Welcome to Russia!

Last week, Russian “Prime Minister” Dima Medvedev published a photograph on Instagram of the new “Ice Palace” in Sochi, Russia, which will be the focal point of the 2014 Winter Games.  The photo showed the palace at the top of a steep hill mounted by an enormous flight of stairs.

In response, a commenter asked Medvedev: “И как люди передвигающиеся на колясках должны преодолевать эти 100500 ступенек?”  In other words, how would a disabled person grapple with such an obstacle.

It was a legitimate question.  All across Russia, disabled citizens face relentless discrimination and a near total lack of accessibility, with stone-faced indifference from most of their fellow citizens.  Such an attitude is flatly barred by the Olympic Charter, which requires accessibility, and in fact Russia is obligated to host the parallel “paralympics” along with the main show, meaning it would play host to dozens of disabled athletes.

When Medvedev did not respond, we followed up with him on Twitter.  We stated:  “You were asked on Instagram how a wheelchair-bound fan would navigate all those stairs. What is your answer?”

Medvedev didn’t respond to us, either. But one “ndennisv” from San Jose, California sure did.  He stated:  “Dumb question. Whoever asked that is a comlete [sic] dimwit. They are supposed to use a ramp or an elevator.”

Welcome to Russia!

Ask an honest question, and get your head bitten off!  In fact, Medvedev’s photograph does not reveal any ramp or elevator which could be used by a handicapped person to circumvent the stairs, so the question was very far from being “dumb.”

After a laborious saga of back-and-forth with “ndennisv” following his gratuitous insult, a saga which included plenty more insults, we finally obtained from him a picture of the Ice Palace showing the area to the left of the stairway, which was not apparent in Medvedev’s photograph.  In this photograph, it can clearly be seen that there are both ramps and elevators available to the disabled to reach the Ice Palace entrance.

Most people, of course, wouldn’t follow up as we did.  Most people, after being ignored and then gratuitously insulted, would simply drop the matter and assume the Ice Palace was just one more example of Russia’s brutal disregard of the interests of its disabled citizens.  And they’d come away, of course, with a pretty bitter attitude towards Russia.

Needless to say, “ndennisv” refused to acknowledge that Russia had any problem whatsoever with its treatment of the disabled.  In fact, he acted like ramps at the Ice Palace prove their are ramps everywhere, in typical neo-Soviet fashion.  What could have been  PR win for Russia, in which “ndennisv” promptly and cordially provided an answer to our question on Medvedev’s behalf, and simultaneously acknowledged that Russia has much more work to do beyond the Ice Palace, turned into a confirmation of all that is thought ill of Russia.

This little exchange is, in other words, Russia in perfect microcosm. It is why Russia has been forced to hire Western PR teams to try to battle against the relentlessly negative images that Russians create for themselves, a battle they cannot hope to win because of Russia’s boundless energy and productivity in this regard.  It illustrates why it was such a mistake for Russians to seek to host the games, which willy give the world that much more opportunity to experience this brutality up close and personal.

Another perfect example is homosexuals. How is it possible that the Kremlin could be so benighted as to fail to recognize that it needed to wait to commence its crackdown on gays until the Olympics and FIFA world cup proceedings had been completed?  By pushing ahead to early, Russians stripped billions of dollars of public relations gold out of their coffers, and turned these expensive events into negatives.  And all this is happening just as the Russian economy heads for a double-dip recession!

Welcome to Russia!

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Dark Clouds on Russia’s Demographic Horizon

Back in April, Izvestia reported (Russian language link) that Russia’s average life expectancy figure had suddenly stopped rising, hitting the wall just before Russians reached an average life of 70 years.  Just the month before, the Washington Post had reported on how Russia continued to grapple with massive forces pressing down on life expectancy, such as smoking and drinking, which in the case of women not only shorten adult lives but lead to shockingly high infant mortality as well.

