Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bye baby looking president Medvedev

Dmitry Medvedev, the third president of Russian Federation, in few days will step down giving way to his mentor Vladimir Putin for return to Kremlin. It’s a good time for making assesments of him and his work as president. Of course I have my opinion on these matters but today I came across an interesting article in Russian business daily Vedomosti so I decided to translate it into English in full and spent two hours this morning.

Many assesments from Kremlin insiders and government officials are far from being flattering, in fact the newspaper paints picture of obedient person with weak will who was installed as puppet, “seat warmer” for Putin. I don’t share such assessment though many things said about his personal qualities in the article may well be true. About my opinion please scroll down to the end.


We had a baby looking president. source
Medvedev. Putin's choice

"When Vladimir Putin chose his successor, he really wanted to see at the helm of the country a progressive young man with political ambitions, which would show himself” said former official of presidential administration. “Closer to election they would have sat down and decided who will continue to lead the country." According to him Putin started to examine Medvedev closely as possible presidential candidate, when he was appointed as chief of presidential administration following departure of Alexander Voloshin. "Eventual appointment of Medvedev to the government [as the first deputy prime minister] was a kind of test that Medvedev had passed" he adds. Other Vedomosti sources convinced that Putin didn’t choose future political leader but "seat warmer". From this point of view Medvedev had three important advantages, says a businessman familiar with him - his lack of team, that he always keeps his word and obedience.

Putin was convinced that Medvedev is trustworthy when the latter worked in presidential administration and then in government. Trust was very important because Putin was handing over his fate to the hands of successor. A heir would have formal prerogative to dismiss PM. For Putin, it was important that agreement with Medvedev was honored: you - president, I am prime minister, but no independence, important decisions in the country should be taken by both.

By agreeing to take over presidency Medvedev had not put forward any conditions. Putin had range of several candidates for this post: Sergei Naryshkin (then chief of staff of the government and deputy prime minister), Sergei Ivanov (then the first deputy prime minister), Vladimir Yakunin (head of Russian Railways) and even Igor Shuvalov (then assistant to president). Each of the hopeful Putin somehow started to put forward certain conditions asking for personal guarantees, and Medvedev was the only one who did not raise the subject "and what will be for me," recalls friend of president.

Over the years, while Medvedev was president, many of his close friends and classmates received high posts, moved up the career ladder. Alexander Gutsan now is deputy attorney general, Valery Kozhokar - deputy interior minister and head of the investigative department of the MVD, Nikolai Vinnichenko - presidential representative in the Ural federal district, Anton Ivanov - chairman of the supreme arbitration court, Konstantin Chuichenko – presidential aid, Valery Adamov - chairman of the arbitration court of Moscow, Alexander Konovalov - minister of justice. But they did not become solid team like Putinists. There is not much friendship and mutual assistance between them, in fact, they didn’t behave in coordinated manner tells acquainted with Medvedev.

Medvedev. Image

"Mr President always gave impression of a completely new person. The fact that he was a teacher, has served as guarantee that he can talk to people” said LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. “Immediately you could feel Medvedev’s education, high culture <...> Even more inspiring was his appearance, the manner of speaking, a smile - particularly we have never seen anger".

"I remember Medvedev as president, who communicates freely, without aplomb, without haughtiness. Germans would call him “people’s president who can be touched", he himself could pat anyone. Once I had problems with voice, he looked sympathetic, asked where I caught cold. I said I returned from Uzbekistan, and he replied that tomorrow he is going there" said Alexander Rahr, director of the Berthold Beytz center of German Council on Foreign Relations. "He communicates easily and naturally. A young, dynamic, well-focused and quick witted, as I observed him” said former president of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva. “My relationship with him was businesslike, friendly, he was able to listen to, after [political] crisis [in Kyrgyzstan] promptly solved issues of training our officials. Every time we met, he showed himself as modern man".

However anonymous stories paint somewhat different picture: despite of his progressiveness, Medvedev, having received authority, gladly took over all of its old attributes – he was receiving businessmen through the backdoor, coordinated their transactions. “Sometimes he allowed himself to speak rudely to his subordinates”, one of them complained, “at meetings in the government would often say to us: "You won’t start to work only under threat of cricifiction". “It's unprofessional to speak this way” assesses his colleague “more so because many of them worked hard, spent a lot of effort”. “Because of these shouts and rudeness, such an attitude to subordinates, Medvedev has not formed a strong team” said the source of Vedomosti.

President's press secretary Natalya Timakova didn’t agree with such interpretation: "Yes, the president could criticize certain officials for long and meaningless reports or preparing bad drafts but as a rule, he never got personal". According to her, Medvedev has different style of communication and leadership: "President is always reserved, polite, does not allow to transfer his mood, or some of his emotions on others. Raising voice is not his method of leadership. But when president is unhappy with something in your work and tells you that in very calm voice, I assure you - this is a very bad moment. "

"Medvedev has worked as a lawyer for many years - and it left an impression on him: he had formed a code of proper behavior for himself, and he believes that people follow these rules. Yet it’s not true"says a businessman associated with him. “Medvedev has high moral bar and it did not change in the assessment of situations”, according to presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich, "Medvedev reacted very harshly to the discrepancy between words and deeds. If you can’t do – don’t promise. This rule applies to anyone". Did Medvedev himself followed this rule when many blame him now for inconsistency? "Public explanations may be nuanced, some things you can’t talk about (publicly) so it’s different matter altogether” Dvorkovich defends his chief. “I'm sure he never deceived. He just never promises what he can’t do".

