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jueves, 19 de julio de 2012

Caucaso :rublos, euros, dolares....

Hace algún tiempo , ocho años, me publicaron en una revista especializada un trabajito sobre Rusia y el Caucaso del que quedé muy satisfecho. Hoy han cambiado muchas cosas pero lo fundamental se mantiene o al menos las causas originarias y por ello os lo transmito. Está en inglés pero para eso tenéis en la parte derecha del blog un traductor y para quien sea capaz de leerlo directamente creo que la versión inglesa es muy buena pues está corregida por traductores de la UE.

                                       MARKETS, RUBLES, DOLLARS AND EUROS
The recent arrest in Spain of a former CNI[1] agent accused of selling information to Russia, irrespective of the little importance I attach to the information he may have passed on, has set alarm bells ringing in some political sectors, especially when a report from Moscow by Rafael Mañueco appeared in the press at the same time with this title: "Putin supports a country in the hands of the secret services".  Are we faced with a new outbreak of the Cold War?  "Yes and no" in my opinion, since it never ceased to exist, but the serious political, economic and social problems faced by Gorbachev and his perestroika and Yeltsin and his transition allowed this latent "war" to sleep, hibernating, and now it has come back into the open when problems have emerged that have remained unsolved in Russian daily life in such a way that they have become normal.  In this way, old patterns reappear after their lethargy like ghosts from a past that we thought had been forgotten but which is in the soul of the culture of the ordinary Russian, educated in the idea of the great power that the USSR never was, and who learned at school that America's first settlers were Russian, the wheel was a Slav contribution to civilisation and that the steam engine was the invention of another Russian, and so on.  This makes it impossible for anyone in that country to think that its enemy is not the European Union, the OSCE[2], NATO, i.e. the West, but the weakness of its production structure, the fragility of its democracy (including legal uncertainty), the scarcity and quality of its infrastructure, its demographic development (with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and a third‑world life expectancy of 54 for men and slightly higher for women), poor planning of its markets and so many other things of which the list would be interminable.  The Russian people believe more in the bad faith of the West that does not want them as competitors than in seeing and analysing their reality and their own problems: a situation that is extremely convenient for Russian governments, including that of Putin, who seems to be architect of the re‑emergence of the cold war, which is not surprising given his training and career in the KGB.  But are they right?

The Russians are fond of puns; they called Gorbachev the hunchback because his name resembled that word and they make fun of him because of his difficulties in pronouncing certain words.  A study on the causes of his unpopularity in Russia, the complete opposite of the attitude towards "Gorby" in the West, proved that this was due to his crusade against alcohol or against vodka culture (which boils down to the same thing), because he ordered the first study to be carried on the social, health, economic and absenteeism problems caused by vodka in the USSR, subsequently
setting high prices for it, limiting production and introducing the "wolf hour" which banned the serving of alcohol until 11 a.m. in accordance with the 1985 Resolution on measures to be adopted to put an end to drunkenness and alcoholism.

Yeltsin, on the other hand, was liked because of his excesses which brought him close to the people.  However, the Chechnya war caused his fall from grace, more than his liking for drink or the privatisations.

And Putin?  His name can be linked to the verb Putat (to confuse, complicate, involve), which would turn him into a smooth talker or complicator.  However, his aggressive action in the Chechnya affair did not tarnish his image; rather the reverse, surprisingly unlike Yeltsin, perhaps because the Russian people are attracted by this type of hard, cold leader who stands up to the West.

There is a reason for these apparently trivial comments because the support received by Russian leaders now also depends to a great extent on their attitude towards the appearance of the old patterns, which was not the case in the past.  Some events which were widely disseminated by the international press warned about the re-emergence of the Cold War or at least that old habits die hard and that the Cold War had been replaced by economic war in which Russia defended itself with its own methods.  The assassination of journalists critical of the Government, the latest and most well-known being Anna Politikovskaya; the death of General Roklin  (at his wife's hand) who led a great movement of army officers in favour of the democratisation and dignity of the armed forces, attributed to his wife for jealousy at the age of 72!; the death of general Lebed, the pacifier of Chechnya,  in a helicopter crash when he was governor of the region of Krasnoyar (both deaths being more reminiscent of the Stalinist affair of Tujachevski than of chance); Khodorkovski (Yukos) in prison, Berezovski and Gusinski in exile, the assassination by poisoning of former KGB agent Livitnenko in London.  Fortuitous or causal, these events seem to stem from a long cultural tradition that started with the murder of Dmitry, son of Ivan the Terrible, and continued with the Soviets until the present time.

General Lebed is too well known to dwell on his recent biography, and in any case he will inevitably be mentioned later on; but perhaps a brief note should be made about Tujachevski and Roklin, both worthy of recognition, at least in this context.  Tujachevski, a Marshal in the Red Army, was executed together with several other Marshals after a farce of a trial in 1937, on trumped-up charges, probably denounced by Voroshilov.  Their death marked the start of a purge which, according to some people, affected 16 000 officers and had very serious consequences in the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is called in Russia) because the army lacked commanding officers.  Tujachevski was the visible head of a group of brilliant strategists and although the Blitzkrieg (lightning war) theory is attributed to the Wehrmacht[3], it was Tujachevski's invention, although the Germans were the first to put it into practice.  He was rehabilitated by Khrushchev after Stalin's death.

In statements made on the NTV television channel, Roklin's daughter accused the Kremlin of assassinating her father, claiming that her mother had said she herself was guilty in order to save the family from the very serious threats to which it was subjected.  Roklin was Yeltsin's declared enemy, as well as being  the President of the Social Movement in Support of the Army and an Afghanistan veteran.  He led the assault in Grozny in 1995 and was chairing the Parliament's Defence Committee at the time of his assassination.

What problems could be talked about which are as important as the Russian need to believe and make others inside and outside the country believe in its status as a great power being pushed into the background and becoming topical again now?  We will analyse these problems, not all in depth, aware that each of them should be the subject of a doctoral thesis and not a summary exposition like this.

Before doing the spadework, I should like to draw your attention to how Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the enfant terrible of Russian contemporary literature, describes his country's situation in his book "Don't Die Before You're Dead":

            [Russia is] a long-suffering nation living in a proletarian underworld, in the middle of a material and moral chaos that is painted grotesquely, where fear is second nature, aberration is organised, there is the well-established custom of everything going badly and only changing for the worse, the certainty that in order to survive it is essential to play the fool and disregard some law which is, moreover, completely absurd.

Perhaps the foregoing words place us better in the real situation to be discussed, since topics such as "Russia cannot be understood using our parameters" "Russia terra incognita" that were part of the old political scene, or "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" attributed to Churchill, are nothing more than the harsh reality of a country that falls in love every day, is disappointed the following day and falls in love again on the third, in three-day cycles as if it were a question of obsessive love and, while knowing this, one falls once again into the trap set by this country.

As proof of what has been said, some famous authors who are very well known in situ in this enormous, incomprehensible and astonishing country choose titles for their works such as "La Rusia imposible" (Pilar Bonet), "My fatal Russia" (Yuri Afanasiev), "Bajo el volcán de Moscú" (Julián Lago), "Viaje al caos" (from the magazine Blanco y Negro), "Rusia en la encrucijada" (Eva Orue and Sara Gutiérrez) or "Catastroika" (Hutchinson Encyclopaedia).
Only Rafael Poch de Feliu chose a neutral title "La gran transición", and few others adopted this moderate tone.  Bernard Ferron opened a window with "Russia: hope or threat" and many other books quote the famous phrase attributed to Victor Chernomyrdin but in fact uttered by a famous humorist on the television, attributing it to the Prime Minister: "We wanted to do it well but it turned out as usual", a symptomatic phrase along the same lines as those said by Yevtushenko.