According to Kremlin data (never entirely trustworthy, to say the least), Russia’s life expectancy stopped falling in 2003 and rose every year until 2012, soaring from just below 65 in 2003 to nearly 70 in 2011.  Then it began to slip backwards.

Back in 2008, the United Nations predicted (see pages 30-31) a similar phenomenon for Russia’s similarly rising birth rate.   The UN pointed out that Russia’s rising birthrates was a temporary phenomenon due to a happenstance baby boom some years ago, which would peter out and disappear.

And now Izvestia is revealing that Russia is about to be hit with a terrifying double whammy to its population numbers.  Mortality will increase just as births are decreasing. Russia’s population, in other words, is headed back into free fall.

The CIA currently places Russia an abysmal #152 when compared to all nations of the world for life expectancy.  This cannot be surprising when you understand how dangerous it is to live in Russia, which leads most major nations in statistics ranging from road fatalities to spousal homicide.  Drinking and smoking are epidemic problems, as is AIDS. And on many issues, especially AIDS, the government prefers neo-Soviet denial and propaganda to forthright efforts to deal with the problems.

The Izvestia article acknowledges the UN finding that Russia’s birthrate spike is temporary, and it shows that Russia’s birth and mortality figures are virtually identical, meaning that significant population growth is not possible.  It admits that no more than 20% of the growth in birthrates could be due to Putin’s policies, with 80% being accounted for by an accidental baby boom that will soon peter out.

Even Russophile propagandist Mark Adomanis is worried, calling the life expectancy reversal “quite alarming” and a “harbinger of serious trouble.”  He doesn’t of course, acknowledge that he failed to see this coming after beating the drum defending Putin’s record on demographics for years and egregiously minimizing the UN data showing Putin had nothing to do with raising birthrates, which were entirely temporary. But the mere fact that even the likes of Adomanis acknowledges Russia is on the precipice of demographic implosion, even as it also faces economic stagnation at best, double-dip recession at worst, ought to send chills down the spine of any Russian citizen.

The Latest Word on Putin

Russia’s most respected pollster, Levada, has published an update on Russian attitudes towards Vladimir Putin.  The results are confusing, to say the least.

When asked ОДОБРЯЕТЕ ЛИ ВЫ ДЕЯТЕЛЬНОСТЬ В.В.ПУТИНА НА ПОСТУ ПРЕЗИДЕНТА РОССИИ? (“Do you approve of Putin’s performance as president?”) in August of 2008 just as Putin’s second term in office came to a close, a whopping 82% of respondents said they strongly or mostly approved and only 12% said they strongly or mostly disapproved.  Five years later in August 2013, only 60% of respondents now approve of Putin’s performance as president while 32% strongly or mostly disapprove.  The gap between Putin’s defenders and his critics shrank from a gigantic 70 points to a much less daunting 28 points.  Putin’s adherents would point out, however, that Putin’s approval is still overwhelming and decisive, and much higher for example than that currently experienced by Barack Obama.

But if you drill down into the Levada results, you find data that should be far more disturbing to Putin’s fans.

When asked ЕСЛИ ГОВОРИТЬ В ЦЕЛОМ, У ВАС СЛОЖИЛОСЬ В ОСНОВНОМ БЛАГОПРИЯТНОЕ ИЛИ В ОСНОВНОМ НЕБЛАГОПРИЯТНОЕ МНЕНИЕ О ВЛАДИМИРЕ ПУТИНЕ? (“Generally speaking, is your attitude towards Putin mostly favorable or mostly unfavorable?”), Putin took a massive, earth-shaking hit.  In August 2008 the same 80% that approved of Putin’s performance stated they had a generally favorable view of Putin the man.  Back then, only 10% of respondents said they had a generally unfavorable view.  Five years later, the story is dramatically different.  For the first time since he came to power, Putin didn’t even get a majority of Russians to confirm a generally positive view. Only 47% of respondents said so, while 27% said their view was mostly negative.  Over the past five years, Putin’s negatives nearly tripled.