Medvedev. Work and intentions

"President Medvedev had one great feature: good intentions" said former government official. Medvedev really wanted to change something in the judicial system and bureaucracy and improve investment climate. "He really wanted even desired these things to do. He saw them as his mission” the source of Vedomosti continued. “But Medvedev was a unique phenomenon. He knew everything and knew how, had sufficient management experience, good relationships with key people, yet he failed to do anything - this is nonsense”. Member of the anti-corruption council Elena Panfilova has mixed feelings in relation to Medvedev: “In some areas I was pleased with him, in other I was terribly disappointed. Like everyone I was hoping for more, but reacted to campaign against corruption with skepticism". Regarding legislation passed by Medvedev he even exceeded expectations of Panfilova: "Such rapid adoption of the law on access to information, about the openness of judicial decisions - I was not expecting. On the other hand, it seemed to me he has good understanding of presidential prerogatives in order to make these laws work. Yet they are still not working".

“Medvedev has pathological inability to govern” said his former colleague, “he does not know how to listen, select best practices. President liked conducting meetings under TV cameras, in public, but real debates with in-depth analysis of proposals and their differences were missing. He was satisfied that everybody else felt like idiots” said indignant official, “but, in fact, it was impossible to work, things were not moving”. Timakova responded that actually only one-third, at best, of meetings that the president conducted, were aired on television, the rest were closed to the press: "For example during global financial crisis, meetings gathered each week, but only parts which concerned people much - such as measures to combat unemployment – were aired. In the last three months there were weekly meetings also closed for press, where they discussed future economic reforms (pensions, banking, health care), at best, they were accompanied by a brief report from the press-service. "

A former top manager of Gazprom was struck by Medvedev's inability to make decisions, even not strategic. "When we started concrete talks he began to wrinkle, as he was afraid to sign important documents, for example, I said to him – it’s chaos going on in Gazprom, positions put on sale, urgently you need to do something about it! And he answered - perhaps, with your assessment something wrong, therefore there is no question to look into" interviewee of Vedomosti shared his memories.

It’s for lack of independence and indecisiveness top businesspeople generally don’t respect Medvedev - several of these businessmen, talking to Vedomosti on condition of anonymity, agreed. In their coordinate system, “if you're the chief, all subordinates must respect you, obey you, and sometimes fear, and you must move your business forward” said one of them. In case of the presidency - it is necessary to move forward the country. “In first few years we had been observing Medved” tells big businessman. “And then we realized that he was not really independent, and the chief continues to be Putin. I still wonder how can you not respect yourself, as Medvedev himself does not mind to play the role when he and everyone around understand the real balance of power". "It’s not true that Medvedev did not take his own decisions!” protests one of president’s friends. “For instance, he managed to increase funding for armed forces by 60 billion rubles, yet he knew Putin was against it". In June 2011, during political crisis in Libya, Medvedev, like Western leaders, said that regime of Muammar Qaddafi "has lost legitimacy", while Putin fiercely defended Libyan dictator and demanded stop of NATO's intervention in internal affairs of this state. Then major legislative initiatives, which have certainly would not be possible in Russia without Medvedev” said Dvorkovich, “ it’s a liberalization of the Criminal Code (His lawyer’s background played role) and initiative of the transition to the formation of substantial part of the army on contract basis – in perspective up to 100%.

Medvedev. People

President of Promagro Fedor Klyuka calls Medvedev "competent expert who knows how to work with people". But several friends of Putin and Medvedev on condition of anonymity, suggested that work with people – exactly is a weakness of President Medvedev. In their view Medvedev and Putin have fundamentally different attitudes to subordinates. One of them describes it thus: "For example, if you are Putin’s man, and you made a mistake, you will still be part of his team, won’t fall out of favor, maybe you will be transferred to another position, maybe to lower, but will not drop out. Medvedev rather uses people: you are needed while you work. He is very technokratic". “Therefore”, the source of Vedomosti continues, ”for many Putin is more attractive chief than Medvedev, Putin won’t give up you, while Medvedev likes to say – it’s your problem, it’s up to you. He never gives a person more than the one deserves in his opinion. None of the Medvedev’s retinue feels complete confidence in the future, that their chief will cover in case something wrong happens". Another friend of two leaders adds: "Medvedev is not so skilled in communication, maybe that's why he has not managed to collect team of the faithful and loyal to him personally, while Putin builds relationships with people in the long term, giving some promises, guarantees, binding people to him by other means. It’s kind of spy recruitment - after all Putin was a spy. "