Something more to think about.  Those who stormed the Parliament in 1994 greeted journalists with the slogan "No pasarán" in perfect Spanish, and stickers bearing this slogan could still be seen in the windows of Moscow underground railway carriages in 2000.  At the same time, the editorials of the main Muscovite newspapers proposed the Pinochet model in Chile (!) for Russia which is why, if something they have read or heard about that country seems incomprehensible, they believe it without more ado because it is very likely to be correct.  An inspiring fact: when contemplating his country, the marvellous poet Bulat Akurtshava, the bard of Arbat, said, "Democracy is not freedom but respect".

It all started in October 1918, or at least it was there that the foundations were laid for the fall of the Soviet economic model seventy years later.  Over‑centralisation, collectivisation, the lack of executives who disappeared in the Revolution and were replaced by Party members without managerial, economic or industrial training.  In the last analysis, the Sovietisation of the economy led to the subsequent collapse, without Stalin's five-year plans, aborted by the Second World War, or the timid NEPA (New Economic Policy), which tried unsuccessfully to tailor production to markets, or the Stakhanovisation of work (which unwittingly sparked off the Japanese‑style strikes), being able to prevent it.  The five‑year plans failed because the Second World War made it necessary to modify them in accordance with war requirements, which stemmed from tactics based on the massive use of men and equipment with the Red Army lacking strategists (as has already been said) when strategies were being used everywhere in the world; the NEPA failed for want of qualified leaders able to study markets and adapt production to them; and Stakhanovism failed because the disappearance of private initiative also led to the disappearance of individual impetus – what today we would call entrepreneurship – giving way to a collective attitude that is summed up by a saying that still exists: "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work".

Alexei Stakhanov, a miner in the Donezt basin, single-handedly mined 132 tons of coal on 31 August 1935.  The workers' movement to increase output to which that record gave birth was called Stakhanovism.  The record was reported on worldwide, and in Spain the terms "trabajar a destajo", "tajo" and "destajista" (respectively, to do piecework, job and pieceworker) are still in use.

The topic of markets is of importance in later events.  The markets were practically assured by the Soviet Republics with 280 million inhabitants who needed everything and were subsequently
enlarged by the Eastern bloc countries, which set up COMECON, or the Iron Curtain common market, parallel to the European common market.  But when this great market disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall and later events, the Russian economy descended into chaos.  This was not, of course, the only cause (it would be very simplistic to say so), but perhaps the most important.

The USSR understood perfectly that the industrial and technological restructuring that was being carried out in the West would result in unemployment, and it opted for self-sufficiency instead of modernisation, which also enabled it not to depend on foreign technology.  The population would not have understood if this had not been the case since, in its own view, the USSR was a great power and they were living in a perfect system.  For example, when nylon became fashionable in the West, the USSR counterattacked with capron, its own product, which was of very poor quality but helped to maintain employment using obsolete technology and almost manual labour in many cases, in addition to sending the message that it did not need anything, forgetting that markets were governed by other parameters, the key factors being quality and the new factor of delivery times, even more important than price.  When its market collapsed unexpectedly it was obliged to close factories, in many cases simply by turning off the lights.

This collapse caught the Soviet leaders completely unprepared.  They had never envisaged this possibility; on the contrary, as the USSR was born with the exciting mission of converting the world to Communism, the only valid system on earth, and that is why anyone who does not understand it is mad, which is why he must be stopped, and that is how dissidents were stopped, in mental hospitals, victimised or exiled like Sakharov or Yuri Orlov, founder of the Helsinki Group, and so many others like the poetess Anna Ajmatova and her husband, etc.

In Russian the word Soviet means adviser or counsellor so that, according to a controversial theory that I support, the Republics of the USSR were called Soviet because they were to advise the other countries about how to establish Communism in them, and it is a matter of common knowledge that for many years they financed practically all the Communist-style revolutionary movements in the world, while imposing iron discipline on the Communist bloc countries to prevent them from escaping from the orthodoxy of such a marvellous system which is why, when the liberalising Prague Spring movement occurred, Brezhnev promulgated the theory of limited sovereignty, which stated literally:

"The sovereignty of each socialist country cannot be opposed to the interests of the world of socialism."

This excuse was more than enough to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968.  Khrushchev had fewer scruples in "legally" justifying the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and its bloodier outcome, even
more surprising since Brezhnev was a hard-liner in comparison with him, and the result was that moderate leaders were retained in Czechoslovakia, whereas in Hungary the reformer Imre Nagy was replaced by János Kádár, a supposed hard-liner.

This situation led to the practical destruction of its already fragile production structure, which was not helped by the efforts of the group of experts headed by Yegor Gaidar (economist, Prime Minister and survivor of an assassination attempt by poisoning) to apply the scarcity economics of Hungarian theoretician Lajos Kornay, which took the form of a report and a plan known by the name of its drafter, Shatalin, that was supposed to modernise the new Russia's entire production, management and market system in five hundred days.

The plan lasted a bare hundred days, then it was "every man for himself" and signs of chaos started to appear, to which the Kremlin contributed very effectively with its terrible privatisation policy, which gave rise to the appearance of Gusinski, Potanin, Abramovich (owner of the English football club, Chelsea, and governor of the region of Chucotka), Berezovski, Friedman (whose oil was transported by the "Prestige" although his main business is banking), Khodorkovsky (owner of "Yukos", the eighth largest oil-producing company in the world) and so many other "new Russians", as this new social class is now called, which apparently started from nothing but in any event emerged from the Konsomol, Young Communists, the CPSU, i.e. the apparatchiks of the Nomenklatura or party machine, who are now being replaced by Putin's siloviki (from the secret services and the State security forces) and live shamelessly and with obscene ostentation side‑by‑side with hunger, banishment, scarcity and so many hardships that are part of the daily life
of ordinary Russians, especially in Moscow, which is statistically the most expensive city in the world.

The consequences?  Within only fours years, from '94 to '98, three major devaluations occurred which ruined Russia's domestic economy, basically that of the majority of people who could not amass dollars, buying them at prices well above the official rate from tourists or by other means.  Three times in succession, the Russians saw their savings become worthless and had very little time to change their old notes, carefully kept at home (of course), for new notes with a loss of up to seventy-four per cent of their nominal value.  The latest devaluation in 1998 consisted of eliminating three zeros from the currency, which resulted in the price of an ice‑cream changing from 2000 to 2 new roubles, when inflation was bordering on two thousand per cent.

Why did the Russians keep and continue to keep their money at home?  They always have some essential dilemma and while they hope that the State will settle its problems as it has always (?)
done, although having a deep distrust of all State or official activities and distrusting banks, which is very natural because, in the words of Eva Orue and Sara Gutiérrez in their book "Rusia en la encrucijada", banks are in the tiresome habit of not returning deposited money when people go to withdraw it.  However, when the fraudulent bankruptcy of the pyramid company MMM had already been declared, people stood in long queues to buy shares.

On the other hand, the difficulties of an enormous country with eleven time zones, poor communications, a dreadful climate and abysmal planning, made it very difficult for the changeover from the old to the new money to be carried out in time and in due form in many cases, especially in rural areas, with the result that, for this and other reasons, seventy-two per cent of circulating capital accumulated in Moscow, obliging many people throughout the territory to return to bartering.  In Moscow itself in the '90s, a market used to spring up on Wednesdays around the Lenin Stadium in Luzniki, where people from all over the country offered the most diverse articles in exchange for the most unimaginable products, because the fact that most money was there did not mean that it was distributed equally, or even that there were more opportunities there than elsewhere, except for a few Muscovites.

And unemployment appeared, as it could not be controlled; Soviet leaders had made so much effort to avoid it and had presented its absence to the world as the great success of real socialism.  And it appeared, like almost everything, in the same unexpected way, with statistical peaks of up to 38 per cent.  And I say statistical because everything implies that it was higher, given the bad Soviet habit of doctoring results, and which continues, and in any case deviates greatly from any reasonable parameter.  The Russians were forced overnight to fight for their daily survival as if they had jumped from an aeroplane with a faulty parachute, i.e. without any social safety net and without any plan, whether good or bad, for relocation in nonexistent undertakings.

