Russia's Green Alliance - People's Party, which registered as a political party just one year ago, has turned to art to take a stab at the country's ruling United Russia party.
Taking advantage of a contest to design an emblem for the greater Moscow region, the Green Alliance has submitted an entry to the local ministry of culture that takes multiple swipes at United Russia -- highlighting problems with the country's leaders and many of the social issues that the ruling party has failed to address.
The Green Alliance has made no secret about the meaning of the design. On Tuesday, the party even tweeted a key to all the symbols packed into the image:
???? ??????? ?????????? ? ???????????? ???????? ?????????? ??????? ?????? ?? ??????? "?????? ???????????" twitter.com/RussianGreens/...— ?????? ??????? (@RussianGreens) May 21, 2013
Here's our own (English-language) guide:
The bear is a nod to the symbol of United Russia, but in this image the animal looks sinister and thuggish.
The gold chain the bear is wearing represents United Russia's alleged ties to the mob.
The saw and tree stumps symbolize United Russia's disregard for nature. As the Moscow Times points out, it was the previous United Russia governor who launched construction of the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest.
The cracked road draws attention to the Moscow region's poor infrastructure, which, the Green Alliance claims, is typically only "repaired by kickbacks."
The blue flashing light, which many Moscow drivers use to abuse traffic laws, is a symbol of "the power of contemporary feudalists," according to the party.
The high-rises in the background are meant to be "new buildings, without social infrastructure, built next to dumps."
The two men holding up the central shield are illegal migrant workers from central Asia. The Green Alliance points out that there are an estimated three million illegal migrants living in the Moscow region.
The "garlands" of paper money surrounding the shield represent the "harvest collected by [corrupt] bureaucrats."
"At a time when an alternative point of view doesn't appear in regional mass media, we consider it our duty to use this emblem as a way of drawing attention to problems," the Green Alliance's leader told the Moscow Times. It's a noble objective. But don't expect local officials to stamp the image on Moscow's promotional materials anytime soon.
Christian Caryl contributed to this post.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the 36 year-old president of Chechnya, reported human rights violator, supercar driver, champion boxer, and prolific Instagrammer, has once again posted an amazingly bizarre photo to his Instagram account -- posing with a lone wolf (Chechnya's national animal). The caption reads:
Wolf -- The only animal that can go into a fight against a stronger opponent. If he has lost the battle, he will look his opponent in the eye until the last breath, after which he dies.... The wolf always shows himself to his prey and chases it down on the run. It is for precisely this that we can respect them, despite their bloodthirstiness. #Chechnya #Hunting #Wolves.
(Interesting how Kadyrov, once a rebel fighter, appears to be evoking Chechen nationalism even as he grows closer and closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin.)
But there are two sides to this man, clearly. Here's the picture Kadyrov posted just afterwards, of him cradling this cat:
Ever since November 2012, the Chechen strongman has been uploading several photos a day to the photo-sharing site -- quite a self-indulgent act for someone who once called the task a "burden." But how else to monitor public opinion, comment on current events, and appoint Instagram followers to his cabinet? In case you're not one of Kadyrov's 132,804 (and counting) Instagram followers, here are some of his weirdest pics:
1. #lounging #tiger #bondvillain
2. French actor Gérard Depardieu at table with Kadyrov and his identically dressed children.
3. Tracksuit? Check. Golden stag? Check. Let's do this.
4. The focus was on back, traps, and biceps.
5. "They fixed a few minor things, told me that I have excellent teeth and sent me off." #oversharing
6. Kadyrov posted this photo along with a caption telling "friends, brothers, sisters, subscribers" to stop making appeals to him via Instagram ("more than half" weren't true anyway!) and to stop arguing with each other in the comments section. #orthisiswhereiwillburyyou
7. Hugging the sheep the wolf will probably eat later.
8. Chechen rulers -- they're just like us!
9. Just grabbing a bull by the horns, lounging on a tractor...
10. A perk of being president: as much Jello as you want.
11. Anything Putin can do, I can do better.
Christian Caryl contributed to this post.
All photos from Ramzan Kadyrov's Instagram page.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat for his nearly annual televised live-call-in show -- which, this year, went on for nearly five hours. In addition to tackling some weightier questions about the Russian economy and the country's hot-and-cold relations with the United States, Putin also addressed more casual inquiries, culled from millions of submissions.
At one point, Putin cited the Boston Marathon bombings as justification for taking a hard line in the Caucasus. "We have always said that action is needed and not declarations," Putin told viewers. "Now two criminals have confirmed the correctness of our thesis." At another, he displayed a rare flash of humor in discussing former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. "He's a slacker and doesn't want to work," Putin observed.
According to the Guardian's Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder -- who deserves a medal for live-tweeting the marathon session -- the Russian leader had a particularly pensive response to a question about whether he was happy. "Me?" Putin inquired. "This is a philosophical question." Responding to liberal journalist Aleksei Venediktov, Putin adamantly dismissed a comparison to Stalin. "Stalinism is connected with a personality cult, with mass violations of the law, with repressions and prison camps," he said. "There is nothing of such kind in Russia and I hope there will never be. Our society is different now and it will never let this happen again."
But even as Putin dwelt on the freedoms that exist in today's Russia, the sheer length of time he monopolized on the airwaves seemed to undermine that assertion ("Putin sets new record for Q&A session: 4 hours 47 minutes, 85 questions answered," the Voice of Russia proclaimed after it was all said and done). These days, we tend to associate long-windedness with authoritarian leaders -- be it Fidel Castro's infamous four-hour, 29-minute speech before the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 or Hugo Chávez's mesmerizing television rambles that went on for anywhere from four to eight hours ... or until El Presidente was done talking. Why the correlation?
