around 50% is falsified; see these two clusters in more graphic form here).

Then there’s the matter of abnormal turnout patterns. Cui bono? Quite clearly, United Russia. Returning to Shpilnikov’s work, as you can see below, the higher the turnout, the greater the relative discrepancy between votes for United Russia and the opposition parties.

The author then proceeds to “normalize” United Russia’s results, making the blanket assumption that the correlation between high turnout and higher votes is entirely due to fraud and that it is valid to extend the correlation between votes for United Russia relative to the other parties observed for stations will turnout lower than 50% to every other polling station. Its adjusted results vastly differ from its official results, with the numbers of falsified votes soaring once turnout at any individual polling station exceeds 50% and rapidly converging to near total falsification once turnout rises to 70% and above.

At this point, it is possible to “integrate” the adjusted results curve, to calculate United Russia’s real result. The conclusions are devastating. According to Shpilkin’s final calculations, cited by GOLOS, out of 32 million votes for United Russia, only half of them – some 16.2 million – are “normal”, whereas the other 15.8 million are “anomolous.” This means that in reality it only got 33.7% of the vote, as opposed to the official 49.3%, implying a 15.6% degree of fraud.

Party Official vote Duma seats Real result Real Duma seats
United Russia 49.3% 238 33.7% 166
Communists 19.2% 92 25.1% 124
Fair Russia 13.2% 64 17.3% 85
Liberal Democrats 11.7% 56 15.3% 75
Yabloko 3.4% 4.5%
Patriots of Russia 1.0% 1.3%
Right Cause 0.6% 0.8%
spoiled ballots 1.6% 2.1%

This would clearly make the Duma elections illegitimate, as the will of the Russian electorate – a truly multi-party parliament – is not reflected. If the elections were fair, United Russia would lose its majority and have to rely on coalitions with other parties to pursue its legislative agenda. It would appear that the non-systemic opposition has a clear mandate to demand a rerun.

Not so fast. This claim of 15% fraud is contrary to the entirety of Russian opinion polling, which generally predicted United Russia would get 50%, and to the results of the most comprehensive exit poll, which gave it 43%. Furthermore, as other bloggers rushed to point out, Shpilkin makes many highly questionable assumptions that challenge the credibility of his estimates, for instance, he doesn’t back up his claim that the correlation of higher turnout with more votes for United Russia (and is in fact contradicted by electoral patterns in advanced democracies like Germany and the UK).

PS. You can read an alternate explanation of this method in English by Anton, a Russian blogger living in Finland.

What About Limey?

The mathematician Sergey Kuznetsov wrote a long piece at eruditor.ru attempting to rebut Shpilkin’s conclusions. He starts off by pointing out that the Gaussian distribution achieved by conducting multiple coin tossing experiments is artificial because conditions remain identical. The same cannot be said if some of the experimenters continue tossing coins, while others of their kind begin to favor using dice with “heads” on five of their faces. Likewise, in a country with many socio-economically and culturally idiosyncratic regions such as Russia, Gaussian distributions are not inevitable.

As for the peaks at 5% intervals, they are products of elementary number theory. There must be a jump at 50% because the fraction 1/2, among other fractions n/m, appears more frequently than any other. The same can be said for other “nice” fractions: 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, and so on. Not only fraudsters like these “beautiful” fractions; its an intrinsic property of number theory itself. This is demonstrated below by Ruslan Enikeev (singpost), who built a frequency distribution of the natural outcome of multiple elections with 600 participants; as you can see below, there are very prominent spikes at all the “nice” fractions.

And guess what? If we are to build Pshenichnikov’s graph in “The Magical Beard” but at much finer resolutions, like Kuznetsov did, we get the following. Note how the other parties also get their spikes at “nice” fractions!

So you say that a correlation between higher turnout and more votes for United Russia means mass electoral fraud? If that’s the case, Britain must be a banana republic. Below is the relation between turnout and votes for the Conservatives and New Labour in the 2010 general elections (and this pattern is common to every British region).

Nor are British voters big fans of the Gaussian distribution either.

PS. At this point, I should also note that I observed lots of small peaks for the 2007 Ukraine elections (i.e. after its Orange Revolution) in this blog post.

That said, it should be noted that Kuznetsov acknowledges that the fat tail, and some of the 5% intervals that cannot be explained by number theory – e.g., 65%, 70%, 85%, 90%, 95% – means that a lot of fraud probably did happen.

PS. This has been pretty much confirmed by bloggers such as gegmopo4 (“Happy Pictures“) and Dmitry Kobak (“Party of Scoundrels and Thieves and 10 Sigma“).

The Reichstag Is Burning Since 2002!

The programmer Sergey Slyusarev (jemmybutton) also gave his two kopeiki on election fraud. He pointed out that as in the UK, the turnout for the 2002 Bundestag elections did not follow a perfect Gaussian either; in particular, a lower turnout in East Germany contributed to a second, smaller peak to the left of the main one. He also notes that higher turnouts correlated with more votes for the conservative alliance and fewer votes for the social democrat / green alliance.

Just as Kuznetsov above, he also discussed how pure number theory can explain most of the peaks along 5% intervals. However, even after making adjustments for it, there remained peaks at 75%, 85%, and the fat tail in general that he could not explain as being natural.

I would add that that is understandably so, if we consider this graph of North Ossetia’s results from Pshenichnikov. The biggest irony is that they didn’t even HAVE TO do it to ensure a big United Russia win. The “natural” Gaussian for UR (from the few free and fair stations) seems to be only a few percentage points short of the artificial peak. There’s idiots and then there’s bureaucrats.

He goes into further really wonky elections stuff later on in his post. There are no firm insights or conclusions arising from it, so I’ll refrain from summarizing it.

Trust Me On Arabs In Israel

The blogger, and aspiring Sinologist Vitaly Shishakov (svshift) doesn’t have original models, but does have a lot of useful links. He gives further examples of countries where higher turnouts result in more votes for certain parties and of where turnout does not follow Gaussian distributions. One example is Israel, where Arab turnout in local elections is consistently, stunningly higher than in Jewish ones. As both are still in significant part traditionalist societies, one wonders if the same applies to the Caucasus states (a possibility I raised in my Al Jazeera article). Read him here and here.

Revealing The Real Israel

The blogger levrrr does not believe that there is significant electoral fraud in Israel; and he agrees with Dmitry Kobak that this is patently not the case in Russia. Nonetheless, the curious patterns observed in the 2009 elections in that socio-culturally diverse society are a good reminder that just because it looks strange doesn’t necessarily mean surreptitious activities are afoot.

Unlike in many other countries, the distribution of voting stations by the percentage of votes each party obtained in them is most definitely not standard. Yisrael Beiteinu is log-normal; Likud is a Gaussian with two peaks (like Yabloko in Moscow); Kadima is kind of Gaussian but with a huge plateau; and the two fundamentalist parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) have a weirdly long and fat tail. So no wonder Avigdor Lieberman is virtually the only foreign statesman to approve of Russia’s elections!

Comparing it to Pshenichnikov’s graph of Russia, there are striking comparative resemblances: Yabloko resembles Shas; the LDPR and Fair Russia resemble Yisrael Beiteinu; the KPRF resembles Likud; and apart from the spiked tail, United Russia looks like Kadima.

Like United Russia, the higher the turnout, the more votes Kadima gets, as in the graph below. The effect is neutral for Likud (as for the Russian opposition parties), and it is negative for Yisrael Beiteinu.

Nonetheless, Israel’s turnout is an indisputable Gaussian; there is no separate peak for the Arabs. (I would note that they have ultra-high turnouts only for local elections, not national ones). Less than 0.1% of polling stations saw a turnout of more than 95%, whereas this figure is more than 5% for the recent Russian elections. I assume that’s almost all fraud, as there are only so many barracks in Russia where everyone goes to vote en masse.

Dangerous Curves (5%-6% fraud)

The economist Sergey Zhuravlev (zhu_s) argues that the correlation between higher turnout and higher votes for United Russia is meaningless because of the “silent majority” effect. Voters for the opposition can be expected to turn out in full force, whereas people without any specific grievances against the “party of power” – who expect it to win with or without their participation – can turn out at varying rates in different regions, depending on their satisfaction with its performance and its success at mobilizing its supporters. As for United Russia’s unusually long tail, that can be explained by the very fact of its getting many votes. A party like Yabloko whose support base hovers in the lower single digits can be expected to have a very narrow peak at the beginning; a party like United Russia, which enjoys a great deal of supports with large geographic variation, will naturally have a far wider spread.

He outlines an alternative method that involves plotting the growth of each party’s share of the vote against the numbers of polling stations giving them a certain level of support. In a society where there are no regional differences in voting preferences and no falsifications, the graphs for each party can be expected to converge to a vertical center. In real life, regional differences flatten out this “ideal” vertical form, especially at the top and bottom. This is because both many stations with little support for a particular party, and the few stations with high support for a particular party, contribute only a small share of the votes to that party; most of its votes accrue to the many stations where support for that party is not far from the national average. This method eliminates the “flattening effect” observed in Shpilkin’s work where the mere fact of high popularity makes United Russia’s spread look unnaturally wide. As we can see below, all parties have substantial spreads in regional support; they are just on different scales.

From the graph above, United Russia is seen to enjoy an “S-effect”, in which stations where they got more than 70% – concentrated in the ethnic minority republics – contributed one fifth of its total vote; the kinks observed in that region are especially suspicious and indicative of mass fraud. This “S-effect” took away votes from the Communists and LDPR, creating an analogous “J-effect” at the bottom of their graphs. Yabloko too has an “S-effect”, if much lower in overall scale relative to United Russia, due to its relatively good performance in the two capitals; elsewhere, it is now just a forgotten relic of the 1990′s.

Whereas there is much evidence of fraud in Moscow, Zhuravlev has some of the strongest evidence against it as shown in the graph below. United Russia has a very natural curve, with no kinks observed at the at the top-right; instead, it has a “J-curve” at the bottom, presumably in the hipster Moscow districts with high support levels for Yabloko (a thesis corroborated by Yabloko’s prominent S-curve).

To resolve the possible falsifications arising from the S-effects and J-effects (with the caveat that they are not always indicative of fraud – e.g., Moscow with its Yabloko-friendly hipster districts), Zhuravlev suggests taking the median: i.e., the party voting shares such that half the polling stations have lower numbers and the other half have higher numbers. This effectively cuts out the S-effects and J-effects. The result is that United Russia loses 6% points relative to its official results, leaving it marginally below a Duma majority with 220 seats.

Of course, this approach too has its problems. It seems to me that kinks are only going to be observed where results are “drawn to plan” (as in some of the ethnic minority republics); where fraud is decentralized, the degree of fraud will itself be a wide spread, and as such not reflected in kinks or S-curves. His conclusion that fraud in Moscow was minimal contrasts with a whole heap of contrary evidence.

Zhuravlev expands on his thoughts on falsifications and the economics of political choice in a follow-up blog post.

Churov’s Defense (minimal fraud)

The Election Results: An Analysis of Electoral Preferences by Vladimir Churov. This isn’t the first time the head of the Central Elections Commission, a physicist with some Petersburg connections to Putin, has had to dodge incoming bullets from the election nerds and LJ malcontents. In response to criticisms of the last round of elections, in 2008 he co-authored an article in an attempt to rebut the critics.

His basic approach is to explain the idiosyncrasies of Russia election patterns in terms of voter behavior. At the beginning, he brings forth the standard criticism against the view that voter behavior must necessarily conform to normal distributions, i.e. it’s not a uniform series of experiments but the choices of a heterogeneous population we are talking about. The authors then proceed to build a model of electoral preferences for Russia’s different population groups in a quest to see how well it conforms with reality. Unlike everyone else on this list, he is analyzing the Presidential election of 2008, but that’s fine because according to Shpilkin it was one of the most falsified.

As shown in the graph above, rural polling stations and urban polling stations reveal starkly different voting patterns. I can see that the latter is described by an (almost internationally standard) log-normal curve; rural voters are the ones who create the fat tail. The other polling stations are various special ones, e.g. in closed institutions or the military, but only account for 1% of the total voters so their overall effect is small. The difference between turnout in the cities and the country is explained “deeper and stronger mutual relations” existing in the latter, whereas urban dwellers are a more amorphous mass. And I would remind the reader at this point that United Russia is more popular in the countryside.

At some level this does make sense – anybody who has lived in a Russian village (or even a small town) can confirm that people there know each other far better than in a big city or a metropolis like Moscow. I can easily imagine a social activity like voting will logically draw a higher participation. He makes a further interesting argument regarding the relation between turnout and the size of the voter list at polling stations (see “Size Matters, Baby” below for a nice graph by Pshenichnikov illustrating this). Basically, turnout at urban polling stations with smaller voter lists begins to converge to converge with results from rural polling stations with bigger voter lists; but unlike in towns, the vast bulk of votes in rural areas accrue to polling stations with small voter lists, where turnout is very high.

And though there are fewer rural voters than urban voters, the number of polling stations is about evenly split between the two – because the average rural polling station has a smaller voter list than the average urban polling station. Adding the results from city stations and rural stations together produces the fat tail on the turnout graphs.

In summary, the overall turnout distribution by polling station is merely the sum of how different Russian population groups vote: urban voters, rural voters, institutional voters (e.g. soldiers).

Worried about the “cragginess” of the graph? Just the result of ordinary fluctuations. It increases when you analyze it at higher resolutions and fades away to nothing at the lowest resolutions.

Plotting the voter turnout distribution not against the number of polling stations but against the number of voters voting in places at any particular turnout will naturally diminish the fatness of the tail (because as pointed out above the polling stations with small voter lists will have the highest turnouts).

As before, the same general turnout pattern is observed in terms of rural and urban voting patterns when plotted against voter numbers.

Churov further argues that the proportional votes for each candidate are NOT huge affected by the turnout. What tendency Medvedev has to win more votes relatively at higher turnouts is down to the increasing influence of the rural vote. A close up of the voting figures for the 75%-100% is presented.

As far as I can see, Churov makes an important point (and in large part convincing) point about the different voting patterns that describe rural and urban voters, and especially the effect of the size of the polling station’s voter list on the turnout. However, he patently fails to address the main concerns of his critics for one simple reason.

He only analyzed the results from 25 regions of European Russia. Which ones? They are not even identified (apart from Kaliningrad, Murmansk and Arghangelsk oblasts, and the Nenets autonomous region, which are mentioned in passing as included). If there is a link telling us what the other 21 are, I cannot find it. And the biggest problem is that, of course, fraud is highly variant by Russian regions. For instance, see Aleksandr Kireev‘s (kireev) map of his estimates of election fraud. Note that three of the four regions actually cited by Churov are green, i.e. indicating that they had little or no fraud in the 2011 elections. As Russian political culture hasn’t changed much in the past three years, they presumably looked similar in 2008.

I strongly suspect that for his analysis Churov merely handpicked the most electorally honest regions he could find and worked from there. Why else include only the 25 regions, with 21% of Russia’s voters and 23% of its voting stations, when he obviously has access to the Central Election Commission’s entire database just like any other blogger? These suspicions are further reinforced by the lack of spikes at regular 5% intervals that everyone else who compiled turnout distributions at the federal level found. He makes some good arguments but the overall conclusions that there is no or minimal fraud is not credible.

