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Sima Diab on Twitter makes the observation that the countries most affected by the “Arab Spring” are easy to find on a live air traffic map (because nobody is going there).

Don’t you just hear that crickets chirping sound of freedom ringing?

Incidentally, Russia’s and Britain’s hardline response to what is now universally understood to have been a terrorist bomb attack – evacuating its 70,000 stranded tourists there and barring further flights – is understandable but arguably short-sighted. 12% of Egyptian GDP accrues to tourism, and the rest of the economy is too sluggish to make good the difference. Less tourism equals economic decline equals a decline in good guy Sisi’s ratings and more support for bad guy Islamists.

With about half the country being essentially Islamists – that’s both the percentage of Egyptians who support death for apostasy and who voted for the Muslim brotherhood – a cutoff in tourist dollars (rubles, pounds sterling, etc.) is the last thing Egypt needs.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Spring, Egypt, Revolutions, Terrorism 
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It was probably a bomb.

Of course Islamic State has no significant AA capabilities over Sinai, but it is exceeding rare for airplanes – even ill serviced ones – to catastrophically break up in midair.

According to Razib Khan’s recent purview of PEW polls, 64% of Egyptian Muslims favor the death penalty for apostasy. Conservatively assuming 80% of the population is Sunni Muslim, that’s 51% of the population that are essentially Islamist extremists and potential Islamic State sympathizes. That also happens to be the exact percentage that voted for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in 2012.

As such, the presence of an Islamist sleeper cell amongst airport security that helped smuggle a bomb aboard or even just turned a blind eye to is trivially easy to imagine.

If that is what the investigation finds, will Russia react by sending a serious land contingent to Syria? Highly unlikely. Russian discussions of the Syria intervention positively revolve around Afghanistan, as well as the US experience in Vietnam. This is a mistake that I think has consciously been ruled out. Even much of the Russian media has generally been sidestepping the obvious explanation and playing up the idea that it was an accident (and to hell with what it does to the already poor reputation of Russian airlines). I think it’s pretty clear that this is the result of an order from the Kremlin to that effect. Public passions shouldn’t be ignited.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Egypt, Terrorism 
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alligators Egypt rubs in the salt in Hollande’s wounds by ordering 50 Alligator helicopters from Russia to outfit the Mistrals, which France is now going to sell to Egypt.

So to sum up this whole sorry affair:

(1) Russia originally ordered French Mistrals under Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. His foreign aquisitions were ostensibly aimed to pressure Russian producers to lower costs, but more cynical observers suspected it may have had more to do with foreign arms manufacturers providing kickbacks to him and his female posse which had effectively seized the Defense Ministry under the Medvedev Presidency.

(2) Rumors which gained credence when he was dismissed for corruption on a scale that raised eyebrows even in a country as corrupt as Russia.

(3) After about a year of delays following those little triffling incidents in Crimea and the Donbass, France made a definitive decision, under US pressure, to avoid selling the Mistrals to Russia, making it liable for about $1 billion worth of fines. (To his credit, Hollande’s government accepted the legitimacy of these penalties, so as to avoid completely discrediting France’s commercial reputation in the international arms market). As an added bonus, Russia got most of the technical blueprints on the Mistral anyway (saving $$$ in R&D costs).

(4) Now Russia, or at least Kamov, is receiving a further $1 billion in orders.

Ironically enough, what began as a very expensive and questionable way of pressuring Russian arms manufacturers at best, and yet another of Serdyukov’s corruption schemes at worst, actually ended up working out quite nicely for Russia. France got cucked by hamburger, Russia got out ahead.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Egypt, France, Mistral, RealWorld 
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Yuri Matsarsky meets up with Egyptian Christians who fled to Russia from the persecution of Islamist extremists.