In 1994 it was common to see gastronoms[4] completely empty of goods but with all the staff at their posts as they had been when the shelves were half full (as they were never full), probably hoping that in that way they would be paid their wages which, as in the whole State sector (meaning everything), started to be paid late, then badly and finally never.

The most long-suffering group was pensioners who, already without hope or strength, had been waiting for their pensions for months, which sometimes arrived but only in the form of a much smaller "advance" on the monthly payment due, which is why no-one will every know how they managed to survive, with the entrances to Moscow's underground railway being full of babushkas begging for coins.  According to the State Statistical Bureau, 41 million people (14,5 % of the population) were living below the poverty line in 1988.

In addition to being used for all kinds of criminal activities, Moscow's underground (beneath the capital's tube system and built during the Cold War) shelters some 30 000 people, according to Taisia Belousova in her book "El Moscú subterráneo", many of them children, whose tragedy is recounted in a UNICEF report issued in Helsinki in 1997 with the eloquent title "A lost generation", referring of course to the situation of children in Russia.  Hundreds of precarious little stalls sprang up in the interminable underground railway tunnels and on the surface where all kinds of essential articles were sold: batteries, underwear, toothpaste, etc., all of them sholti (yellow), i.e. made in China.  At the same time, pawnshops appeared and commission agents' shops where people put up for sale everything that could have some value, paying the seller a sales commission depending on the price obtained.

Those who were able to do so went back to the countryside and lived in dachas on the outskirts of towns, where a tiny patch of ground that yielded potatoes and little more meant being able to subsist.

Difficult situations bring out the best and the worst in people, although I do not know by which strange mental process the worst is assimilated first, and in this way, with the marvellous solidarity of older people who already knew by their own painful experience that mutual support could save them, a whole mass of survivors (good, bad and indifferent) emerged.  The first to appear were the chelnoki, half-heroes, half-villains, something between black marketeers and smugglers, who got round all the internal and external borders, with or without the complicity of border guards, to obtain the vital products that the people demanded: medicines, clothing, food, etc.; and others which were not so vital such as lingerie or make-up for those who could afford it.  Sometimes they went as far as China, returning laden like mules, as were their vehicles.

And crime appeared, hitherto unknown in the USSR and not only used as a means of rapid enrichment, but on many occasions born out of the need to bring something home, with crime rates rising from zero to infinity, and the bespridelnii or people "without limits", and the corruption of which the most glaring example (which made rivers of ink flow throughout the world) was the way that the privatisations were carried out.  According to Novaya Gazeta, issue No 51 of 2005,

The longest-serving Members of Parliament recalled that USD 30 000 were paid for each vote in favour of Yeltsin in the motion of censure in the second term.  USD 50 000 for introducing law reforms.  From USD 100 000 to 120 000 to support or veto certain laws.  Between USD 3 000 and 5 000 for organising meetings with State officials.  Between USD 3 000 and 5 000 for "'phone calls".

Mind-bending.To cut a long story short and give some further idea of the situation, what could be termed the middle classes ceased to exist, because the doctors, civil servants, teachers and so on forming them also found themselves caught up in the daily struggle to scrape a living, thus opening up a vast gulf between the "new Russians" and the rest, without the buffer or bridge formed by the middle classes in well‑structured societies.  The Orthodox Church and the Russian Olympic Committee secured huge advantages, chiefly the ROC, which was able to import as much as it liked by way of self‑financing, as Russian pride could not allow those flagship institutions to collapse.  Yeltsin himself, who had granted permission, was forced to withdraw it in the face of constant misuse.

The "oligarchs", still known as such, were the main beneficiaries of privatisations, provided they supported the government and remained loyal to it, although it is hard to imagine how, to the point of sharing out the cake between them in a pact signed at Sparrow Hills (previously known as Lenin Hills and before that also as Sparrow Hills), near the Lomonosov Moscow State University, as recounted by David Hoffman in his book "The Oligarchs".  The Swallow Hills club held its first meeting in September 1994, attended by Khodorkovsky, Smolensky, Berezovsky, Vinogradov, Potanin, Fridman, Boiko and Yefanov.  The youngest was Khodorkovsky, at 31, and the oldest Berezovsky, at 43.  Their mentor and the man who brought them together was Shakhnovsky, one of the top aides to Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, who was apparently unaware of the establishment and operation of the club, at least initially, and who, on learning of it and attending one of its meetings, voiced his disapproval, as he did not agree with their approach or their way of going about things.  It is worth pointing out that Yury Luzhkov is one of the most influential men in Russia.  The club's rulebook, laying down their ground rules, includes two quite surprising points: they are not to attack one another by bribing the law enforcement authorities and they are not to engage in defamation of one another by publishing kompromat, false or genuine compromising material, in the press.

The pact only worked in 1996 when, facing persecution, they were left with no option but to join forces in defence of their now shared interests.  Subsequently, they could none of them remember anything about the club, or a few had a vague recollection and only Vinogradov admitted to its existence and even to the pact having been signed.  Its members suffered a variety of fates.  Khodorkovsky ended up in prison.  Berezovsky sought and obtained Israeli nationality, Yefanov was swallowed up by Potanin's firms, Boiko dropped out of business, Fridman remains in banking and is involved in other businesses, such as oil, via holdings, etc.  Those are not the only oligarchs around, but they are the ones who formed the club.  Others, like Gusinsky, are in exile and, in his
case, wanted on an arrest warrant issued at the Kremlin's instigation.  There is a well‑known photograph of them all, together with another oligarch, Yumashev, meeting with Yeltsin in 1997[5].

The enrichment of the few did not bring any improvement in standard of living for the many, since there was a complete lack of entrepreneurship and large sums were made simply by trading, artificially inflating the price of things, which moved money around without generating wealth or, what amounts to the same, gross domestic product, despite official statistics showing spectacular percentage increases but overlooking the fact that, say, 40 % of nothing is still nothing.  Perhaps some European expert from the European Union's TACIS[6] programme to help convert the Russian and Mongolian economies into market‑style ones would be better able to explain the situation, or at any rate where the money went and what results were achieved, as I do not know the answers.

Supposing the EU was acting in good faith (no mean supposition), weighing up the serious risk of having a chaotic economy right on its doorstep, the result was that Russia joined the queue of customers and Europe became the chief supplier, which probably leaves it permanently saddled with a bad debt.  Whoever planned the operation may have been an economic and political genius, but he did not know the first thing about the Russian soul or about the true situation, because large‑scale emigration, termed a "brain drain"[7] as it mainly involved the most skilled, was accompanied by a flight of capital currently amounting to 150 000 million dollars, equivalent to all of the external aid received and about half of what the World Energy Organisation considers necessary to improve and make profitable the infrastructure for extracting and transporting crude oil and gas from Siberia, with Russia being the largest exporter of natural gas in the world, via the privatised Gazprom, and the second largest exporter of oil, preceded only by Saudi Arabia.  The capital drain is currently put at from 10 000 to 30 000 million dollars a year.

Nor has the loss of works of art been any lesser in scale.  Some 250 000 items are estimated to have disappeared from museum collections throughout the country, including the Hermitage collections.  Insiders put those disappearances down to the very poor working conditions and means enjoyed by
museum directors, officials, curators, restorers, etc., thus lending renewed topical relevance to Sokoloff's description of an impoverished great power.

Separate consideration should be given to two subjects: the mafia problem and the CIS, or Commonwealth of Independent States.  The mafia, or in this case mafias, are not a Russian invention and, while sharing with those in the USA and in Italy the same root cause, a great depression, they show some aspects making them very different from those, being noted for their cruelty and in many cases made up of former members of the armed forces and the KGB.  They are so influential in every way that they can alter the complexion of any given market.  For instance, when gang warfare broke out in Moscow because control of some patches of territory and sectors of the economy had been seized by the oligarch Berezovsky, the authorised dealer in Zhiguli cars and in most European makes, he became a target for the Chechen mafia and for the Solntsevo, based in a district in the west of Moscow, to the point that his firm Lugovas suffered three arson attacks in September 1993 alone, with hand grenades being tossed into its places of business on a number of occasions.  That was just one of the reasons why he left the country and took refuge in Israel, whose nationality he obtained shortly afterwards.