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff (5%-7%; 6.6% fraud)

The computer programmer hist_kai takes a relatively simple approach. He plots the number of people voting for United Russia under every 0.1% point interval to get the graph below.

Then he removed all voices for United Russia at 5% intervals, in a 0.5% swathe left and right. This gives a level of fraud of 0.7%.

Then he removes all polling stations where United Russia got more than 75%. This gives a total fraud level of 7.3%.

This is highly unscientific, of course. Some polling stations where United Russia got less than 75% would have been dirty, and some where it got more than 75% would have been clean. Still, it’s a useful way to demonstrate that even removing all the places where it got huge amounts of the vote would have only modestly impacted United Russia’s total tally and would have still clearly left it as the biggest winner.

A group from Samarcand Analytics (Alex Mellnik, John Mellnik and Nikolay Zhelev) issued a study using the a similar method to hist_kai, though they cut off the top quintile of turnout as opposed to all stations registering more than 75% support for United Russia. They justified this on the basis that it was only the quintile with the highest turnout that voted for United Russia in a spectacularly non-Gaussian distribution.

Because of the aforementioned observations that higher turnout correlates with more votes for United Russia, its score after this adjustment is reduced to 42.7%. This implies a possible fraud of 6.6%. The adjusted results for all parties are as follows:

Party

Percent of the vote

Percent without high-turnout polling stations

United Russia

49.3

42.7

Communist Party

19.2

21.2

A Just Russia

13.2

15.2

LDPR

11.7

13.3

Yabloko

3.4

4.0

Patriots of Russia

1.0

1.1

Right Cause

0.6

0.7

Despite the methodological problems with this relatively crude method, it’s worth noting that the adjusted results by party are highly congruent with the results of the FOM exit poll, the most comprehensive one.

Rise of the Machines (6%-7%; 17% fraud)

There are very significant and suspicious discrepancies between polling stations with machine voting and polling stations were counted by hand. The former, on average, are a lot lower.

According to graphs compiled by Sergey Shpilkin, the turnout looks a lot more Gaussian in polling stations equipped with machines; those without feature very fat tails, rising to a much sharper spike at 100%. Compare the turnout graph below for polling stations with machines with the average turnout graph in the section “The Magical Beard.”

Across the same territorial electoral commissions, United Russia got an average of only 36.6% at polling stations equipped with voting machines; this is compared to its 54.2% result elsewhere. This would seem to indicate huge fraud, as machines are harder to tamper with. But this is only assuming that there is no consistent difference between polling stations with and without voting machines.

But this may not be merited as urban, more accessible areas can generally be expected to have a higher likelihood of hosting voting machines, and they are also precisely the places where United Russia has done less well in these elections. On the other hand, if both machines and hand ballots are falsified – e.g. as seems to be the case in Karachay-Cherkessia – this indicator would be a false negative.

In a joint project, Maxim Pshenichnikov and Dmitry Kobak (kobak) compiled a list of disparities between machine and hand ballot results in each of Russia’s cities. They return substantially smaller estimates of overall fraud, albeit there are huge differences between regions. The average calculated by Pshenichnikov is 6.3%. This figure he termed “коибатость”, i.e. which we may translate as “machination.” As you can see in the graph below, the city with the highest measure of fraud – as measured by the machine / hand ballot discrepancy, which has its methodological problems – is Astrakhan, with more than 30% fraud in favor of United Russia. In third or fourth position follows Moscow, with slightly less than 20% fraud in favor of United Russia.

The average calculated by Kobak is 6%-7%. His method is slightly different from – and more rigorous than – Pshenichnikov’s, because whereas the latter calculated “global” machination he confined himself to “local” machination, i.e. he only used the statistics from those polling stations which had at least one voting machine for his comparison with the results from voting machines. Apart a histogram similar to the one above also produces this stunning map of machine and hand ballot voting in Russia’s urban regions: The “green meteors” are results from hand voting, the “red meteors” (which aren’t usually near as trail-blazing) are the results from machine voting.

Kobak is unsure as to why the big discrepancy with Shpilkin’s figures. He emphasizes that Shpilkin’s 37% figure for United Russia cannot be taken at face value because machines tend to be present in larger cities where United Russia does less well; but does consider the 17% figure (the federal average) an important estimate, despite its being much different from his own 6%-7% estimate (the average by region).

One theory he suggests is that in even in those regions where United Russia has a high results, there are few machines and many individuals sites are without them; there, the difference between hand voting and machine voting results is modest at 7%. But when counting up these results on the federal level, these high-United Russia support regions only contribute a little to the aggregate total at well below their true weight (because few of them have machines and can be counted); while contributing a lot to the hand voting totals. Hence the possible source of the huge (and “misleading”) 17% discrepancy.

Meteors of Mendacity (11% fraud)

Dmitry Kobak (kobak) is another big skeptic of the official results. Like Shpilkin, he considers the turnout / voting correlation in favor of United Russia damning, and has some nice graphs to illustrate it. For an election to be fair, the meteors have to be flying to the left and their trails have to be horizontal – a condition that United Russia fails to fulfill. See above for extensive criticism of this assertion.

He calculates the real result by cutting away all the data from polling stations with “suspiciously high turnout”, which he puts at anything bigger than 60% or 50%. Due to United Russia getting far fewer votes in places where turnout is low, that has the effect of reducing its result from 49.3% to 36% and 34%, respectively.

Needless to say his graphs look nice, but they hide a very crude method. Cutting off at 60% essentially dismisses half the entire electorate. He addresses this concern by taking the minimum of United Russia’s voting curve in relation to the turnout, then sums the results up to get a real score of 38%. This implies 11% fraud.

This seems more realistic than the 15%+ obtained by Shpilkin, which clashes so badly with the results of exit polls and opinion polls, if still towards their absolutely lowest margins of error. And needless to say the fairness of taking United Russia’s minimum – and assigning anything above it to fraud – is highly questionable. Using the regional turnout and voting data for the 2010 UK general election provided by _ab_, would the same method not “prove” massive fraud in favor of the Tories?

He also reproduces Shpilkin’s normalization method, producing a real result of 34% for United Russia and hence fraud of 15%. However, even he rejects the method as too harsh and simplistic, ignoring local specifics.

His analysis of the applicability of Benford’s Law to the Russian elections saw no interesting results.

Size Matters, Baby

Maxim Pshenichnikov points out that the larger the amount of voters at any polling station the lower a result United Russia tends to get there. Is it because fraud is harder when there are more people? Or is because smaller stations would probably tend to be in rural and more remote areas, which are usually more pro-United Russia? He doesn’t comment. You decide.

Questioning Russian Behavior

That the correlation between higher turnout and more votes for United Russia is indicative of fraud has two main arguments against it, as we saw above: First, the logic of the “silent majority”, and second, comparisons with other countries like the UK, Germany, and Israel. The blogger vmenshov attempts to prove that this “silent majority” thesis does not apply to Russia, and that the effect really is down to vote stealing on United Russia’s behalf.

So Is It Time To Get The Barber?

Back in 2007, Churov promised to shave off his beard if the elections were unfair. Should we send him the barber then?

It’s a hard question. That there is statistical evidence indicating some degree of fraud is beyond dispute. What’s at stake is the scale. Much like United Russia’s results in Moscow, there are two big clusters: I will simplify them to the 5% Thesis and the 15% Thesis. (There is also a 0% Thesis, as argued by Churov and Kremlin spokespersons; not as if they have much of a choice on the matter. But I think most of us can agree that just the results from Chechnya alone discredit this group).

The 5% Thesis is maintained by Sergey Zhuravlev and the aggregate regional discrepancies between districts with and without machine voting; it is also the figure suggested by practically every opinion poll and exit poll.

The 15% Thesis, most prominently advanced by Sergey Shpilkin and Dmitry Kobak, has become the banner figure of the opposition. If they are right the current composition of the Duma does not reflect the will of the Russian electorate and as such the elections have to be honestly rerun for the system to win back its legitimacy.

The problem with it is that it relies on three fundamental assumptions about Russian elections which. Kirill Kalinin, writing for Slon.ru, identifies these three assumptions thus:

  1. The lack of a “normal” Gaussian turnout and voting distribution.
  2. Suspicious spikes at regular intervals in the turnout and voting distribution.
  3. A positive correlation between turnout and votes for United Russia.

The problem is that all of these assumptions have been argued to be invalid in the Russian context. That said, there are powerful counter-arguments too. By the numbers:

  1. A heterogeneous population and examples of similar phenomenon from advanced democracies throw doubt on this argument, BUT none have tails quite as fat or spikes quite as sharp as does United Russia.
  2. The spikes may, in part, be a product of number theory. But as turnout rises above 60%, they become too sharp to be attributed to number theory alone; and besides, number theory can only explain spikes at common fractions, not at places like 85% or 95%.
  3. The thesis of the “silent majority” and myriad examples from other countries severely weaken this assumption.

It’s good that this election has inspired bloggers, activists and scientists to delve into the interesting and undeveloped world of electoral fraud analysis. They may well be truly groundbreaking original research on the subject lurking somewhere on Runet.

Nonetheless, there remain huge uncertainties; one must guard against the deceptive simplicity and aesthetic richness of most of these arguments. A further peril is that, understandably, this discussion is extremely politicized. As a rule, proponents of the 15% Thesis are liberals to whom United Russia really is a party of scoundrels and thieves and Putin is a cancer on the nation. Likewise, all proponents of the 0% Thesis and some of the proponents of the 5% Thesis are more politically conservative and sympathetic to the Kremlin’s viewpoint that things are basically alright.

My own view on the matter is that the 15% Thesis is extremely unlikely to be true because if it were valid, it would essentially invalidate the entirety of Russian opinion polling – and the work of hundreds of experienced professionals – for at least the last decade; prior to the 2011 Duma elections, only a single poll gave United Russia less than 49%. And we are expected to believe their actual result was 35% or even less? A claim this extraordinary needs truly extraordinary evidence to be credible, but the evidence that has actually been presented is full of questionable assumptions. Which is, in fact, quite ordinary in the world of social science.

Which is not a bad thing. Let the debate go on. Churov can keep his beard, but a web camera or three to let people know he ain’t hiding anything in it wouldn’t go amiss.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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future-superpowers Most projections of future trends in national power fail to appreciate the importance of three crucial factors: (1) the declining EROEI of energy resources (including, but not limited to, “peak oil”); (2) the importance of human capital to economic growth, especially in developing countries’ attempts to “catch up” to the advanced world; and (3) the impacts of climate change, which are projected to be more and more catastrophic with every passing year. Disregarding these trends produces predictions such as George Friedman’s (STRATFOR) argument that Mexico – a low human capital country experiencing plummeting oil production and growing water stress – will become a superpower by 2100.

Using my current estimates of Comprehensive National Power as a base (an index of power that attempts to express a nation’s economic, military, and cultural power in a single number), I will specially stress the above factors in my analysis of future global power trends. Some results will look plausible and familiar (e.g. China overtaking the US as a superpower by the 2020′s); others will appear utterly bizarre (e.g. Canada becoming a major Great Power in by the end of the century, while India and Brazil plummet back into obscurity). But they are nonetheless all plausible and even likely outcomes, derived from bringing together worlds that all too often are considered independently of each other: the economy; human capital; geopolitics; energetics; and climate change.

There may of course be unexpected discontinuities – popularized as Black Swans by Nassim Taleb – that unravel these projections (the probability of their happening increasing exponentially over time). This will be covered in greater depth below. In the meantime, bear this caveat in mind as you read the rest of the post.

comprehensive-national-power

[Graph shows CNP of the greatest Powers 1980-2100; the "superpower" is always at 100 and all other Great Powers are shown relative to it. Click to enlarge.]

Phase 1: The End of Pax Americana (1980-2025)

The US is the current superpower, but China is rapidly making up ground. Its real GDP is now at $10 trillion, though according to some estimates it has already overtaken the $14.5 trillion American economy.

Some critics claim that nominal GDP is a better measure of power, even using these figures to claim that even at 10% growth it will be decades before China surpasses the US. This is a product of economic illiteracy, because it doesn’t take into account the convergence of Chinese price levels to those of developed countries (its nominal GDP has been expanding at more than 20% in the last 5 years).

There are a number of other factors that are often quoted to predict the doom of China’s rise, such as: (1) Growing regional disparities; (2) Income inequality; (3) Environmental degradation; (4) Bad loans and financial collapse, aka Japan; (5) Aging population; (6) Excessive export dependency; (7) Social unrest; (8) Authoritarian nature of its Marxist-Leninist political model.

Suffice to say that they are either common to most industrializing countries (1-3, 7); will only seriously affect it by the time its already developed (4-5); are overestimated (4, 6); or it is unclear why they should derail its economic ascent for long even if they lead to a democratizing revolution (7-8). I address all these points in detail here.

In any case, most of these are factors have yet to be realized, whereas many of the same trends undermining US power are already in evidence. You can point out the accumulating weight of China’s bad loans, but it is the Western financial system that had to be bailed out in 2008 at social expense; you can argue that the aging of China’s population will bankrupt its (minimal) social net, but it is the US that is facing a budget deficit of >10% of GDP and a national debt soaring into the stratosphere.

China is already the world’s largest manufacturing power. On current trends, it is due to overtake the US economy by the mid-2010′s (followed in nominal terms sometime in the 2020′s, as restrictions on the yuan are lifted and it appreciates). Since China produces its own military hardware, real GDP is what matters; consequently, it will take less relative effort for the PLA to match and overtake the US (especially in the crucial East Asian region and the Indian Ocean). As Paul Kennedy noted in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (of which, incidentally, the Chinese are great fans) military and political power follows naturally in the wake of economic power, whereas trying to achieve results from the opposite directions leads to the “imperial overstretch” that contributed to Soviet collapse and is now undermining American power.

Which brings us to the last point. China’s population is four times bigger than America’s, and human capital among the youngest generations is now as good as the US average. This makes its per capita convergence – and consequently, its ascent to economic primacy – almost inevitable.

But rather than assessing the situation dispassionately and preparing for a strategic retreat, the US is digging in all fronts: foreign wars, deficit spending, oil dependence, political gridlock, etc. This increases the probability that US decline will take the form of a sudden collapse, as of Argentina’s in 1999-2002, instead of fading away like the British Empire after 1945.

Phase 2: The Return of the Middle Kingdom (2020-2075)

The cultural decline will be slower. It took Latin more than a millennium after the collapse of the Roman Empire to lose its status as a lingua franca. Needless to say, the US will still retain a great deal of power by virtue of its large population and developed economy, it will remain in second place, almost no matter what, well into the 21st century. Furthermore, it will retain its deep ties – economic, cultural, etc. – with the Anglo-Saxon world (the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and, to a lesser extent, Europe. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the Ivy League will remain staples of global culture and technology.

However, there’s only so much power you can exercise through the English language, Google, or even Chuck Norris. For everything else there’s China – after a two hundred year break (a mere blip in its millennial history), the Middle Kingdom will have returned to its rightful place at the center of the world.

China is now roughly where South Korea was in 1990. A similar growth profile will by 2030 leave its economic power equal to 25 of today’s Koreas. Imagine that!

