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Archive for the ‘Russia / ex-USSR’ Category

Photo: WITT/SIPA

Photo: WITT/SIPA

Continuing from Wednesday’s post. François Fillon and Alain Juppé had their debate yesterday: a little short of two hours, with two highly articulate, supremely self-confident men in command of their arguments on the issues, that they expounded upon in a gaffe-free, wonkish detail inconceivable in political debate outre-Atlantique not including Hillary Clinton. As Arthur Goldhammer remarked in real time on Facebook

Watching the Fillon-Juppé debate. I think we should send our politicians to France for debate prep…. I think these guys could out-debate our guys in English, let alone French. And not just Trump.

As for the substance of what was said, the first half was given over to the economy, and specifically to reform of the state—i.e. the number of posts in the fonction publique that will be eliminated, though precisely which ones not specified—revamping—i.e. shredding—the Code du travail, raising the legal retirement age, and the rest of the litany that one has heard countless times on the right and for almost as long as one can remember. Not that the issues aren’t legitimate subjects of debate—they absolutely are—or that reforms are not called for, but politicians—here, Fillon—make it sound like embarking on “radical,” “difficult” reforms (Fillon’s words) is a mere matter of political will on the part of the president of the republic, that upending the labor and tax codes, slashing unemployment insurance, overhauling pension regimes, to name just a few pledges, can be carried out swiftly, in the first three months of a presidential term—i.e. during the summer, when people are on vacation—via ordonnance—i.e. by fiat, without debate—and that will be that. The modern history of France suggests that it will not happen quite that way.

Fillon and Juppé are more in agreement on these issues than they’re not, though there is a question of degree, with the former a few notches to the right of the latter and more Bonapartist in posture. There will be occasion to examine the programs in detail once the real campaign is underway—in the late winter and early spring—but what strikes one about Fillon’s neo-Thatcherite rhetoric is how has-been it is. It’s from another era. Fillon gave the impression that he was addressing an electoral clientele—PME patrons and provincial bourgeois retirees—not the broader electorate. In point of fact, it’s hard to see his neo-Thatcherite project catching fire during the general election campaign. Au contraire. Not only has it not been demonstrated that outsourcing public services to the private sector and making it easier for employers to fire personnel fosters economic growth, lowers unemployment, or saves the precious taxpayer’s money—and no partisan of these measures has dared argue that they will reduce inequality—but voters in their majority are not asking for this. In France, people want more public services—for the state to be more present—not less. And they don’t want job security, such as it exists, to be undermined (and pedagogy about insiders and outsiders in the labor market are not going to convince a single citizen to flip his or her vote in the direction of neoliberalism). People want a stronger social safety net, not less of one. On this, N.B., e.g., the huge unpopularity of the El Khomri law in public opinion polls, with not only the left opposing it but sizable numbers on the right as well—and which is one reason, among many others, why François Hollande’s reelection chances, should he suicidally decide to run, are close to nil.

The bottom line: Fillon, assuming he wins on Sunday (a safe bet) and then next May 7th (and he’ll be the favorite come next Monday), will be the most conservative president the Fifth Republic has seen to date. Arch réac Patrick Buisson said as much on Europe 1 yesterday, calling Fillon’s victory a “historic moment” for the French right. So much for Fillon’s erstwhile séguiniste social Gaullism (insofar as this was ever his real conviction). What makes Fillon so effective—and redoubtable—a politician is his mild manner combined with solidity of character. As I said last time, he presents himself very well and is very well-spoken. He is, in reality, no less right-wing than Sarkozy—including on the ‘4 Is’, with perhaps a nuance here and there—but, because of his style, has given the impression of greater moderation. As Libé’s Laurent Joffrin put it, whereas Sarkozy will blurt out to a citizencasse-toi pauv’ con” (beat it, asshole), Fillon will politely say “passez votre chemin, mon brave” (please move along, my good man). In public speaking, as I never cease to say, form is as important as substance, when not more so.

Fillon also knows to downplay his conservative positions on societal issues and resist the temptation to demagogue. E.g. he is personally opposed to abortion but, when the question was put to him in the debate, he insisted that he will never touch the Loi Veil or seek to abrogate the Loi Taubira on same-sex marriage (it was striking to watch him and Juppé both solemnly affirm their support for a woman’s right to chose, and with Fillon saying that “as a man, [abortion] is a not a decision for me to make;” hell will freeze over before such words are ever heard in a US Republican Party debate). As for his ties to conservative Catholic anti-gay marriage groups like Sens Commun, it is most unlikely that, given the ambient anti-religiosity in French society—France being one of the most atheistic countries in the world—that this will translate into any retrograde policy initiatives. Lefties and laïcards are shrieking over Fillon’s liaisons dangereuses with reactionary Cathos but he’s just playing symbolic politics. It’s not a BFD.