“Late one evening I was walking home after a meeting with friends, when I stopped to have a cigarette at the Domodedovskaya metro station and saw a crowd of people with small children at the entrance. By their appearance, I realized that they were from somewhere in the Middle East. They were warming themselves behind the glass doors with a pile of things, looking absolutely lost. One of them spoke English and managed to explain me their situation: They were Christians who had fled Egypt. I took the women and children and took them with me, so as to go to the UN representatives with them next morning,” Karina, the Muscovite who discovered the Egyptian, told Izvestia. “The men spent the night at the metro station, most likely, but the children and their mothers I couldn’t leave on the streets.”

From the UN offices, where Karina took her guests in the morning, they were directed to other addresses several times, until they finally ended up at Civil Assistance, a charitable foundation that helps refugees. Now one of the organization’s rooms, comparable in size to an average Moscow apartment, hosts the ten Egyptian members of the Sh’hetamikail family: Three brothers, and their wives and children.

“Nowadays the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists run everything. It is dangerous to be a Christian in our city of Mersa Matruh: I know of several cases, in which young girls were stolen right out of their family houses, and forced to convert to Islam; our wives and our children have been attacked in the streets, insulted, and threatened to forcibly shave our girls unless they put on the hijab,” says Sameh, on the verge of tears. “They have gotten so carried away that they even demanded a headscarf be put on a two year old baby. We have forbidden our children and women from going out onto the streets at all. But this didn’t help.”

The brothers say that the Islamists, having failed to accomplish their goals, smashed up the family’s minibuses. This was a real tragedy for the Sh’hetamikails: All three men earned their bread as drivers, and left without their means of transport, they could no longer feed their families.

“We contacted the police, but they told us that we were being threatened by the Bedouins, and they did not wish to spoil their relations with them by opening an investigation. We went to our church, but they too fear the Bedouins. Then the people who were threatening us came to our house. There were fifteen of them. They told us that we have no choice. Either we accept Islam, or they kill us,” says the second brother, Viktor, emotively spreading his arms. “Then a member of our church hid us away. We lived with him for three months, while he sought ways to take us out of Egypt.”

The family refused to convert to Islam: For Egyptian Coptic Christians, who believe that they inherited their faith directly from the Apostles in the 1st century AD, rejection of their religion is considered to be a betrayal of their ancestors and people. Even during the revolutionary turbulence, Coptic women did not put on hijabs, while the men did not hide under their sleeves the tattooed crosses that religious Copts carry on their wrists.

The coreligionist who gave refuge to the Sh’hetamikail clan planned to send all ten to the US. But the Americans refused them visas. Then he bought a tour package to Russia, explaining that it also has representatives of international organizations that would help them obtain refugee status.

But the process has stalled.

I took them to a department of the Federal Migration Service, but they were far more interested in myself, than them. They demanded to see my residence permit, which they studied for a long time before finally getting round to the Egyptians,” says Basil, a Syrian helping Civil Assistance as a translator. He was astounded by the officials’ callousness. “They summoned the representatives of the tour firm that was supposed to meet these guys here, but they said that they were selling tour packages, not refugee statuses, and could do nothing but send them back.”

Nobody from the Sh’hetamikails wants to go back.

“If we were to return now, they would simply kill us. I do not feel sorry for myself, but the children, the children should live and should not have to experience constant danger,” says a teary Sameh, catching the two year old Zhimur who was running past him in his arms. The same one who was nearly stuffed into a hijab.

In the office settled by the Copts there are only a few chairs and a bookcase with old magazines. In place of toys there is a five liter bottle of water, which the laughing kids drag across the floor. Their mothers weep at the windows, while their husbands cluster by the photographer:

“We want to remain here. We are ready to do any job. If Russia doesn’t want us here, then at least please don’t send us back home. Let it give us an opportunity to take our families somewhere safe,” say all three. “Maybe the church will stand up for us. For we are also Orthodox Christians. The Christian world should do something already. We cannot survive in Egypt. If the Christians were allowed to leave forever, in a week not a single Copt would remain.”

In the office refuge it is warm, but all the Sh’hetamikail adults are dressed in sweaters and coats. They don’t even take off their hats – they are waiting to be taken to the Federal Migration Service. Or the UN. Or somewhere else, where they could get help.