In 2009, after Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi's 96-minute speech before the United Nations, the BBC investigated this very question. The article notes that marathon speeches by democratic leaders -- such as one Indian politician's eight-hour Kashmir lecture in 1957 -- are rare, and that applause (out of either genuine passion or fear for one's life) often accounts for a substantial portion of history's longest speeches. The BBC even highlights an amusing example from Russia's own Stalin, who received a standing ovation that took up a whole side of a vinyl recording of one of his speeches. But another historian argues that long speeches haven't always been the sole preserve of dictatorships:
"Now [a long speech] is seen as a sign of political weakness, for example Neil Kinnock or Gordon Brown when he uses too many words and too much jargon.
"But earlier generations, ending with Harold Macmillan, had a taste for very long speeches which demonstrated their learning. We have now less patience with people who show their authority by speaking at great length."
One could certainly devote an academic paper to the nuanced relationship between democracy and speech length, but perhaps a simpler explanation exists. As Robert Service, a professor of Russian Studies at Oxford University told the BBC, "You are only ever going to get long speeches when the speaker doesn't have to worry about the audience running away."
Any other theories?
Update: A number of readers have weighed in on the question of why authoritarian leaders tend to talk for so long. Below are a few of the more interesting suggestions:
"only their opinion matters?" - Facebook user Charles Ursenbach
"Dictatorships also have fewer things competing for viewers' attention, as the 'running away' joke denotes. While the State of the Union is going on, I can switch to a lot of other things, or even watch something in the DVR." - Commenter Pdubble
"It's probably the most democratic thing Putin does. People call in, ask him questions, some easy to answer, others not so much." - Facebook user Pavel Shmelov
"Because brevity is the soul of wit - and they are, by and large, witless." - Facebook user Julian De Wette.
"Filibusters come to mind, and the[n] immediately the relationship between democracy and speech length mentioned above." - Commenter Zhangir K S
"Because they can." - Facebook user Rick Brandl
ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images
On Wednesday we received the bizarre news that Russian President Vladimir Putin's name had mistakenly ended up on a secret criminal blacklist compiled by Finnish police. Those placed on the list face automatic detainment at the Finnish border and up to six months in prison.
Flustered Finnish law enforcement officials have been quick to apologize and remove Putin's name from the register. But what's more interesting is how Putin's name ended up alongside bosses of organized crime in the first place.
Apparently, this debacle is all thanks to Putin's ties to the Nochnye Volki, or Night Wolves -- a biker gang in Moscow that he is known to ride with on occasion (see video above). Though a biker gang and Vladmir Putin might seem like good fit, his relationship with this particular gang is more than a little ironic. Founded in the 1980s to defend rock musicians' right to perform uncensored "anti-Soviet" concerts, the Night Wolves claim to fight for freedom and reject the law. Yet Vladimir Putin, who called Pussy Riot's protest songs a threat to Russia's moral foundation and threw its members in jail, has chosen this biker gang to ride around with? How does either side justify that partnership?
It's unclear whether the Night Wolves are actually dangerous enough to warrant a place on Finland's blacklist. According to the Guardian, a member of the Wolves was involved in a shootout against a rival gang in November, "allegedly as part of a feud over the Wolves' establishment links." As the Guardian points out, it seems the Putin-Night Wolves relationship hasn't worked out too well for either party.
When, in 2012, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chose to title a blog post about Estonia's less-than-stellar economic recovery "Estonian Rhapsody," we should have known that this was no run-of-the-mill fiscal commentary -- but rather an omen of far more dramatic things to come. The slew of angry tweets that the post elicited from Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves included the phrase "Nostra culpa" and provoked mixed responses in the international press, with some glorifying the president and others lambasting his rashness.
Conflict, rhapsodies, Latin -- in retrospect, it's easy to understand why Estonia-based writer Scott Diel and U.K.-based composer Eugene Birman thought this bizarre online feud had the makings of an opera. Their much-anticipated 16-minute production, Nostra Culpa, is set to premier on Sunday at the Estonian Music Days festival.
So how exactly does one go about turning six tweets and a blog post into opera? Foreign Policy caught up with Birman to find out what we can expect.
The opera will be divided into two acts, according to Birman, with the first detailing Krugman's philosophy and the second Ilves's tweets. "I thought the most powerful thing would be to take those things verbatim and oppose them -- not to put them into conversation because there was no conversation," Birman told FP. The two acts are fairly different in style, with Krugman's movement set to loud and fast music and the Estonian president's sung against a more varied and slower score.
For Birman, the decision to separate the exchange into two acts using a single female soloist, Iris Oja, underscores the problems with communication in today's world. "The nature of Twitter for example, or writing an article is that there's no real discussion," he said. "You can respond to something but it's not really a discussion format. They're speaking at each other instead of to each other." In the digital age, where everything is mediated through our computer screens, having one voice speaking directly to the audience does seem fitting.
Diel and Birman hope the opera will stimulate deeper discussion in Estonia about the political and economic issues behind the spat. "Estonia became independent through music," Birman tells FP, referencing the mass singing demonstrations, known as the Singing Revolution, that helped the country peacefully overthrow the Soviet government. "There is something Estonian about this -- that we're using music to have a discussion about what the political policy of Estonia should be," he says.
But more than anything, the opera's purpose is to highlight the absurdity of all the squabbling over economic recovery -- and in particular the terms so often thrown about by pundits. Librettist Scott Diel achieves this by transforming Krugman's 70-word blog post into a series of almost tweet-like phrases imploring the Estonians to follow his advice. "There's this line in the libretto that says stimulate over and over again and it becomes almost sexual," Birman says. "The words when you take them out of their context become really strange."
One of the stranger moments comes in the second movement, when in adapting Ilves' sarcastic tweet "Let's sh*t on East Europeans," the singer will make a high-pitched whistling sound with her voice in place of the asterisk.
