Monday, March 09, 2009

Stakhanovite symbolism? 

Maybe it's just me, but government symbolism has always bothered me. The latest is this one, being affixed to stimulus infrastructure investments.

When I worked on advising projects, they put one of these on my computer. I was mostly working in Ukraine at the time and the parallels to Soviet symbolism were pretty obvious. There's also the parallel to WPA programs. There are still stone structures here in St. Cloud which carry a WPA mark on them. You won't see this one I have put here on any of that work, but you see the letters on the cornerstone.

This latest one, though, with the symbolism of green technology (I thought it was for agriculture) and the gears made me think of an old Soviet labor exhortation poster.

Title explanation.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Playing the cold card 

Mrs. S was taken over by a stomach flu Monday and stayed in bed. She often turns down the heat when in bed, so Tuesday morning when I woke it was -24 outside and only 53 inside. That shower I took reminded me of being in Ukraine, where we had no apartment thermostat (all heat and hot water was centralized by the city unless you installed an emergency hot water system.) In the winter I took many such showers. (Hint: take all your clothes in the bathroom with you, including shoes. I did that this morning.)

It'll be cold here all week. But I can't complain about the cold because in Eastern Europe it's much, much colder. -49C/-56F in Slovenia on Saturday colder. All of which is really annoying them with the Russians and Ukrainians fighting over gas.
Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcs�ny said this week it was unacceptable that �the bullets Ukraine and Russia shoot at each other hit Hungary.� Like other affected countries, it has set up gas-usage limits for consumers.

Eastern Europe has not seen such rationing since communist times. In Hungary schools were closed down during the week. Officials say they will compensate by sending children to school on weekends.

The Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture has handed out a list of food companies producing essential goods such as meat, milk and bread, and asked the government to ensure uninterrupted gas supplies.

Hungary has capacity to sustain some two months of heating public institutions and houses, 90 percent of which use gas, but only if it abandons all economic activity.
VOA News is also reporting on Hungarian gas shortages.

The Ukrainians understand this. They are in a very good strategic position, holding most of the gas lines than run to the EU as well as to the Caucasus. So it is trying to leverage that to get a good deal on its gas from the Russian firm Gazprom. It appears that Tuesday morning the Russians began to ship gas but were blocked by the Ukrainian side, even with international monitors supposedly present. (The Ukrainians blame Gazprom, naturally.) But as Stratfor points out the Russians have built a good buffer. I have noted that the January calendar normally contains a Russian-Ukrainian gas spat. This time, however, Stratfor thinks the Russians brought better weaponry to the fight.
...before 2004, the Russian-Ukrainian natural gas spat was simply part of business as usual. But now, Russia feels that its life is on the line, and that it has the financial room to maneuver to push hard � and so, the annual ritual of natural gas renegotiations has become a key Russian tool in bringing Kiev to heel.

And a powerful tool it is. Fully two-thirds of Ukraine�s natural gas demand is sourced from Russia, and the income from Russian natural gas transiting to Europe forms the backbone of the Ukrainian budget. Ukraine is a bit of an economic basket case in the best of times, but the global recession has essentially shut down the country�s steel industry, Ukraine�s largest sector. Russian allies in Ukraine, which for the time being include Yushchenko�s one-time Orange ally Yulia Timoshenko, have done a thorough job of ensuring that the blame for the mass power cuts falls to Yushchenko. Facing enervated income, an economy in the doldrums and a hostile Russia, along with all blame being directed at him, Yushchenko�s days appear to be numbered. The most recent poll taken to gauge public sentiment ahead of presidential elections, which are anticipated later this year, put Yushchenko�s support level below the survey�s margin of error. (h/t: Eclectecon by email.)
See also this analysis by Der Speigel, which finds that the EU was nevertheless caught flatfooted by this. My wager is that the Europeans are faced with enough trouble to help Ukraine solve this problem. The difference last we looked was about $49 per unit for the gas ($201 vs $250 per cubic meter.) When it only takes money to solve a problem, someone's money solves the problem. Whose, is the question. Russia's got a cash reserve, but the weather favors the Ukrainians.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Further thoughts about Georgia 

Once again, when Ed and I get on a topic, the second topic we plan never gets to air. Georgia dominated our conversation. I wanted to put in a few more thoughts.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Russia, Georgia and Armenia 

I'm beyond hope that the situation there will resolve in anything other than the replacement of the current government of Georgia with a puppet regime run by Russia. This has been, after all, the model employed in Armenia to disastrous effect. Unilateral ceasefires and pullouts from pointless alliances are all the Georgian government has left. It has even sunk to blaming NATO for not providing quicker membership; that would have only made the Russians move faster. Ralph Peters points out correctly that this has to have been planned for months now. Stratfor notes this morning on Russia's call for a withdrawal:
The Russians have achieved the desired psychological effect with the West, shattered Georgian self-confidence and set in motion recalculations by other countries in the region. The pacification of Georgia was not on their agenda.
Global Voices has a special page on South Ossetia that should be required reading; GV uses local bloggers and independent reporters for its information, and the news is not filtered. There I found a report that reminded me of a phone call to Hugh Hewitt's show that I thought he handled too cavalierly: the Kosovo precedent. The argument has been brewing almost from the moment Kosovo became independent in February. Contra Austin Bay, it does not really matter whether the country from which the government which to separates is like Milosevic's Serbia.

In Nagorno-Karabakh there was an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. With help first of Armenia and then of Russia, it has been an area of Russian influence (through the Minsk Group of the OSCE) since 1994. As such it has insisted on maintaining a presence in both Armenia and N-K, not dissimilar to its role in Abkhazia. It is as Tom Barnett notes:
...whenever something breaks off from something larger, you always find this littler bit inside the smaller entity that identifies more with the larger entity. Saw--and still see--this in the Balkans. Ditto for the Caucasus. Go back a bit farther and you see that Stalin set this up purposefully in many instances, shifting borders just so to trap a chunk of one historical state within another, also purposefully settling Russians for the same effect. Go back even further and you see the Russian empire using the pretext of the "fellow Slavs" needing protection to expand its borders ...

What I see here is Putin working familiar Russian themes for both domestic consumption and signaling to the West that Russia is once again a full-spectrum great power that defends its perceived interests like any other (admittedly, South Ossetia isn't exactly Iraq, but that's what a Russia can muster at this point). Timing is good (end of Bush term, Olympics, Iraq winding down but Afghanistan winding up). Man knows how to pick his moments.

What saddens me today is that Armenians look to Russia as "this littler bit ... that identifies more with the larger entity." We have Armenians and diaspora cheering Russia on, apparently without care that this may doom Armenia to being a satellite of Russia forevermore. We are more worried about sticking it to the Turks (and their Azeri brothers) still than about creating our own nation.

Michael Totten is traveling to Azerbaijan, and links to this excellent background piece on South Osseita by Joshua Kucera from this past spring.

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