According to Dvorkovich, if there were problems with some people, Medvedev has always spoken to them directly or send clear signal of what they can do, and what - not. "And if people learned their limits, then they had no problems. Giving one more chance – it’s normal, if it’s not a betrayal” he describes the logic of relations Medvedev has with subordinates. But he can and quite harshly teach a lesson, as stories of his subordinates testify. One example. Medvedev always tries not to be late, can not tolerate when subordinates are late. This is confirmed by Timakova: "Of course, sometimes there are delays of 15-20 minutes - some of the meetings, for example, drag on and then the next event may start late. But president and office of the protocol always take care, so that waiting was minimal. And, naturally, he does not like late subordinates. There were occasions when colleagues were late for the meetings- then meetings started without them, and latecomers were told - thank you, but at this event you’re no longer invited. Sometimes, deputy prime ministers were greeted by closed doors.” Once revenge for delay was more sophisticated. One of the people close to Medvedev tells how he once was late by 15 minutes for meeting with president and then he had to wait several hours in the waiting room. But after he came late on the second time, know what: Medvedev, in knowledge that the official was leaving for a week abroad for rest and treatment, suddenly summoned him to the meeting. The official interrupted his vacation and immediately returned to Moscow, where discovered that he was not in the list of participants.

Medvedev only twice allowed himself to vent anger. Kremlin official said that in well publicized story of Alexey Kudrin Medvedev was angered by several things: insubordination, disloyalty and failure to follow proper procedures in performing his duties. "Kudrin committed two mistakes: he made statement in Washington, not Moscow, and he commented on matter without authorization when his opinion was not sought yet. He said he will not work in the government of Medvedev. It means he was ready to work in the government under president Medvedev and not ready for the government under PM Medvedev where he was not invited yet” argued Kremlin official. "However, after this affair erupted Medvedev met Kudrin and offered him the position of chairman of the Central Bank - the official knows - but Kudrin’s response was negative".

Strained relations with subordinates sometimes escalated into open conflict, which never happened under Putin. And subordinates were not afraid to openly show their contempt for Medvedev. Former government official narrates: "Medvedev has always had difficult relationship with [former Finance Minister Alexey] Kudrin. Their mutual dislike was manifested, for example, in the event that occurred in 2009 - Kudrin then was conducting meeting where either help, or conversion of money for Gazprombank was discussed. Kudrin was inclined to negative decision, but then the government courier brought mail from Medvedev, where there was a resolution in favor of the bank. Kudrin unfolds, squints, and pointedly said, "Well, such poor handwriting"!

However, Medvedev is able to communicate with person whom he disliked him, emphasizes his friend. Putin as result of years of selection has no such people left, while people who were not particularly important under Putin gradually concentrated around Medvedev and gained certain influence on him. Some of them operated hiding behind the name of Medvedev - for example, Igor Yusufov, when he negotiated the purchase of shares in the Bank of Moscow from Andrei Borodin. Man of the Yusufov;s circle denies it, he says, Medvedev didn’t have so-called cronies, including businessmen, "He treated all fairly, never showed any aggression towards anyone or special sympathy." However information to Medvedev is possible to send through the chief of his guard - deputy director of the Federal Security Service, Mikhail Mikheev, said former intelligence officer who knows Mikheev. According to him, because Medvedev has not his own team in Kremlin, he takes for his team members those with whom he familiar relatively long time. "Medvedev trusts Mikheev. And the softness of Medvedev led to different kinds of requests pouring in through Mikheev” the source said to Vedomosti. “With Putin it was not possible. But Medvedev is softer, more understanding".

Medvedev. Hope

But the owner of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in Russia - "R-Farm", a member of the General Council of "Business Russia" and "big government" Alexey Repik not disappointedwith the president: "The strategy of the state, set by Putin, allowed the business to concentrate on the development of <..> Politics of Medvedev was continuity, but also brought us a number of nice features: emphasis on youth, innovation, education, and support of entrepreneurial initiatives. " According to him, Medvedev became more actively engage in dialogue with business and business is now ready to build long-term strategies. President of the company "Promagro" Kluka said he was pleased to work with Medvedev: "He knew how to listen and make quick decisions. [In sub-prime crisis], he wisely managed the stabilization fund, and we passed the crisis with small losses compared to other countries. We didn’t expect just one term of his presidency. And programs of modernization begun to stall. Surely we have more democracy and freedom, the country has become more liberal. There were free demonstrations. But he did not have enough time. "

The final decision on Medvedev’s departure from the presidency was taken by him and Putin on fishing trip in August 2011, said a source close to the president. Timakova also said that it became clear that Medvedev will leave Kremlin in late August. It seems the president already regretted that fateful decision. “Kremlin did not expect such a violent reaction of the society”, the Kremlin official has admitted to Vedomosti, “we did not realize at that moment how many people are critical of Putin, and placed their hopes on Medvedev and took his decision as betrayal of their interests. Seeing this reaction, Dmitry Medvedev feels responsible for people who believed in the slogan "Freedom is better than no freedom" and attributed to him some hopes. In many ways, it makes him deal with his career - both political and administrative ", - said the interviewee of Vedomosti.