It’s unclear what political system China will have by then. Democratization on the Taiwanese model is not inevitable. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has studied the Soviet collapse in rigorous detail and is determined not to repeat its liberalizing mistakes. What I consider at least equally likely is an emergence of a “consultative Leninism”, in which the current NEPist model is opened up to democratic elements (e.g. competitive local elections; policy-making based on opinion polling) but under the continuing hegemony of the CCP. This could be China’s own, sovereign road to democracy.

Other possibilities are also possible, e.g. a Singaporean authoritarianism, or “managed democracy” in the style of Putin’s Russia. But short of a reversion to Maoism – which is exceedingly unlikely, given that China now has a commercial class that would strongly oppose it – it’s unclear how the widespread mantra that political change must be accompanied by a cessation of economic growth can be justified.

China’s rise will be accompanied by the flock of BRIC’s trailing in its wake: Brazil, Russia, and India. The first two will enjoy a massive resource windfall from selling their plentiful energy, mineral, and water (in the form of food) reserves to a world made increasingly ravenous by depletion elsewhere and the effects of an increasingly destructive and chaotic climate. Russia will remain a first-class Great Power, and India will join its ranks; Brazil will be the most prominent of the second-class powers, which will also include France, Canada, Germany, Japan, the UK, Turkey, and Korea.

As with China, there are many reasons cited to explain for why Russia will fail to achieve its promise, such as (1) demographic decline; (2) corruption; (3) resource-based economy; (4) crumbling infrastructure; (5) authoritarianism. All these factors are either exaggerated (1-5), typical of most middle-income countries (2, 4), or it is unclear why they are necessarily negatives at all (3, 5). But it also has great strengths. Russia combines the BRIC’s fiscal sturdiness and economic dynamism (both lacking in the West) with a GDP per capita that is almost twice that of the next richest BRIC, Brazil. Its human capital is on a par with the developed world’s, allowing for an easy convergence. Crucially, Russia is perfectly positioned for the coming age of “scarcity industrialism”, in which food, energy, and energy prices soar and global warming opens up vast regions of the country, including the Arctic, to shipping, energy production, agriculture, and habitation. Even at current growth rates of 4% per year, Russia should converge to European income levels by 2020-25 and spend the next few decades comfortably, its energy riches shielded by its nuclear umbrella.

Obviously Russia lacks the population mass, at least at this stage, to become a true superpower (even if it absorbs the other post-Soviet nations into a Eurasian union). This is not the case for India, which will overtake China to become the world’s most populous nation by 2025. But within that fast-growing population illiteracy is still rife and 47% of children remain malnourished. Though it suffers from many the usual ailments of low-income countries – creaky infrastructure, caste-based inequalities, sluggish courts and bureaucracy, etc. – it’s India’s low level of human capital that is the primary cause of its falling so far behind China (manufacturing output is an order of magnitude lower, and the poorest Chinese provinces are equal to the Indian average). Nonetheless, India has the coal to power itself, and temperatures will remain within acceptable bounds for producing stagnant grain harvests for at least the next few decades. And quantity counts. That is why India will become a first-rank Great Power, equaling Russia and approaching the US.

With its ample lands and resources (e.g. iron, oil), not to mention its successes with sugar cane-derived ethanol, Brazil is set to enjoy – much like Russia – a comfortable existence as a regional hegemon in a world of high prices for food, energy and minerals. Its military strength is paltry, but irrelevant given its distance from other Great Powers. It is also the least corrupt of the BRIC’s. However, its prospects for true superpowerdom are constrained by relatively low human capital; as its economy wasn’t distorted by a legacy of socialist mismanagement (as with China or Russia), its GDP per capita is already, more or less, “where it should be.” In the background, Canada will be getting very rich off supplying fuels and water to an increasingly parched and energy-starved US. However, for the time being its profile will remain modest.

The European Union is conspicuous by its absence. Europe is no longer united by the memory of war and the Soviet threat, and each country concerned above all for its own national interests. This is not a stable foundation for a union, and as such it will likely retreat into something like a glorified free trade area by the 2020′s. Real power will be concentrated among the big European Powers, which will carve out spheres of influence and compete with each other for neo-colonial influence: e.g. France (Maghreb); Germany (East-Central Europe); Turkey (Balkans, Azerbaijan, Arab world); the Scandinavian bloc; the Visegrad bloc. Arguably there is already evidence of this in the Anglo-French effort to oust Qaddafi. Read more here.

No European Power will have the mass to become a first-rank Great Power, though it may be (marginally) possible for France and definitely possible for coalitions of European Powers. By themselves, all the European nations will be lingering near the bottom of the CNP scale.

There is no point discussing any other country or alliance. NATO is becoming more irrelevant with each passing year. Japan is technologically advanced, but reliant on the US for its security and dependent on the same oceanic supply routes as China; as soon as the latter becomes the new regional hegemon, Japan’s effective sovereignty is history. Indonesia is similar India, but five times smaller. South Africa, Mexico, Australia, Nigeria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are all some combination of (1) too underpopulated, (2) too underdeveloped, and (3) too vulnerable to climate change.

Phase 3: Towards a Russian Century? (2075-?)

Beyond 2050 we are getting into very foggy territory. Just think of an educated European observing the world one century ago, in 1911 – could he have predicted Germany’s utter collapse and occupation, and the rise of Russia (now known as the USSR) as a superpower along with the (vastly stronger) US superpower? And could that observer in 1951 have predicted that a China only recently consolidated under Communist control, after a century of stagnation, invasions and warlordism, would just fifty years later have overtaken a Russia that had become a basketcase?

Any number of black swans may have intervened by 2050, steering any projections wildly of course. Here are a few examples:

  • China and the US cooperate to build a massive global geoengineering project in the 2040′s that succeeds at checking global warming. This removes the conditions for Russia’s rise to a dominant position.
  • Facing desiccation in the West and flooding in the South, the US annexes Canada. As a result, it becomes the greatest Power in the world.
  • There is a total war between nuclear Powers, perhaps triggered by a Chinese land grab for the Russian Far East. Whoever “wins” (if that’s the right term), well, wins.
  • The development of nuclear fusion, space-based solar power, or some other technology, that reverses the secular trend towards declining EROEI. This massively undercuts the power of major resource exporters, such as Russia, Canada, and Brazil.
  • A transition to sustainable development. With global CO2 emissions setting a new record in 2010 (just one year after the deepest global recession in the past half-century), and setting the 2C warming target practically out of reach, there is little hope of that without geoengineering (after 2C the process is expected to display a runaway dynamic due to positive feedback loops). But miracles happen, sometimes.
  • A technological singularity. Perhaps this catapults the nation where it first appears into a dominant leadership position, much like Britain during the industrial revolution; or maybe it is so transnational and transformative in its scope that it makes the very idea of nations and national power obsolete. By definition, a technological singularity is beyond the “event horizon” of our limited imaginations, so there’s little more I can say on this.

For the purposes of completing the scenario to 2100, I will assume that the above don’t occur. Instead, the dominant forces in previous decades – economic convergence; declining EROEI and minerals accessibility; accelerating climate change – remain constants.

By the second half the century, climate change will start to dominate over everything else. The latest projections tend to lean towards the high end of the IPCC’s 1-6C warming range for the next century (the scariest of them show that by 2300 most of the world outside the Arctic may become downright lethal during summer). Warming of 4C is the point at which agriculture starts to not only experience difficulties but outright collapse throughout most of the equator and mid-latitudes.

http://youtu.be/MePAro1PsiI

[Map of global drought under aggregated runs of IPCC's models. Most of the US, southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America will be in an unprecedented mega-drought. Read more here.]

All the problems currently experienced by China and India with stagnant grain harvests will increase further, requiring very costly counter-measures. Now this is not to say that there will necessarily be mass famine and “dieoff”, as doomers like to predict. It is certainly a possibility, especially under the most severe warming scenarios, but growing food production in Russia, Canada, and even East Africa may make up the difference. In particular, China should be relatively safe, because by then it should be a developed country.

On the other hand, the Chinese state will have its hands full mitigating disaster after climate disaster. The spate of rebuilding after the flooding of New Orleans, which actually boosted US GDP, was one thing; when commercial metropolises like Shanghai are getting flooded and coastal property prices devaluing to nothing, it is economic and financial apocalypse.

What’s possible, then, is the following scenario. By the 2070′s, the Chinese state becomes so preoccupied with maintaining food stability, and the energy and mineral flows that enable industrial society in general, that the surplus resources and administrative capacity to do anything else diminish. This is not a new development in its history. For much of the 19th century, Qing China was the world’s biggest economy by GDP, even though Britain was becoming far more industrialized. This was because China was at its Malthusian limits; the population level was stable, but it was always on the edge of famine, and presided over by a government made weak by lack of taxable surpluses and unable to check the corruption and independence of its own public officials. The state was unable to defend itself, to modernize the country, or to guarantee its independence.

India is in a worse bind, and not just because it will likely remain less developed than China to that time. The Chinese, at least, have the reserve option of migrating some of their surplus population to Tibet (or East Africa, if they conquer it). India doesn’t have that, and faces the unwelcome prospect of a further flood of excess population – this time from a collapsing Pakistan (the Indus to run dry by late century, as Himalayan glaciers melt) and inundating Bangladesh.

A consequence is that states with far smaller populations and economies, but greater surplus resources – will emerge as new Great Powers. Primarily, this means Russia, but Canada would also be in this category, as will Scandinavia, Alaska, and (in one or two more centuries) whoever settles or controls Greenland. By virtue of their control over most of the world’s remaining critical resources – water (not only for food, but electricity); gas; coal; metals; whatever’s left of oil – they will wield unprecedented strategic power over the countries to the south.

Perhaps a colonial relationship will develop, in which the Arctic nations send resources and allow southern workers to farm their lands in exchange for selling off their industrial assets and eventually ceding political sovereignty. In the very long term, this will logically lead to the development of caste-based societies in Russia and Canada, as the sheer magnitude of climate refugees would mean that in any integration policy, it would be the indigenous inhabitants who would have to do most of the integrating (and hence politically impracticable).

By the end of the century – a world of two Arctic superpowers, Russia and Canada?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Next in our line of Watching the Russia Watchers interviews is Mark Chapman, the fiery Canadian sailor who’s been blazing a path of destruction through the fetid Russophobe ranks since July 2010. That was when he first set up The Kremlin Stooge, after being blocked from La Russophobe, who couldn’t withstand his powerful arguments without resorting to Stalinist tactics. The blog’s name, as he explains below, was bestowed by one of LR’s commentators (“Soviet Goon Boy” was considered, but rejected). Since then, he has expanded his coverage well beyond exposing La Russophobe and now goes from strength to strength: humiliating the self-appointed experts, drawing guest posts, being regularly translated by InoSMI, praised by La Russophobe, and making first place in S/O’s own list of the Top 10 Russia blogs in 2011. Without any further ado, I present you Mark Chapman the Kremlin Stooge, the Rambo of the Russophile blogosphere!

The Kremlin Stooge: In His Own Words…

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

As I’ve mentioned before in various exchanges with commenters, I was invited – hell, the whole world has been invited – to start my own blog by La Russophobe. Most have noticed “she” doesn’t care for dissent or for having her own blog rules used to regulate her conduct, and a common response is “why don’t you go and start your own blog, and see who reads it”. So I did. Of course, the invitation is based on the presupposition that it will be a grim failure which will teach you what a useless worm you really are.

I stumbled upon the La Russophobe blog during a search for early souvenirs of the Olympic Games in Sochi – I was looking for a backpack as a present for my wife. La Russophobe ran a post mocking the Russian souvenirs at the Olympics then in progress in Vancouver, because they were allegedly tacky and cheap. An exchange took place between us, and eventually I was banned from commenting. I invented a new ID – snooty Englishman Francis Smyth-Beresford (so as to have the initials FSB, and it was amazing how quickly otherwise-clodlike Ukrainian/Australian La Russophobe devotee Bohdan caught on). I tried hard to keep the criticism subtle, but eventually I was banned under that name as well. After that, I started The Kremlin Stooge, adopting the name from one of Bohdan’s favourite insults.

Prior to the initial accidental visit to La Russophobe, I was quite honestly unaware of that brand of barking mad Russophobia. I understood, of course, that bias against Russia existed, but there’s some degree of bias against almost everybody, and I rationalized that some had good reasons to dislike Russia while others just thought they did. But there’s a gulf of difference between reasoned disapproval and slobbering hate. I enjoyed challenging that hate, and exchanges with commenters who took a more reasoned approach while backing up their opinions with solid references taught me a great deal. Starting a blog seemed enormously daunting because I’m not that computer-savvy. However, for anyone who’s thinking it over, it’s dead easy and I encourage you not to wait if that’s what’s holding you back.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The best was probably the first time a post was picked up by inoSMI; it was one I had done on Georgia and Saakashvili, about 6 weeks after I started the blog. I thought something had gone wrong with my stats counter, because I got more hits in one day than I’d accumulated to that time in total, I think – 1,146 where my total for all of July, the month I started, was only a pitiful 854. Also great is any time I get a comment from one of the blogging greats I admire, like Eugene Ivanov, Leos Tomicek, yourself, Sean Guillory or Kevin Rothrock.

The worst is whenever I get my ass handed to me because I failed to research something properly. A good example was the post, “Are Slavs Stupid?” At the time I’d had a running argument going for some time with a commenter who appeared to be a borderline white supremacist, and we’d gone the rounds of blacks being criminals because they were black to Mexicans being lazy because they were Mexicans, to Slavic peoples being genetically less intelligent because of their nationality. I kept pecking away at the post until quite late, and hit upon some killer references that totally vaporized his arguments by demonstrating that Estonians had an extremely high incidence of apparently uniform academic excellence. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the crucial step of ensuring Estonians were Slavs – which, by and large, they’re not. I just assumed they were. I was too tired to take the extra 5 minutes it would have required to check my main argument, and as a direct result the whole thing fell apart. The larger point that Slavs are no stupider than any other group and that research supporting “genetic intelligence” has been broadly discredited was lost in the triumphant mockery, which of course I richly deserved for my laziness. I’d like to say it taught me a lesson, but still every now and then a dodgy bit of research or some shortcutting has resulted in me getting my legs kicked out from under me. Live and learn, they say.

What are the best blogs about Russia? What are the worst?

That’s hard to answer, because there are so many good ones and not really any bad ones. All serve a purpose. I really like “Russia: Other Points of View”, especially those entries contributed by Patrick Armstrong – the blog strikes just the right tone of reproachful correction of errors or misconceptions without a lot of screeching histrionics. But it’s dull because there are hardly ever any comments or argument, and I’d love to learn from a really good bare-knuckle fight at that elevated level of discourse. “Truth and Beauty” is another really good one. I did a review of the Russia blogs right after we rolled through 100,000, but it left out all the brilliant ones I haven’t discovered yet. Mark Galeotti’s, “In Moscow’s Shadows” has had some fascinating discussion of Russian legal and constitutional reform and Caucasian politics, but it’s not updated very often and the comment format is awkward.

