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October 28, 2006

IHT makes LJ look calm

Wow. The International Herald Tribune wades into the fray over Six Apart's deal with Sup over Russian livejournal, and comes down firmly on the side of paranoia:

What's so pernicious about the deal is that it replicates the very Kremlin model that poisoned the rest of the Russian media.

The argument is that Sup is a Kremlin hack (dolboeb, "a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's spindoctor"), backed by an oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut), and that therefore they are obviously going to turn the abuse team into politicial censorship. Therefore, "the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with criticial opinions are numbered".

Well, the IHT has certainly managed to make bloggers look like a picture of reason and calmness, compared to foreign correspondents in the MSM. Much better commentary by Veronica at Global Voices, and Bradfitz' list of complaints about the deal is alternately sad and hilarious.

Dariga

Off on a different tangent today - dynastic politics in Kazakhstan. Nathan Hamm and Sean Roberts are far better informed on the nitty gritty of Kazakh politics than I am. But there's one bit that's just too much fun to leave to the professionals: Dariga.

Dariga Nazarbayeva is the President's daughter. She's had a privileged life, and she's run with it. Degree in history from MGU, PhD in politics, speaks four languages, even moonlights as an opera singer (how well is open to question). Yes, it's easy to go overboard in singing her praises, and she can only do it because of daddy - but when did you last hear anything about her sisters, who have had lives just as charmed?

Anyway, the past few years Dariga has been managing her rise to power - with a lot more panache than most can muster. You're never sure quite where she's going to come from next. She started with the media, when daddy put her in charge of state media company Khabar. She's no longer officially in charge, but there's no doubt that a lot of journalists will do what she tells them to.

The reason she's no longer officially running Khabar is that it conflicted with her move into politics. In December 2003 she founded the ASAR party. Different folks have different views on how much this was her decision, and how much she was playing puppet to her father. She claims

'I was not forced to found this party....but there comes a moment when just to observe is dull because there is a a self-satisfaction in the pro-presidential camp which can turn to stagnation. The business and political elite is in crisis. 'My father tried to convince me not to do this....But when I discussed with him my vision of his party, I told him: "I will be dealing with your team." I want to take away this piece of cake from his party. The new party will involve real people, not state officials.'

But one pundit said at the time:

Big politics do not like impromptu actions, and any initiative not coordinated with political partners is punishable. Therefore, if the daughter is in the Asar party, then the father is also present there, but his presence is hidden! Asar is not a whim of the president's daughter, it is a project of the whole Family, dictated by the need for new methods of retaining power.

Either way, her party was doing really rather well. It's growing success made it likely that Dariga would eventually become Speaker of parliament - a position open to the head of the largest party, which carries with it the chance to replace the president if he dies. Then daddy decided to close down her political adventure, and arranged for her party to be merged into his own Otan party. Since then, she's seemed desperate for some other route into the centre of politics.

What's next? Her current fantasy seems to involve painting herself as a democratic reformer. She's got the media nous to fake it to the West - look at her spot-on approach to the Borat affair (making a point of getting the joke), or the article "Deja Vu" that she wrote in March which combined revelations from the inner sanctum of Kazakh politics with the kind of angry rhetoric you'd expect from Craig Murray or a Western journalist.

And she's making more substantive moves. And, as Sean Roberts reports, she is becoming a champion of trades unions, supporting a group of striking miners. Then there's her involvement in a 'commission for democratization'. But, again, nobody can tell how much this is Dariga, and how much it's her father trying to paint a rosy picture of a reforming Kazakhstan.

In the end, everything Dariga does comes down to a question mark about her relationship with her father. He clearly gets his way when he wants to - witness the way he had her political party merged into his this summer. But the rest of the time, she can more or less get away with stirring things up (the 'Deja Vu' article is a good example).

One explanation is that Nursultan Nazarbayev wants Dariga to be powerful, but only as one person within a balance of power. This strategy makes sense given the political situation. The President's power is pretty much unassailable - partly because of the constitution (Nazarbayev was re-elected for six years last december), but mostly because Nazarbayev is one of the smarter leaders in the region, and he's made the GDP rise by something like 9% a year. If he can keep it that way, his position remains secure and the bloody battles move down a rung.

Dariga, along with her husband, is one of the blocs of power. (see this analysis for a rundown of the rest). If she gets too powerful, she'll be cut down to size. If she falls, she'll be picked up. So she does what anybody would in those circumstances: she experiments.

More information: Wikipedia, Dariga's own site, Taipei Times, and some semi-official profile.