What is a BFD, however—and a big one indeed—is foreign policy, and specifically Fillon’s ties to Vladimir Putin. Russophilia—Putinophilia, en réalité—has become pronounced on the French right over the past decade and with Fillon one of Putin’s best friends in Paris. The bienveillance of Donald Trump and Michael Flynn toward Putin does not compare. Fillon and Putin know one another well—a relationship forged during Fillon’s five years as Sarkozy’s PM—have met some fifteen times, and are on the same page on numerous questions, among them Syria, with Fillon outright supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On this, see Daniel Vernet in Slate.fr and Pierre Haski in L’Obs and The Guardian, plus his à chaud reaction on Facebook the night of the 1st round, in which he said

D’ailleurs, si Fillon l’emporte à droite et se retrouve au deuxième tour avec Marine Le Pen, ce seront deux amis de Moscou qui s’affronteront, assurant à Vladimir Poutine une victoire assurée. Son “investissement” a payé.

Now France does need to have a correct relationship with Russia but there are limits, as Juppé, who differs considerably with Fillon on the issue, asserted in the debate, notably on Ukraine and Syria. For Juppé, there can be no compromising or dealing with Bashar al-Assad. Fillon took care to assure that France under his presidency will not change alliances (go here and scroll to 1:56:30), that she and America are allies, and that France shares “fundamental values” with America that she does not with Russia. Très bien. But then, how to explain this tweet that Fillon sent out last March?

“American imperialism”? And during the Obama administration? And that “threatens” Europe? Now what is that supposed to mean? This is the first time I’ve seen the expression “American imperialism”—exclusively far left in pedigree—in a long time. And I have no memory of having ever heard it uttered by a high-level politico in a French party of government, and by one who may be elected president of the republic no less.

Strange. This requires explanation, though less so to the crazy new administration in Washington that awaits us than to Angela Merkel and the other principal actors in the European Union (a subject that was not mentioned once in last night’s debate, BTW). If a President Fillon makes nice with Vladimir Putin over and above France’s relationship with Germany, that will mark a sea change of major proportions on the continent—and in geopolitics more generally.

France Inter’s great geopolitics commentator Bernard Guetta has had some very good commentaries this week on Fillon, Putin, France, and Russia, here and here.

On the matter of Russia, we have learned over the past week that Alain Juppé has been subjected to an odious, viral campaign on the fachosphère—France’s nebula of Alt-Right websites—accusing him of being an “ally” of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and generally being in cahoots with “Islam,” on account, entre autres, of his cordial relationship, in his capacity as mayor of Bordeaux, with Bordeaux’s imam Tareq Oubrou—the epitome of moderation, whose liberal interpretation of the Islamic faith is music to French ears, but whom the fachosphère, along with extreme right-wing Jewish websites, have libelously slandered as a fundamentalist and antisemite, and sullying Juppé’s name in the process, nicknamed “Ali Juppé” by the fachos (for details, see the article by Claude Askolovitch in Slate.fr, “L’alliance de la fachosphère et des ultras du sarkozysme pour éliminer Juppé,” and the enquête in Libé, “Qui veut la peau d’«Ali Juppé»?”).

So what’s the link with Russia? Russian trolls, so L’Obs reports, who lent a helping hand to the fachosphère—which is entirely pro-Putin—to undermine Juppé and help Fillon. As there is now no doubt that the Russians undermined Hillary Clinton via cyberattacks and fake news to favor Trump, the circumstantial evidence that they likewise employed their underhanded methods in the French primary campaign may be regarded as prima facie.

There was a small brouhaha over something Fillon said Wednesday on Europe 1 that sounded borderline antisemitic

I think that sectarianism is increasing today within the Muslim community and that the sectarianists are taking that community hostage. We need to combat this sectarianism and we need to do it as we have in the past. We fought against a form of Catholic sectarianism or like we fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that does not respect the laws of the French Republic.

There was a time in history when Jews as a “community” didn’t respect the laws of the republic? WTF? Claude Askolovitch took Fillon apart on this in a great piece on Slate.fr, “Des juifs, de Fillon, et de l’inculture historique de nos politiques.” Who knows what Fillon was thinking when he said this. I rather doubt he’s a closet Judeophobe, as there has been no indication of this in his long life as a public person. If he were, ça se saurait. He clarified the matter almost immediately on his Facebook page. L’incident est clos.