The comes the real poser. When asked ЕСЛИ ГОВОРИТЬ О ДЕЙСТВИЯХ ВЛАДИМИРА ПУТИНА НА ПОСТУ ПРЕЗИДЕНТА РОССИИ, ВЫ В ОСНОВНОМ ПОДДЕРЖИВАЕТЕ? (“Do you support the actions taken by Putin as President?”), Putin takes the same massive hit.  Only 44% of respondents say they do support Putin’s actions, down from 77% in 2008, while 28% say they do not support Putin’s actions, up from 10% in 2008.  This question is actually very hard to distinguish from the first one regarding Putin’s job performance, and shows that Pooty is on very shaky ground indeed.

So while Russians feel that Putin is getting good results as president, they increasingly don’t like the man behind the actions. They like the ends, but disapprove of the means. And the share of Russians who like the ends is dramatically plummeting the longer Putin stays in power.

These results are hardly surprising. Russia has experienced six straight years and six straight quarters of declining economic growth, and now stands poised on the precipice of a doubled-dip recession.  Levada’s poll clearly shows that Russians believe Putin controls the national destiny and is responsible for any mishap, just as he gets all the credit for success. Putin neatly stepped aside and put Dima Medvedev in place to take the blame for the massive 2009 recession that Russian experienced, but now that Putin once again holds the reins a double-dip recession will hit him hard.

Levada reveals that a majority of Russians definitely or probably believe that Putin is guilty of the abuse-of-power allegations that his critics make against him. As the economy continues to decline, Putin will have to use more and more authoritarian measures to preserve his power. We see these measures manifested in Putin’s treatment of Greenpeace, homosexuals, Pussy Riot , Navalny and any other group or person that dares to challenge the status quo.

Welcome back to the USSR.

Sean Guillory, Getting Russia Wrong

Almost two years ago, right after the most recent elections to the Russian Duma, Russia blogger Sean Guillory penned a tract for Aljazeera about the state of politics in Putin’s Russia.  It’s interesting to review what (little) he got right and what he (mostly) got wrong.

Guillory wrote: “The remaining question was how the public, which so far had been apathetic and acquiescent, would respond when given the opportunity to speak through the ballot box. It’s often said that electoral politics in Russia is dead. If so, then Sunday’s elections was a defibrillator to the political heart of the polity.”

Wrong. In fact, five million fewer Russians went to the polls in 2011 than had done so four years earlier.  Russians showed themselves to be much less interested in electoral politics in 2011 compared to 2007. It’s simply incredible that Guillory could ignore the voter turnout data, apparently because it didn’t fit his narrative.

Guillory wrote: “United Russia lost its predicted supermajority, barely holding on to a simple one. Medvedev was on the horn trying to get the Communists, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats – anyone – to agree to a coalition government.  ”

Wrong.

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Spectacular Failure for Vladimir Putin

The tsunami of bad news for Vladimir Putin on the foreign policy front this week was so overwhelming as to make it seem like a nightmare. But it was oh, so very real.

For the first time since Putin came to power, a majority of Americans told Gallup that they see Russia as an enemy.  Putin’s effort at propaganda in the New York Times was such a spectacular failure that the paper itself, in a virtually unheard of move, attacked him for it.

Ukraine thumbed its nose at Putin and declared its intention to join the European Union, a hop, skip and jump from NATO membership.

Belarus and Russia entered a state of open economic war.

And Putin’s policy towards Syria was openly mocked around the world. Everywhere, people were asking:  If, as Russia claims, Syria’s government did not use chemical weapons against its people, then why is Russia forcing Syria to disarm?

If you thought Putin could look to the domestic front for solace, you thought wrong.  2013 will be the sixth straight year in which Russian GDP growth has fallen from the year before, and 2014 will open in all likelihood with Russia entering a double-dip recession as a debtor nation barely able to make ends meet.