According to the journalist Eric Frattini, the Russian mafias comprise some 40 000 criminal organisations operating in 22 countries.  Combating them has cost the lives of 9 237 police officers and of 27 journalists who broke the law of silence imposed by leading mafia bosses, while the mafias had creamed off some 90 000 million dollars up to 1998.

Another difference lies in the type of criminal activity pursued, firstly because there were no drugs or prostitution in the USSR and secondly because, unlike other mafias, they found themselves on fertile ground, in the absence of any laws against them, particularly as regards financial crime and money laundering, offences commonly encountered in the second half of the 20th century and early years of the 21st, of course.  According to the Russian Interior Ministry's organised crime unit, there are mafias active in all fields, the following being some of the most notable:

·                Vory v'zakone ("thieves within the law"): financial and banking crime;

·                the Azerbaijani mafia: drugs, precious metals and diamonds;

·                the GOT (western troops group) mafia, made up of former members of the Soviet army in East Germany: trafficking in arms and nuclear materials;

·                the Dzherzinsky mafia, ex‑KGB members: extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping and assassinations;
·                the Chechen mafia: illegal fuel and arms sales.

The strongest of the foreign‑based mafia is the New York Rachmiel.  It has around 1 400 members, all Russian immigrants, and engages in money laundering by way of bank securities and in forging credit cards.  Perhaps the most striking feature of its members is that they make no attempt at concealment and adopt a dress‑style of their own: dark clothing, glossy dark shirts and sunglasses and using cross‑country vehicles with tinted windows, as if they would rather make themselves known (as indeed they may) than remain anonymous, which might seem more fitting.

On 8 December 1991, on the outskirts of Brest (Belarus), the demise of the USSR was sealed and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) saw the light of day.  It seemed, as subsequent events would bear out, that only Russia, spurred by the need to maintain its sphere of influence, would go through with what it had signed up to, although it was the disappearance from the political scene of the Ukrainian leader, Leonid Kuchma, which prompted his country to distance itself from the CIS.  The original signatories, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, were subsequently joined by twelve of the fifteen former Soviet republics, all bar the Baltic states, although Georgia did not do so until 1993, after its President elect, Gamsakhurdia, was assassinated and the former Foreign Minister of the USSR, Eduard Shevardnadze, came to power.  Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Moldova are now firmly pro‑Western and at loggerheads with the CIS, all the more so since Putin seems to have dropped that idea and only to be prepared to continue the pact with anyone actually wanting to do so.  The position of the Belarusian leader, Lukashenko, is unpredictable, like the man himself, and a very ambiguous line is taken by the Tajik President, Emomali Rahmonov, who, while seeming to support the West in its war in Afghanistan, may be doing so only for the benefits which that support might bring him in the shape of aid for what is a very poor country and as protection from a war on his doorstep, a war already suffered from in various ways when it was being waged by the USSR.

Of the remaining signatories, only Kazakhstan, with its President Nazarbayev, seems to be a clear ally.  The country has Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome within its territory and follows the same line as Russia in claiming that the Caspian Sea should be regarded as a sea and not a lake.  Which of the two it is taken to be would radically affect the oil‑producing ambitions of the countries bordering on it, including both of them.  The reason for this is that, under a 1982 UN Resolution on international maritime law, every country owns all rights in respect of its continental platform and, were the Caspian Sea to be regarded as a lake, there would be no such platform.

With the other signatories, owing to a variety of situations, relations are confined to interminable wrangling to try and settle the claims of the vast population of Russians who, on the collapse of the USSR, had to stay where they were, having nowhere to go back to, all the more so since this was

followed, with similar problems, by the return of the large Warsaw Pact contingents stationed in Eastern European countries, further compounded by the return of the afganshik from Afghanistan.  That population of Russians in no‑man's‑land amounts to up to 48 % in the Baltic republics and they are in many cases living in extremely precarious conditions, since in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for instance, their civil rights are so curtailed as to make it virtually impossible for them to vote.

My good friend Aleksei Malitsev, an emeritus artist in the USSR, once told me with bitter irony that he had been born under the tsars, had lived under the communists and now was not sure in what country he would die.  He died in the Pamir, at the foot of the mountains which he loved so much and painted so magnificently, but without being able to see them, as by then he was blind.

In view of the situation, it is impossible for them to return to the metropolis, where they have nowhere to go, no means of subsistence and no state provision for them; given that the countries where they are living are no better, they are verging on statelessness.

The Baltic republics do not seem to show their ethnic Russian inhabitants any more consideration than they complain that their people were shown by the Russians in the past.  As Marcus Aurelius put it, the best way of avenging yourself is not to do likewise, but there is no record of the most wonderful free thinker in history ever having been translated into Lithuanian.  The EU continues to allow in countries with dubious democratic credentials, turning them into problems which Europe will sooner or later have to resolve, save in seeking, as a subtle distinction, to isolate Russia at all costs.  A clear example of this can be seen in those three likeable republics, which provide brand new tourist destinations, but from which not the slightest democratic safeguards for their ethnic Russian population were thought to be required.

Nor is that the only problem posed to Russia by those republics.  Russia, as the great power as which it sees itself, needs guaranteed outlets to the sea, yet finds the republics not only cutting off its route into the Baltic but also blocking access to its enclave of Kaliningrad, the former German Königsberg, reachable only by sea, by air or via the small corridor recently reopened by Poland after having been closed throughout the Cold War.

Talking of control of the seas, there is no less of a problem in the Black Sea with neighbouring Ukraine, which under an unsatisfactory agreement was left with most of the Soviet fleet in those waters, which both sides border on and which all oil traffic from the Caspian Sea passes through.  The situation is compounded by the fact that the Crimean peninsula was always Russian territory and, while the gift of that area to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 was never of any particular significance so long as the USSR remained in existence, it now involves a greater risk as regards control of the sea and because the population of Crimea is mostly made up of Russians and of Caucasians descended from those deported by Stalin.  On top of that come territorial claims by the
Tartars, who had always lived in the area until they too were relocated by Stalin.

Near Crimea lies the estuary of the River Dnieper, whose waters upstream to and downstream from the city of Nikolayev were plied by the only two round battleships known in history, the "Novgorod" and the "Admiral Popov", both designed by the eponymous admiral.  Built for all‑round defence, they proved difficult to steer, except when heading upstream.  They were decommissioned from the Russian fleet in 1914.

There is still a minor border problem in the region of Ilinka, where the last few settlements of Russian Jews are to be found, apparently receiving support from Israel.

Another factor is the serious social, health and environmental damage caused by the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, in the valley of the River Pripyat in Ukraine, whose effects extended into the neighbouring regions of Gomelskaya in Belarus and Brianskaya in Russia, with a spectacular increase in cancers, especially of the thyroid, among children.  This is a matter which has now ceased to receive press coverage but calls for major agreements and investment to try and alleviate the damage and as far as possible prevent the serious repercussions, chiefly medical, which the semi‑permanent presence of radioactivity in the ground will have for the population, who in Ukraine, despite a ban, have returned to their former land, having found themselves in such hardship that they prefer known risks to continued displacement.

My friend Vladimir Leshennikov, headmaster of a school for disabled children in one of the most deprived parts of Russia, told me that, in old Ukrainian, Chernobyl meant "wormwood flower" and that the Bible makes mention of a curse in connection with that flower[8].  He gave me a Russian edition of the Bible, which I have kept as a treasured possession.