Familiar to Medvedev person said that at first in September, after declining to be re-elected, Medvedev was confident that he can form the government to his liking, but by November he was told that he may consider only those who will be offered to him and therefore he undergone basic reassessment of everything and everyone around him. “He realized that the government will not be fully according to his wishes, while he will carry burden of responsibility for work of this government. As result, in last half-year Medvedev was under stress. Of course, he thought he would do more. Over the past six months, Medvedev changed very much, retreated into himself" said his friend. Timakova called comments about the lack of independence of the future prime minister Medvedev "premature": "Let's wait for the composition of the government and we will draw conclusions".

original of article in Russian on Vedomosti site

For you to decide whether these anonymous and personal opinions are true or not but the article in leading national newspaper with such plain speak would not be possible in the country which according to US-government financed think tank Freedom House occupies miserable 172 place in the world on freedom of press. Another evidence that Western self-congratulatory ratings (US was on respectable 22nd place after minor European states) are usual propaganda, rubbish.

As for Medvedev I agree with some assesments in the article while I disagree with others. I think Kudrin’s episode is proof that Medvedev indeed was in the beginning of his term a sort of puppet or had just great tolerance.

But in the end especially after December protests he rediscovered his mission, refound confidence. Whether Putinists like it or not but their idol has tarnished (because of corruption) image and natural tiredness of him and his PR team work has grown over the years. Maybe level of discontent with Putin not yet reached critical proportions but soon may erupt again.

And many people who voted for him did so just because of Medvedev, as they put their hopes, their expectations on this small man, so-called “puppet”. Russia has many challenges ahead, the country remains deeply undeveloped and unmodernized. Whether Medvedev will live up to great expectations and meet challenges ahead despite odds against him remains to be seen.

We had also a dancing baby looking president.

Monday, March 26, 2012

RIC, BRICS & Central Asia

Just came across interesting article in Russia & India report "Russia and India in "the loose geometry of world politics" written by Dr Andrei Volodin. Articles in Russian press about Moscow-Delhi relations are rarities so I felt urge to comment on the article.

It probably would interest observers of Eurasian geopolitics especially in view of upcoming BRICS summit in Delhi.

Mr Volodin analyzes India's foreign policy, her participation in international forums and seeks what common ground Russia & India have and what divide Cold War era allies.

Indian foreign policy is notoriously vague so author made commendable effort of decifering thoughts and actions of Delhi mandarins which he called "geometry of world politics".

Volodin has noted geopolitical rivalry between India and China which doesn't prevent Delhi from seeking concessions from Moscow & Beijing having stepped up cooperation with US.

Volodin wants India to clarify her position on Central Asian affairs:

-considering Russia’s “jealous” attitude towards any activities by other countries in Central Asia, is India prepared to concentrate its efforts on implementing in these countries, jointly with Russia (or independently), economic projects that do not seek to strengthen India’s strategic position at the expense of our country?

-to find out how sincere and substantive are the statements by some officials close to the country’s foreign policy establishment to the effect that India is “indifferent” to American projects of “Greater Central Asia” and “the new silk road”, which pose a direct threat to Russia’s interests in the region;

-what aims does India pursue in taking part in the “reconstruction” projects in Afghanistan and are these aims damaging to Moscow’s strategic interests?

These questions though valid seem to me ambigious and cannot be answered without further clarifications from the author of article. Tone of questions seem to imply anti-American attitude of Russian policy in Central Asia, Moscow's desire to check American designs in Central Asia and hence India's part in American projects.

But is Russian policy in CA so antagonistic? First, Central Asian states are nominally independent states which have full freedom to develop their ties with anybody including India and US. Russia should only welcome interest and investment in still very poor landlocked regions of the world.

It's true that Russia have certain obligations, mostly coming from CSTO (security organization) where CA states are full members (except neutral self-isolated Turkmenistan). Millions of Central Asians migrated to Russia in search of jobs. Russia virtually has no borders with CA countries so naturally Moscow is and will be very concerned whenever security is concerned.

That's why in my opinion Moscow frowned upon agreements Tajikistan stroke with India on air bases in Ayni & Farkhor. India has been renovating them at cost of tens of millions dollars (I didn't find exact figures, think Delhi spent around $70 mln). Despite some reports that India quietly based helicopters and fighter jets there, I believe the bases not used by India yet. Indian technical staff maybe present especially at Farkhor, but nothing else.

One thing is economic, cultural, even political influence, military is another matter altogether. Striking base deals with Tajikistan Indians probably didn't know about nature of CSTO, which has NATO-style obligations. I mean if hypothetically Tajikistan is attacked by third party (for example by Pakistan) then Russia have to fulfil CSTO obligations and will be in war with Pakistan, the state with nuclear arms. That's why Moscow apparently prevailed on Dushanbe and India almost lost her investment. There's one way for India to use Ayni - if Tajikistan leaves CSTO altogether which clearly is highly unlikely.

However in other fields I don't see how India which is separated from CA countries by Iran (which is placed under Western sanctions) and everhostile Pakistan and perpetually unstable Afghanistan can be a threat to Russian influence in the region. Geographical and geopolitical barriers are too high for India to replace Russia as paramount power even with the little help from Americans.

Here good overview of Russian-Indian relations. As you can see despite somewhat stalled economic ties the scope of Indo-Russian cooperation is quite big and diverse ranging from military, energy, space deals to culture projects. They cannot be taken hostage to disagreements over military bases in Tajikistan and maybe not identical positions on international problems from Syrian crisis to Western wars. India is different from Russia so naturally she has her own interests and concerns. Fortunately I didn't see these concerns were conflicting with Russian interests so potential for closer relations between Eurasian giants still there.