Even blogs like La Russophobe serve a purpose – they’re really funny, not only because of the over-the-top exaggeration, fabrication and deliberate attempts to mischaracterize actual reports, but because of the breathless arrogance, swollen ego and holier-than-thou self-stylings of its author or authors. It used to motivate me to argue, but now it more often makes me laugh on the rare occasions I read it, and I’ve kind of gotten away from using it for inspiration. I remember in his interview AGT singled out Catherine Fitzpatrick as well, for generally long-winded blather, and there has been a good deal of speculation that she actually is La Russophobe. While her writing often runs to lengthy rants and she does seem to fall into that Soviet expat Russia-is-the-root-of-all-the-world’s-problems pigeonhole, she comes across as intelligent and well-educated, and you can sometimes reason with her a little (both of which argue against her being La Russophobe, if anyone cares). I don’t think those kind of blogs are responsible for too many attitude changes, so they’re mostly harmless.

What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I’m not well-traveled in Russia at all, and have never been outside the Primorsky Krai. I love Vladivostok, and was greatly encouraged the last time I was there to see ongoing efforts to restore and properly maintain some of its old buildings, with their beautiful architectural detail. There are so very many places I’ve never been, but I tend to favour places with a lot of history and large areas where the “old city” is preserved. For that reason, I’m especially interested in St Petersburg. Although Moscow seems to me like a grey, anonymous city that could be anywhere, there are probably fabulous attractions there as well that I’d love to see. I enjoyed visiting a lot of small villages around the Primorsky region – usually just passing through – and would like to spend more time there as well. Generally, I’m less interested in going someplace I already know everything about, and more interested in discovering a place I know nothing about.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West”, by Oleg Kalugin [AK: Click to buy]. I imagine you were thinking more of a book that reveals the true Russian soul, or reflects a defining phase of the nation’s history. Doubtless such works exist, but I’m not an academic and I haven’t read them; besides, I’m not convinced my assessment of what constitutes the key to the Russian soul or a significant historical moment would have much value. Kalugin’s book was compelling because it revealed so much about the inner workings of the KGB, including how influential it was on all aspects of state policy. It was instructive in its substantiation that the best intelligence assets simply walk in off the street rather than being wooed by “honey traps” like you see in the movies, and that they are nearly always motivated by money. Kalugin was one of American spy John Walker’s handlers, and the most senior KGB operative to write about the organization he had been an influential part of. He also revealed that for many years they had a very highly-placed source in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service (which eventually became our version of the American CIA, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)); something I never knew.

For what it’s worth, I asked my family – all Russians (my Father-in-Law, Mother-in-Law and wife) – the same question. Each got a pick, although it inspired much anguish and a comment from Sveta that it was like asking a mother of ten to choose her favourite child. They came up with Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” , Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, and Tolstoy again with “War and Peace”. I’m not trying to cheat and recommend four books for a question that asked for just one, but to point out that the essential character of Russia means different things to different people.

If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?

Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Revva and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Mr. Putin because his leadership of Russia fascinates me, Aleksandr Revva in case the mood got too somber because everything he does and says is hilarious, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in case I had to do the cooking myself. I learned from “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that he’s not a fussy eater, and would likely make anything look tasty. Aleksandr Revva might not count, because he was born a Ukrainian, but he’s been a staple feature of Russian comedy for a long time.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 2000? What about 1988? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

All of those, I think, but I don’t have any firsthand knowledge and am basing that assessment simply on statistics. There will always be people who are dirt-poor no matter how good the economy becomes, because they don’t know how to manage their money and won’t ask for help. But the opportunities to be richer and freer are certainly present to a greater degree, as are those to be well-informed and connected. The entire category of what constitutes the “average Russian” has changed since 1988.

Who knows what makes people happy? Russians are no different than anyone else in that respect, and some people everywhere are happy regardless of the conditions that define their lives. But I believe Russians feel much more self-determinant and in control of their own lives now. If that’s happiness, then yes.

To what extent is there a difference between Putin and Medvedev, and who do you think offers the better vision for Russia’s future?

Medvedev is a dreamer and Putin is a pragmatist. Medvedev seems out of his depth trying to actually run a country – it’s quite a bit different from running a company – and there seem to be too many variables for him to grasp, while Putin knows as much about running a country as anyone in Russia. Medvedev would be gobbled up in nothing flat without Putin behind him, while Putin demonstrably could survive quite well without Medvedev. For all of that, Medvedev has a better vision for Russia’s future, because he’s a dreamer and he wants things that will only come true – in the short term – in dreams. I don’t doubt he wants what’s best for Russia, but the opportunities for him to fall into a pit on the way are legion. Putin is considerably more a realist and his ideas for reform are generally more achievable as a consequence of his worldview. Together they make a pretty good team, and would be even better as Medvedev gains a little political experience and learns when saying nothing is better than saying something stupid.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

National image management. Even though resistance is strong to any attempts by Russia to put itself in a positive light on…well, just about anything you care to name, it’s just a skill like any other, and you get out of it what you put into it. Look at Israel – legendary lobbying skills. The USA is very, very good at it as well. Russia, frankly, stinks out loud at it. Past time for a makeover.

This came up awhile ago, in a couple of places. One was at Eugene Ivanov’s blog, where he proposed – half-jokingly – in the comments section of an excellent post on the odious Jackson-Vanik Amendment that Alina Kabaeva be deputized as the “new face” of United Russia. Of course she doesn’t have any real qualifications for the job except that she couldn’t possibly be as stupid as Sarah Palin is, she’s beautiful and has eye-magnetizing cleavage. But the implication that Russia needs to get away from arm-waving “Commie” stereotypes who are too easy to mock and move in the direction of suave, personable diplomats who have been groomed all their working lives for their assignments is spot-on.

Another was at Denise Martin’s blog, where we were discussing the late-50’s-era novel, “The Ugly American”. Although it was a work of fiction, it bore down fairly strongly on American foreign policy vis-à-vis Asia and the fictional nation featured was often said to mirror real-life South Vietnam; it was tremendously influential on JFK’s revamped and revitalized foreign policy, and instrumental to the creation of the Peace Corps. In the novel, American diplomats are clumsy, ignorant and uncaring, speak the native language poorly or not at all and are plainly uninterested in learning. Their Soviet (at the time) counterparts are sophisticated and urbane, firmly in touch with the culture and traditions of their hosts and speak the language like natives. Consequently, their influence is viewed in a much more positive light than that of the United States.

Take a memo, Russia. Stop staffing your diplomatic corps with bad copies of Boris and Natasha from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and start recruiting people foreigners will want to listen to.

HARD Talk with The Kremlin Stooge

Now you often come off as a big Canadian patriot (in a good way), but you also respect Russia’s assertive foreign policy of recent years. But what happens should the two collide? They have conflicting claims in the Arctic, due to overlapping continental shelf extensions. In recent years, Ottawa has criticized Russia for planting flags at the North Pole and flying bombers near its airspace. Both countries are expanding their military forces in the High North. Whose claims are the most valid? Who is most to blame for the intemperate rhetoric? Is this just political grandstanding, or is there a risk of an escalating cold war?

I don’t see any risk at all of it escalating beyond the decision of a UN Commission, if it even goes that far. After all, in accordance with the Illulissat Declaration, all nations with skin in the game are resolved to settle the issue by bilateral agreement. Russia’s current claims do not extend into the existing coastal boundaries (EEZ’s) of any Arctic coastal claimant, although opinions differ on overlapping claims beyond those, as you say. From what I can see, although I certainly am not a geologist, the Lomonosov Ridge is just as likely to originate on the Canadian side as the Russian side, and that’s the subject of intense research, but it’s like trying to determine which end of the Golden Gate Bridge is its origin after everyone who built it is dead and there are no plans.

In truth, I would have to say Canadian rhetoric I have read on this specific issue has had more of the ring of challenge about it, while Russia’s position appears more conciliatory. However, our government – especially when it is a conservative government as it is now, often echoes the concerns of its more powerful neighbour without thinking too much about whether the issue actually threatens us. About 85% of our trade goes south to the USA, and any “misunderstanding” that might imperil that relationship is to be avoided. To be honest, any government would do the same in the same circumstances, because any hiccup would have immediate impact on our economy. And the USA is the only nation that has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly to send it to the Senate for a vote 5 years ago. The USA seems to be waiting for new developments before committing itself, and the potential for an open Northwest Passage is likely a big part of that reluctance. I see Canadian rhetoric on this issue as mostly strutting for the benefit of our partners to show them we are keeping their concerns in mind. The offshore patrol vessels currently in the imaginative design phase for the Canadian Arctic are unlikely to have any serious offensive capability, and surely are not intended to fight a war for the high north.

As far as flying bombers “near” another nation’s airspace goes, when did that become illegal? As the agreement cited above specifies, all Arctic coastal states share responsibility for and stewardship of the Arctic. And almost all Russian aircraft designed and crewed for long onstation patrol functions are military.

My first loyalty is always to my own country; but I see no need for bellicose posturing and swaggering and believe it serves no purpose other than to make you look an ass when you are probably not. I’m in agreement with U.S. Senator John Quincy Adams – “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

You’ve praised A Good Treaty, and he rewards you by telling La Russophobe that “you guys really deserve each other.” Ouch! Have anything to say to that?

I’m glad you brought that up, because I was really hurt. I threw up my supper, stumbled to my room, buried my face in my pillow, drummed my feet on the bed and screamed, “Fuck you!!! Fuck you!!! What do you know, anyway??” Now that I’ve had time to cool down a little, I demand satisfaction – let’s settle this like men. We’ll fight. Since it was my idea, I get to choose the weapons, and I pick can openers in six feet of water (I hope he’s a short little bastard). Meet me in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 16th (my birthday), MoFo, and only one of us will walk away.

Seriously, I doubt Kevin thinks very much about my blog, although he’s kind enough to leave it on his blogroll and I get a lot of referrals from AGT. But I believe Kevin sees himself as a Serious Blogger, while seeing me as a Fundamentally Unserious Halfwit. He announced at his first blogging anniversary that he was going to hang up the tilting-at-windmills stuff and try for serious analysis. Maybe there’s just not as much room in his life for silliness any more, or he’s lost his patience for it. Also, he has a new baby in the house – must be just about time for some teeth – and maybe he was just tired.

Anyway, I really didn’t take any offense, because he’s right – we do deserve each other. There wouldn’t be any Kremlin Stooge without La Russophobe, and although I don’t use her articles for inspiration as often as I once intended, it’s great blogs like his that coaxed my interest in Russia beyond the panting fury on show at her nutblog. I guess he’s entitled to a little criticism. And I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of room in the Russia-watching blogosphere for Serious Bloggers and Fundamentally Unserious Halfwits.

In the previous section, you said that Medvedev was a “dreamer.” Could you please elaborate? Because some would say that he has been very active at implementing reform. He has fired far more senior bureaucrats and regional bigwigs than Putin ever did, e.g. in the course of the police reforms a third of the most senior officers were recently dismissed. To give a range of other examples, in the past year Medvedev ordered state officials to leave the boards of state companies, signed a law that eliminates prison terms as mandatory punishment for white-collar crimes, promoted the privatization of state assets, and asked the government to draft a program for the support of education of Russian students in leading international universities. So is your attitude not, in fact, a “presumption of failure” in Eugene Ivanov’s words?

Actually, I kind of wish I had read that post before I responded. The comments as well; especially Patrick Armstrong’s, in which he pointed out that the attitude toward reform in Russia – from a typical western perspective – is that it’s immediately a complete success or else it’s another dismal failure. But it probably wouldn’t have changed my response much. Still, you’re right – as is Eugene – that Medvedev has achieved a good deal that he’s received little or no credit for, and perhaps that’s deliberate although it’s difficult to reconcile a west that wants to see Medvedev in the big chair rather than Putin with a west that never says anything good about Medvedev.

No, what I meant to infer when I said Medvedev was “a dreamer” was not so much Medvedev’s/Putin’s actual accomplishments (and admittedly, the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments is more impressive than I would have thought) as Medvedev’s hopes that these accomplishments are going to win over the west and inspire a renewed rapprochement with it. Putin, whom I described in the same question as “a realist”, knows there will be no such rapprochement unless the west has no other alternative, and that the international game of musical chairs in which the west tries to inch closer and closer with encircling military bases will continue long after the music stops. In this comparison, Medvedev looks like Charlie Brown; unable to stop himself from taking another run at the football, even though on some level he understands the probability it will be yanked away just as he commits.

However, if you suggested that’s uncharitable, and that someone who really wished Russia success insofar as her interests do not trample on those of someone else’s rights, you’d be correct. The thing to do would be to get behind Medvedev’s plans, and amplify his successes as they deserve to be. I humbly so resolve. And although I remain unconvinced he’s the strong leader Russia needs to consolidate and progress its gains achieved over the past decade, I apologize for my lack of faith in his ability to achieve anything constructive. If for no other reason, because anything that appears to put Lilia Shevtsova and I on the same side cannot go on unresolved.

When Putin came to power he promised to “eliminate the oligarchs as a class”, but as of last year there were 114 billionaires – an order of magnitude greater than under Yeltsin. Putin’s judo buddies and Ozero friends have done particularly well; e.g., to quote Daniel Treisman, “During his second term, control over valuable Gazprom assets began to pass into the hands of one of [Putin’s] old friends, Yury Kovalchuk… After Gazprom bought the oil company Sibneft from the oligarch Roman Abramovich, much of its oil was sold by another old Putin acquaintance, Gennady Timchenko.” (I’d also note the latter was sold the Port of Murmansk for $250 million this year with no public bidding). All this isn’t exactly out of character for Putin either; back in 1999, when the Prosecutor-General Skuratov insisted on investigating corruption in Yeltsin’s Family, Putin helped discredit him with a sex video and pressed him to resign. Even if we accept your arguments that Putin isn’t personally corrupt, isn’t it undeniable that he broke his promise and far from eliminating the oligarchs he has ensconced their power? And given the favors he’s dispensed to his friends, will he not be able to cash in on them with interest once he leaves the Presidency and thus enter the oligarchy himself?

First, what’s the direct relationship between numbers of billionaires and oligarchs? I’m afraid I don’t see a natural correlation between oligarchs and billionaires – if you are one, are you, ipso facto, the other as well? Is T. Boone Pickens an oligarch? If everyone in Russia is a little bit better off financially than they were under Yeltsin – and they are unless they are making a conscious effort to not be – are they incrementally more corrupt?

Although FT often goes out of its way to spin every news item that concerns Russia in an unfavourable light, this reference is at pains to point out that one of these oligarchs is Mikhail Prokhorov. Back in 2007, Prokhorov was allegedly forced by Putin to sell his 26% stake in Norilsk Nickel. This, according to the New York Times, suggests the Kremlin flexing its muscles and punishing Prokhorov. Bouncing back to your reference, we learn that the Kremlin actually did him a huge favour, since when markets collapsed, Prokhorov was “the only oligarch with any cash to spare.” If the Kremlin was able to foresee the market collapse a year before it happened, why didn’t every sugar-daddy make out like a bandit? There’s a disconnect here, in which (according to the NYT) “…under Mr. Putin, the Russian government is establishing vast, state-owned holding companies in automobile and aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding, nuclear power, diamonds, titanium and other industries. His economic model is sometimes compared with the state-owned, “national champion” industries in France under Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s. The policy of forcing owners of strategic assets to sell their holdings has also been compared to recent nationalizations in Venezuela and other Latin American nations. “Yet while Putin reinvents the Soviet Union – and, according to Irina Yasina, “In Russia today, no serious deal can be made without approval from the Kremlin” – despite the fact that there were no oligarchs until Yeltsin sold off state assets at fire-sale prices, somehow Putin is consolidating everything under the state’s iron grip, while a burgeoning bumper crop of oligarchs is getting rich. How? How can these two conditions coexist? A new Soviet Union and a simultaneous flabbergasting spike in private wealth? Come on, guys – get your narrative nailed down.