Nor is the picture improved by the instability of the country, following the fall of Kuchma, or by the "orange revolution", an outright coup splitting the country into two, pro‑Russians and pro‑Westerners, rounded off by the as yet uncleared‑up attempted poisoning of the eventual winning candidate in the elections, the pro‑Western Yushchenko.  The cherry on the cake was provided by the traditional Russian‑Ukrainian rivalry, fuelled more by Ukraine, as a result of the transfer of centres of power from Kiev to Moscow, with the former having been the capital of Rus[9] back in the times of Prince Vladimir, regardless of the fact that, besides other historical reasons, Kiev lay at the major crossroads of all trade routes between East and West.

Belarus is a very strange case, having virtually a life President, from the Soviet era, whose decisions are always unpredictable but who, after the serious diplomatic incident which he sparked off in the late 1990s, completely isolating the diplomatic representations in Minsk, with no‑one allowed into or out of the area for days, seems to be entirely pro‑Russian.  However, as this is the country with fewest resources in the region and Russia can provide it with little assistance, it might well turn to the West, with or without Lukashenko, before or after he goes.

Moldova is a charming country which produces a very pleasant‑tasting sweet, clinging wine and, like all wine‑growing countries, is highly welcoming, with its wine‑based culture and the hospitality that has long accompanied such cultures, ever since vines were first grown in the Arabian peninsula.  With its capital Chisinau, or Kishinev under the communists, it is not to be confused with the Romanian region of Moldavia, where the famous frescoed churches are to be found, their one unusual feature being that the frescos are on the outside.  Like all of the ex‑Soviet republics, it has divided loyalties.  In the former Besarabia, 60 % of the population are of Romanian origin, with the remainder, located in Transdniestria, being of Russian origin.  While the problem is not new, it is important here because of the large proportion of ethnic Russians, the largest anywhere, along with the Baltic republics, and the predictable social fault lines which such situations tend to entail and which have already led to bloody repression in Pridnestrovie, when the Russian population demanded autonomy in 1990.

Continuing southwards, we come to the Caucasus and the Caspian.  The Caspian what: sea or lake?  It is endoreic, meaning that evaporation is the only way it loses water, and it covers an area of 371 000 square kilometres, ranging from 170 to 995 metres in depth.  In area, it is half the size of Canada's Hudson Bay, an interesting point in considering how it should be designated.  Into it flow the Emba, Kura and Volga, Mother Volga, a river held sacred by the Russians, as is also Lake Baikal (river being a feminine word in Russian).  Manu Leguineche gives a fine description of it in his book "Madre Volga" [Mother Volga], in which he travels along the river on a cruise and plays on a metaphor where a passenger whom he identifies with Lara, the character from "Doctor Zhivago", represents Russia, flirting with him all along the way, only to let him down in the end.

The countries bordering on it are Russia, straight north, and then, in an anticlockwise direction, Azerbaijan[10], Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.  It is connected with the Sea of Azov by the Manych Canal.  It generally freezes over in winter at the northern end and, despite the total lack of environmental care bestowed on it, is rich in animal life, notably pike‑perch and sturgeon, the latter fish apparently being a survivor from the age of the dinosaurs as well as the source of caviar, chiefly in the Astrakhan area, in the Volga delta[11].  Its real importance, of course, stems not from its animal life, but from its oil reserves, which have turned it into a checkerboard of interests, where all of the world's oil companies have representatives trying to obtain drilling concessions, Repsol included.

How much oil are we talking about?  The cult of Zoroaster sprang up in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, as there was so much crude oil as to generate spontaneous combustion of gas, which the natives believed to be caused by the divine intervention of the fire god.  Historical anecdotes aside, it is put at 200 000 million barrels of very high‑quality, low‑sulphur crude oil.  Output currently amounts to a million barrels a day, or 1,2 % of global production, and, according to estimates, could rise to 2,5 million barrels a day by 2010, even without modernising production facilities, which means that there are sufficient reserves to meet all of the world's needs for 150 000 days.

In view of the situation in most oil‑producing countries, especially the Arab ones, the Caspian Sea can be seen to hold out the prospect of keeping up supplies and offsetting production shortfalls affecting Iraq and Iran for reasons which are well known.  What, then, is the problem?  The route by which to get the oil out, or ownership of the pipelines in operation, or rather control of the territory through which they pass.

The first question to be considered is the legal status of the Caspian Sea.  If it is a sea, the countries bordering on it can each exercise their rights over their own continental shelf; if it is a lake, there is no such shelf and the area has to be allocated in proportion to the number of kilometres of coastline. 
In 2003, Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan agreed to designate it a sea and awarded themselves 68 % of the area among the three of them, an agreement not signed up to by Iran or Turkmenistan, as it was detrimental to their interests, of course, and because they are both following a very similar strategy, with Turkmenistan, in attempting to revive its Sunni Muslim past, meeting with support from Iran, which can thus be sure of an ally in the region, albeit a somewhat unreliable one.  Under international maritime law, the status of a sea entails a requirement to allow passage for shipping of any nationality, which should not be of any particular concern to the signatory countries, although Russia should not forget that the initial route of the trans‑Siberian railway involved the train crossing Lake Baikal, for which purpose British shipyards built a huge ferry, shipped to Russia in pieces and reassembled there beside the lake.  Once the journey had been tried out, however, the idea was dropped and the entire route was covered by rail.  The vessel in question was the "Baikal", which measured 90 metres in length and 17 metres in beam and in the trials was preceded by the icebreaker "Angara" because, although it was fitted with ice‑clearing propellers, they proved ineffective once the ice sheet reached a metre in thickness.

The eastward oil outlet proposed by the Clinton administration, for whatever reason, is cut off by the war in Afghanistan, the increasingly worrying situation in Pakistan and the no less worrying alliance by Iran with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  Uzbekistan has an ethnic Persian population, 88 % of whom are Sunni Muslims, with an Orthodox minority, so that the very serious incidents caused by Islamic fundamentalists in 2005 come as no surprise in the context of global radicalisation of Islam, even if they stemmed from what were probably genuine social problems.  President Karimov has been managing to extend his term of office since 1995 and the latest extension, lasting until December 2007, will in all likelihood turn out to be the penultimate one.  The country produces cotton and natural gas and, although not bordering on the Caspian Sea, supports Iran in its claims, for the same reasons as its neighbour Turkmenistan, a country which produces the same things plus oil, but which has very serious social problems, with an unemployment rate of 60 %, and most of which is taken up by the Karakum Desert.  Upon his death, President Niyazov, who made his birthday a national holiday and styled himself "leader of the Turkmens", besides spending a large proportion of the budget on his personality cult, was replaced by Berdimuhammedow, who called elections won by an illegitimate son of Niyazov, by the name of Berdimuhammedow, elections considered by observers to be blatantly rigged and a clear example of unenlightened nepotism.

The implications in terms of unreliability which both countries have for the exit of oil to the east can be readily appreciated. Their instability, the conflicts between themselves mainly over the Uzbek minority in Turkmenistan, their dispute with their neighbours in the highlands to the north, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, over consumption of water from the rivers rising in those regions and their alliance with Iran render the huge investment which this route would require largely non‑viable on account of insufficient guarantees.

The exit to the Persian Gulf through Tabriz in Iraq does not merit serious consideration given the state of war and civil war that exists there.

Does that then leave us with the Caucasus?  The Caucasus is a mountainous region regarded as the boundary between Europe and Asia whose highest peak, Mount Elbrus, standing at 5 642 metres and located in the northern or European zone of the Circassian mountain range (most of which belongs to the Russian Federation), is considered to be the highest mountain in Europe.  The Caucasus comprises Chechnya, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo‑Cherkessia and Dagestan, as well as the Russian region or province of Krasnodar and, to the south (Transcaucasus), Georgia and its separatist Adzaria, South Ossetia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Practically the entire region has been under Russian influence since the times of Ivan the Terrible, to the point that the Chechen capital was named after him despite being founded by Tsar Alexander I much later.  The legal basis for the name was the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk, under which the entire area was declared a Russian protectorate (although the arrangement was more subtly described as promoting "fraternal relations").  Most of the region's inhabitants are Muslim, except for Armenia, where the majority of the population is Catholic, and Georgia, where Catholics account for a significant proportion of the population but not a majority.