Friday, March 16, 2012

UPA II & sinking Indian economy

India's finance minister Pranab Mukherjee today on March 16, 2012, presented federal budget to parliament Lok Sabha. I don't know what he said and did not read analysis of his speech yet.

However whatever his arguments I want to say his government UPA II is responsible for gross mishandling of Indian economy.

Many companies now report huge losses due to the government inaction, red tape and corruption.

Look at this article I read yesterday in International Herald Tribune

Update: I've found how I can copy text via Microsoft OneNote. So here is the copy:
When people talk about Europe’s ‘ ‘ government debt problem ’ ’ they mean something easy to describe: countries that borrowed more money than they can easily pay back. In India, it’s a bit more complicated. Here, where the government is grappling with national debt and a growing budget deficit, the state might play the part of the delinquent debtor, the imperiled lender or the foot - dragging regulator. Or it may play all three roles in a single set of tail-chasing transactions.  
The private company Hindustan Construction, for instance, is trying to renegotiate its $1.3 billion debt, some of it owed to government banks, to avoid defaulting. The company says its financial problems are partly a result of the government's slow payments for road and highway projects, as well as government delays in giving final approval on other projects already tentatively authorized.  
Bad loans now pose ‘ ‘ the most significant risk to the financial system ’ ’ in India, according to a recent survey of 100 bankers by the Reserve Bank of India, the country ’ s central bank. 
India, whose once red-hot economy has started to cool, is now trying to cope with debt and deficit problems that will put strains on the annual budget that the country’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, plans to present to Parliament on Friday.  
The Indian government’s debt stands at nearly 69 percent of its gross domestic product, according to Citigroup. That is little changed from 71 percent a year earlier. But its fiscal deficit has been rising, and many analysts expect it to be 5.8 percent of G.D.P. at the end of March, up from 4.8 percent a year earlier.  
Meanwhile, as India’s slowing growth creates financial challenges for state-run and private companies alike, the risk has fallen disproportionately on government - owned banks, which account for about 75 percent of India’s banking system. At the end of December, 3 percent of loans made by the 15 largest state-owned banks were nonperforming, compared with about 1.8 percent for six newer private banks, according to Avendus Securities in Mumbai. CARE Ratings estimated that 17 public and private banks collectively had $25.7 billion in bad loans on their books at the end of 2011, a figure expected to grow in the coming months.  
Analysts say most of the problems are concentrated in industries like aviation, infrastructure, real estate and telecommunications, businesses where the government is heavily involved as a player or lender, and which have also suffered from erratic or delayed government policies. Among the companies now struggling even to pay their employees are two of India’s biggest airlines. One is the formerly admired, state-run Air India. The other is privately held Kingfisher Airlines, which besides stumbling from its own management missteps has been hurt by the government ’ s barring it from profitable international routes to protect Air India.  
And in electric power, analysts describe a looming financial disaster in state-owned utilities. They have accumulated losses of $14 billion because the low government - mandated rates they charge customers do not cover the cost of gene- rating power.  
And no industry is helped by India’s slowing economy, which expanded 7.4 percent last year, down from 9.9 percent in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund. The fund expects India ’ s growth to slow further this year, to 7 percent. While that is robust relative to developed countries, most economists consider it laggardly, contending that even in the current global economic climate India has the potential to grow 9 percent a year.  
Many analysts blame policy paralysis. Leaders in the governing coalition led by the Congress party are deeply divided about the best way forward, especially as their political authority has been eroded by a series of corruption scandals. This month, opposition and regional parties scored big victories in five state elections, further calling into question the mandate of the government in New Delhi led by the Congress party.  
That is why economists and analysts will be scrutinizing the budget that Mr. Mukherjee plans to present for the new fiscal year, which starts next month. 
Analysts say he could help bolster the economy by announcing a plan to lower the budget deficit and by speeding appropriations for pending government-financed infrastructure projects. The Reserve Bank of India has already signaled that it could begin cutting interest rates this year, which should also help.  
While expectations of an economic rebound have already helped drive up the main Indian stock index more than 16 percent so far this year, many analysts and executives do not expect a quick recovery.  
Reuters authors are very conservative and argue for unpopular measures like price rise. But some facts are startling. We all know about plight of Air India, Kingfisher and other airlines.

But now contagion seem to spread to other sectors as well, Hindustan Construction conglomerate on brink of bankruptcy, cannot repay $1.3 bln debt accumulated due to government failure to pay for infrastructure projects.

Why Indian government cannot get its act together and radically reduce redtape it's mindboggling and mysterious for me.

Year after year after year I arrive to upper Dharamsala, in McLeodGanj, where Dalai Lama lives. And what I see never changed - an unfinished bus station.

I looked in my photoarchive but could not find better picture than this, taken recently during snowfall.

Down below you can see the unfinished bus station complex, covered by snow.

So what's problem with it.

As far as I know the bus station was contracted to one entrepreneur.

He built estacade but also illegally built shopping cum hotel complex next to the bus station. Apparently  without some permits (from forest authority).

Officials filed case in local court, managed to get stay order (on construction) and since then I could not detect any movement at all. Many years passed and Indian judicial system did not come to conclusion, one way or the other.

