Tag Archives: Russia

My thoughts on a few things

I would never suggest that my friends back in the US are predictable, but oftentimes, if there is a particular development in the news, I know someone is going to ask me about it at a party. Since I have yet to establish myself as a repository of opinions on the same topics here, I find it necessary to answer the questions you would’ve asked me if you’d seen me the last few weekends.  Here are my thoughts on…

Protests in Russia

I’m quite frankly just as shocked (if not more so) as anyone else. Protesting is a very un-Russian thing to do, which suggests that either there is some outside influence (possible, but not in the way you might think), or the Russian body politic has reached a hitherto unreached breaking point (in my view, only slightly more likely).

The idea that the US or any other Western power is behind the protests is absurd. Western governments have an interest in the political stability in Russia, and would probably rather take their chances with a rearranged Putin-Medvedev duumvirate than gamble by supporting a popular uprising that might bring to the fore a more ardently nationalist leader.

But I think there is some external influence emanating from the Arab Spring and the various other protest movements that have gained traction around the world this year. Once again, it would be absurd to suggest that the same sequence of events that played out in North Africa could be repeated in Russia. There are plenty of reasons why this is the case, but the most significant is rather practical: It’s not SPRING. The revolution in Egypt gained steam as the protestors camped out in Tahrir Square and became an immovable presence. I’ve been in Russia in December and I can assure you that no one will be camping outside. It will be very hard for infrequent demonstrations that disperse at night to gain much momentum.

I’ve heard several Western news outlets suggest that the reason Russians are disgruntled is the announcement by Putin and Medvedev that they would once again trade places (currently they are Prime Minister and President, respectively). This view holds that Russian people were upset by their leaders so brazenly announcing the future of Russian politics without first consulting the people. This is pure bollocks. Russian politics has been carefully orchestrated for some time, and in fact, these two announced an identical switch-a-roo in 2007 (except with the roles reversed) and executed it in 2008 with little backlash. Clearly this is about more than just the two men at the top…

NHL Realignment

I am unequivocally in favour of it. I give the NHL kudos for deciding on a complete overhaul rather than just a minor adjustment to the current division format.

For starters, the new format is a lot greener, as it will require fewer cross-continent trips. This has the added advantage of decreasing players’ fatigue from factors other than actually playing hockey!

There have been some legitimate criticisms of the new four-conference format, but most can be easily dealt with.

One argument is that, by giving playoff spots to the top 4 teams in each conference, weak teams in weak conferences will unfairly get in while good teams in stronger conferences will unfairly be left out of the playoffs. This is inevitable in any system, though, and is already present in the current one anyway.

If last year’s teams had been divided up into the four new conferences, and playoff spots had been allocated using the new model, 15 of the same 16 teams would have made the playoffs. And the one team that would have been cheated out of a spot last year (the LA Kings) would actually be unfairly awarded a playoff spot this year if the season ended today. So the new model giveth and it taketh, but it doesn’t seem that it creates any inherently weak conference that would perpetually benefit from the imbalance.

Another objection to the new format is that it, by having a schedule so heavily tilted toward intra-conference match-ups, it will kill off other rivalries.  It must be said, however, that the best and most enduring rivalries are regional rivalries, which this new format enhances.

For example, during the late 90s and early 2000s, one of the best rivalries was Colorado-Detroit, a hate-filled rivalry fueled by several hard-fought playoff series in consecutive years. Now, that rivalry has faded as the players from those years have moved on. In the last few years, Chicago-Vancouver has been a great and bloody rivalry, spurred by the exact same causes. But it too, will soon disappear and is indeed already fading.

The truly enduring rivalries are those that are built by teams playing each other multiple games every regular season, sometimes evenly-matched, sometimes with the possibility for a legitimately surprising upset, but always with animosity borne out of the two teams being so close that the teams and their fans can really rub each other the wrong way. The best rivalries in the NHL are Montreal-Toronto, Boston-Montreal, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, and some would add the “Battle of Alberta” between Calgary and Edmonton.  These are all regional rivalries and all will be preserved in the new format.

New, enterprising, innovative ideas

I have some! Even though this blog has been entirely inactive for several months, my mind hasn’t. Soon, I’ll be sharing more of my crazy schemes with you…

2014 Sochi Olympics will out-controversy 2008 Beijing Olympics

You heard it here first (probably): the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will generate more controversy, put heads-of-state around the world in more diplomatically tense situations, and provoke more outrage among human rights activists before the games even start than the 2008 summer games did by the time they were over.  This would be no mean feat; in case you’ve forgotten, there’s an entire wikipedia entry devoted to the controversies surrounding Beijing’s Olympiad.  Before embarking on my reasoning for such a claim, some background information on the region is in order.  If you don’t like background information, skip down to the funny picture of Vladimir Putin.

Background information

Much like the 2010 Olympics which were split between Vancouver, a city, and Whistler, a mountain resort town two hours away, the 2014 games will be split between the Black Sea port of Sochi and the ski resort town of Krasnaya Polyana.  Both are in Krasnodarkrai, which is on the edge of the mountainous North Caucasus region.  The North Caucasus is extraordinarily diverse, inhabited by over 50 different ethnicities, many of whom practiced mystical Sufi Islam.  The region was conquered by the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century and has unwillingly been part of Russia in one fashion or other ever since.  The North Caucasus contains several republics that are in theory autonomous, but whose leaders are all appointed by the Kremlin.  The most well-known in the West of these republics is Chechnya, probably because the Russian Federation fought two wars there in the 1990s, and its complex, often violent history provides good fodder for Hollywood and Tom Clancy.