Putin’s foreign policy has left Russia isolated all around the world, a pariah state with only the likes of Iran, Syria and Venezuela for allies.  His domestic policy has left Russia impoverished and collapsing.  He is a disaster everywhere, all the time.

Another Incredible New Low for Russia

It seems like only yesterday that Vladimir Putin was writing in the New York Times that the will of the United Nations must control what happens in Syria, and that the United States must bow to that will.

If you thought Putin’s hypocrisy in asking the US to do in Syria what Russia refused to do in Chechnya or Georgia was stunning, you had better sit down for this one:  Now, after a UN investigation revealed that Putin was lying when he claimed that it was the Syrian rebels, not the regime, who used chemical weapons in Syria (a “war crime” in the words of the UN), Putin is attacking the UN and refusing to follow its will.  He doesn’t just accuse the UN of lying about who was responsible for gas attacks, he also accuses them of lying about whether such attacks even took place.   His “evidence” for these claims comes exclusively from the tinfoil hat crowd.

This hubris and duplicity on Russia’s part is a new low for an already utterly wretched country.  How can any civilized nation possibly take Russia seriously after this?  In just a few years, Vladimir Putin has obliterated his nation’s credibility and set it on a course to become a rogue state itself, like Syria, Iran and North Korea.  Just when one thinks Russia can’t possibly sink any lower, it delves into depths so hideous that you can’t believe you thought it was bad before.

Writing in the Moscow Times, the chairman of the powerful U.S. House Armed Services Committee has castigated Putin for his dishonest, duplicitous and venal New York Times piece defending genocide and barbarism in Syria.  Putin’s refusal to follow the UN’s lead after demanding that the U.S. do so disqualifies Russia from sitting at the table of civilized nations. It can and should be booted out of the G-8 and G-20 organizations, the World Trade Organization and the UN security council.  Russia needs to learn what it feels like to be Syria, Iran or North Korea if it is Russia’s ambition to emulate those nations.

It is simply shocking to see how little pushback from his own citizens Putin faces for his outrageous public lies that disgrace their nation.  Because they don’t stand up to him, Russians are fully complicit in Putin’s misdeeds and richly deserve the brutal suffering that lies in wait for them.

Putin shows Yellow on Syria

Writing in the Moscow Times, Alexander Golts echoes the thoughts of numerous Russian pundits in claiming that Russia scored a “brilliant diplomatic victory” in Syria over chemical weapons in recent days. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What actually happened is that the world saw Russia show palpable terror at the prospect of U.S. bombing of Syria to destroy chemical weapons. Instead of standing up to the U.S. on behalf of its ally, Syria, which Russia insisted had not used any chemical weapons, Russia sold Syria out.  Putin rapidly agreed to help strip its ally of a formidable part of its military arsenal and to subject it to the indignity of international inspections. Let’s not forget that this is the same road traveled by Iraq, a road which ultimately led to the country being obliterated and the ruler killed.

Russia has shown it has neither the diplomatic nor the military assets to stand up to American power. It has shown it is not willing to go to the wall for any ally when confronted by credible threats of American power. It has shown that American will get its way whenever such issues arise.  Any remaining Russian ally can only be appalled.

This crackdown on chemical weapons is just one step on the road to ultimately unseating the Syrian dictatorship. What will Russia say when the U.S. demands that Syria liquidate other weapons systems, and cease support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah? The answer is obvious.

Meanwhile, if Russia is unable to satisfy the U.S. that it can purge Syria of chemical weapons, as seems likely based on Mr. Golts’s analysis, then Russia will face double humiliation. First the world will see that Russia could not deliver on its promise to purge Syria of WMD, and then it will see yet another Russian ally tumble into rubble under American guns.

Lyosha 9%

In Moscow’s mayoral election, 8.7% of the city’s voters went to the polls and supported Alexei Navalny, just over 630,000 people out of roughly 7.25 million eligible voters. Another way of putting it is that 91.3% of Moscow’s voters rejected Navalny, either by staying home or actually voting for somebody else.