FT also points out that the surge in personal wealth by the wealthy it persists in referring to as “oligarchs” originates with a 20% increase in value in the Russian stock market in 2010, and increasing demand for raw materials from China. It’s a bit of a stretch to maintain that Putin personally controls the Russian stock market and is shunting sweet deals to his friends – when would he find the time to do that, and how could he have been such a dink as to let it crash in 2009, wiping out billions in his pals’ money? – but anyone who means to suggest Putin is behind Chinese economic growth is asking to be laughed out of the room. Maybe some of those wealthy businessmen gained their original oligarch spurs during the privatization giveaway (under Yeltsin); but if you make more money in straight business deals using that money, are you still an oligarch? When does that stop – ever? Is the west as unforgiving of the source of personal fortunes in the west?

It simply stands to reason that if the economy of the whole country is picking up, the rich will get richer and new rich will join their ranks. It’s astonishing how many places that happens, and the risks are demonstrably greater in Russia along with the rewards.

How has Putin “ensconced the oligarchs’ power” when Prokhorov is the first to dip a toe into politics since Khodorkovsky, and allegedly on the Kremlin’s side at that? As to the other part of the question, is it unusual for national leaders to be connected to the rich? Does this presuppose Putin will become a rich oligarch when he leaves politics? Maybe, but as someone who has not flaunted conspicuous wealth all his life as many similarly-connected western leaders have, it would not simply be a return to type. There’s no denying the opportunity is there. But a Putin no longer in a position to “dispense favours” might not be an advantage worth the price.

As a follow-up to the last question, don’t you think that the only reason Khodorkovsky was singled out by the regime for prosecution was because he funded the opposition and called for transparency? After all, plenty of other oligarchs who misappropriated Russia’s wealth in the 1990’s were allowed to enjoy their riches – or get even richer with the Kremlin’s help.

No, I don’t. Only a fool would argue everyone who deserves to be in jail in Russia is in jail, any more than that state of affairs prevails anywhere else. It was indeed unconscionable to make a deal with the oligarchs in the terms it’s been described – stay out of politics, and yer can keep the swag, ahrrrr. However, once again, was it effective? The country has prospered, the remaining oligarchs have indeed stayed out of politics or moved abroad to protect their wealth (have a look at the numbers of wealthy Americans moving abroad to avoid what they say are crippling taxes), and the chances of success for a policy that would have seen Putin pitting himself against the accumulated wealth of Russia’s richest and all the influence they could muster would have been, I submit, dim. Perhaps Mr. Putin viewed it as a necessary deal to move the country forward without opposition. Again, there’s no evidence to suggest he did it to enrich himself.

There certainly is a sizable segment of society that would like to believe Khodorkovsky is guilty only of funding the opposition and advocating transparency. However, despite YUKOS’s reputation for transparency in business dealings, company records are no such thing and Khodorkovsky is defiantly unrepentant for defrauding Russia of legal tax revenue in order to increase his profit. I believe he funded the opposition mostly to put stumbling-blocks in the government’s way and keep them occupied while he increased his personal control over Russian affairs, and that he had no interest in running the country himself as a political leader because it would have limited his opportunities to enrich himself further, provided he still wanted to court western support. I further believe he was sandbagged disproportionately hard for tax evasion because the government could not get anyone to testify against him for more serious crimes, although there is considerable circumstantial evidence those crimes occurred. Unfortunately, the government’s star witness – the former mayor of Nefteyugansk – is dead, and Mr. Khodorkovsky’s former chief of security is in jail for it.

In September 2000, central Russia was wracked by a series of apartment bomb blasts. As you probably know, many questions about it remain unanswered. There was the bizarre Ryazan incident, the materials on which the Duma voted to seal for 75 years. There was Duma Speaker Seleznyov telling the deputies about a bombing in Vologda, accurate in all respects but one – it occurred three days after his announcement. And those who tried to carry out independent investigations tended to see a drop in their life expectancies; one by one, they were assassinated (e.g. Yushenkov, Schekochikhin, Litvinenko). Is it possible that, directly or indirectly, Putin’s sky-rocketing popularity in late 2000 – and consequently, his Presidency – was built on the blood of innocents blown up by the FSB?

Well, of course it’s possible. However, every story has two sides, and in a disagreement regarding an event for which no direct evidence has been produced, much goes to the credibility of the defenders of each respective viewpoint. So, let’s take a look at who said what. On the “Putin did it” side, David Satter – former Moscow correspondent for FT Russia, then columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Yury Felshtinsky, co-author (with dead Alexander Litvinenko) of “Blowing Up Russia”, sponsored by Boris Berezovsky, in which Felshtinsky accuses Putin of masterminding the bombings to achieve political power. Supposedly the target of a 3-man FSB assassination team, which had arrived in Boston in 2007 to kill him, Felshtinsky is unaccountably (and embarrassingly) still alive 4 years later – perhaps they’re tied up in customs at Logan International (What? Poison gas-tipped umbrellas are illegal???). Boris Berezovsky himself, former oligarch who high-sided it to the UK with his money and forecast in 2001 that Putin would be gone by the end of the year, while blathering on as an authority on what constitutes corruption although the source of his fortune is generally acknowledged to have devolved from his connections with the Yeltsin “family”. The reference also helpfully notes that Berezovsky broke with Putin when he “moved to rein in the oligarchs”. Boris Kagarlitsky, editor-in-chief of Levaya Politika and democracy activist. Vladimir Pribylovski, another co-author with still-not-dead Felshtinsky, and another admittedly biased opposition supporter through his political website Anticompromat.ru. On the “That’s just bullshit” side, Gordon Bennett of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a former component of the Defence Academy of the UK and present component of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group. Robert Ware, noted expert on the North Caucasus. Henry Plater-Zyberk, former analyst for the British Foreign Office, specialist in Russia and Central Asia and senior analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Centre. Simon Saradzhyan, security and foreign policy expert, former editor of the Moscow Times and research fellow at Harvard. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, and recognized expert in Russian and Eastern European politics. Who has more invested in the “Putin blew up his own people” story being true?

None of the people mentioned were present when the bombings took place. Although there’s been a lot of talk about “evidence”, there apparently has been none brought forward, and those who supplied testimony are more or less disposed to lie depending on who’s telling the story. Novaya Gazeta reported the testimony of one Private Pinyaev, for example, who supposedly was party to a group who made tea with some “sugar” which was actually Hexogen and which “tasted terrible”, although RDX derivatives like Hexogen are a poison that is toxic even if inhaled or absorbed through the skin and can lead to seizures. That’d be hard to forget.

There are indeed inconsistencies in the case that are difficult to explain. However, the actions supposedly undertaken by the FSB seem so clownishly verifiable that it’s hard to imagine they would so obviously incriminate themselves. The side that argues for it being a false-flag operation consists mostly of political dissidents and democracy activists, while the side that argues against that explanation consists largely of respected academics with a good deal of experience. And if the FSB are all liars, well, it’d be worth remembering where Litvinenko came from.

I noticed that in the original discussion that drew you to La Russophobe (and blogging), you made the following bet with commentator Felix: “The Sochi Winter Games will go ahead as scheduled, and the positive reviews will far outnumber the negatives.” Are you still confident about that given the rate of embezzlement corroding that project? (For instance, one road was found to cost $8 billion; it would have been cheaper to pave it with black caviar). And if you’re wrong do you still intend to send Felix his beer?

I’m still confident Sochi will be rated a success, even though many English-language sources will be disposed to look for negatives. I believe that case of Stella is as good as mine, but of course a bet is a bet and I will pay up if I’m wrong. Note, though, that Felix defined the terms very narrowly, and it does not even need to be a roaring success for me to win – Russia merely has to hold to full completion more than 20 medal-winning events (20 is proposed to be a tie; less, and I lose), and as Felix points out, that’s less than half the events held in Vancouver. Money for jam, as the British used to say.

In that post I also got away with arguing that Boris Nemtsov was not from Sochi, which was Ding! Ding! Ding! incorrect. I didn’t know any better then. Of course, I do now.

As far as the road to Sochi goes – come on, Anatoly. You blew that one to pieces yourself, here. I quote: “Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!” Once you consider that, you told us, “things begin to make a lot more sense.” That kind of construction ain’t cheap. Although doubtless corruption has inflated the overall expense, this is commonplace with government projects in many countries, few of whom are sufficiently pure to cast aspersions; let’s not inflate it to “Congo-like proportions”. Say, did you notice it’s only Russophobes who counsel using caviar as an alternative – and economically competitive – road surface? I beg to differ: it has serious durability issues compared with asphalt, and in summer! Well, I don’t have to tell you what a caviar road would begin to smell like.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where their mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Russia will be a full member of the WTO by the end of 2012. Joint Asian financial institutions will form which will channel tremendous direct investment into Russia, and ties between Russia and China particularly will strengthen. New spheres of influence will form, and China and Russia will hold annual large-scale joint military exercises. Russia will permit a much greater degree of foreign ownership in state assets. The new Japanese government will formally forswear all claims to the Kuriles, and Russo-Japanese relations will dramatically improve.

That last one is really going out on a limb, as if any such initiative does look likely there will be intense lobbying from the USA to discourage it, and the USA is likely to remain strongly influential in the formation of Japanese foreign policy. But I feel good about it nonetheless.

And specifically, could you make any predictions on who will be the President from 2012?

Whoa – too close to call. I still think it’ll be Putin, and that’s what I’d like to see, but the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments you reeled off earlier makes me think he’s a better bet than I had at first supposed. Either of them could win easily, so I could just say, “The United Russia candidate”. But that’d be facetious.

I think it would be better for Russia if Putin won, for reasons I stated earlier. He’s less easy to seduce with saccharine promises of western cooperation, which is not going to be forthcoming unless whoever wins swears to run the country according to western diktat. However, Medvedev is the more likely of the two to push for liberal reforms that will benefit Russia long-term.

What are your plans for The Kremlin Stooge?

As long as I’m having fun, I plan to keep on keepin’ on. If I can encourage some more of my lazy commenters to put their opinions where my posts are, I plan to have more guest work. Confusion to our enemies, and death to Russophobia!!!

Thanks to The Kremlin Stooge for an excellent interview!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In this third part of my series on national comparisons between Britain, Russia, and the US, I look at the social institutions and infrastructure that play such a big role in our everyday lives. Why is Russia’s life expectancy ten years lower than in the US? What are the most popular university subjects? Where do they live and shop, and how do they get to work? RAFO.

Healthcare

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – free at the point of service – is, IMO, the best healthcare system of the three countries. Though waiting lines were a big problem a decade ago, New Labour has thrown a lot of money at them and nowadays lines are much shorter (though the system may well suffer now that the current government wants to “reform” it by cutting staff). Those who can afford it are free to use private healthcare providers or private insurance. The UK spends 8% of GDP on healthcare, and provides objectively better healthcare outcomes than the US system which occupies 16% of its GDP.

That said, the American system is better at some things: its medical technologies are the most advanced in the world and its hospitals are better equipped, and if you can pay for it – or if your insurance covers it – then you chances of surviving many forms of degenerative diseases are substantially higher than if you’re treated by the NHS. Also, emergency service is free; even if you’re an undocumented immigrant and have a heart attack, you will be treated at the EM ward and get that triple bypass. However, if you’re suffering from a wasting disease and aren’t insured, you are screwed. Also very problematic are minor, but painful and very inconvenient problems, such as a chipped tooth. What you can fix in Russia for a $50 fee, or get for free after several weeks of waiting from the NHS, may set you back by a cool $500 in the US.

PS. Speaking of dentistry… the Brits have a reputation for very bad teeth. But this is an outdated stereotype.

In Russia, compulsory medical insurance is paid out by companies, while treatment for indigents is provided by the state. However, with spending on healthcare a meager 4% of GDP, and many facilities in lack of repair and staffed by poorly trained specialists, treatment of chronic diseases in Russia remains fairly primitive in comparison with the US or the UK. It is wise to pay a “gift” to the nurses to ensure that you or someone you care about gets good treatment during your hospital stay; though it’s their job, their salaries are still very low, and such things are appreciated. This also applies to doctors. Call it corruption, call it a legacy of communism, or call it social support for healthcare workers, but it’s expected – especially from richer people – and refraining from it can make your stay a more unpleasant and dangerous one.

Life expectancy, at 69 years, is far lower than the 78 years in the US or the 80 years in the UK, but it is primarily not because of poor healthcare – Ingushetia, one of Russia’s poorest regions, but a “dry” Muslim republic, has a life expectancy of 78 years – but because of the alcohol and smoking epidemic (see below). The lowest life expectancies are in particularly run-down regions, especially those with big non-Russian (and non-Muslim!) minorities, as well as Siberia and the Far East; the highest life expectancies are in the Muslim Caucasus, the southern regions, and Moscow. In the UK, life expectancy is highest in the south, especially around London; and lowest in Glasgow at 73 years (not surprisingly, Glaswegians are also the most alcohol prone in the UK). In the US, the highest life expectancies are on the east coast and the west coast (including California), at around 81 years; the lowest, at 75 years, are in the South, the epicenter of America’s obesity crisis.

After a great deal of investment in recent years, the infant mortality rate has fallen to 7 / 1000 live births in Russia, which is the same as in the US, but higher than the UK’s 5 / 1000. To deal with the post-Soviet fertility crisis – the number of expected births per Russian woman dropped from a replacement level rate of 1.9-2.1 during the 1980′s to a nadir of 1.12 in 2000 – the government implemented pro-natality measures in 2007 that gave each woman a $10,000 payment for a second child. Since then, the fertility rate rose from 1.3 children per woman in the mid-2000′s, to 1.6 by 2010.

The UK’s fertility rate was 1.9 and the US fertility rate was 2.1 in 2008. Generally speaking, families of two children are the norm in both countries, while families with three or four children are also fairly common; in contrast, while the vast majority of Russian woman do have children, the typical family size is one or two children, with more being rare outside the Muslim Caucasus (where the fertility rate is about 2 children per woman). There are significant regional differences in all these countries. In the US, fertility rates are lowest in the highly urban North East, followed by the West Coast and industrial Mid-West; they are highest in the South and central states; Utah, with its Mormon population, is a very high outlier. In Russia, fertility rates are higher in rural areas, and to the east of the country, and amongst some traditionally Buddhist peoples of Siberia and in the Muslim south; the biggest single outlier is Chechnya.

Similar scenes are common throughout Russia.

Similar scenes are common throughout Russia.