Located between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Caucasus has been a zone of passage for the Greeks, its first known settlers, and for the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires and has thus been battling against invaders for centuries, which partly explains the irrepressible need for independence and the warrior spirit of the Chechen mountain people or why the name Dagestan in one of the local dialects means "the land of the thousand tongues" – hardly an exaggeration considering that the area is home to roughly six hundred ethnic families.  Conflicts in the Caucasus are rife, conflicts of the kind where causes and consequences are blurred to such an extent that it is difficult on examination to tell them apart, conflicts which for ethnic, religious, political, economic and other reasons cause society to break down and are therefore impossible to resolve by peaceful means.  Other solutions defer the problem but do not solve it.

Rather than shutting himself away in a library, anybody wishing to gain an insight into these peoples and their idiosyncrasies will find it more instructive and gratifying to read Tolstoy's "Prisoner in the Caucasus" (the subject of a number of very unconvincing screen adaptations) and "Adventures in the Caucasus" by Alexandre Dumas – and be prepared because this magnificent
writer, son of the general of the same name, was French ambassador to the
Russian Court
and professed (rightly) to a knowledge of the entire region.

Chechnya, in the midst of a nationalist revival in the area following the collapse of the USSR, requested through Dudaev, an air force marshal and as such a rather improbable man of adventure, real autonomy if not outright independence, which it was refused by Moscow, leading to the situation we know today.  The arrival on the scene of people like Maskhadov[12], Kadyrov[13], Basayev[14], Khattab[15] and others, the involvement of the Wahabites[16], the influx of foreign volunteers with very different interests, the Chechen terrorist blunders and the equally misguided action by the Kremlin denounced repeatedly by the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya until her murder, have driven the Chechen conflict into an impasse, with a brief parenthesis in the form of the agreement negotiated by General Lebed which, who knows why or because of whom, he broke (although it might also have been Russia that broke it because the act enhanced the legend of the General to a point where he was becoming potentially dangerous).

But what is it that makes it so necessary for Moscow to control this small mountainous, rugged country?  Its oil pipeline, which starts out in Baku, crosses Dagestan and turns west passing over Grozny (literally) before heading north along the coast of Abkhazia to the port of Novorossiysk (a city twinned with Gijón) in the Russian region of Krasnodar, through which flows the Kuban river and which is home to the Cossacks of the same name.  The city of Sochi, famous for its beaches and spas and known the world over for the longevity of its inhabitants, is also on the Abkhazian coast.

Abkhazia was incorporated into Georgia with the collapse of the Soviet Union but ethnic tensions led it to declare independence in 1992.  Following a bitter war between pro-Russian forces and Georgian troops, a ceasefire was announced in 1994.  Since then, Abkhazia has acted as an independent country (although without international recognition), supported by Russia.

Georgia, which we have already touched upon to some extent, has had Russian troops on its territory since the coup d'état which overthrew the Gamsakhurdia government and brought Shevardnadze to power.  Shevardnadze was in turn deposed by the Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili – an avowed pro‑westerner – to the presidency.  The continuing presence of the Russian troops is a quidproquo for the withdrawal of Russian support for the independence movement in
Adzaria, a small region which managed to declare independence, and which, through lack of the promised support, saw its leader Abashidze forced into exile in 2004.  The US instructors based in Georgia were theoretically sent to assist the Georgian army in its fight against Al Queda guerrillas in Pankasi George, an area whose inhabitants are so well known for banditry as a way of life that their real mission was in all likelihood to guarantee the construction and operation of the Georgian section of the new Baku-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline, another project of the Clinton administration.

The conclusion to be drawn from the above is that the oil pipeline is completely insecure given the instability of the area it passes through.  Although there is another pipeline running alongside the Baku-Batumi railway line and terminating at the port of Supsa, the significant difference between its capacity of 150,000 barrels per day and the one million barrels per day which are extracted makes it an economically crippling operation.  Interestingly, the railway line mentioned was the source of the Nobel family's huge profits in the Caspian region and was financed by the Rothschild family at the beginning of the 20th century.

Other problems, no less serious, play their part in transforming the Caucasus into the powder keg which Russia is incapable of stabilising as its only means of maintaining its position in the oil market and of keeping its balance of payments in equilibrium (which it cannot do with natural gas alone).  Armenia, another important country of the Caucasus, is locked in bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azeri territory, with its recurrent pogroms, an enclave linked to Armenia by a road financed by the Armenian lobby, which is to trade and business what Jews are to banking, and which is currently in the middle of a crusade to denounce and have recognised the "Armenian genocide" committed in Turkey between 1915 and 1917 during the government of the "Young Turks" when one and a half million Armenians were deported and subsequently eliminated.  The Armenian genocide has always been denied by the Turkish government, but Armenia is succeeding in gaining international recognition for it.  For example, in France, which has a very strong Armenian community, denying the Armenian genocide has been an imprisonable offence since 2006.  Armenia also has an age-long dispute with Turkey over Mount Ararat, upon which, according to tradition, Noah's ark came to rest after the deluge and which is sixty kilometres from the Armenian capital Yerevan, but inside Turkish territory.  No day passes without the Armenians gazing at their sacred mountain, visible in the distance.

Kabardino-Balkaria, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation inhabited by the ethnic groups from which it derives its name and whose population is 33 % Russian, has been chosen by Chechen guerrillas as a rest area and its stability is therefore in jeopardy.  Karachayevo‑Cherkessia, which is also part of the Russian Federation, seems to be the most stable autonomous republic in the region despite being populated by Russians and Turkomans, who are the perfect example of coexistence.  North Ossetia, known to its inhabitants as Alania, belongs to the Federation.

It has frequent armed skirmishes with its neighbour Ingushetia over the Prigorodny district, which belonged to the Ingush until it was ceded to Ossetia by Stalin in 1944.  South Ossetia is a de facto separate part of Georgia but with no international recognition.  Its aim is to unite with its namesake in the north.  Over 100,000 South Ossetians had to take refuge in the north when Georgia resorted to force, and only the presence of a force comprising Russians, Ossetians and Georgians today keeps a fragile truce in place.  Ingushetia is the target of numerous Chechen incursions, particularly since the assassination of its pro-Russian President Kadirov, the probable  purpose being to destabilise the area.  As mentioned already, Ingushetia has a territorial dispute with North Ossetia over the recovery of Prigorodny; the fact that many of the assailants of the school in Beslam were Ingush added fuel to the fire.

This being the scenario, the inevitable question is: can Russia stabilise the Caucasus, beset, as it is, by problems in some cases of an age-old nature?  Who is stirring up the Caucasian disputes?  The Arab Maghreb Union or the Islamist community?  The United States?  Is Europe cashing in on a situation not of its own making?  What does the future hold for a Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that cuts Russia out of the business?  Is Russia guilty?  Is it fair that the Western system should be based on ensuring its own security to the serious detriment of the security of others, if this is indeed the case?

On the point of concluding my account, it occurred to me that perhaps the Chechen situation needs to be examined further to dispel the notion that it came from nowhere – nothing could be further from the truth; Chechnya has been fighting invaders of all kinds for centuries.  Chechnya covers an area of 17,300 km² and has roughly one million inhabitants, of which around 400,000 live in exile in the other Caucasian republics (250,000 in neighbouring Ingushetia, although this mini-republic of 2000 km² and 450,000 inhabitants hardly seems capable of providing them with the security they seek, given its own situation).  The entire territory was converted to Islam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The Chechens, who had already been invaded by the Mongols and the Crimean Tartars since the time of Ivan IV, began their centuries-long struggle against Russia in 1784 when Catherine II started building fortress towns and equipping them with Cossack garrisons from other areas.  Many years later, Alexander I built the city of Grozny.  The Chechen people have always been rebellious in the face of domination and have always fought the invader, generally under the guidance of religious leaders.  The most famous of these was Shamil, who fought the Russian army for twenty‑five years until he was taken prisoner in 1859.  He died in exile on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in the city of Medina.