While Birman concedes the content is amusing, he cautions "in the end there's nothing really funny about what they're discussing. If you think about it, if you look at the words and you look at the argument, then it's pretty ridiculous. But that makes good theater." We won't argue with that.
Here's the libretto in full, as written by Scott Diel:
RAIGO PAJULA/AFP/Getty Images
As I noted in an earlier post, Chelyabinsk initially went the tourism route. Local officials set up a design contest for a meteorite-themed logo to slap onto calendars, booklets, magnets, and other souvenirs, hoping to capitalize on the hundreds of people who flocked to the area in the days after the interplanetary incident in search of bits of space stone. Now, officials want the region to be an international landmark. The Moscow Times reports today that Chelyabinsk is petitioning Russia's patent service for rights to the title, "the meteorite capital." The paper has more:
The Chelyabinsk region wants an official trademark for use of the meteorite title in products and advertising, and the governor's administration has already submitted an application to the Federal Service for Intellectual Property, Patents and Trademarks, RIA-Novosti reported Wednesday.
According to Natalya Denisova, head of the regional administration's department for special projects, the trademark would most likely be used in tourism services and cultural events, as well as publishing and video products.
"It's unlikely that we'd have a conflict of interest with Chebarkul or with businesspeople. ... We're all after one main goal here: to promote a positive image of the Chelyabinsk region," Denisova said in comments carried by RIA-Novosti.
Chebarkul, a city in Chelyabinsk, was the meteorite's final destination.
If Chebarkul doesn't put up a fight for trademark rights, maybe Antartica will. A Pittsburgh University geologist once called the continent the "meteorite capital of the world," though it appears he did not go so far as to secure a trademark.
For the fourth time in one month, a Bulgarian citizen has self-immolated in an apparent protest against economic hardship and political corruption. The BBC reports:
The man, 52, threw petrol over himself outside the presidential palace in Sofia, police said. Security guards extinguished the flames and he was taken to hospital with severe burns where an official said his life was in danger.
As austerity measures make life increasingly difficult in the beleaguered country, the extreme response from Bulgarians has left the country's leaders reeling, prompting the resignation of a mayor in the city of Varna and, before that, the fall of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov's center-right government.
As an act of political resistance, suicide protest is largely associated with Tibetan monks and Dalit women in India. But while the current outbreak of self-immolations in Bulgaria is shocking, it's not exactly surprising. The country has a history of grievance driven self-immolation -- more than many European countries.
According to a literature review of deliberate self-burning (DSB) over a 20-year period, conducted by Medecins Sans Frontiers in 2003, Bulgaria had an average of 7.4 cases per year (between 1983-2002) and a total number of cases that was only surpassed among European countries studied by the Netherlands. The report, which draws a distinction between psychiatric illness and political motivation as a causal factor, notes that Bulgaria had the lowest correlation to mental illness among European countries studied, with only a third of immolations stemming from clinical psychiatric disorders.
Eastern Europe more generally has a history of self-immolation as a form of political resistance, largely in opposition to Soviet rule. In 2011, Foreign Policy's Christian Caryl discussed the most famous case, when the Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1969 and caused "a profound 'moral shock' to the nation that haunted it for decades to come." The recent Bulgarian cases are similarly haunting, proving once again that self-immolation -- while harrowing -- is often an effective way of getting the government's attention.
Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian archduke whose assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 set off World War I, has always been more famous for his death than for his life. But, as Der Spiegel recently reported, thanks to rediscovered and newly published travel diaries from his 1892 journey around the world, readers will be able to get a new look at the complex personality of the young heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne -- who was at once an avid hunter and a conservationist, at once supercilious and vocally anti-imperialist.
Judging by Der Spiegel's report, the 2,000 or so pages of notes, written in a "powerfully elegant" style, give a fascinating account of an adventure that, though high-profile at the time (the entourage at certain points contained over 400 people), seems to have largely been forgotten.
FF (as the archduke signed his name in his notes) was just 28 years old at the time of his journey. Here are some highlights from this not-so-typical grand tour:
According to Der Spiegel, FF had nuanced opinions about the United States, which he saw as both heroic and ruthless. On one hand, he wrote, "Citizens of the Union" have the potential "to be larger than life, to be Übermenschen." On the other, he found the Wild West to be disappointing. He lamented the shrinking forests and the suffering of the Native Americans. Moreover, the "hoped-for grizzly bears refused to run in front of his rifle, cowboys cavalierly put their feet on the table in his presence, and smoking was prohibited everywhere."
This is going to be some fantastic reading.
When a 10-ton meteorite exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia on Friday, Feb. 15, it injured more than 1,500 people, caused $30 million in damage, and sparked nearly 3,000 financial aid applications from residents. Now, it seems, Russians -- including government officials -- are trying to get that money back, using the very rock that caused the losses in the first place.
This week, authorities in Chelyabinsk announced a design contest for a memorial to mark the "interplanetary visit," and also unveiled plans to develop a logo that entrepreneurs can slap on calendars, magnets, booklets, and other souvenirs. The region's geography and history museum, meanwhile, has already opened an exhibition on the meteorite that will include photos, videos, and meteorite fragments. "The authorities say they will try to make the memory of last Friday's event a great tourist attraction," the Voice of Russia reported.
Then there's the mayor of Chebarkul, who has himself tried to dig up some meteorite fragments by sending divers into the town's lake, where the meteor crashed. And he recently tried to galvanize his constituents by launching a competition for business ideas that would allow Chebarkul to profit from the global attention. The window may be closing fast, though, since Russian scientists say the fragments will soon be covered by snow or blown away by the wind.
Efforts to capitalize on the meteor strike got underway almost as soon as the extraterrestrial stone blew up, spewing tiny fireballs that buried themselves just inches deep in the ground and quickly cooled into little collectibles. Residents rushed to the scene of the explosion and began to dig up bits of meteorite that were often no larger than a centimeter. Apparently enough people were eager to see the meteor that some locals started taxiing them over for a steep price.