Russia’s alcohol epidemic has no parallels outside the former Soviet Union (Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states suffer from similar problems), and is the main reason why its life expectancy lags nearly a decade behind the US and the UK. According to research, something like 25% of Russian deaths, both directly and indirectly, are caused by alcohol consumption. It is not unusual for the heavy drinkers to retreat to a multi-day vodka binge with like-minded friends, called a zapoi, and then go back to work and stay dry for a few weeks or months on end; and this occurs amongst men of all ages.

This excess mortality is especially concentrated amongst middle-aged men. Among young people, beer is displacing vodka, lessing the disparity relative to the US and Britain in recent years; while among old people, death rates begin to converge with Western ones, largely because any old Russians are typically those who rarely or never binged on hard spirits in the first place.

While Britain also has something of a binge drinking problem, it does not cause major health impacts on the population as a whole because most of it happens just one night a week, amongst people in their late teens and twenties with robust constitutions.

Many rural Russians even brew their own moonshine (samogon) – a relic of Gorbachev’s failed attempts at prohibition – which can be surprisingly good and sometimes even better than the bottled stuff. It’s certainly much better than DIY booze. Once upon a time when the vodka ended, our host didn’t want to end the party / binge, and mixed up a brew of medical spirit with water and slices of lemon. By that point we were probably too drunk to notice and certainly too drunk to care. The morning after consequences were unpleasant to say the least.

Alcohol prices are very low in Russia*. Last time I checked, you could buy a bottle of vodka for $3, and a two liter plastic bottle of beer for less than $2. In contrast, a bottle of vodka costs $15-20 in the US and a six-pack of beer is perhaps $8. However, wine can be pretty cheap. While good stuff costs $15+, the cheapest bottles can be had for $3, while a five liter Franzia pack costs $12.

* However, those days are coming to an end. Taxes on hard spirits are to be quadrupled through to 2015.

Smoking is far more popular in Russia than in the UK or the US. Only 20-25% of people smoke in the US and the UK; in fact, smokers are widely considered to be losers. In contrast, upwards of 60% of Russian men and about 30% of Russian women smoke. The share of the smoking population peaked from the early 1990′s (when the Russian tobacco market was liberalized) to the mid-2000′s. They have now started falling under the pressure of a state propaganda campaign against smoking (anti-smoking initiatives were began in the West almost three decades ago) and rising tobacco taxes. Nonetheless, cigarettes remain very cheap. Whereas a pack costs $5-8 in the US and the UK, you could buy one for just $1 in Russia as late as 2008. But as with vodka, the days of cheap cigarettes are now numbered.

Education

The uniforms at Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

The uniforms at Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

Mandatory schooling in the UK consists of primary school for 6 years and secondary school for another 5. After that, many students go on to do three to five “A-Levels” in their chosen subjects for another 2 years and apply to university through UCAS. In total, about 40% of the population goes into higher education. It used to be highly subsidized by the government, but tuition fees were raised to £3,000 per year in the mid-2000′s and will be raised further to £6,000-9,000 from 2012 (in practice, all self-respecting universities will charge the highest rates, since failing to do so would signal lack of confidence in their own quality). These fees may be covered with a direct loan from the Student Loans Company, but will effectively act as a burdensome tax until they are paid off. IMO, it would behove the average British student to study at European universities, most of which are free or charge only symbolic rates. Typical UK programs offer a single program of study (e.g. Math; Fine Arts) for three years and are geared towards corporate applications.

Cambridge is the top ranked UK university, closely followed by Oxford. The two are called Oxbridge.

Cambridge is the top ranked UK university, closely followed by Oxford. The two are called Oxbridge.

There are 12 grades of US mandatory schooling, divided into: elementary, secondary, and senior high. In the latter, students work on the SAT’s and ACT’s that are required for university admission. The SAT’s are pretty basic, and mandatory; but other qualifications such as A-Levels or International Baccalaureates are accepted in lieu of ACT’s. About 70% of the US populations ends up with some kind of college education and there are far more mature or returning students than in the UK. In private universities, fees are high, but subsidies for poor families and scholarships are very generous. Ironically, public universities are actually less affordable for lower middle class families (though poor families get state aid). Any remaining lack of money can be made up with state subsidized loans. Finally, fees are very low in America’s excellent system of community colleges. The claims that most Americans can’t afford university are untrue; in fact, the US rate of tertiary enrollment is higher than in most European countries, which rations by limiting the numbers of available places.

Apart from the occasional truant, secondary schooling is universal in all three countries. All British pupils wear school uniforms, but it is infrequent in Russia, and very rare in the US.

Corporal punishment is still practiced in schools in the conservative states in the US, which is shocking to many Europeans. Russia abolished corporal punishment in schools in 1917. The UK abolished the practice in 1987, and extended it to private schools by the early 2000′s (under EU pressure); before that, the headmaster’s cane was a common cultural element amongst the boarding school graduates that formed the British upper middle class. E.g. see Roald Dahl on the matter.

Home schooling is legal in all three countries, but is by far the most widespread in the US. If I had to guess, it’s because of its large population of fundamentalists who don’t want their children to be exposed to the theory of evolution or sex education.

All three countries are fairly conservative (by mainland European standards) on sex education. In the US, the focus is on propagandizing abstinence only, which doesn’t seem to work if teenage pregnancy rates are anything to go by. Sex education remains highly controversial in modern Russia, but is no longer the taboo it was in the USSR. In the UK, most sex education focuses on the reproductive system, with coverage of contraceptive methods typically limited to a single class. Most mainland European states seem more progressive; a German acquaintance told me one of the sex ed assignments was to buy a condom and bring it to class.

U.C. Berkeley is the top ranked public university in the US. It has a lively protest culture. I took this photo at a demonstration against funding cuts.

U.C. Berkeley is the top ranked public university in the US. It has a lively protest culture. I took this photo at a demonstration against funding cuts.

The curriculum in US universities is far broader than in Britain. In contrast to the latter’s hyper-specialization, Americans place a particular stress on the value of a well-rounded “liberal arts” education; in addition to a chosen major, students are encouraged and frequently required to take classes in history, math, literature, etc. So despite the typical US undergrad degree lasting four years as opposed to the British three, the average American student only spends perhaps 2-3 years on her major; on the upside, she emerges more knowledgeable on the world in general. The US doesn’t have rigidly structured programs for particular subjects, as with Britain; as long as the requisite units have been taken by the end of the four years, the student gets his degree. To take U.C. Berkeley as an example, you need 120+ units to graduate; each class is worth three to five units; and you typically take about four classes per Fall and Spring semester (and perhaps one or two classes during Summer).

Mandatory schooling in Russia lasts for 10 years, and consists of 11 grades (the 4th grade is bizarrely missing). Traditionally, universities admissions were based on school grades, and in the case of elite universities, written and oral exams in the proposed field of study. Recently, this system has been replaced by the Unified State Exam, which is to be taken by every school leaver and used in all university admission applications. The idea is to make the process fairer and more transparent. About 70% of Russians go into a Higher Education Institute (VUZ), which can be a university, academy, or specialized school. The typical undergrad program at a university lasts four years, follows by a two year Masters. Students take classes from different departments in the first period, and spend an increasing proportion of time on their chosen subject later on. University fees are AFAIK much lower than in the US or the UK, but state stipends for students are miserly; there is intense competition for the limited fully subsidized places.

Many poorer American students take part-time jobs to fund their university study; many others work to begin building their career (e.g. it is common for both US and UK students to intern at investment banks, IT companies, etc. during summer). Fewer young people work in Russia; university study is more typically expected to be a full-time job. However, its system of distance learning and evening classes is arguably far more developed – a legacy of the Soviet focus on expanding economic opportunities to ordinary workers, e.g. a Volga fisherman doing problems on math and engineering sent to him from an educational institute, in preparation for transferal into the oil industry.

Most universities in the US tend to be private, albeit there are some excellent public schools too. In Britain and Russia, almost all universities are public. I don’t really see the need for most UK universities to remain under state control; with the recent reforms, they will get very little funding from the state anyway, so why continue bothering with their red tape and regulations?

The marking systems differ. In British schools, everyday school grades are numerical, with a 1 being best and a 5 being worst; however, in national exams, an alphabetical scale is used (A* is best in GCSE’s, and recently in A-Levels too; a C is a pass, while anything lower is a fail). In Russia, the order is reversed, with a 5 being best (pupils who consistently get these are called otlichniki, lit. “outstanders”; proudly by their parents, and disparagingly by their classmates) and a 2 being worst (pupils who specialize in these are called dvoichniki, lit. “two-ers”). In the US, an A is the best grade, a C is a pass, and an F is a fail. The marks for different subjects are computed into a Grade Point Average (GPA), with an A counting as a 4.0; an A- as a 3.7; a B+ as a 3.3; a B as a 3.0; a C as a 2.0; etc. To get into a good British university, you’ll need mostly A’s, with a few B’s; to get into a good American university, you need a GPA higher than 3.5 and a good extra-curricular record.

In US universities, having a GPA of less than 2.0 is regarded as a fail, and grounds for expelling a student unless he improves. Having a GPA above 3.3 is very much recommended from a future employment perspective; to get into decent graduate schools, law schools and medical schools, a GPA of 3.7-4.0 is expected. In British universities, the undergraduate degree classification goes, from best to worst: 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd, pass, fail. Those with a first-class or upper second degree enjoy the best job prospects. During the Soviet period, graduation certificates were either Red (theoretically better) or Blue (theoretically worse), but in practice few paid attention to them because it was possible and even typical for geniuses to get Blues because they did badly on their obligatory and ideologized (Marxist-Leninist) political economy exams. I don’t know how degrees are classified in today’s Russia.

There has been a lot of grade inflation in the US and the UK in recent years. This is especially visible at private, prestigious US universities like Yale: it is hard to get anything less than a B (equivalent to a C at public institutions). After all, why would parents pay over the roof for their children to end up with crap grades? The same processes can be observed in the British national exams, GCSE’s and A-Levels, to the extent that top-tier universities are now creating their own entrance exams because it is hard to separate the top flyers from the merely competent.

Economics and related disciplines (Business, Management, Marketing, etc.) have become the most popular subjects in Britain, Russia, and the US. With the exception of Applied Math* and Computer Science – useful for finance and IT, the two most dynamic, high-paid and prestigious sectors in all three countries – the hard sciences (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Engineering) are withering away, though the extent of the degradation varies (most advanced in Britain, least advanced in Russia). Though there is concern about this process in all three countries, I view this as a natural consequence of post-industrial development. Other disciplines that have grown in popularity include History, Legal Studies, and Political Science. There has also appeared a plethora of degrees in Media Studies, Women’s Studies, etc., in all three countries; they are popularly dismissed as “fluff” or “doss” subjects, and certainly offer substandard employment prospects.

* For whatever reason, it is “math” in American English and “math s” in British English.

The process of becoming a doctor or lawyer varies by country. In the US, universities rarely offer classes in medicine. Instead, “pre-meds” are required to take a number of classes in fundamental sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Physics, Math) while doing any degree they wish (though in practice most pick something like biochemistry). The aspiring lawyer tends to take classes in subjects like Legal Studies, History, and Political Science. There is intensive competition for places at law and medical schools, so only those with the highest GPA’s, and the best MCAT’s (Medical College Admissions Test) and LSAT’s (Law School Admissions Test), get in. After several more years of study, and apprentice work at a hospital or law firm, a new doctor or lawyer appears in America.

In Britain, both Medicine and Law are studied as subjects at university for three years. As I understand it, the apprenticeship with a hospital or law firm follows immediately afterwards. On average, US doctors seem to be better trained than British ones; at least, whereas an American doctor would have no problem establishing himself in the UK, the reverse does not apply (not to even mention a Russian doctor).

Which country has the best education system? The results of international standardized tests show that there is little difference between the three countries. Russia does slightly worse on the PISA tests than the US, and the US does significantly worse than Britain; on the other hand, Russia tends to do slightly better on the TIMMS and PIRLS tests. So it’s hard to say. If I had to make a generalization, I’d say math and hard sciences are taught better in Russian schools, whereas the British and Americans are better at developing argumentative and essay writing skills.

In writing and literature, Russian schools are more into rote learning and learning by repetition, as opposed to analysis and evaluation. (Whereas Americans and Britons undoubtedly write better essays, Russians quote their national writers and poets nonstop; even I can still recall some of Aleksandr Pushkin’s poems that had been drilled into me at an early age, and my grandma seems to know the entire Russian literary canon by heart.)

Moscow State University is usually the top ranked Russian university.

Moscow State University is usually the top ranked Russian university.

The situation is clearer in higher education. According to the most famous ARWU global universities rankings, Russia has just 2 institutions in the Top 500, compared with 154 for the United States and 38 for the United Kingdom. However, it’s important to stress that these rankings aren’t primarily reflections of universities’ quality of education, but of their funding and international prestige. The scientific programs at Moscow State, MIPT (host to several Nobel Prize winners, but not even on ARWU’s lists), and the top 10 or so Chinese institutions for that matter are easily as rigorous as MIT or Cambridge. It is ridiculous to say, relying on ARWU, that education is better at the University of Lancaster or the University of Reading – decidedly middling UK institutions – than the University of St.-Petersburg, Russia (which produced the researcher who would make what is probably the biggest mathematical achievement of the past decade). The Times Higher Education ratings are even more overtly biased in favor of Anglo-Saxon institutions.

These rankings should all be more properly considered as global university reputation rankings. In many parts of the world, the simple ownership of a university degree from the US or the UK – no matter the subject, no matter even the performance – confers a great deal of respect and lucrative job offers. That is why Gadaffi’s son paid a $1.5 million “donation” for his London School of Economics degree and some Chinese pay as much as $20,000 for degrees from fake Californian universities. It is common for oil rich countries like Oman or the UAE to pay for their well-connected citizens to get papers from some middling British university and present them with a secure administrative job on their return. Dependent on this money, lower-ranking UK universities practically never fail these students, no matter how little they study. Russia’s attitude to Western degrees isn’t quite as absurd as that of the Arabs; nonetheless, when choosing between a Moscow State graduate and an equivalent LSE graduate, the Russian employer will typically give the job to the British-educated applicant.

While judging these things is hard, I would say that the level of theoretical knowledge gained by students at Russian universities is no worse than at equivalent British or American universities; possibly, even better (note that the standard Russian undergraduate degree lasts six years, as opposed to four in the US and three in the UK). However, Russian universities fail big-time when it comes to applying their research capabilities to corporate applications. This is in stark contrast to the US, where venture capitalists scour universities for the next big start-up, big corporations sponsor and head-hunt for talented students, and professors and departments strike up partnerships to develop innovative new products and services. The same process goes on at British universities, if at a more subdued pace.

Russian universities are the successors to the Soviet system of higher education, whose biggest strengths were in math and theoretical physics, while the main applications were in military R&D. This made research hard to monetize in civilian markets in the context of the new market economy. But far more critical than these Soviet distortions was the state’s neglect of the academic sector throughout the 1990′s-early 2000′s. Scientific equipment has not been modernized, with the result that only a few top universities are still capable of conducting world-class research in spheres such as applied physics or microelectronics. Still more damagingly, many of the most brilliant, younger, and entrepreneurial people left Russian academia for the much bigger salaries of business or foreign academia. The result is that even in distinguished institutions, it is not uncommon to see professors in their 70′s continuing to teach subjects like math – not so much for the salary as love of their work – which is inspiring, but also very ineffective.