Meanwhile lack of proper bus station hindering tourism in Dharamsala, locals and tourists experience problems.

And it's not unique case, thousands of such infrastructure projects across India lay dormant, hindered by government red tape (both on central and local level) and judicial corruption. I saw in Hampi onse such object - bridge over Tungabhadra, I am very curious whether it's completed or not. It was under construction for 20 years at least.

If Indian government was serious in developing economy babus (officials) could do something to remove such obstacles.

That's why I don't have much hope in UPA II.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Different countries, not so different systems.

I don't have much free time right now as I am finishing book about journey through India, Nepal, Tibet, China to Russia and back via China and South East Asian countries including Burma.

I used to write articles and guidebooks. They take time, lots of time, but nothing was comparable to travelogue by difficulty. It's not that travelogue is hard to write, much harder to write good travelogue, which should have all trappings of fiction novel - it should have idea, theme, protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters, elaborate plot and number of subplots.

I have to mesmerize accidental reader and first of all anonymous editor in one of Moscow or St Petersburg publishing houses. Perhaps they never travelled further than Sochi in Black Sea or Bulgaria in their lifetime, they have no idea how life looks in exotic countries. My task is to make their reading a pleasure. Even for unitiated mundane people.

Still I took a break in my work, already wrote short article "12 ideas how to make concept of novel attractive" for community of writers on Livejournal which I am moderating, now it's time to fulfil my promise to some my Twitter followers to write few words about political system in different countries.

My first thesis is about similarity. We are all human beings, our societies composed of men and women who fall in love, have children, have needs to feed themselves, to get cloth, to raise youngsters, give them good education and hope for better future.

Blistering propaganda articles tend to disregard similarites and emphasize differences.

How different are we, people of various countries? From my experience of avid traveller I should say - not much. I don't like expressing it in percentage points, but empirically I would say - we are 95% similar, and 5% different. These 5% constitute everything which is known from press- culture, religion, race differences, repressive regimes, sanctions, wars, even genocide.

Humans should remember they belong to one specie and should not be tempted by dehumanizing propaganda. This propaganda's purpose is to make obedient robots whom rulers want to turn against external and internal enemies. We should not listen to them.

Now about differences.

When I was riding in bulletfast train from Beijing to Shanghai I was thinking how un-communist China looks. Yes, sometimes I could see red stars and flags, but all under my gaze, from architecture of buildings to layout of streets, parks and fields was traditional Chinese. At least it was looking non-Communist in Russian sense. And I presume for hardline Chinese Communists everything in Soviet Union was also looking un-Communist. Who knows.

So much for superficial ideology. But how democratic India compares with authoritarian Russia & China? I lived in this country for many years and should say - not much different. Yes, ruling regimes in India change according to election cycle but these democratically elected authorities often behave in the same way as unelected Chinese partocrats or kleptocratic Russian rulers who used to rig elections. In some respects Indian rulers are even more intolerant to criticism, in many cases behaved callously.

Obviously there are cultural explanations for every country. Yet what I saw in India, Nepal, China, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia etc forced me to think about similarities in state systems, no matter how they call themselves or by others (for example by Western media).

Selection methods of rulers maybe different but functions (maintain security for citizens, provide basic facilities like roads, ports, electricity etc) are mostly the same. Only some cases were egregious. Burma of course stands out. I felt much pain and sorry for plight of once glorious country with ancient history, it was ruined by ambitions of few generals. Partially Nepal, Cambodia were looking dysfunctional. Fortunately level of governance improving there. 

Situation in some regions like Tibet is worrying. No country is unblemished but Tibet clearly was region under oppression. It's unlikely Beijing will relax its rule there but Chinese should think why in their system lack of in-built mechanisms for airing grievances and for course corrections. If such mechanism exist why they're not used. I know many Chinese who were in Tibet, saw heavy-handed measures applied to Tibetans, yet too afraid to speak out. It's not normal situation and should be changed.

I have to say this despite excellence of many Chinese officials. Bureaucratic efficiency of Chinese officialdom is something to be admired in all Eurasian countries. In Russian blogosphere last year one picture was circulating. It showed two Chinese bureaucrats who were so lazy to venture out of town that they simply photoshoped, inserted themselves on picture of newly built highway. Apparently for propaganda purpose. Lazy guys, yes, but Russians were very much impressed - the road was not fake.

Everywhere I saw much space for growth, for improvement, no country was excellent and no country (with exception of Burma) could be roundly criticized. I am so glad that Mr Thein Sein, president of Myanmar is undertaking long overdue reforms which should ease miseries experienced by his people. Hope Ms Aung San Suu Kyi will bring a lot of momentum in peaceful development there.

That what I would like to say on topic. Maybe later I will add something. But for now goodbye and thank you for reading.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Putin won

Urgent tasks

Yesterday night, March 4, 2012,  tearful Vladimir Putin claimed victory in presidential election in Russia, it’s his third after 2000 and 2004 but he was widely believed to rule the country through his proxy Dmitry Medvedev. Both protested but facts speak otherwise – Putin after getting PM post in 2008 was never threatened in this position, while Medvedev performed largely ceremonial functions.