Many of the fragments have made their way onto the Russian classified ad website Avito.ru, where prices range from 500 to 300,000 rubles ($16 to $10,000), though the size of the fragments doesn't vary nearly as much. But meteorite aficionados beware: Many of the space particles for sale are raising some eyebrows, and Chelyabinsk police have already looked into a local man who has sold a few chunks for 15,000 rubles ($492) apiece that they believe could be fakes. Given the uncertainty, you might be better off with a good old-fashioned souvenir.
This morning, Russians in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city 950 miles east of Moscow, were jolted awake when a meteor exploded in the sky, producing shockwaves that shattered windows, set off car alarms, and injured at least 500 people. The meteor was traveling at 19 miles per second, according to Russian authorities, before exploding mid-air, likely as a result of the immense heat generated as a large object speeds through the atmosphere.
On the ground in Chelyabinsk, Russians witnessed a scene that must have seemed ripped out of an apocalyptic film, as a bright, flaming object suddenly appeared in the sky, streaked across the horizon, and unleashed a bone-rattling shockwave. The extraordinary developments were captured on video, in part through the automobile dash-cams that are nearly ubiquitous in Russia.
Below, we've compiled a selection of some of the best videos of the meteor shower, along with translations of the reactions of the stunned Russians on the ground.
At 1:40, the speaker says that there was an extremely bright flash going across the sky. Once the blast can be heard he says, "What the hell? ... Something fell. Do you hear? You know what that was? It was supersonic. It must have been an asteroid, and that's the blast wave." At 2:38, the speaker exclaims, "What the fuck?" They look at the broken windows and say it's like something out of the war. Then, another speaker says, "It must have been a rocket or something." While they're cursing up a storm, one of his friends says, "It must have been the Chinese!"
The video below gives a sense of the magnitude of the blast's shockwave.
This video, shot across the border from Kazakhstan about 200 miles from Chelyabinsk, shows how far from the city the meteoroid could be seen.
The blast blew out windows in Chelyabinsk. The closed-circuit video below gives a sense of how many Chelyabinsk residents likely experienced the meteoroid.
This video of a street in Chelyabinsk, which doesn't capture the direct path of the meteoroid, shows how the meteoroid lit up the street, casting a veritable klieg light on an entire city block.
This video compilation shows how residents experienced the meteroid across the city, and includes footage from a Chelyabinsk school right after the explosion was felt on the ground.
In late December, Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning American adoptions of Russian orphans. Over 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American parents since the end of the Soviet Union, and over 120,000 Russian orphans remain eligible for adoption today. While Russian state media is fixated on a handful of these adoptions that turned out badly for the children involved, this bill is explicitly framed as retaliation against the U.S. Senate's Magnitsky Act, which bars certain Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from entering the United States.
In the video below, Robert Wright speaks with Howard Amos, a reporter for The Moscow Times who has worked in a Russian orphanage. Amos describes the sad conditions facing Russian orphans, who are now much less likely to find a new home:
MAXIM MARMUR/AFP/Getty Images
AFP reports that Belarus has formally expelled all Swedish diplomats, giving Stockholm until August 30th to remove all diplomatic officials from Minsk. Swedish Ambassador to Belarus Stefan Eriksson was forced to leave Minsk first after "a decision was made not to renew his credentials."
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt attributed the eviction to his country's active stance on human rights, warning that Belarusian President Aleskandr Lukashenko's "fear of human rights is reaching new heights." Blidt doubled down an hour later, tweeting "We remain strongly committed to the freedom of Belarus and all its citizens. They deserve the freedoms and the rights of the rest of Europe."
The sudden timing has many speculating that it was the recent"Teddy Bear Drop" by Swedish activists that incited the expulsion. In an original act of protest, Swedish advertising agency Studio Total flew a small private plane over Belarusian airspace, dropping stuffed toy bears with messages of free speech. In an interview with FP's Elias Groll, pilots Hannah Frey and Thomas Mazetti elaborated upon their "campaign of laughter" to highlight the regime's political and security weaknesses.
Though Belarusian officials initially denied that the teddy bear drop had even happened, two high ranking generals were fired shortly afterward for "failing to ensure national security." Belarusian blogger Anton Surapin and entrepreneur Syarhey Basharymau were later arrested on charges of involvement in the "illegal intrusion" of airspace.
Packing should be easy for the Swedish embassy. The current round of evictions comes just months after Sweden withdrew officials from its embassy in February in protest against Lukashenka's authoritarian administration. All 27 EU member states removed diplomatic envoys after new economic sanctions were imposed, with Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia not returning until late April. An emergency meeting of European Union ambassadors has been called for Friday to discuss the situation.
TATYANA ZENKOVICH/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that a small aircraft piloted by democracy activists had violated Belarusian airspace in July when it crossed over from Lithuania. The aircraft was carrying a cargo of teddy bears, which parachuted into the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on July 4.
Lukashenko was peeved at his military commanders and air traffic control had failed to stop the plane's raid into Belarus. Government officials have been trying to sort out how the activists planned the attack and why national security operatives failed to stop the small planes raid into controlled air space.
According to Al Jazeera's news report:
"[Press Secretary ]Andrei Savinykh told Al Jazeera that the aircraft was detected, "but the air defence did nothing. They didn't consider the aircraft as a military threat because it was a small aircraft and usually the air defence system is focusing on high-speed heavy crafts." However, Savinykh said their failure to act was a "violation of instructions" and that the responsible personnel will be punished."