Now while it is true that some universities have begun to prosper and strike up corporate partnerships, e.g. Moscow State University with Yandex (Russia’s Google), this remains the exception rather than the rule. Academic salaries have risen massively in the past few years and continue increasing, but are still not competitive enough to draw back the academics lost to the 1990′s “brain drain” (see The Russian Diaspora in the second part of this series) or, more importantly, to retain the best current graduates. Until Russian academia is modernized and acquires a more commercial focus, it will not be able to play a major role in the development of Russia’s market economy.

Cheating is most prevalent at Russian universities, followed by American ones, and then British ones. In the former, it is not unheard of (though far from typical) to pay instructors for a passing grade. In the US, direct payments to instructors don’t pass muster (as in the UK) – nobody is going to risk their $60,000-$150,000 salary, secure job, and professional reputation by taking bribes. Cheating there is done more discretely, e.g. by paying professional essay writing companies for college essays (read here for a interesting account from one “shadow scholar”). These companies, BTW, are completely legal by dint of the First Amendment; though they all take care to stress that their essays are for purely educational persons, and shouldn’t be used for cheating, everybody understands that this is just the fine print.

More frequently, students simply plagiarize from the Internet. My impression is that it is endemic in all countries, and is only discouraged by a high rate of discovery and severe punishments. To this end, special programs have been developed to compare student essays and exams with comparable content on the Internet. I don’t know about the situation in Russia, but punishments tend to be severe for students caught plagiarizing in British and American universities.

Overall, university admissions are probably the most meritocratic in the UK. In Russia, though the system is supposed to be meritocratic, it is skewed by corruption, for it is not unknown for applicants to bribe admissions staff at the more prestigious universities, and certainly the children of oligarchs or powerful politicians – no matter their intellectual aptitude – experience few problems in getting into schools like Moscow State University or MGIMO. However, direct bribes have become more difficult in recent years, due to the national standardization of the exam system. The US is in between. Though direct corruption is as unheard of as in the UK, the system itself is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. The most egregious example of this is the open discrimination in favor of legacies, the children of former alumni of the university. The more your parents “donate” to the alma mater, the better their children’s chances of getting in. This reminds me of a Simpsons episode where the nuclear power tycoon Mr. Burns takes out his checkbook to negotiate a place in Harvard for his ne’er-do-well son Larry.

Man: Well, frankly, test scores like Larry’s would call for a very generous contribution. For example, a score of 400 would require a donation of new football uniforms, 300, a new dormitory, and in Larry’s case, we would need an international airport.

Woman: Yale could use an international airport, Mr. Burns.

Burns: Are you mad? I’m not made of airports!

This would be considered pretty repellent by Europeans (and most Americans too), but is only counted as corruption by the former. There are two other major examples of discrimination in university admissions to US colleges. First, good athletes – primarily American football players, rowers, and lacrosse players – are much more likely to get in with poor grades, as they bring their university money and recognition (this is also common in Oxbridge, UK, for rowers). Second, there is positive discrimination* based on race: due to their poorer academic performance in schools, African-Americans** and Hispanics have an easier time getting in on poor grades than whites or Asians. (Jews have a great time of it. Though they have the highest grades of any ethnicity, they are counted as whites for the purpose of university admissions.)

* This is not necessarily a bad idea. First, a higher education is absolutely necessary for all but the lowest-skilled careers in the US, and to enter the ranks of the elites (this is also the case in the UK and Russia). It’s in the interests of the American state – if not of ethnic Asians, who are disadvantaged by the system – that all races are adequately represented in higher education. Second, positive discrimination – in theory – is supposed to make up for the supposed discrimination that African-Americans and Hispanics suffer in schools (otherwise, why would their SATS scores be so much lower than the national average?). Abandoning it may be viewed as a politically incorrect admission that the reason their scores are lower isn’t because of systemic racial discrimination, but because of something else. The uber-controversial issue of race and IQ rears its head. So, curiously, despite its more right-wing stance on most social and economic matters, at least in this respect cultural Marxism goes deeper in the US than in Europe (including Russia and the UK).

** This translates to being black. Amusing anecdote: several years ago, a bunch of white South African students who are now American citizens applied for an academic prize for “African-Americans”. The awarding committee was not amused.

The most prestigious US universities belong to the Ivy League: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale. In particular, Yale University is known as a fostering ground for future Presidents. Other excellent universities, with lower social profiles, include Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, Chicago, and Carnegie Mellon. Academically, the foremost US universities include Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and Yale. The British elites go to Oxford (if they’re bright) or St.-Andrews (if they’re not as bright, e.g. heir to the throne Prince William). Cambridge is probably the most academically rigorous – certainly for the sciences, anyway – followed by Oxford, Imperial College, University College London (UCL), the London School of Economics (LSE). The most prestigious Russian institutes are Moscow State University; the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), which trains Russia’s diplomats; St.-Petersburg State University; and the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow.

Fake colleges and degrees are common in both Russia and the US. In the latter, they are mostly in fun sunny places like California and Hawaii.

Sport

Most Americans, Britons, and Russians don’t do sport regularly. None of these countries has the kind of mass fitness culture or “body culture” seen in Germanic and Scandinavian countries.

The kettlebell swing.

The kettlebell swing.

In Russia, the main divisions are seasonal: ice hockey in winter; football in summer. In Russia, kettlebells (girya) are a common site in gyms, whereas they are virtually unknown in Britain and the US. This is a shame since they are extremely effective at developing overall body strength.

In Britain, the lower classes play football and the upper classes play rugby and cricket (contender for most boring sport in the world).

In the US, basketball, American football, and lacrosse are the big sports; California is special in that skiing and surfing (IMO two of the world’s coolest sports, along with shooting) are both possible and very popular. The US is remarkable in the breadth and diversity of its sporting culture – you can find amateurs in practically anything.

The Russians are world leaders at chess, with plenty of very strong players. The British are also pretty good at it. Far fewer Americans know how to play it, and even state tournaments in the US are about as competitive as county tournaments in the UK or oblast tournaments in Russia (which have far fewer people). Of the world’s top 100 players, fully a quarter are Russian; three are English; and three are Americans – but of those, two have Russian names, and one has a Japanese name.

In the US, even dogs play poker.

In the US, even dogs play poker.

Just as many Russians will play chess or checkers, or the card game of durak (lit., “fool”), to pass away the time, Americans like to gather in groups of three or more to gamble in poker. Of course, gambling isn’t really the right term for poker, since the player with more skills will always win in the long-term. The popularity of poker has grown tremendously in recent years, with mathematicians getting involved in figuring out optimum play.

Thanks to its Asian population, the fascinating game of go, or weiqi, is also far better known in the US than in Russia or the UK. It is far more complex than chess; whereas in the latter the pieces can only move in certain ways around an 8×8 board, in go you can place stones on any unoccupied territory on a 19×19 board in an effort to encircle and capture your enemy’s stones. Whereas there are computer programs that can play chess at grandmaster level, none have yet been developed for go.

If checkers correspond to the linear warfare of (early) WW1, and chess to the mechanized combined-arms warfare of WW2, then go is the face of future war.

Housing

The ideal middle-class settlement for both British and Americans is suburbia. In theory, it combines city amenities with rural idyll; the critics aver that it is better at combining city pollution (noise, gas fumes, etc) with rural isolation. There are some excellent Amerian cities (e.g. San Francisco; Seattle; Austin), but many others are uncontrolled suburban sprawls (e.g. Los Angeles) or post-industrial shells beset by so-called inner city blight featuring ethnic ghettos and high crime rates (e.g. Detroit; Baltimore).

A typical Russian cityscape.

A typical Russian cityscape.

Most Russians live in apartments, in flats of varied age and construction quality. The Russians have a stricter division between high-density cities and low-density countryside, with a c. 100km band separating the two with a lot of intensive agriculture and dacha settlements (houses with plots of land) where Russians go during the weekends or holidays to tend to their vegetable gardens, pick mushrooms, etc. About half of Muscovites have a dacha, and they range from simple huts to luxurious mansions not very aptly called “cottages” (kotedzhi).

In all three countries – in contrast to central Europe, where renting is prevalent – most people own their own houses or apartments. Both the US and the UK place ideological stress on the virtues of private home ownership (extending mortgages to people of questionable creditworthiness was one of the key reasons of the 2008 financial crisis), while most Russians simply privatized their homes off the state during the 1990′s.

Housing prices have soared in Russia over the past decade to a far greater extent than in the US and Britain, but have fallen after the 2008 crisis; nonetheless, on average prices remain far below British and American levels. A typical, two-bedroom apartment in one of Moscow’s suburbs, not far from a Metro station, may cost $250,000; this will only buy you a semi-detached house in a middling British town, whereas an equivalent apartment in a London suburb will probably be closer to $1,000,000. In Moscow oblast, more than 100km from the city, a detached house with a big plot of land costs no more than $150,000; in the Russian regions, two-bedroom apartments are typically well below $100,000. In the US, as with Russia and the UK, there are great geographic disparities. Where space availability isn’t an issue, e.g. Texas, it is fully possible to buy fully detached houses with big plots of land for not more than $200,000; whereas in the Bay Area, excluding the ghetto areas, even a modest studio could set you back by up to $500,000.

PS. One more note on relative prices. In recent years, the media has made a lot of Moscow becoming the world’s “most expensive” city. It probably is… if you’re an expat addicted to five star hotels, top-class escorts, and champagne lounges. For ordinary people, who don’t live in Moscow’s center or its airports, living costs are still far cheaper.

America is the quintessential land of skyscapers; any city that is anywhere will have a few, to make up its financial district, while those in major cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are world famous. They used to be practically non-existent in the USSR, except for the “seven sisters” Stalinist-era showpieces in Moscow. During the 2000′s, however, skyscraper construction has taken off, and most of the largest Russia cities now boast a few skyscrapers. During the euphoria of 2007-08, construction began on Russia Tower, which was to be at 600m the tallest skyscraper in Europe; however, financing for it collapsed after the 2008 economic crisis, and it remains in limbo to this day. In Britain, there are few skyscrapers. Most are of modest height and concentrated in The City (London’s financial district), including the infamous Gherkin.

Transportation

A typical Russian city road.

A typical Russian city road.

British roads are good (though not as good as German ones), US roads are mediocre, and Russian roads are crap. Beyond Moscow’s ring road, many roads become potholed; further afield, e.g. the single road tying the Far East of the country to the center, it is little more than a dirt track that turns into impenetrable mud during the rasputitsa, or rainy season.

Part of the reason is that the country is vast, and that central planning with its penchant for railways didn’t care much for good roads or automobile ownership; another reason is that the road construction industry is, quite possibly, the most corrupt sector of the Russian economy (which is no mean achievement). The dismissed Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is suspected of organizing kickbacks totaling billions of dollars to well-connected road construction companies in the Moscow region alone. Now there’s quite a bit of corruption in road construction in the US too – for instance, Massachusetts somehow managed to spend $15 billion on basically a couple of substandard tunnels in the Big Dig – but in Russia it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The vast majority of cars in the US are stick-shift, while a similarly vast majority of cars in Europe, including Russia and Britain, are manual-transmission. Petrol costs the same in both Russia and the US, and is about three times as expensive in Britain. Some cars in Russia run on natural gas.

Russian railways, on the other hand, are far better than their roads. They don’t offer amenities like free Wi-Fi, as British trains now do, but they make up for it in vastly lower costs. The price of a ticket from Manchester to London can approach £80. When I traveled from Moscow to St.-Petersburg in 2003, it was 500 rubles, or about $15 (granted it was on the lowest-class, because I was a cheapskate, but even getting a good class cabin for the overnight journey would have been well under British rates). As for US passenger railways, the less said the better. IIRC, it costs about $20 to go from San Francisco to San Jose, there’s no Internet, and after that the line ends.

Komsomolskaya Station, not the type of Metro station one would expect.

Komsomolskaya Station, not the type of Metro station one would expect.

The Moscow Metro carries up to 9 million passengers a day, and despite price rises, remains cheap. In contrast to the drab, utilitarian nature of most metro stations elsewhere, its central stations are truly “palaces of the people”, featuring murals, mosaics, statues and monuments, etc. A single journey costs a bit less than $1, while buying multiple journeys decreases the average price. Students and pensioners get to ride free. In the Soviet Union and early 1990′s, men would typically give up their seats to women, but this ended sometime by 1996. A victory for feminism? Or a collapse of moral standards? You decide.

Interesting factoid #1: Packs of stray dogs have become intelligent enough to navigate Moscow’s subways. You can sometimes see them lying or sleeping on the train benches. Read more here.

Interesting factoid #2: Russia’s most famous post-apocalyptic novel of recent times, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky, is set in the Moscow Metro, where subterranean human civilization ekes our a miserable survival while nuclear radiation and mutants ravage the world above.

Most other big Russian cities also have metros, as do the biggest UK cities and most big cities in the eastern US. Mass transit is very poorly developed on the West Coast. Los Angeles is a giant car sink, with legendary traffic jams. San Francisco and the Bay Area have the BART system, but it’s not a pleasant riding experience and pretty expensive besides; plus, the train seats are full of germs and shit. Yes, shit, like for real: “Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections…” Makes one wish for the cold, hard comfort of the wooden benches of an elektrichka.

Tramways used to be a major part of the urban transportation landscape in Russia, but their significance has decreased since the 1990′s; however, they still remain a prominent feature of the transportation system in some cities, including St.-Petersburg. They are no longer an important transportation mode in either the US or Britain.

Los Angeles, the epitome of suburban sprawl and poor city planning.

Los Angeles, the epitome of suburban sprawl and poor city planning.

Cars aren’t only at the center of US transport, but its life in general; if you live in suburbia or rural areas, you can’t get by without them. Big strip malls like Target, Walmart, Costco, etc., dot suburbia and serve the customers within a ten mile radius or so, having largely displaced local shops. The same process is ongoing in Britain, with a ten year lag. In Russia, car ownership is much lower than in the UK or the US; partly because of lower incomes, but also because they just aren’t as necessary, seeing as its cities are higher density and have cheap and adequate public transportation options (rail, metros, trams, buses). That said, Moscow’s traffic jams have become infamous in recent years, and nowadays only idiots – of whom there are a lot – commute to work by car there.

The US only seems capable of producing gas-guzzling SUV’s well, with the result that its automative sector collapses during oil spikes. Increasing fuel economy standards is a political hot potato, with Republicans set against it even though the US lags behind pretty much every country in the world in this respect (including China). The UK’s domestic brands have all collapsed, so the only cars there are foreign imports or produced by foreign-owned factories on its soil. It is not uncommon for Britons to buy their cars in Europe because of the high prices of cars sold in the UK. In Russia, the huge Avtovaz factory that produces the sturdy Lada (based off a 1970′s Italian design) just about survives with help from government subsidies and high tariffs on imported cars. Nonetheless, it doesn’t have a bright future, since most Russians would prefer to buy a second hand Audi or Toyota than a new Lada, even if the former costs a bit more. Whereas a decade ago most cars on the road were of visibly boxy Russian make, today’s (much bigger) car fleet seems to be more than 50% foreign; of the foreign makes, about half are imported and another half are manufactured by foreign-owned factories in Russia. A high proportion, e.g. about 50%, of vehicles on US roads are SUV’s; this percentage is closer to 10% in the UK and Russia. In France and Germany, SUV’s are very rare.