My prediction au pif for Sunday’s vote, FWIW: Fillon 58%, Juppé 42%.

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

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fair play

I’m sort of following the Olympics, watching a bit on TV, keeping up with the medals table. I’ve read about the Russian doping scandal over the past couple of weeks. Am not surprised the Russkies got off with a slap on the wrist. The affair recalled a good Czech film I saw last year, Fair Play (in France: Sur la ligne), about state-organized doping of athletes in Czechoslovakia during the communist era (and that was likewise in the other eastern bloc countries). Here’s a plot summary culled from IMDB

The 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The young talented sprinter Anna (Judit Bárdos) is selected for the national team and starts training to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (before the Soviet decision to boycott). As part of the preparation she is placed in a secret “medical program” where she’s getting doped with anabolic steroids. Her performance is getting better, but after she collapses in training, she learns the truth about the drugs. Anna decides to continue her training without the steroids even though her mother (Anna Geislerova) is worried that she won’t be able to keep up with other athletes and might not qualify for the Olympics, which she sees as the only chance for her daughter to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (her parents having been dissidents and her father living in exile in Vienna). After Anna finishes last in the indoor race, her mother informs the coach (Roman Luknar) that Anna had stopped using steroids. They decide to apply the steroids to Anna secretly, pretending it’s nothing but doses of harmless vitamins.

The film offers what is certainly the most accurate cinematic treatment one will find of state-organized doping in communist countries: of the collaboration of doctors, oversight of the secret police and the party, and the pressure that was brought to bear on the athletes to comply—e.g. access to higher education and other resources, post-sporting career employment—and particularly if the athlete’s family was already politically suspect, as was Anna’s in the film. In short, it lays bare the overall insidiousness of the really existing socialism of the Soviet bloc countries. The pic did well at the box office in the Czech Republic (it has yet to open in the US or UK). The reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are good. Trailer is here.

Not all was dodgy or somber in the Soviet bloc sports scene, it should be said. Last year I saw the terrific documentary, Red Army, by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky, about the saga of the HC CSKA Moscow ice hockey team, nicknamed “Red Army”—that formed the core of the national team the Soviet Union fielded in international competition—mainly from the 1970s to the early ’90s. The Red Army/USSR ice hockey team may well have been the best ever in any sport—and, under the yoke of the legendary slave-driver coach, Viktor Tikhonov, no doubt the most militarily regimented. The national team regularly blew away the competition in international sporting events (though was shocked by Team USA—then comprised of college-level amateurs—at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports). They were amazing. One does not need to know a thing about ice hockey or have the slightest interest in it to find the documentary riveting and all-around excellent—critics in France and the US/UK alike gave it the thumbs way up—as it’s about politics, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union in his waning years as much as it is about sports (see the trailer here). Among those interviewed throughout the documentary are two of the USSR national team’s great players, Vladislav Tretiak and Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov—the latter, along with others on the team, going to the US and Canada in 1989 and after to play in the NHL—and the journalist Vladimir Posner, who was a fixture on American television in the 1980s, as a slick, English-speaking spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviet hockey players take anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs? Probably, though in that they would not have differed from their counterparts in North America.

redarmy-poster-de-fr-it-640

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Vladimir-Putin-Islamic-State-troops-609757

This piece by George Soros in Project Syndicate (February 10th) merits a blog post, not a mere tweet. It begins

The leaders of the United States and the European Union are making a grievous error in thinking that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The evidence contradicts them. Putin’s current aim is to foster the EU’s disintegration, and the best way to do so is to flood the EU with Syrian refugees.

Soros gets it right, IMHO. Putin, via Russia’s action in Syria, is out to destroy the European Union as a supranational political entity and assert Russian primacy in Europe. Europeans need to understand this and, if they have the interest and will, to resist it.

On Syria and US policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on tribune in The Wall Street Journal (February 12th), “The flawed logic in blaming the U.S. for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.” ADM concludes

As horrible as the destruction in Syria has become, the U.S. doesn’t bear primary responsibility. A more accurate assessment starts with Bashar Assad, ISIS, Iran (and Hezbollah), and Russia.

In case one missed it, Vox’s Max Fisher has a must-read post dated February 10th on the “14 hard truths on Syria no one wants to admit.”