The plane was piloted by the cofounder of a Swedish ad agency on behalf of Charter 97, a Belarussian democracy advocacy group. The group has since organized other teddy bear assaults, including staging of teddy bears in front of the Belarusian Embassy in London-which caused embassy officials to call the police-- to protest Lukashenko's repression. Protestors have adopted the teddy bears as a symbol of resistance against Lukashenko.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Government-funded outlet Russia Today reports that religious activists in a southern Russian city have called for national ban on Facebook after the popular social media website introduced a new icon system that represented gay couples through the use of gender-appropriate stick figures. Warning that website was "flirting with sodomites," organizers in Saratov delivered a statement to Facebook's Russian headquarters demanding the website remove all content related to "gay propaganda."
Facebook, unsurprisingly, ignored the ultimatum, spurring organizers to escalate their efforts. "We demand only one thing: Facebook should be blocked in the entire country because it openly popularizes homosexuality among minors," campaign organizer Vladimir Roslyakovsky told reporters. "The U.S. goal is that Russians stop having children. [They want] the great nation to turn into likeness of Sodom and Gomorrah."
Laws restricting gay rights have been on the rise in Russia. The European Human Rights Court's 2010 ruling against the Russian government's ban on gay pride events has been largely ignored and in March, St. Petersburg criminalized "the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia among minors," imposing a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles for any found guilty of vaguely-defined "public action." Siberia's regional legislature quickly followed suit in April and the regions of Novosibirsk and Arkhangelsk have imposed similar restrictions. Requests for legal permits to hold Gay Rights Parades have been revoked or denied and illegal protesters arrested in what Human Rights Watch has labeled a systematic breach of international law.
With the Duma reportedly contemplating national action, it's not surprising that anti-gay activists are feeling optimistic. "I am confident that Russian laws and reasonable citizens will be able to protect their children from a fierce attack of sodomites," Roslyakovsky concluded.
When U.S. President John F. Kennedy turned 45, Marilyn Monroe performed her infamous rendition of "happy birthday" in Madison Square Garden. When Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 58, he received an erotic calendar from young journalists in Moscow. But when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned 62 yesterday, he received...well, a fake Belarusian visa and a book on the "Basics of Ukrainophobia:" gifts from angry activists to ridicule his Belarusian roots and party's most recent legislation.
No doubt, his celebration's been a little less sultry and lot more politically heated. Widespread discontent over the recent "language bill," passed last Monday, July 3, has fueled protests throughout Ukraine and exaggerated tensions between Ukraine's Russian-speaking East and Ukrainian-speaking West. Approved by 248 of the 364 legislators present for the vote, the bill officially recognizes "regional" languages where they're spoken by at least ten percent of the population and permits their official use of in legal discourse, business, and education.
Yanukovych, who grew up in the Russian speaking Donetsk Oblast and represents the pro-Russian Part of the Regions, pledged to make Russian a second official language during his campaign, but the vote was still a shock for many Ukrainians. In response to what's been deemed "a lightning vote," the speaker of Ukraine's parliament and leader of the opposition People's Party -- Volodymyr Lytvyn - resigned. Rather than accept the resignation of its leader, parliament voted Friday to adjourn for the summer and delay discussion of the bill.
Citing article Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution which requires that the state "ensure comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine," critics charge that the bill is a blatant attempt to undermine Ukraine's language and sovereignty in favor of Russia - an all too familiar criticism for Yanukovych who's been ridiculed as the Kremlin's pawn in the past.
While the jury's still out on the future of the bill, it seems like Yanukovych may need to work on his birthday plans. Last year, he simply asked for "hard workers."
Autocratic Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is bringing a special guest with him as he visits Latin American leaders in Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela -- his 7-year-old son, Kolya. While Lukashenko has two adult-aged sons, it is his youngest son that is most frequently in the public eye, accompanying his father for official visits -- including a recent meeting with the Pope -- and casting his father's voting ballot.
At a recent meeting with Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Lukashenko seemed to reveal his plans for Belarus's future leadership, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
"You're correct in pointing out that my kid is here alongside us. This shows that we have seriously and lastingly established the foundation for our cooperation, and that in 20 to 25 years there will be someone to take over the reins of this cooperation."
Leaders are usually a bit more coy about designating future heirs -- especially at Kolya's age -- but subtlety isn't really Lukashenko's style.
If you think running for office in the United States is rigorous, then you haven't met Hungary's far-right Jobbik party. After the April 2010 legislative elections that handed the extremist group 47 seats in the national assembly -- and before local elections that fall -- an unnamed Jobbik MP made a special effort to gain the upper hand by undergoing genetic testing "to ensure he did not have a Roma or Jewish ethnic background." The lab results were published by a Hungarian far-right website in May. According to the report from medical diagnostic company Nagy Gen, the MP, whose name was blacked out, has "No genetic trace of Jewish or Roma ancestors."
The company, which faces a criminal investigation for violating the country's Law on Genetics, "examined 18 positions in the MP's genome" for supposedly Jewish and Roma variants, but Joerg Schmidtke, president of the European Society of Human Genetics, criticized the company:
"This is a gross distortion of the values of genetic testing.... In addition, the test proves nothing; it is impossible to deduce someone's origins from testing so few places of the genome."
Jobbik is the third-largest party in Hungary's parliament, and is known for its anti-Semitic and anti-Roma platform. European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor found the racial purity test a cause for immediate concern:
"This test demonstrates a very troubling escalation by the Jobbik party ... into a genetic and racial ideology that appears to be a short step below a fully-fledged Nazi worldview."
The icing on the cake, though, is the fact that three-time Olympic water polo champion Tibor Benedek, a member of a prominent Jewish family, held a minority financial stake in the Nagy Gen, but he pulled out immediately after the report was published.
It's good to know that racial purity is making a comeback, but if the testing was truly unprofessional, it's entirely possible we may have another Vladimir Zhinirovsky on our hands.