Last year Medvedev began to speak out on deep rooted problems in Russia and initiated slew of reforms in political and administrative structure but it was rather too little too late. Decentralization of power touted by Medvedev since summer 2011 was struck down in late December by Putin. That was bitter blow to prestige of Medvedev.

Nevertherless puppet president is expected to swap jobs with Putin and become PM of Russia after stepping down from Presidency in May 2012. In the Russian White House (office of the government) he will have plenty opportunities to change dysfunctional Russian system according to his views till he retains confidence of President Putin.

Both rulers have meanwhile more urgent task: how to contain expected protests against Putin’s victory and handle protesters in firm but gentle way, without violence. It’s needed for maintaining international reputation of Russia. Also Putin is waiting for talks with Communist candidate who came distant second, Zyuganov did not recognize Putin’s victory yesterday, but for internal legitimacy it’s necessary condition.

Personal observations

I never voted in my life in Russian presidential elections so I never cheered for anyone and never lamented loss of my favourite.

Yesterday I talked by skype with my mother and friends back home. Mother said she voted for Zyuganov. I reminded her she did not like Communists before, in last decade of Soviet Union there was widespread deficit, she had to find not only cloth, shoes for our family but even food. It was very frustrating time for her which left bitter memories.

Yet now she became more conservative (in Russian sense) and don’t trust Putin’s regime despite gradual increases of pension. $25 addition last month did not persuade her to give vote to Putin. Pittance. Zyuganov despite many flaws and unreformed outlook appeals to many Russians of elder age, he best epitomizes both protest feeling against onslaught of capitalist forces and nostalgy for good fat years in USSR, especially cherished for perceived lack of inner conflicts.

My friend, ex-colleague in Sakha State University where she works as social science researcher, said she voted for Prokhorov. She is middle age like me, has vaguely liberal views and distrusts both Kremlin and local Yakutsk authorities. Her vote for Prokhorov was determined largely by tiredness from Putin and effect of novice. He’s handsome, tall, new kid on the block. But she went to polling booth mostly because of local elections – Yakutians were choosing local mayor. It’s indeed much more important for most people in my town who will handle garbage, repair roads, build new housing blocks etc.

Silence in Vkontakte

Yesterday with help of my forementioned friend I was restored access to my page in Vkontakte, largest Russian social networks. 2 months passed since my password was stolen (yet again) and I needed to get new one via Russian mobile which obviously I didn’t have. Vkontakte is the best way to learn what ordinary Russians do, think, busy with. In the run up to Parliament election in December my cousin sister was actively agitating against Putin and United Russia party, she has 1000s friends whom she tried to convince to vote for other parties.

Now her activity was subdued, I didn’t notice any agitation against or for Putin among my friends and relatives. Impression - people again retreated into apolitical existence. I wondered why and noticed on my nephew's page one picture of Moscow’s neonazi and a veteran of WWII in full regalia. Veteran shocked to see nazi symbols and berates them. I think this picture reveals why people resigned to stay with Putin for six more years – his opponents prove to be dangerous extremists and people naturally were afraid to join protest movement.

This is how Putin has won elections in Russia in 2012.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Strategy of survival in the age of Twitter and my personal evolution

Media treats us as fools. This is common knowledge. They lie, they cheat, they mistort, they suppress information.

How people can get facts, how they can find their way though contradicting pieces of information – these questions need to be answered by anyone who wants to be informed of what’s going on in the world, make judgements and adapt to changing realities.

I asked these questions in my mind when yesterday pro-Western media in Russia made a big fuss over story about alleged death from torture of Libyan journalist Hala Al-Misrati, favourite of Gaddafi.

I also reported this story in my Twitter because I’ve found it in many Russian news sources (not Kremlin-controlled but on independent business website RBC). Then I googled the story and found the original source on Al-Arabiya website. There were no other English-language articles, but news story was covered in many other languages.

On Monday Libyan NTC issued undated video footage of Hala, sitting in Islamic hijab, where she denies rumours of her death and call ex-rebels “her brothers”. I don’t speak Arab, so I cannot vouch for what is reported in pro-Western Russian media as transaltion of her words. Also I cannot verify whether footage is genuine, made after last Friday, when her death was reported or before. Or whether she was speaking under threat or freely.

So what I should say? Did I made mistake of reporting this story in my Twitter? To rectify my mistake I tweeted a link to the video of Hala on YouTube, released by NTC.

But I still don’t know facts for sure whether Al-Arabiya story was fake or genuine. If it was fake then I tweeted fake story. But if video with hala is fake I tweeted link to fake cover up by Libyan ex-rebels.
But larger problem is that we ordinary people now left without trustworthy media. They all engage in vicious propaganda wars, trying to produce more lasting, more impressive images and affect our behavior. I find it very intrusive.

Western media became known to me in 1990s during coverage of Yugoslavian civil war. Mostly I trusted what I heard on BBC World Service while my father was very anti-Western. He didn’t want to listen to Western arguments about crimes committed by Slobodan Milosevic regime.

Time passed and I started to feel disillusioned with Western media. Of course it was Iraq war coverage. But then there was no Twitter, no newschannels livestreaming on the net. So if you lived then not in Western country like me you would not know extent to what propaganda can make with people, turn them into warmongering zombies.