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idi_i_smotri-1985

Continuing from my last post, on WWII films, this one merits special mention. It’s a Soviet film from 1985 (titre en France: Requiem pour un massacre) and that won the top prize at the Moscow film festival that year, but that I knew nothing about—nor of the director, Elem Klimov—until last fall, when I received an email about it from my friend Adam Shatz, who wrote that “[i]t’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the horror of war.” The film was released in 1987 in France and the US, but if it came to Chicago, which is where I was that year, I completely, totally missed it. But as it’s available via Netflix, I managed to see it on my last US trip.

Adam was right. I won’t summarize the story; for that, one may read the 2010 review by Roger Ebert, who, putting ‘Come and See’ in his “Great Movies” category, called it “one of the most devastating films ever about anything.” In short, the film is set in Byelorussia in 1943 or ’44, when the Germans were retreating under the Red Army onslaught but fighting furiously. In something I read recently—or maybe it was a documentary—a historian said that the June 10th 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, which was the worst German atrocity of the war in France—committed by the Waffen-SS Das Reich Panzer Division—happened every two days in the villages of Byelorussia and the Ukraine in 1943 and ’44. And in ‘Come and See’, such a massacre is reenacted precisely as it must have occurred and down to the last detail: in short, of all the men rounded up and shot, with the women and children herded into the village church, which, the doors sealed shut, was then set on fire. And with the German soldiers laughing and cheering as the crying and screaming hundreds inside burned to death. This is what happened at Oradour and was the almost daily reality of the German occupation of the Soviet Union, which was, as Timothy Snyder put it, “the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world.” To repeat what Adam and Roger Ebert said, if you want to see a movie about the horrors of war—and, in particular, of the eastern front in World War II and the evil of the Nazi Germans—this is it. Trailer is here.

come and see

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Putin’s Way

vladimir putin

[update below]

The PBS public affairs program Frontline aired a 52-minute report on January 13th by this title and that I just watched (thankfully US networks don’t remove reportages and documentaries from their websites after one week, as do their French counterparts). It’s a must. I jotted down one passage in particular, by Karen Dawisha—author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?—that is worth quoting

The bottom line, just to put it with two numbers. Two numbers is all we need [to grasp the essence of Russia under Putin]. The median, or the mid-point wealth for the average Russian is $871, according to Crédit Suisse. Very neutral report. $871 means that half the population has more than that in wealth and half the population has less. Median wealth in India is over $1000. So the average Russian is poorer than the average Indian. So that’s one number: 871. The other number is 110. 110 individuals own 35% of the wealth of Russia. [Russia is] the most unequal country by far in the world.

The Frontline report may be seen here.

If one has time for more watching, the webzine Mediapart has a most interesting 55-minute interview/debate (dated February 8th), “Vladimir Poutine, «âme slave et idée russe»,” with Michel Eltchaninoff—an editor at Philosophie Magazine and author of Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine—and Juliette Cadiot, historian at the EHESS and author of Laboratoire impérial, Russie-URSS 1860-1940. The question framing the discussion: What is Vladimir Putin’s long-term political project?

UPDATE: If one wishes to watch yet another lengthy reportage, ARTE aired an 82-minute one on Chechnya three days ago (on March 3rd), “Tchétchénie, une guerre sans trace,” which may be seen on its website, for the time being at least. The description

Vingt ans après la première guerre de Tchétchénie, Manon Loizeau explore un pays terrorisé, dont le président Kadyrov et ses milices veulent éradiquer jusqu’à la mémoire. Un témoignage exceptionnel, porté par de fragiles voix dissidentes.

The ubuesque dictatorship of Ramzan Kadyrov, installed in power eight years ago by Vladimir Putin. Chechnya: talk about a martyred nation…

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Photo credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Photo credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

[update below] [2nd update below]

Geopolitics analyst Bernard Guetta had a most interesting commentary this morning on the meaning of the Boris Nemtsov assassination, which may be read or listened to here. In short, he argues that Nemtsov did, in fact, pose a real threat to Vladimir Putin and that this no doubt explains why he was killed.

Guetta does not come out and say that Putin ordered the assassination. No serious analyst can do that in the absence of any proof. On the question of who was possibly responsible for the hit, NYU global affairs prof Mark Galeotti, writing on his In Moscow’s Shadows blog, examines the “known knowns and the Nemtsov murder,” in which he asserts that we simply don’t know. His conclusion

Let me re-iterate: Putin could still have ordered Nemtsov killed or hinted that he would like to see this happen and let others take the initiative. But so far we don’t know. The one particular issue that I do think stands out is quite how the killers targeted him. Once they knew he was dining at the Bosco on Red Square, given that he is known to live over the river, then waiting to catch him on the bridge, a natural choke point, makes sense. But how did they know where he was? Had they been following him beforehand (in which case there may be traces on other cameras, and perhaps cellphone traffic mirroring his, which could be a useful clue)? Or was his location monitored through his phone, which again could mean direct government responsibility, or the involvement of some security officer acting on his own authority, or just criminal/informal connections. Either way, answering that question might get us a little closer to knowing for sure what happened.