FERENC ISZA/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't choose his foreign visits lightly. On May 31, Putin makes his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a third term as president on May 7, to neighboring Belarus. The visit is highly symbolic of Russia's desire to be the leader in the post-Soviet space, as well as Putin's continued support for the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko (also known as "Europe's Last Dictator"). Afterwards, Putin will head to Germany and France, Russia's major trading partners in the EU. After the European visits, Putin will fly to speak with Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov in Tashkent, to Beijing, and finally to Astana, Kazakhstan, to meet with long-time ruler Nursultan Kazarbayev; countries central to Putin's vision of a Eurasian Union.
Earlier in the month, Putin suddenly declined to attend the G8 Summit in Camp David, under pretext that he was too busy forming a new Cabinet of Ministers, sending instead Prime Minister Medvedev. The move was widely seen as a snub to President Obama, as Putin avoided a meeting with the president, and sidestepped making the U.S. his first foreign visit. A few days later, Obama announced he would not be able to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok this September, because it conflicted with the Democratic Party convention.
Putin has now also taken the opportunity to snub the UK, by announcing he will not attend the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, even though the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on Russian territory in Sochi. Likely, Medvedev will once again be sent in his stead. Russian-British relations have been tense since the 2006 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Moreover the West has been pressuring Russian officials over the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was detained in prison. Putin's foreign trip destinations are by no means accidental.
With Greece's national parliamentary election set for May 6, the crisis-ridden country may have a new threat to worry about: the extremist fringe vote. Due to popular frustration with the country's current economic situation, it is "thought likely" that left- and right-wing political fringe parties will make gains among voters at the expense of mainstream political parties like the conservative New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok party.
But as the New York Times reported yesterday, the Greek ultranationalist group Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group that has broadened its appeal by "capitalizing on fears that illegal immigration has grown out of control at a time when the economy is bleeding jobs," may very well receive more than the 3 percent of votes needed to enter Parliament. This is bad news for Greek society, which University of Athens political scientist Nicos Demertzis calls a "a laboratory of extreme-right-wing evolution." Though no Golden Party member has ever held national office, party leader Nikos Michaloliakos was elected to the Athens City Council in 2010.
Golden Dawn joins the ranks of dozens of nationalist-populist fringe parties all over Europe whose enflamed euroskeptic reactions to the "cuts to wages and pensions imposed in order to secure aid from the EU and the IMF" have resulted in political shakeups. The Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) , led by Geert Wilders, won 24 of the 150 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, and came in second in the Netherlands in the 2009 European Parliament elections.
Golden Dawn also espouses a particularly anti-German sentiment:
''It's right to hate Germany, because it is still the leader of the banksters and the European Union,'' Mr. Michaloliakos, the group's leader, said, using a derogatory term for bankers.
Of course, Golden Dawn is still transitioning from a street-fighting group into a political party, but it remains to be seen whether it can become a well-oiled machine like France's National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is still campaigning for the presidency. Even so, its increasing popularity is evidence of a dangerous trend that only promises to worsen. At least we have Greek left-wing anarchist groups like the Cosnpiracy of Fire Nuclei, Nikola Tesla Commandos, and Immediate Intervention Hood-wearers to keep us properly entertained.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has an interesting definition of the word "provocative." After meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the U.N. this week, Lavrov commented on March 14 that the recent resumption of U.S.-Georgia military exercises "seems somewhat provocative."
This might make sense if only Russia wasn't organizing military exercises of its own in the Caucasus. In December 2011, Russia announced a new strategic command-and-staff exercise, "Caucasus 2012," to take place in September 2012. The purpose is to prepare for a possible Israeli attack on Iran (and the potential repercussions in the Caucasus region). The exercises are to involve all areas of the armed forces, and will take place not only in the Russian territories of the North Caucasus, but also in neighboring Armenia, as well as the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (over which the 2008 war was fought).
It also conveniently occurs right before the scheduled parliamentary elections in Georgia for October 2012. The Georgian Foreign Ministry is obviously skeptical of these "military exercises" on its borders, claiming Russia is "seeking to instigate a permanent state of tension" in the region.
Then again, Russian foreign affairs rhetoric isn't exactly known for its consistency. Last year, during the NATO decision-making to provide the Libyan rebels with military assistance against Qadaffi, Russia's NATO ambassador Dimitri Rogozin commented that creating a no-fly zone over Libyan air space was "a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country." Similar words came from Putin himself, who described the NATO mission as a "medieval call for a crusade ... [that] allows intervention in a sovereign state."
Ah, Putin condemning foreign military intervention
in a sovereign state. How quickly he forgot his intentions
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
When space programs have some sort of setback, it's usually tied to an arithmetic error, or because of the sheer complexity of launching something into outer space. For Russian Federal Space Agency Director Vladimir Popovkin, however, the problems facing Roskosmos lie with the intrigues of his rivals. In an article published by the AFP, Popovkin hinted that the space agency's recent failures are due to foreign interference. From the AFP:
Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told the Izvestia daily he could not understand why several launches went awry at precisely the moment the spacecraft were travelling through areas invisible to Russian radar.
"It is unclear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are travelling through what for Russia is the 'dark' side of the Earth -- in areas where we do not see the craft and do not receive its telemetry readings," he said.
"I do not want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we cannot exclude," Popovkin told the daily.
Of course, Popovkin may simply be trying to distract the Kremlin as his space agency comes under greater scrutiny after a rough 2011. In April, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin fired the agency's director after a defense satellite was sent into the wrong orbit. Several months later, a Mars probe got stuck in Earth's orbit (fragments of the probe are expected to hit Earth on Sunday). The humiliations come as Roskosmos' importance increases after the retirement of NASA's space shuttle program. The agency has also been working to launch GLONASS, Russia's competitor to the GPS used by the U.S. military and consumers.