So Navalny is Lyosha 9%.

Having seen that there were only 630,000 Muscovites willing to support Navalny has two devastating implications for his protest movement. First, it shows that the number of protesters he brought to the streets, never more than 100,000, was a tiny fraction of those who shared his views in Moscow. On the other hand, It also shows that Navalny’s promise to put 1 million supporters on the streets was always pure poppycock.

As we previously reported, Navalny’s pre-election polling showed that his negatives were significantly higher than his positives (more respondents said they definitely would not vote for him than said they would do so), and his post-election polling showed that his campaign did not have any affect at all on either public support for Vladimir Putin or for a national campaign by Navalny.

Pre-election polling had also clearly shown that only ten percent of all Moscow voters supported Navalny at most.  His 8.7% tally on election day was perfectly consistent with the polling, with a small fraction of his active supporters choosing to stay at home on election day in a predictable manner (in fact, but for a frenzied last-minute get-out-the-vote push by Navalny’s forces, the number would have been a bit higher).

Navalny’s bid for Moscow mayor ended in disastrous failure, just as we predicted prior to the election. It was confirmed that Navalny does not even have double-digit support within his own bastion of strength, Moscow, and it was confirmed that he simply does not exist as a national politician.  On the other hand. Navalny’s participation in the race permitted the Kremlin to fully legitimize the Moscow administration it has hand-picked, and show that it is not afraid of meeting Navalny on the electoral battlefield.  This works to legitimize Navalny’s conviction as well.

In short, Navalny played right into the Kremlin’s hands and walked into an electoral meat grinder, ending for all practical purposes his ability to claim Russia has a significant opposition movement and he leads it.  The only question now is whether Lyosha 9% will cling to power the same way Lenin did after he heads to prison, causing the so-called movement to degenerate further into disarray, or whether he will act like a patriot and statesman and pass the baton to someone who may fare better.

Comparing Levada to Reality on Moscow Mayor Poll

In its poll published right before the election for Moscow Mayor (Russian-language link), the country’s most-respected pollster Levada reported that 52% of Moscow voters had told it they planned to come out on election day and cast their ballot (this number was clearly hedged, however, since more than half of it was comprised by people who said it was only “very likely” that they’d vote, not sure).

Moscow has roughly 7.25 million eligible voters. Thus, Levada was indicating that up to  3.77 million Muscovites might be at the polls on election day.  Of those, Levada reported that 18% would vote for Alexei Navalny, or in other words that Navalny would collect about 678,600 votes.  By contrast, Levada reported, 58% would support incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, meaning the latter would rake in about 2,186,600 votes.  Levada’s data overstated the number of votes Navalny would get on election day (and the same for Sobyanin).

On election day, nauseatingly huge numbers of Muscovites stayed at home, far more than Levada’s data imagined could occur. This reduced the number of votes collected by all candidates, but the incumbent was affected most dramatically.

Navalny actually got only 632,697 votes for mayor, 45,903 (or 7%) less than Levada had predicted.  But Sobyanin suffered far more from the weak turnout, actually getting only 1,193,178 votes, roughly a stunning 992,822 (or 45%) less than Levada had predicted.  Sobyanin ended up with just over 51% of the total and Navalny with just over 27% because Navalny brought a larger percentage of his supporters to the polls than Sobyanin did.  It’s telling that Sobyanin could take this massive hit and still crush Navalny by such a wide margin.

Only 2,286,972 valid ballots were received on election day, roughly 1.5 million less than Levada’s data had shown there might be.  In other words, only 31% of Moscow voters actually cast ballots on election day, vastly fewer than Levada had suggested might do so.