Let’s turn to Russian media. In Soviet Union news reporting was often farce. Even innocent cultural, sporting reporting was heavily influenced by propaganda about triumph of Soviet-Socialist-Communist values. What is worth to remmeber then nationalist coverage was not allowed. In reality some ethnicities might complain of consistent Russification but officially it was non-existent.

Then there was freedom of press, Gorbachev’s Glasnost. Popularity of press soared. Many wanted to become fearless, honest journalists.

After Gorbachev Yeltsin came to power, more thuggish, more autocratic. Many justified his regime excesses as temporary events, explaining them as Communist residue. Freedom of press seem to exist, however all media became private. New owners, oligarchs as Russians call them, unleashed vicious business wars. 

Kremlin tolerated them because in 1996 they all united in support of ailing hard-drinking Yeltsin.
In 1996 Russian people discovered that freedom of press has disappeared, the new media is essentially the same old, feeding often pure propaganda. That’s why when Putin came to power and dismantled Gusinsky and Berezovsky’s media empires people cheered him. They were tired of self-appointed guardians of freedom of press when they saw them in action as through and through Yeltsin’s propagandists.

Control of media helped Putin in second Chechen war. I remember how Western press was viciously attacking him. But time proved that Putin was right. Bombers of apartment blocks were found and sentenced. 

Those pro-Western media outlets who were screaming about extermination of Grozny city and Chechen nation now turned into Russian ultra-nationalists, screaming about “unruly Caucasians, Putin as friend of Chechens” etc. Grozny was rebuilt, that caused these pro-Western Liberals feel envy.

In 2003 at the time of Iraq war I left Russia for India so I missed most of two Putin’s terms and almost all of Medvedev’s presidency. I returned to Russia just once for few months in early 2011. It was different country. 

Everywhere there were terminals accepting cash for mobile, utility services, for internet. Everyone has plastic cards. Newschannels mostly government controlled and despite their modern studios and look cover mostly activities of Putin and Medvedev. No wonder that many people shunned them, preferring social networks.

Zastoy (Stagnation) was in the air. As in Brezhnev time people started to make fun of Putin and his protégée Medvedev. Corruption started to appear in public. When I returned the blogosphere was buzzying with picture of yet another Putin’s palace in the Black Sea, which costed half billion dollars. Putin’s press secretary first denied reports, then he said it was indeed official residence of Russian PM, therefore not his private property, then this palace was sold to business group cheaply, the question closed. Putin not suffered as he and Medvedev has some 25-26 official residencies, some still under construction.

I didn’t like not only this. In Far Eastern Russia I saw glaring contrast between prosperous Asia (and China in particular) and everpresent poverty of Russian regions despite skyrocketing prices, bad infrastructure, non-existent facilties, rude, corrupt officials. Life didn’t change a yota in whole decade that Putin ruled the country. I thought it’s time for him to go.

Aleksey Navalny last year gained popularity with anti-corruption blog. He was like fresh breathe in stale atmosphere of Putinist Russia. His activities were not to taste of Kremlin hangers on, they hacked his e-mails and published them. They spammed internet with their compromat, obsceneties and also organized DDoS-attacks on opposition-leaning newspapers and bloghosts like Livejournal. It was disgusting.

Of course I expressed my opinion very clearly then – Putin must go, we are tired of him. I admitted he did something good for the country but his continuing rule is impeding Russia’s growth. I suggested in some blogs how Navalny can turn attention from corruption deals to politics, he should start monitoring election process to prevent election frauds. And if authorities continue with past practices we should deligitmize elections. I didn’t hope for good results though as Putin continue to dominate coverage of government controlled newschannels, thus he has advantage over rivals. So he still wil win. But victory should not be overwhelming, it should be Pyrrhic.

Last summer I left Russia once again and did not follow developments closely. When Medvedev announced swap deal with Putin I was enraged and from Burma I was tweeting my disappointment. Then my favourite Navalny showed his true fascist colors. It was second bitter disappointment. 

At first Novodvorskaya, Borovoy, whose opinion I always respected posted a video where they discussed results of their private meeting with Navalny. Their verdict was clear: “He is neo-Nazi”. I was surprised but Russian march of neo-Nazi was organzied by Navalny, he was appealing to his followers to attend the march. Novodvorskaya's warning proved true. I disfollowed him.

Then came December Parliament elections, flawed as they were, but no evidence of massive fraud emerged so far. Not enough to challenge results significantly. As I thought main rigging in Russia done by mainstream, Kremlin-controlled media, not by stuffing ballots.

But what happened after elections turned me against opposition. I've found they use disinformation and lies not less than Kremlin-friendly bloggers and media, but even more often. So many cases of their lying and cheating, that it’s impossible to document all of them. Just open any pro-Western newspaper or Livejournal-promoted blogs and it’s for all to see. They insinuate and fabricate stories not worse than Western media about Russia. 

On top of that in order to gain more popularity these pro-Western media and bloggers began courting Russian far-right nationalists, what they write is pure fascism and racism mixed in one. Absolutely disgusting.

So I am back at square one, tacitly supporting Putin against these dangerous extremists. It’s not result that I wanted because I believe due to his inherent conservatism he will try to freeze development of Russia. And after some years of his rule nobody knows what kind of explosion wait us.