While there has been some space rivalry in recent years, there haven't been any known instances of countries directly sabotaging space flights, as Popovkin claims. Once we reach that point, it won't be long before we hit Moonraker status.
In the run-up to yesterday's debt ceiling deal between Congress and the White House, there was a lot of frustrated reaction from world leaders fearful of what a U.S. debt crisis could mean for their own economies. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might have just won the prize for the strongest response so far. Today, he told a Russian youth group that the United States was "like a parasite" on the world economy.
They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy ... They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar ... Thank god that they had enough common sense and responsibility to make a balanced decision.
Russia holds a large amount of U.S. bonds and treasuries, which means had the United States defaulted, it too would have been in trouble. There was clearly some relief this morning, following the news of yesterday's agreement. Both of Moscow's stock exchanges opened up about two percent -- though, they later declined due to investor doubts about the Washington plan.
In today's speech, Putin said Russia should look for other reserve currencies to hedge against "a systemic malfunction in the U.S. economy," according to the Wall Street Journal.
What options do they have besides the dollar? The Journal reports that last year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held talks with Chinese leaders exploring the possibility of moving reserve assets into the yuan and away from the dollar.
Russia cut back its purchases of U.S. treasuries in recent months -- down from $176 billion in October, 2010 to $115 billion in May. Still, they are unlikely to completely bail on the U.S. market any time soon since Russian officials concede it is still a safer bet than other world economies.
So, the Kremlin will most certainly be dealing with the U.S. "parasite" for the foreseeable future.
There's been a lot of love for the 40th president of the United States these past few days in Europe. In a tour organized by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation to commemorate the centennial of his birth, the man who said, "Tear down this wall," now has two more statues raised in his memory, a street named for him, and a Catholic Mass in his honor.
A mass in Krakow
Monday of last week, June 27, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow and former personal assistant to Pope John Paul II, celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving in Reagan's honor at the Basilica of St. Mary.
"The blessed John Paul II and Ronald Reagan were, and continue to be, the beacon of hope for a world fighting against evil, irrespective of whether it is individual or structural evil, which takes on various monstrous forms," Father Jan Machniak of the Papal University in Krakow told the Polish Press Agency.
Time magazine once called the relationship between the pope and the 40th president a "holy alliance."
The two conspired back in the early 1980s to hasten the end of the Soviet Union by backing Polish solidarity. "Both the Pope and the President were convinced that Poland could be broken out of the Soviet orbit if the Vatican and the U.S. committed their resources to destabilizing the Polish government and keeping the outlawed Solidarity movement alive after the declaration of martial law in 1981," Time magazine wrote in 1992.
Reagan's national security advisor, Richard Allen, called it "one of the great secret alliances of all time."
According to a Polish news web site, there are plans to erect a Reagan statue in Warsaw.
A statue in Budapest
Budapest last week unveiled its own bronze 7-foot likeness of the American president. It was commemorated at Freedom Square at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Orban said Reagan "changed the world and created a new world for Central Europe. He tore down the walls which were erected in the path of freedom in the name of distorted and sick ideologies."
The statue, which shows Reagan in mid-stride, also has a touchscreen monitor that gives information about the president in Hungarian and English.
Hungary has been going Reagan crazy of late. In March, its postal service issued a "commemorative envelope and postmark celebrating" Reagan's birth 100 years ago, according to the Associated Press.
AFP/ Getty Images
Muammar al-Qaddafi likes to play chess, and it may be that he sees a checkmate nearing. According to a respected Russian newspaper today, Moscow officials say the Libyan leader is "sending out signals that he is prepared to relinquish power in exchange for security guarantees." The logic, as summed up by Reuters, is that Qaddafi sees decreasing supplies of money and fuel, and increasing military pressure from NATO and the rebel army.
Of course, no one really knows what is going on inside the Libyan leader's head; his government spokesman categorically denied the report. Many analysts are skeptical. Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya scholar at Dartmouth College who was recently appointed as an advisor to the United Nations mission for Libya, told Foreign Policy that back channel talks between Qaddafi's government and Russia haven't gone anywhere.
"The bottom line is he doesn't want to go," he said.
Western diplomatic sources told Reuters that it is in Qaddafi's interests to "send out conflicting signals about possible deals, in the hope that it will sow confusion among the rebels and the fragile Western alliance trying to push him out."
But according to David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. diplomat in Libya when Qaddafi first came to power, that analysis doesn't hold up. Qaddafi, he says, is depending on his supporters thinking they don't have any other way out other than backing him until the end. Making the world think his exit is actually an option harms that narrative.
"It's our strategy to try to convince people around Qaddafi that there are better options," Mack said.
One thing is clear -- as NATO bombs continue to target Qaddafi and his backers, and as the rebel army and Qaddafi's forces battle each other in the east and west of the country, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering.
Russia, the United Kingdom, and Turkey are all in back channel talks with his government, according to Vandewalle. The United States is participating in defacto talks through the United Kingdom. And South African President Jacob Zuma has been pushing a diplomatic solution since the fighting started. He's met with Qaddafi several times and yesterday said NATO countries should assist in persuading the Transitional National Council (TNC) "to remove some of the preconditions that are making it hard or impossible to start with the negotiations process" -- such as the insistence on prosecuting Qaddafi.
On Sunday, there were signals that the TNC was softening its position. In an interview with Reuters, opposition leader Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said the TNC had offered Qaddafi the option of resigning but staying in Libya. (The next day he backtracked a bit, saying that it was just a scenario that was discussed internally but that there was no "current or future possibility for Qaddafi to remain in Libya").
Yesterday, the Libyan government said it held talks with the TNC on several occasions in Italy, Norway, and Egypt about finding a peaceful solution (an Italian government spokesman called the reports untrue).
"The one thing that is going on is there's an enormous amount of back channels," said Vandewalle.
Vandewalle is skeptical Qaddafi is really looking for a negotiated exit.