Flying is extremely prevalent in the US; it is frequently more profitable (and certainly faster) to take a flight from San Francisco to, say, Las Vegas or Los Angeles, than to make the journey by car (the only other valid transportation option). A typical round-trip starts from around $150. In Britain, to go from Manchester to London costs less by train than by plane, but not by much; many opt for the plane. Flights to Europe are cheap and very competitive; not infrequently, budget airlines like Ryanair offer amazingly good deals at prices like $50 for a round-trip to Prague, Munich or Barcelona and back. As for Russia, the days when you got on rickety Soviet-era planes with a shot of vodka for courage are over; most airlines have modernized their fleets. Air fares are competitively priced – the farthest off cities will cost about $500 for a round trip (e.g. Vladivostok), but common routes like Moscow to St.-Petersburg are around $100, and go even lower on the cheapest no-frills airlines.

Shopping

Most shopping in the US and Britain – and increasingly, Russia – occurs in retail stores of varying size specializing in food, electronics, alcohol, cell phones, clothes, etc. These differ from high-end venues specializing in quality and fashion (e.g. Topshop) to mass consumer venues (e.g. Safeway, Tesco, ASDA, Walmart, IKEA) to those catering for lower-income people (e.g. Costco, Aldi); they are standardized, and it is often hard to tell the different between these shops be they in the US, Britain, or Russia. There are also plenty of ethnic stores (e.g. Chinese shops in the US, or Armenian shops in Moscow); they tend to sell interesting foods and wares that are rare elsewhere, but also tend to be more congested and less hygienic.

Online shopping is most advanced in the US, which has generated giants like Amazon and eBay. It is also prevalent in Britain, but much less so in Russia (though it is growing very fast).

The Cherkizovsky Market, Moscow's largest bazaar, recently closed.

The Cherkizovsky Market, Moscow’s largest bazaar, recently closed.

The outdoor market, or bazaar, is a prominent feature of Russian life. Located near railway stations and protected by private security, all kinds of vegetables, fruit, pickles, meat, fish, clothes, pirated video games – and even less legal things in their darker corners – are sold here. Food products are typically cheaper than in normal shops, and despite criticism over sanitary conditions, they are often fresher too.

These markets are typically dominated by migrants, though ethnic Russians are also prevalent. They will pay to set up a stall and hawk their goods to passers by. Haggling over prices is usual and expected. They are highly congested and thrum with the beat of commercial life. There are no effective formal controls over cheating – e.g. weighting vegetables incorrectly on purpose so as to extract a higher price – but is rare due to the potential reputational risk of doing so. With rising incomes and a decreasingly tolerant outlook by the authorities, due to the markets’ association with crime and illegal immigration, the prominence of these huge bazaars has fallen in recent years; nonetheless, they remain a favorite shopping place for the poor, pensioners, and even lovers of fresh fruit and vegetables (though buying meat or fish from them is less advisable). Such markets are much rarer in Britain or the US; in fact, most of them are temporary, only springing up on a certain day of the week.

Electronics are cheaper by about 30-50% in the US than in both Russia and the UK. I presume that is because the latter have higher tariffs? Books are far cheaper in Russia; typically, modern novels cost $5. In the US, they are usually $10, and £10 in the UK.

The luxury shopping mecca in Britain is Harrods, owned by controversial billionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed. Its equivalent in Russia is the GUM.

The US undoubtedly has the best cafes. Free WiFi (after buying a drink) is usual, even expected. This is much rarer in Britain, while Russia doesn’t even have a cafe culture as such*.

* Of course, Russia’s changing rapidly, and this might no longer be the case. I was last there in 2008, and for a substantial period of time in 2005, so much of what I say about it is already outdated. This is a point I emphasize throughout this series.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This is a reprint of a post from Arctic Progress.

This is a TRANSLATION of an article by Jules Dufour published September 7th, 2010 at Mondialisation.ca (“Le Canada: un plan national pour la militarisation de l’Arctique et de ses ressources stratégiques“). In my opinion its a tad too alarmist over the scope of Canada’s military ambitions in the Arctic (IMO it’s mostly political grandstanding at this stage), but nonetheless it’s important to remember that Russia is hardly the only country militarizing the Arctic and saber-rattling in the High North. To be made available in PDF.

Canada’s National Plan For The Militarization Of The Arctic And Its Strategic Resources

The year 2010 was marked by a series of decisions by the Canadian government concerning rearmament. Predictably, as the defense plan “Canada First” was formally launched in 2008, involving the country in an unprecedented weapons acquisition and modernization program, such as the purchase of tanks, F-35 fighters, naval construction and F-18 fighter upgrades, pledged at the start of September. It was in July that most of these projects were unveiled, during the summer vacations when such news is far from the concerns of Canadians. Thus, tens of billions are committed to war or preparation for war, without it being possible to hold a parliamentary or public debate on the subject. At most, there have been some protests about the magnitude of the pledged sums and the concerns expressed here and on the regional economic fallout (Castonguay, A., 2010). A familiar scenario.

arctic-resources

[The Arctic and its coveted natural resources.]

These projects can no longer be justified by Canada’s participation in the war of occupation of Afghanistan. The soldiers of the Canadian army are going to be repatriated in 2011. It’s undeniable that the arena of corporate domination and NATO control over al the strategic resources of the world now includes, and above all, the increasingly accessible Arctic subsoil.

arctic-geopolitics

[Arctic geopolitics map. Click to enlarge.]

A Defense Policy Based on Force

In order to conform to this logic, Canada recently reaffirmed its commitment to Arctic territory which ensures it more effective control. In its foreign policy statement on the Arctic, made public last August, the Canadian government gives priority to reinforcing its military presence in this region of the world, but this time taking care to cloak it under a set of good intentions regarding economic and social development, as well as governance.

Its first objective is to supposedly “safeguard”, through an increased military presence, its sovereignty over an important portion of the Arctic continental shelf. In effect, “the defense strategy Canada First will give the Canadian Forces the necessary tools to increase their presence in the Arctic. Under this strategy, Canada will acquire new patrol vessels capable of sustained sea-ice operations to ensure close surveillance of our waters, so that they gradually open to the maritime industry. To support these ships and other vessels of the Canadian government that are active in the North, Canada is constructing a port at Nanisivik, with facilities for maritime docking and resupply.” In addition, the US and Canada are working together to better monitor and control the North American airspace under NORAD (read Michel Chossudovsky, “Canada’s sovereignty under thread: the militarization of of North America“, Mondialisation.ca, September 10th 2007), the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Moreover, the Canadian Forces will benefit from new technologies to improve their capacity to monitor their territory and its approaches.

Anti-Russian Maneuvers?

The military exercises held every year or more by NATO on the continental shelf of Norway are tailored to simulate the hunting of Russian naval forces seeking to take control of the hydrocarbon resources in this part of the plateau. The same objective is at the heart of the Operation Nanook military exercises conducted in 2010 by the Canadian Forces in conjunction with those of the US and Denmark.

According to several analysts, including Michael Byers, the Canadian government doesn’t cease to use this potential threat in order to justify its military spending pledges, in particular, the $16bn purchase of F-35′s. Therefore, from time to time it’s fair game, to keep alive the spirit of this Russian menace, to proclaim in the mass media that Russian bombers were successfully intercepted in NATO airspace, as was the case in August with the interception of a Tupolev TU-95 bomber some thirty nautical miles from the coast of the Canadian Arctic (Byers, M., 2010). In fact, it’s arguably by no means an act of provocation or aggression on the part of Russia.

Conclusion

It’s important to say the truth about the real issues surrounding the development of Arctic resources. The confrontation between America and Russia up there is in place for a number of years now, a kind of latent “cold war” which serves the two protagonists well. The monitoring of the Arctic is in fact defined as the vigil kept on the Russian operations conducted in this ocean. The quest for maintaining Canadian sovereignty over part of the continental shelf is just a pretext for its militarization. Don’t be fooled. NATO’s real intentions are to have absolute control over the hydrocarbon resources in this region of the world, just as it does by force and armed violence in the Middle East and Central Asia.

See also: The Arctic, a “precious diamond” for the global environment and humanity by Jules Dufour.

References

BYERS, Michael. 2010. Russian bombers a make-believe threat. THE STAR. Le 30 août 2010.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Ottawa achètera le F-35. Le Conseil des ministres a approuvé l’acquisition d’un nouvel avion de chasse pour le Canada. Journal Le Devoir, les 10 et 11 juillet 2010, p. A3.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Armée: la modernisation des VBL s’amorce. Journal le Devoir, les 10 et 11 juillet 2010, p. A2.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Avions de chasse. La bagarre politique commence. Ottawa confirme l’achat d’au moins 60 F-35 sans appel d’offres. Un futur gouvernement libéral suspendra le contrat. Journal Le Devoir, les 16 juillet 2010, p. A1.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Achat de 65 avions de chasse F-35. Les entreprises canadiennes se réjouissent. Près de 100 entreprises pourraient profiter des retombées économiques. Journal Le Devoir, les 17 et 18 juillet 2010, p. A3.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Arctique, la nouvelle guerre froide. Journal Le Devoir, 21 et 22 août 2010, p. A1.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Ottawa dévoile au monde ses ambitions pour l’Arctique. Journal Le Devoir, les 21 et 22 août 2010, p. A4.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. La ruée vers le Nord. La croissance des activités humaines dans l’Arctique pose des défis pour le Canada.. Journal Le Devoir, 21 et 22 août 2010, p. A7.

CASTONGUAY, Alec. 2010. Des ressources naturelles alléchantes. Journal Le Devoir, les 21 et 22 août 2010, p. A7.

CHOSSUDOVSKY, Michel, La souveraineté du Canada menacée: la militarisation de l’Amérique du Nord », Mondialisation.ca, le 10 septembre 2007.

DUFOUR, Jules. 2007. L’Arctique, un espace convoité : la militarisation du Nord canadien. Géopolitique et militarisation du grand Nord canadien (Première partie). Montréal, Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation. Le 26 juillet 2007.

DUFOUR, Jules. 2007. L’Arctique, militarisation ou coopération pour le développement. Géopolitique et militarisation du grand Nord canadien (Deuxième partie). Montréal, Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation. Le 31 juillet 2007.

FEDIACHINE, Andrei. 2010. L’or noir de la blanche Arctique : le pétrole est arrivé plus tôt que prévu. Ria Novosti. Montréal, Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation. Le 4 septembre 2010.

HUEBERT, Rob. 2010. Welcome to a new era of Arctic security. Globe and Mail. Le 24 août 2010.

LA PRESSE CANADIENNE. 2010. Navires : Ottawa relance un projet d’achat de 2,6 milliards. Journal le Devoir, le 15 juillet 2010, p. A3.

ROZOFF, Rick. 2010. Canada Opens Arctic To NATO, Plans Massive Weapons Buildup. Montréal, Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation (CRM). Le 29 août 2010.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The Arctic is one of the most ignored regions in commentary about global trends. This is unsurprising. The vastnesses of Hyperborea, a semi-mythical world of curdled seas, boreal lights and eternal sunshine, have always been “outside” history. But the fast pace of global warming in recent years is kick-starting Arctic history, bringing with it the promise and peril of industrial civilization: first energy extraction and shipping, then military bases, and eventually farms and cities.

Identifying the opportunities and risks in these exciting new developments will be the main aim of my new blog project Arctic Progress* (which you can also follow on Facebook).

Don’t worry – I’ll continue posting at S/O on “Eurasia, geopolitics and peak oil” (if not as frequently as before). Furthermore, most of the Russian translations and analytical “core articles” on Arctic Progress will be reprinted here, the first one of which follows below.

Introduction – Why Arctic Progress?

1. The Arctic will become much more important in the near future as the melting of Arctic ice opens up circumpolar shipping routes. They are shorter than the constricted passages through Suez, Panama and Malacca, and far less vulnerable to bottlenecks, piracy and terrorism.

2. The Arctic is a once in a century investment opportunity. As the ice and permafrost retreat, the physical infrastructure of industrial civilization will begin to overspread the region: ports, roads, railways, pipelines, mines, oil rigs, housing, farms, schools, shops and military bases. The four major populated regions encircling the Arctic Ocean – Alaska, Russia, Canada, Scandinavia (ARCS) – are all set for massive economic expansion in the decades ahead.

3. Nowhere else is global warming so intrinsically tied to the prospects of a region as the Arctic; it is the force awakening it from its long, cold hibernation into the strange lights and thrumming noises of the modern world. But the Arctic is not passive – how it reacts to higher temperatures will drastically affect the future course and magnitude of further global warming. Global ocean and air currents will be interrupted as the temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics shrinks. One disturbing possibility is that the melting of the Siberian permafrost will release vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere, and tip the world into runaway climate change.

4. Many regions of the world are overpopulated and facing resource depletion (e.g. “peak oil”) and rising pollution. The Arctic defies these general trends. As good hydrocarbon and mineral sources deplete, the economics of Arctic resource extraction will become more and more attractive. As the global south sinks deeper into water crises, heat stress and energy shortages, the polar regions will be changing into habitable and rather agreeable places. Exploitation of the region’s plentiful resources – coal in Alaska; minerals in the Russian Far East; hydrocarbons in the oceanic basin off Siberia; etc. – can sustain billions of people for at least a few more decades. That’s enough time to make use of the Arctic region’s plentiful wind and water fluxes to rebuild industrialism on a sustainable basis.

5. The Arctic melt is the kick-start to its own history. Both Russia and Canada are are accelerating their Arctic military buildups. NATO has held yearly military exercises in northern Norway from 2006, in which the (“fictional”) enemy team has a rather uncanny resemblance to Russia. No doubt China and European coalitions will soon take an interest too. The father of geopolitics, Halford Mackiner, claimed that control of Eastern Europe was the key to world power. In the 21st century, the prime strategic asset will become the Arctic Ocean.

6. James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia theory, believes that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”. If you think climate-pessimists and doomers like him are correct, more or less, then it might do you good to start planning a “doomstead” in the Far North. The Norwegians already made a start with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and one day perhaps cities will follow.

7. That few blogs (yet) exist on the Arctic is a good enough reason to start one, no? Besides, I think I can do a decent job of it. First, I know Russian – the other main language of the Arctic apart from English. This blog is about the Arctic, as opposed to just the North American Arctic. Second, my areas of blogging interest, centered around Russia, geopolitics, energy, and futurism, are well suited for an Arctic theme. One can even say that the Arctic brings them all together. …

* Why am I writing about the Arctic on another site? (1) I reckon this blog is crowded and chaotic enough as it is, mixing Russia, geopolitics, futurism, and heck knows what else, (2) I don’t want to drown this blog with short postings about specific Arctic developments which will not be of major interest to many S/O readers, and (3) I want Arctic Progress to develop as a stand-alone hub for Arctic commentary on the interwebs.

(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.