But the translator Basil says that they cannot count on any help until Monday. Officials do not do receptions on Friday, and then there’s the weekend. Civil Assistance does not yet know where to house the ten refugees. For the time being, they say, the current office will serve.

The original publication: «Или мы меняем веру, или нас убьют» (Юрий Мацарский, Известия). 31 January, 2013.

(Republished from Russia Voices by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Egypt, Human Rights, Society, Translations 
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I am back to writing for the Expert Discussion Panel, which since my hiatus has found an additional home at Voice of Russia. The latest topic was on whether Russia, China, and the West could find a common approach to the challenges of the Arab Spring. My response is pessimistic, as in my view Western actions are driven by a combination of ideological “democracy fetishism” and the imperative of improving their own geopolitical positions vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, and China. This makes it difficult to find any middle ground:

It is true that many Muslims in the Middle East want their aging strongman rulers out, and democracy in. Even Osama bin Laden, who purportedly “hates us for our freedom”, once mused that the reason Spain has a bigger economy than the entire Arab world combined was because “the ruler there is accountable.”

And this is also part of the reason why we should refrain from fetishizing “democracy” as the solution to all the region’s ills.

That is because liberal democracy as we know it in the West, with its separation of powers – in particular, that of the Church and state – isn’t at the top of most locals’ priority lists. It only really concerns the liberal youth who initially headed the revolt, while the other 95% of the population is concerned with more trivial things, like unemployment and food prices. As per the historical pattern with the French and Russian revolutions, the Arab Spring happened during a period of record high grain prices. And now as then, a revolution won’t magically create jobs or fill bellies.

In today’s Egypt, it is not foreign-residing technocrats like El Baradei, with his 2% approval ratings, who become President; nor is the cultural discourse set by young Cairo women who strip nude against patriarchy. Remove a secular, modernizing dictator from a country where 75% of the populations supports stoning for adultery, and sooner rather than later you get restrictive dress codes for women (de facto if not de jure), attacks against Christian minorities, and bearded Islamists worming their way into power.

As for Syria, the biggest practical difference is that the liberal minority in the opposition was sidelined even before the fall of the dictator, as it is the Islamists who are now taking the lead in the fighting against Assad.

Will the new regimes that emerge out of the Arab Spring be anywhere near as accommodating with the West as were the likes of Mubarak, or even Assad – who, as Putin reminded us, visited Paris more times that he did Moscow? Will religious fundamentalists be able, or even willing, to build up the (educational) human capital that is the most important component of sustained economic growth?wahh Will they even be able to regain control of their borders, or will they end up like Libya, an anarchic zone disgorging Wahhabi mujahedeen into neighboring countries that don’t really want them?

Western policy-makers do not seem all that eager to consider these questions. Maybe they think they can manipulate the Arab Spring to serve their own interests – after all, Assad’s Syria is an ally of Iran, supplies Hezbollah, and has security relations with Russia and China. They may be calculating that the geopolitical boon from removing the Alawites from power outweighs the costs of Islamists taking over in Damascus. Certainly there are grounds to doubt that genuine concern for democracy explains French, British, and American actions: After all, the two dictatorships friendliest to the West, Bahrain and Yemen, were actively supported in their crackdowns.

If the above interpretation is anywhere near true, there can be little hope for Russia and China finding common ground with the West. It would imply that the Middle East is a chessboard for Great Power games – and chess isn’t a game that you typically play to draw. The one thing everyone should bear in mind, though, is that no matter a man’s ideological leaning, he resents being a pawn. This is a life truism that was demonstrated in the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, that is being played out today in Mali, and that will continue to reverberate so long as the crusaders – for they are widely seen as such – remain in Dar Al-Islam.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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The woman on the right is the Egyptian First Lady in 1930. The woman on the left is Mrs. Mursi, First Lady in 2012.

I do not know if there is any better illustration of the collapse in aesthetics, culture, etc. when Islamic radicals seize power thanks to their liberal, internationalist, and socialist enablers. Truly, it is a horror to behold.