Amy Knight, the NYRB’s main Russian politics analyst, has a post on the NYR Blog, “Russia: Another dead democrat.”

Journalist Ola Cichowlas, who writes on Russia and Eastern Europe, has a piece in Politico Magazine on “The fascist in the Kremlin.” The lede: How Putin is eliminating enemies at home while creating new allies abroad.

On the Foreign Policy website, Elias Groll and Reid Standish—both of FP—have a doozy of a piece entitled “Laser bears and occupants: These are the masterpieces of delusional Russian propaganda.” The Russian propaganda videos they link to have to be seen to be believed. Russia today is a wild and crazy place. Also worrisome. And dangerous.

UPDATE: Bill Browder—whom I linked to in my previous Nemtsov post—has a piece in Politico Magazine saying that “It’s up to the United States to solve Boris Nemtsov’s murder.” The lede: I’ve dealt with the Russian justice system. Putin’s “investigation” will go nowhere.

2nd UPDATE: Amy Knight has another post on the NYR Blog (March 15th) on the Nemtsov murder, “A Kremlin conspiracy gone wrong?,” in which she follows the Chechen trail.

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Moscow, March 1 2015 (Photo: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow, March 1 2015 (Photo: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

That was a nice march in Moscow yesterday expressing outrage over his murder. As Julia Ioffe points out, though, only 50,000 out of 12 million Muscovites participated, compared to 1.6 million in Paris—same metro area population—on January 11th. For Russia today that’s probably not too bad. After learning of Nemtsov’s murder I remembered a report of his, co-authored with Leonid Martynyuk, that I posted on this blog a year ago, on the scandal of the Sochi games.

So who ordered Nemtsov’s assassination? As Masha Gessen says in an NYT op-ed

In all likelihood no one in the Kremlin…and this is part of the reason Mr. Nemtsov’s murder marks the beginning of yet another new and frightening period in Russian history. The Kremlin has recently created a loose army of avengers who believe they are acting in the country’s best interests, without receiving any explicit instructions. Despite his lack of political clout, Mr. Nemtsov was a logical first target for this menacing force.

And why would any number of persons in the Russian Federation and its near abroad want to kill Nemtsov? For a possible response, watch the must-watch seven-minute video, “5 facts that prove Putin’s behind the conflict in Ukraine,” produced last year by Nemtsov and Martynyuk. The video’s title in Russian: The Warmonger.

A few commentaries I’ve come across on Nemtsov’s murder:

Julia Ioffe, writing in the NYT Magazine—where she’s now a staff writer—”After Boris Nemtsov’s Assassination, ‘There Are No Longer Any Limits’.”

For perspective, Ioffe recommends reading this piece on “Hearing Out Russia’s Patriotic Bloggers on Nemtsov’s Murder.”

Journalist Leonid Bershidsky—who threw in the towel last year and quit Russia—writes in Bloomberg View on “The Russia That Died With Boris Nemtsov.”

BuzzFeed News Foreign Editor Miriam Elder, who reported from Moscow for a decade, says that “Murder, even in Russia, is always a shock.”

And here is Bill Browder’s “Statement on the Murder of Boris Nemtsov.” For those who don’t recall Bill Browder, he is, as Anne Applebaum describes in her recent must-read NYRB essay

[The] grandson of Earl Browder, leader of the American Communist Party[,] who set up a Russian investment fund that invested heavily in Gazprom. After he turned out to be an annoyingly activist shareholder—he kept asking why the company’s accounts were so untransparent—Browder was barred from the country in 2005. His companies in Russia were subsequently destroyed by a particularly Putinist form of corporate raiding: tax officials and police attacked their offices, reregistered them, declared them bankrupt, stole their money, and arrested and harassed their employees. Browder’s lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, was eventually beaten to death by guards in a Russian prison.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?—reviewed by Anne Applebaum in the NYRB essay linked to above—offered her instant reaction, on the CNN website, to the Nemtsov killing. And The Economist magazine’s Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, writes in The Daily Mail of “My friend’s murder and chilling echoes of Stalin: How Boris Nemtsov’s assassination may herald a return to the terrifying past or a descent into a still more alarming future.”

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