The fact that Shamil was Dagestani was as significant then as it is now given that the aim of supporters of independence has always been to create a nation uniting Chechens and Dagestanis (and nowadays with the added economic consideration of a stretch of coastline on the Caspian Sea and hence a slice of the oil business).
And so until the present day, with the brief parenthesis of the Khasavyurt Treaty signed by Lebed in 1996.

There are currently three lines of political opinion: the pro-Russian line taken by the descendants of Russian colonisers who occupied land belonging to people deported by Stalin in 1944 on charges of collaborating with the Germans (the few deportees who survived and were able to return found their land occupied, which exacerbated the social division evident today); the independent line, which has already been discussed; and the radical Wahabite line which seems to be the most intent on destabilising the region without it being clear who is pulling the strings behind this internationalisation of the conflict.

The emergence of mafias trafficking in arms and oil and of criminals resorting to terrorist blackmail to profit from the passage of the oil pipeline through their territory, the prolonging of a conflict which by 1996 had caused 50,000 deaths and the existence of a generation of young people brought up in a climate of war, lawlessness, bombings and killings and with no clear future other than fighting or crime, have fostered hatred which, together with the lack of clarity in the action of the Russian army, with 102,000 soldiers (land army alone) and related war material in the area, have placed the Caucasus in a highly dangerous and increasingly entrenched situation.

What conclusions, consequences or summary could we draw from our review of this convoluted situation?  There are quite a few, and one of the aims is precisely to stimulate thought.  The one I would be inclined to draw would have as its basis geopolitics or a country's external projection (not to be confused with the political geography used in the sixteenth century by Hortelius to draw the frontiers of the fledging nations shaping Europe), in which economic considerations (obtaining of new markets or operations, elimination of competition, etc.) invariably predominate and which is the crudest and most direct way of referring to "areas of influence".

Is Russia getting better?  Or is it getting stuck in the process of transformation into a fully-fledged consumer economy and running the risk of becoming an eternal debtor?  Visitors to Moscow are so dazzled by neon lights that they would think they were in Las Vegas.  Back in the time of the Soviets, the Russian capital had some charm, a certain idiosyncrasy, but these days it seems to have sold its soul to the West for rags (albeit with brand names).

If you walk down what used to be the road to Tver, now Perspectiva Tverskaya, you will see stores of the most prestigious western brands everywhere you look.  It is practically impossible to find a Russian shop or a Russian product anywhere on Tverskaya between
Manezhnaya Square

Pushkin Square
.  In Manezhnaya Square, named after the horse-riding academy on one of its sides (a magnificent work of architecture by the Spaniard Antonio de Betancourt), Mayor Luzhkov dug an enormous hole, some would say to stop demonstrators from assembling there before marching on Red Square as they would do almost every day, which now accommodates a number of shopping
arcades whose most prominent occupant is an always full MacDonalds.  Even the nearby and emblematic GUM[17], basically a clothes shop, the pride and joy of the Soviet era and bang in the middle of Red Square, has been taken over by designers and world-famous franchises, not to mention the "Bosco" restaurant, whose Venetian windows and terrace are just opposite the place where Lenin rests, one assumes in peace.  The restaurant is not easy on the pocket.  As they say in Russian "nie pa karmanie".

Since Moscow is not Russia, since Russia is something else, one might think that outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the other major city, no such phenomenon would occur but in fact throughout the country the old univermaj[18] have been occupied by shops selling 99 % foreign products, which is not to the everybody's liking (in particular the ageing communists who have been through the ordeal of selling off their old medals at tourist stands) but which everybody has to accept because there is nowhere else to do the shopping.

What has Russia got left to square its balance of payments?  Oil.  However, considering the prospects for the possible exit routes and considering in particular that when the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline entered into service, it left Russia out of the business in 2005 (although the large number of forces and resources devoted to protecting the pipeline augur ill for its future), the Kremlin knows that it has to seek alternative solutions, which is why, as the only viable, if not profitable, way out of the difficult situation it finds itself in, it wants to have the Arctic seabed declared Russian property as part of Russia's continental shelf.

Perhaps all these events are merely the fruit of the security reasons advocated by the United States and justified in the new doctrines which maintain that attacks need not be physical but can include anything that compromises the stability of a system and that systems must be made secure at the place where the danger arises, but the truth is that they have simultaneously turned the situation of the former Soviet Union into that of a free-for-all, with practically no GDP and suspiciously benefiting Western economies unable to find new markets as their existing markets dry up.

Against this backdrop, is a fresh outbreak of the Cold War surprising?  A further remark.  The USSR knew perfectly well what it was doing in Afghanistan although it miscalculated the forces and means at its disposal to deal with the situation that arose there.  Now, some time after its withdrawal, it sees how it is its former enemy that is tackling the problem and that, since little can be done about the exit route to the East, it is better for the problem to be dealt with by somebody else with allies or without.

A further comment.  Accomplishing a political feat of the highest order to which the senseless attacks on the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow and the Piervomaiskoye and Beslan tragedies contributed decisively, Putin won unanimous support internally and a hesitant "yes" externally for his treatment of the Chechen question as one of Islamist terrorism.

The United States therefore has a number of open fronts, all seemingly with the twin objective of guaranteeing oil production and ensuring the existence of the system in which we operate, i.e. guaranteeing security.  The search for new markets seems more a strategy of the EU which, whether we like it or not, marches on hypocritically united to the security and defence policy of the United States and which, thanks to that policy, may obtain market advantages that secure the future of its manufacturing industry for many years to come.  In no case must it be forgotten that the price of oil is increasing almost non-stop by the day, as swiftly as demand, with the open fronts unable to contain the rise, and with the Arab members forming the majority of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) having no interest in assisting stability but quite the opposite.

The trade-off for Russia is that, unintentionally perhaps, it has succeeded in tying up Western forces and economic resources in a large number of wars and situations which seem set to last for a long time or indefinitely given the lack of an obvious solution, putting the ball back in the court mainly of the United States, which in the Reagan era and through the Star Wars programme had forced the USSR to compete and employ so many resources in the process that its over-stretched economy collapsed, administering the Soviet Union the coup de grâce in the face of Gorbachov's desire for gradual reform, which raises the question whether the USSR fell or was pushed, but that is another subject.  The "antimissile shield" seems little more than Star Wars 2, but I think that Russia has already learned the lesson.[19]

Early in September 2007, the Financial Times published a series of secret European Union documents stating the intention to block the passage of Siberian gas to Europe.

If you have got this far, you will have seen how I have developed one main theme and many secondary themes in an attempt to interest you in geopolitics and one country, Russia, drawing on a series of facts extracted from books and newspapers, supplemented by my experience as a traveller which dates back to when the official exchange rate in the USSR was one rouble to the dollar (I have since known it as high as 29,000 roubles to the dollar and even higher on the black market) and by conversations in the past and present with my many friends over there, who assure me that
the way I help most is by listening to them.  So, as you see, it was not difficult to do because I am passionate about the subject-matter given the similarities between Spain and Russia which have always struck me.  Here, in no particular order, are some which you are welcome to explore further if you so wish.

If a Russian travels abroad, nobody in Russia bats an eyelid, but if he travels to Spain they immediately want to know all about it because our country has for them a magical attraction and not on account of the sun and other things typically sought after by tourists.  We are equally attracted to Russia.  In his book Viajeros españoles en Rusia [Spanish travellers in Russia], Pablo Sanz Guitián offers a compilation of testimonies of Spaniards who went to Russia and left a written account of their impressions.  He starts off with Abu Hamid in the 11th century and takes us up to the present day.  The compilation is not exhaustive; the author selected what he considered most interesting, ending up with a sample of 149 texts written by politicians, writers, businessmen and adventurers.