PS. Sorry for the short nature of the posts of late. I’m very busy ATM.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Иn the wake of the 2009 recession, declinist rhetoric has come to dominate discussion of Russia’s economic prospects. Jim O’Neill, the founder of the BRIC’s concept, has his work cut out defending Russia’s expulsion from the group in favor of Indonesia, Mexico, or some other random middle-sized country. Journalists in the Western media claim its economy is “not growing”, as do liberal Russian newspapers such as Vedomosti. Comparisons between Putin and Brezhnev (who presided over the Soviet Union’s period of stagnation, or zastoi) are piling up. Even President Medvedev isn’t helping the situation, telling a forum of international businesspeople that Russia’s “slow growth” hides stagnation (good job promoting your country, DAM! not….).

I don’t want to exchange rhetorical barbs in this post (which you may note is not tagged as a “rant“), and my skills at mockery and picking apart tropes aren’t nearly as well developed as those of Mark Adomanis or Kremlin Stooge, so I’ll do what I do best and go straight to the statistics. And so we have Fact #1: what is described as stagnation for Russia is a growth rate of 4%. It grew 4.0% for 2010. It was 4.1% in Q1 2011, and the government predicts it will be 4.2% for the whole year. The World Bank predicts 4.4% in 2011, 4.0% in 2012; the OECD expects 4.9% in 2011 and 4.5% in 2012; and the IMF forecasts 4.8% in 2011, 4.5% in 2012, tapering off to less than 4.0% in the “medium-term.”

This does not strike me as being particularly bad by global standards. This is obviously no miracle economy of Chinese-like 10% growth rates, but Russia (4.4%; 4.0%) does not compare badly to the World Bank’s projected growth for other typical middle-income countries such as Turkey (4.1%; 4.3%), Thailand (3.2%; 4.2%), Brazil (4.4%; 4.3%), Mexico (3.6%; 3.8%), or South Africa (3.5%; 4.1%). Facing real stagnation, many countries in the developed world such as the UK could only wish for Russia’s growth rate; though this is an unfair comparison, because Russia is poorer and can therefore find it easier to grow faster (see economic convergence), it is not less unfair comparing Russia to countries such as India (8.4%; 8.7%) or Indonesia (6.2%; 6.5%) because the latter are so much poorer than Russia in their turn.

This discussion suggests that CONTEXT is vital when discussing the degree of stagnation in a country. One of the two major factors here is the current GDP of the country in question; real GDP, that is, because that is what growth refers to (i.e. if a country devalues its currency by half but output remains constant, then nominal GDP will fall by half but real GDP will remain constant; as such, real GDP per capita is also the better proxy for living standards and economic sophistication). Now there are two major estimates by international organizations of Russia’s real GDP. The IMF estimates it at $15,800 as of 2010, whereas the World Bank believes it is $19,800 (relying on recent joint research by OECD-Eurostat-Rosstat). There are grounds to believe that the latter is more accurate because the international price comparison data that goes into real GDP estimates is much more recent for the World Bank*. But regardless of which one you use, Russia’s GDP is still much higher than the other emerging markets or BRIC’s with which it is so frequently compared to – Brazil has $11,100, China has $7,500, Indonesia has $4,400, and India has $3,600.

This is extremely important for two reasons. First, it is much harder to grow quickly when you are already a mostly developed country (like Russia, Poland, Korea) than when you are a mid-level developing country (China, Brazil) or a poor developing country (India, Indonesia). The most important reasons are: (1) The potential to achieve rapid growth by transferring your population from rural agriculture to urban industry and services becomes exhausted; (2) the services sector, where productivity can’t be improved as fast as in industry, assumes a bigger share of GDP; (3) most importantly, those countries are far closer to the technological frontier or “best practice”, and hence must increasingly innovate their way to growth instead of reaping low-hanging fruit by adopting and copying from elsewhere. All this isn’t debatable – there is a ton of economic literature on this, it passes the common sense test, and it is basically a given.