As the debate over "don't ask, don't tell" rages on in the United States, it seems Turkey is also facing its own domestic dilemma over military participation.
While gays are barred from military service in Turkey, the armed forces allegedly are "asking for 'photographic' proof that people seeking an exemption from compulsory military service on the grounds of their homosexuality are actually gay," Hurriyet reports.
The practice is not official, and the military has firmly denied the claims but there have been consistent accusations from Turks who were allegedly subject to the practice, and the 2009 European Union progress report also cited concerns over the issue.
Turkey's dilemma is not so much "don't ask, don't tell," -- it's more over "show and tell."
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Give the Bulgarian government points for efficiency, if not productivity. On the same day the country's defense minister lifted its ban on women serving on submarines, the parliament voted to mothball the country's only submarine. It's the thought that counts, I guess.
The U.S. navy also lifted its own ban on women in subs this month and a group of female officers are currently in training to begin service onboard four nuclear submarines in December 2011. Presumably, the USS Wyoming, USS, Georgia, USS Ohio, and USS Maine will still be there when they're done.
Russia may have recently scrapped a missile defense deal with Iran -- but the Russians are now seemingly helping out another aspiring nuclear power/purpoted "axis of evil" stand-in: Venezuela.
According to news reports,
Russia agreed ... to help build Venezuela's first nuclear power plant, sell it tanks and buy $1.6 billion of oil assets, reinforcing ties with President Hugo Chavez who shares Russian opposition to US global dominance.
The announcement comes at the end of a two-day visit to Moscow by Chavez; if Venezuela keeps this up, they may be able to take Iraq's beloved lost spot on the roster and become the media darling commentators have been longing to find.
While the agreement between the two powers is preliminary, the move is aimed at concerns over Venezuela's heavy dependence on oil. The Guardian reports, "Venezuela's economy is 94 or even 95% made up of oil... They [the Venezuelans] want to widen their sources of energy so they are less dependent on it."
In remarks that can only be interpreted as congratulatory, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley stated, "This is something that we will watch... very, very closely."
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister and style icon Yulia Tymoshenko is not happy about the new dress restrictions put in place by her rival, President Viktor Yanukovych:
"The Queen of England and (Libya's leader Muammar) Gaddafi, for instance, for sure would not have been allowed in the Cabinet," Tymoshenko, who is now a top opposition leader, quipped at a news conference Wednesday.
The code adopted this week calls on men working at the Cabinet of Ministers to wear mostly gray and dark blue suits and not wear the same suit to work two days in a row. Women are asked to stick to business suits and low-heeled shoes, and refrain from excessive makeup and jewelry.
Tymoshenko's stylish outfits and traditional Ukrainian braid have earned her a reputation as a glamour and fashion icon, but also angered some Ukrainians as too luxurious at a time when the country is battered by a severe economic crisis.
Some observers noted that a new dress code was overdue for government offices and other institutions in Ukraine, where women often wear tight, low-cut dresses to work while men are often seen in the same outfit for days in a row.
The Rada sure seems like an interesting place.
On a related note, Colum Lynch takes a look at some of the more interesting sartorial choices made by leaders at the recent U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Stalin's postmortem downfall was (quite literally) on display last night in Gori, Georgia, where a statue of the Soviet leader was dismantled from its decades-old perch in the square of Uncle Joe's hometown. The unceremonious removal -- conducted without announcement or fanfare in the dead of night -- sounded strangely reminiscent of a criminal enterprise (albeit one carried out by amateur vandals). Stalin's unexpected departure, however, came at the directive of the city's parliament, which explained its decision as a necessary product of modernization. Even President Mikheil Saakashvili weighed in to express his approval: "A memorial to Stalin," he declared in televised remarks, "has no place in the Georgia of the 21st Century."
Saakashvili's assessment isn't as cantankerous as it may sound -- in fact, Stalin-bashers in Gori are by all measures behind the curve. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, rioters across the crumbling USSR eagerly demolished all signs of the former leader (à la Baghdad in 2003), but Georgians in Gori staunchly resisted the revisionist portrait of their homegrown hero: Hundreds of locals reportedly gathered to protect the statue against its would-be defilers. Stalin's corpse was removed from its original resting place inside Red Square in 1961, just a few years after its entombment; half a century later, what's thought to be the last remaining statue of the leader in its original locale has finally come down.
Of course, these Georgians aren't merely catching up with a trend; they plan to take their protest one step further. In a not-so-subtle gesture to their neighbors, the now-ousted statue will be replaced by a memorial for Georgian soldiers who died in the country's 2008 war with Russia.
The now-dismantled Gori Stalin made FP's list of the world's ugliest statues in April.
After doing their best last week to convince the world that their economy was on the brink of a Greece-style crash, sending their own currency as well as the euro into a tailspin, the ruling Fidesz party is now awkwardly trying to repair the damage:
"It is blatant that Hungary is not Greece," said Mihaly Varga, chief of staff to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in a television interview on Monday. "Greece has 230 billion euros ($274.8 billion) worth of public debt, and in the case of Hungary, we've got only ... €76 billion public debt. So Hungary is not Greece."[...]
Varga was also quoted on Saturday as saying comparisons to countries such as Greece were "unfortunate."
To be clear, those comparisons were made by the chairman of Varga's party and then reaffirmed by his boss's chief spokesman.
The conventional wisdom on the Hungarian government's strange behavior over the last week now seems to be that they were trying to make the situation sound more dire than it really is in order to deflect blame for the fact that they won't be able to deliver on the promises of tax cuts and stimulus that got them elected.
FT's Lex calls it a "boneheaded exercise in expectations management," which sounds about right. It hasn't been a stellar debut for Hungary's Fidesz government. Not that the Socialists were any more honest, but at least when they lied, it sort of worked.
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