So Levada was almost exactly right about the number of votes Navalny would get on election day, but it vastly overestimated the number of votes that would be cast and it failed to recognize that the vast majority of voters who would stay at home would be Sobyanin voters.  Levada said Navalny would get a fifth of half of the Moscow electorate to support him, but he ended up with less than third of less than a third of all Moscow voters supporting him.  However, Levada never asked the large group of potential voters who said they were very likely to vote but not sure who they planned to vote for. Hence, it’s not possible to claim that Levada was “wrong” about turnout. They clearly said the turnout figure was not guarantied, and they did not attempt to project what would happen if voters were overestimated their probability of going to the polls.

The low turnout for Sobyanin  was eminently predictable, however.   Given that Levada had predicted that Navalny, Sobyanin’s closest competitor, would lose in a massive forty-point landslide of over 1.5 million votes, many Sobyanin supporters could quite foreseeably have decided there was no need to bother voting.   Levada’s polling was actually quite helpful to Navalny, in other words, because it strongly encouraged Sobyanin to be overconfident and, like the famous hare who raced the tortoise, to slack off on his efforts to bring out the vote.

On the other hand, the outcome was still pretty shocking.  Given the sensational fact that Navalny had just been convicted of serious criminal charges and sentenced to prison for five years, given that this was the first “Western-style” election in Russia’s history, and given that Navalny had repeatedly said that his own fate and that of the country were riding on it, one might have expected turnout to exceed Levada’s prediction rather than falling vastly short of it.

When the dust had settled,  Sobyanin had defeated Navalny by “only” 24 points instead of 40 and by “only” half a million votes rather than a million and a half.  His margin was half what it could have been in terms or percentages, a third what it could have been in terms of votes numbers.  Had turnout been even lower, say about half what it actually was, Navalny might well have been elected Mayor. If it had been a quarter of what it actually was, Navalny might have won in a landslide.  For that matter, had only Navalny’s supporters gone to the polls, Sobyanin wouldn’t have received any votes at all!

For some contrast, in the last mayoral election in New York City the incumbent Michael Bloomberg also won, but defeated his rival by only 50,000 votes and just five points.  Sobyanin’s crushing margin of victory over Navalny was five times bigger than Bloomberg’s (ten times bigger if looking at number of votes in the margin rather than points), and Bloomberg was one of New York’s most well-respected mayors ever. Bloomberg got only 50.6% of the votes, a lower share than Sobyanin collected, and Sobyanin raked in more than twice as many votes as Bloomberg received.

Putin the Pundit

Vladimir Putin’s latest pro-Syria propaganda gambit is an op-ed piece for the New York Times so riddled with lies, distortions, deceptions and ignorance that it could easily have come from the Soviet Politburo.

Over on the powerful and influential American Thinker blog, LR publisher and founder Kim Zigfeld deconstructs the article point by point and exposes the fundamental fraud it is trying to perpetrate on American readers.  (Zigfeld’s piece has been translated into Russian by INOSMI).

Zigfeld is actually just one of a whole legion of Russia watchers who have condemned Putin’s article as transparent nonsense.  The publication of this article is a rare gaff by Putin, a mistake so ridiculous that we’re sure somebody’s head is going to have to roll in the Kremlin.

The manner in which Russia continues to stand up for the Syrian dictatorship, fueling it with weapons and providing intense diplomatic cover, is appalling. That dictatorship is engaged in a brutal campaign of genocide against its own people. But because Syria is one of Russia’s last remaining beachheads in the Middle East, Russia stubbornly clings to its nasty little ally, heedless of the harm to its international reputation.

Not one major nation has joined Russia in claiming that the Syrian rebels, not the government, were responsible for the use of poison gas against civilians.  Similarly, in 2008 not one major nation approved Russia’s annexation of Abkhazia and Ossetia from Georgia.  One after another, Russia has watched Kremlin-friendly regimes in places like Egypt and Libya topple and collapse despite Russian support, because Russian support cannot hope to overcome the clear will of the overwhelming majority of citizens of a nation.

Putin’s horrifically failed foreign policy is leading Russia down the same road trodden by the USSR, a road that leads only to national collapse.