Second, when your starting base is low, fast economic growth is far more necessary to achieve real improvements in living standards and catching up to the West. 5% growth in the US would be remarkable and unprecedented for decades. 5% growth in a country like Egypt, with a GDP per capita of $6,000, will not transform it into a developed or even mostly developed country for the foreseeable future. Not only that, but it will be significantly swallowed up by a population growing at nearly 2%. This is no different from the growth rates in most fiscally healthy developed nations and so in effect virtually no “catch up” happens whatsoever.

This brings us to a second point, the importance of accounting of adjusting for population growth. India’s 8% growth rate in the last decade seems remarkable, prompting talk of “Shining India” and how it is the next big superpower. But considering its very low starting base, and the fact that its population was growing by nearly 2% per year, and you have the far less impressive figure of 6% per capita growth. This is still respectable, but it is barely higher than (much wealthier) Russia, and probably doesn’t warrant the glowing accolades heaped on its “tiger” economy.

At this point, I think it will be a good idea to consolidate all these statistics into a single graph that illustrates the arguments. GDP figures are taken from the World Bank’s 2010 estimates (there is reason to believe China’s GDP is underestimated, hence it has two estimates). GDP growth refers to the mainstream consensus on how fast these countries will be growing in the medium term (e.g. Russia “stagnating” at 4% a year; China following in the historical footsteps of Korea; India growing at the realistically highest rates projected by its proponents; Brazil and Mexico continuing to conform to both their historical rates and medium-term predictions; etc). Population growth is subtracted from the GDP growth to give a per capita figure. The last column are the projected totals for 2020. Figures are rounded off.

2010 GDP /c GDP % gr. Pop % gr. 2020 GDP /c
Brazil $11,000 4% 1% $15,000
China (1) $7,500 8% 0.5% $16,000
China (2) $12,000 7.5% 0.5% $25,000
France $34,000 2% 0.5% $39,000
India $3,600 8.5% 1.5% $7,000
Indonesia $4,400 6.5% 1% $7,500
Korea $29,000 3% 0% $39,000
Mexico $15,000 3% 1% $18,000
Russia $20,000 4% 0% $30,000

The results, as you can see, are fairly stunning. A low population growth and relatively high base – Russia’s GDP per capita of $20,000 is equivalent to that of Poland, Hungary, and Estonia – means that as soon as 2020 Russia will be where Italy is today, with a GDP per capita of $31,500. Now granted Italy may have grown as well, but given its dismal record for the past decade and the growing financial tremors in the Eurozone even this is far from certain. In other words, even at “stagnant” growth rates of 4% per year Russia will have converged to the lower ranks of Western Europe’s rich countries (having overtaken Greece and Portugal outright).

But this isn’t that surprising when you consider that 4% is equivalent to the trend rate at which Korea has grown from 2003, when its GDP reached Russia’s today; the IMF predicts that by 2013, a decade later, it will hit $35,000.

(Excuse the minor digression from the main topic of this post, but the graph also convincingly demonstrates why my Sino Triumphalism is not misplaced. Even under fairly rosy assumptions for India, it will have have barely converged to China’s 2010 level in a decade’s time – and that assuming that China’s GDP isn’t underestimated. The real question isn’t why Russia isn’t growing as fast as China, but why is China growing so damn fast? See other posts for answers).

Now what about unexpected downsides? Objectively, Russia has solid macro fundamentals – far better than the over-indebted, over-leveraged Western economies (with the partial exceptions of Canada and Scandinavia). This is a trait it shares with the other BRIC’s and many other emerging markets in what is truly an amazing and perhaps unprecedented reversal of places in the last decade. This isn’t grounds for complacency – the 2009 recession is argument enough for that.

Nonetheless, the main facts remain intact: (1) It is growing from a relatively high base; (2) In an environment of approximately zero population growth; (3) The strength of state finances preclude any fundamental economic cataclysm as happened/is happening in Ireland, Greece, Latvia, etc. Taking into account these adjustments, a growth rate of 4% is entirely respectable and better than many if not most countries in the same general income bracket.

* Those interested in the details can read here and here.

EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.Ru (Российская экономическая «стагнация» в глобальной перспективе).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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.