Technically Russia

The North Caucasus has a highly advanced, but opaque rebel infrastructure. Rebels under the command of Shamil Basayev fought Russian troops in a guerilla war that ravaged Chechnya from 1994-96.  In 1999, Basayev led an incursion into neighbouring Dagestan, and this, combined with bombings of apartment buildings in several European Russian cities that were blamed on Chechens, prompted the second Chechen war. Basayev was killed in the summer of 2006, and the current leader of the rebel movement is Doku Umarov.  In 2007, Umarov declared the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, a nominally Islamist group that was no longer fighting for just Chechnya, but all the oppressed North Caucasus peoples.  Although Umarov is often depicted as the mastermind, the emirate is actually quite decentralised, with individual jamaats in each republic, whose leaders and fighters seem to have more nationalistic than religious motivations.  Whether you classify their activity as insurgency or terrorism is of course a matter of perspective; but either way, they are a deadly force — In February of this year alone, they were responsible for 22 bombings and 31 shootouts, which killed over 50 people and wounded more.

Foreground Information?

One of the issues underlying all the potential hazards I will outline below is the ham-handedness of Vladimir Putin, who will almost surely return to the Presidency next term, after a brief spell as Prime Minister.  Whereas the Chinese government has constructed a well-oiled machine to manage dissent, Putin and his operatives tend to deal with opponents in a rather more primitive fashion. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexander Litvinenko are two high-profile victims of Putin’s distaste for dissent.  So when challenges to the smooth running of the Sochi Olympics inevitably arise, Putin’s response is almost guaranteed to generate maximum outrage.

Even if the site of the Olympics weren’t so very, very close to the simmering cauldron of the North Caucasus republics, it would be vulnerable.  Although the militants in the North Caucasus regularly wreak havoc on the local authorities, they are by no means confined to local attacks.  Indeed in the last decade, they have carried out several very high-profile attacks in Russia.  These have included seizing the Dubrovka theatre with 900 people inside and holding it hostage  for three days; bombing a popular high-speed train that connects Moscow and St. Petersburg; and just this January, bombing Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.  In perhaps the most ominous sign for the officials in charge of security at the Sochi Olympics, terrorists have carried out several attacks in the ski area of Mt. Elbrus. Suffice to say, the Sochi Olympics will be an irresistible target for North Caucasus militants, all the more so because it’s so close.

Russian authorities still have three years to try to quiet down the restive North Caucasus, but there is almost no reason to believe they will be successful; Russian rulers  have been trying for 150 years with little success (Stalin deported entire ethnic groups  to Central Asia, for example).  There have been counterterrorist regimes in place somewhere or other in the North Caucasus for virtually all of Putin’s presidency, but attacks have only increased in recent years.  Recently, Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, had the bright idea to address one of the major underlying causes of terrorism –unemployment — through a grand economic development scheme.  But the patronage networks of local elites, as well as the plan’s reliance on foreign investors to put money in  a region that is still epically unstable, have doomed that strategy thus far.

SO, since the Kremlin will still have an armed insurgency simmering in Sochi’s neighbourhood, it is probably going to have to use brute force to contain the violence.  A supposed citizens’ self-defense unit calling themselves the “Black Hawks” has suddenly gained lots of attention in the Moscow press, by saying they would kill suspected militants and their children.  The Black Hawks are almost certainly a creation of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow, as the article linked above argues.  This sort of gruesome collective punishment might grow more common as the need to maintain stability becomes more urgent with the approach of 2014.

Right now, Moscow’s tactics in dealing with the North Caucasus insurgency don’t attract much international attention.  For this reason, murders of the likes of Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on Russian forces’ brutality in Chechnya, and Magomed Yevloev, who owned a site that provided independent (i.e. not Kremlin-sanctioned) news in Ingushetia, are usually denounced by human rights organizations and certain watchdog groups, but fail to generate much international outrage.  As the world’s spotlight turns to the region in 2014, though, there will be much more scrutiny of the Kremlin’s doings.  This will leave Putin with three choices:

1. Restrict journalists’ access to the North Caucasus.

2. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus on all the unsavoury things happening there to an international audience.

3. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus, but assassinate the first one who writes about something unsavoury that the FSB is doing, as an example to others.

None of these would be very well-received by the international community, but nor are any of them implausible.  Again, you heard them all here first.

Another issue that will bedevil Russia’s attempt to host a problem-free Olympiad is the grievances of the Circassians.  The Circassians were one of the many ethnic groups with whom the Russian Empire warred in its imperial conquest of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Circassians inhabited the area where Sochi now sits, and many consider their removal from this area in 1864 by Russia to be genocide.  The fact that 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of this alleged genocide only adds to the Circassians’ sense of injustice.  Previously Russia’s atrocities during the Caucasian conquest have not been well-known outside the former Soviet Union or European History departments (if even there).  But many Circassian activists see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to draw international attention to their historical grievances.  As China has learned all to well with Tibet, and Turkey with Armenia, the plight of a historically-oppressed people group can generate sympathy around the world, and complicate diplomatic relations.

All of this will invite unwelcome comparisons with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Whereas the Vancouver organizers celebrated First Nations people groups and saw the Games as an opportunity to highlight the cultures of historically oppressed peoples, Russia will be seen as suppressing them.