According to the Spanish newspaper ABC, the 64th edition of "The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha" was published in Russian in 1998 with a print-run of two million copies, so it is to be supposed that there are more Don Quixotes in Russia than Bibles, despite the fact that the Bible was the first book to be translated into Russian by the monk Methodius who, together with his brother Cyril, devised the Cyrillic alphabet, and despite the fact that the Bible was the book with which writing in the Russian language began.  Count Tolstoy stated on numerous occasions that Don Quixote had been a source of inspiration to him, and Turgenev had a genuine passion for learning Spanish; and while it is true that he was in love with the Spanish singer Paulina García (who eventually married the Frenchman, Louis Viadrot), a love which accompanied him until his death, which coincidentally occurred at the Viadrot-García home, it is no less true that he enjoyed reading the works of authors of the Spanish Golden Age in Spanish and that he maintained that Don Quixote could just as well have been a Russian gentleman.

The Romantic movement which Pushkin headed in Russia and which transformed him into a national hero of a people that loves poetry and that worships the place where he challenged d'Anthès to a duel and was left mortally wounded, was contemporaneous with Romanticism in Spain, and Pushkin's mordant criticism of the system and his support for the Decembrists, with whom he was on friendly terms, is greatly reminiscent of our own Mariano José de Lara.  It was from a letter written by Pushkin to exiles in Siberia that Lenin got the word "iskra" (call) for the title of the first revolutionary newspaper published by the Bolsheviks.

Considerations of distance and time notwithstanding, literary and cultural similarities are also to be found in the words of Tolstoy: "The Russian has an appetite for suffering, it brings him closer to Christ and Christ closer to him", where a parallel can be drawn with the theory of Unamuno in his work "The tragic sense of life".

By the same token, any Spaniard who is an avid reader has very probably delved into Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chehkov and many others including Pushkin, in full awareness of the difficulties in

translating this magnificent poet who was such a craftsman with words that it is almost impossible to capture his meaning fully in another language, the best translation curiously enough being the one into Asturian by Federico Fierro in 1991, published by the Librería Académica de Oviedo.  Even more recently, the Theatre Group of the Asturian Centre in Oviedo staged a marvellous period adaptation of a Chehkov drama complete with a moral at the end of the story, so much in keeping with Spanish taste.  And I am not very sure why, there is a Russian-Asturian dictionary.

Turning to music, Rimsky‑Korsakov, who it seems was briefly in Asturias, composed "Capriccio Espagnol" (he could have composed any other piece but he composed this one), which Luís Cobos incorporated into his best-selling compilation of classical and popular music called "Capricho Ruso" (Russian Capriccio).

That Stravinsky and Falla maintained correspondence is a well‑known fact, although how they could have begun their epistolary relationship I cannot imagine.  The title "adoptive son of Granada" was bestowed on Mario Petipa and the talented Glinka lived in Andalusia, composing his "Jota Aragonesa" and the suite "Summer Night in Madrid" in 1844.

The historical coincidences are many and varied: both countries fought and defeated Napoleon.  A Spanish regiment (the "Alexander Imperial") even served in the Russian ranks.  It consisted of deserters from the Napoleonic front lines who had been forcibly conscripted by the French after being taken prisoner in Denmark when the Marqués de la Romana had been unable to evacuate the entire Spanish army which had assembled there on its way to England.

Both countries have had civil wars followed by dictatorships, albeit of very different kinds.  Just as Soviets fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, so the Spanish "Blue Division" fought against Russia with the Wehrmacht.

Spanish children were evacuated to Russia during the Spanish Civil War, and I do not know whether it has ever been sufficiently acknowledged just how well the sovispan or war children were treated, better than Russian children themselves, particularly considering the difficulties Russia was going through.

Today, when Russia and Russian youth in particular has been hit by the Chernobyl tragedy, Spain has returned the favour, with many Russian children now spending their summer in Spain convalescing.

Both are mainly Catholic countries, although of a different persuasion, since Prince Vladimir of Kiev and his mother converted to Christianity in 988.

Finally, Russians are proud and cultured but uncivilized, individualists with a host of talents.  Does this not sound familiar?  They have a keen sense of humour, given to anecdotes and Spanish jokes and something about them encourages the belief that Murphy's law was written solely for them … and, by extension, for us.

More facts?  They are numerous.  Our Lady of Kazan, venerated throughout Russia, bears a suspicious resemblance to Our Lady of the Perpetual Help who is worshipped in Rostov-on-Don under the same appellation, and I have never found out why in ancient times Grusia, or Georgia, was known as the Iberia of the North.

There was a small blip in history between 1789 and 1801 when Tsar Paul declared war on Spain for no reason in particular, but because of the distances involved it was a bloodless affair and can safely be forgotten about.  It ended in 1801 with the death of Paul who, obsessed with the murder of his father, in which he did not take part but of which he was seemingly forewarned, took refuge in Mikhailovsky Castle in Saint Petersburg which he had had built to be safe from conspirators.  Since that is where he was assassinated, his judgment obviously failed him.

In a famous Russian comedy, the main character travels to France and, amazed by what he sees, returns to his country.  Once back in his familiar surroundings he exclaims: I'm not mad, I'm simply Russian".

[1]        National Intelligence Centre.
[2]        Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
[3]        German army.
[4]        Food shops.
[5]        According to the Russian newspapers Vedomosti and Kommersant in late August 2007, a Russian state corporation offered to buy the oligarch Mikhail Gutserijev's firm Russneft, the seventh biggest oil company in the country, for ten times its market value.  Having refused to sell up and complained of facing a campaign similar to the one which put Khodorkovsky in prison, he had to go into exile, apparently in the United Kingdom, and is a wanted man.  There is every reason to believe that the Kremlin means to regain control of the oil trade.
[6]        The TACIS programme was approved by the European Union in 1991 to help the former Soviet republics (except for the Baltic states) and Mongolia move towards a market economy.
[7]        The number of Russians living abroad is put at around 25 million.
[8]        Revelation 8, 6‑13: And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.  The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.  And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; and the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.  And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.  And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise.  And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!
[9]        Rus, or the Principality of Kiev, was the first eastern Slavic state and the core of the future Russia, which even derived its name from it.
[10]       Azerbaijan is "ruled" by Heydar Alijev, who in 1982 awarded Brezhnev the gold medal of the city of Baku, in 1987 was "retired" by the Soviet Communist Party because of his excesses and then three years later won the elections by an overwhelming majority.
[11]       The price of caviar currently (2007) stands at 700 euros a kilo, or 1 400 euros for Beluga.  In 2007, the Russian government has temporarily banned exports, until the legislation announced by Putin on a visit to Astrakhan and already tabled in the Duma regulates exploitation of caviar and prevents poaching, which accounts for as much as 90 % of catches.
[12]       Born in exile, Soviet Army colonel and first democratically elected President of Chechnya. Signed the Treaty of Jasaviurt in 1996 with Lebed.
[13]       Current pro-Russian President of Chechnya. Former ally of guerrilla chief Basayev.
[14]       Named Shamil after the Chechen national hero, guerrilla and ideological leader responsible for attacks on Russian territory and elsewhere, including Gudermes and Makhachkala.
[15]       Born in Saudi Arabia, he was a leader of foreign volunteers like himself. Legend has it that he died in combat, but all the evidence points to death by poisoning.
[16]       Highly radical branch of Islam originating in Saudi Arabia.
[17]       State Department Store.
[18]       Universal store.
[19]       At the last G-8 meeting and in statements to the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, Putin stated that if the US did not abandon its plans to roll out the "anti-missile shield" in Europe, he would set in motion a cheaper and more effective "asymmetrical response" and would not commit the same mistakes as in the past.

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