This medieval bestiary feel very much like the etymologies in Sanskrit works like Yaska's Nirukta. Both of them shift between what we'd now think of as etymology (i.e. finding plausible historical roots for words), and a more alien sense that the word, through etymology, somehow captures the entire nature of the thing described. I suppose in the West this goes back to the "Platonism without Plato" that drives medieval scholasticism, and there is something pretty similar in India.

The he-goat is a wanton and frisky animal, always longing for sex; as a result of its lustfulness its eyes look sideways - from which it has has derived its name. For, according to Suetonius, hirci are the corners of the eyes. Its nature is so very heated that its blood alone will dissolve a diamond, against which the properties of neither fire nor iron can prevail.

Also, like all these books, it is a very pretty thing.

October 23, 2006

Hungarian protests

[crosspost from livejournal]

Despite what a few people seem to think, I really didn't come here for the rioting. Still, I did spend a couple of hours wandering around the town centre - I may be spending most of my time at home, but you can't listen to sirens and helicopters without getting a little curious.

In case you've missed the backstory: the political right have been pissed off for the past month or so, since somebody leaked a recording of the Prime Minister admitting (in pretty colourful language) that he lied to win the last election. Partly because of that, his party did badly in the local elections a few weeks ago. The president hinted that he wanted the Prime Minister to resign, the PM won a not-particularly-resounding vote of confidence, and things settled down a bit.

Then comes today, which is the 50th anniversary of an uprising against the Soviets. So that gives an excuse to start the whole thing again. Everybody has the day off work, there's lots of flag-waving anyway, and it's not hard to turn it against the Prime Minister who, being a socialist, gets painted as a sort-of communist clinging on. Veterans refuse to shake his hand, the opposition organise a demonstration, and by lunchtime it's moved on to teargas and rubber bullets.

So I walked around a bit, stood around with a crowd of similarly-uninvolved gawkers and watched the police tear-gassing a protest. Then decided it's a bit silly to get too involved in it all, given that I don't even agree with the rioters. Plus there was far too much flag-waving for me - it's something I have a not-entirely-irrational loathing of. Would have taken some photos, but -despite all your advice - I've not got my act together enough to buy a camera.

As before, there were an impressive number of 60-something-year-olds, although the angry young men were out in force again. Also: a total absence of ghouls around the edges selling whatever the right-wing Hungarian equivalent of the Socialist Worker is, and generally a sense that people don't know what they're doing. It's nothing like, say, France, where everybody knows what happens at protests, they treat them as a fun day out, segregate themselves into little blocs and cliques.

Anyway, I think I've now fulfilled my quota of paying attention to Hungarian politics, so now I'll just sit in my room and see how many hooligans get beaten up by the police.

October 18, 2006

Civil war? What Civil war?

From Anthony Cordesman's latest paper, via Abu Aardvark, a chart of violence in Iraq:

Spot the Askariyya mosque bombing.

LJ is civil society

Do you ever get the feeling of this is where it's at? That's what I've been feeling as I start following Russian livejournals more closely. Every time I look, I find another embryonic political or social movement, full of potential to change Russia - and being largely ignored by the outside world.

Take the debates. Run by the youth movement "Democratic Alternative(*)" Every few weeks in Moscow, some of the leading lights of Russian livejournal get together for a public political debate. They're judged by the audience, and by a panel of popular bloggers.

The audience at an earlier debate
Many photos from yesterday's event here

Their latest event was yesterday, pitting nationalist Dmitri Rogozin against economic liberal Boris Nemtsov. The debate was about Georgia, and Rogozin won, but the transcript of the debate hasn't been posted yet.

Also, this blog doesn't seem to like cyrillic much. I wonder if it's Movable Type in general, or my setup, or what?

*: I'm not sure who funds them or what their background is, but they feel less astroturfed than most Russian 'youth movements'

October 17, 2006

I've joined Global Voices

Since I've been reading so many Russian livejournals recently, I figured I should do something useful with it. So I've got involved in Global Voices, a blog translation project. The plan is that I'll post occasional snippets from Russian blogs, once a month or so. Here's my first post, translating a Georgian post about the treatment of Georgians in Russia.

October 16, 2006

Serbia and Georgia

If Russia decides to escalate the dispute with Georgia, one option is for it to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state. Abkhazia is pushing Russia to do just that.

What makes this a plausible scenario is Kosovo. From Russia's perspective, the situation of Abkhazia within Georgia is parallel to that of Kosovo within Serbia: regions enjoying de facto autonomy within hostile states, and pushing for formal self-determination. In Putin's words:

"If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians?"

The implied 'someone' is the UN, where glacial negotiations are moving towards the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. Russia is unlikely to let this through the UN without demanding a similar decision on Abkhazia. It might not even wait for Kosovo to come up at the UN - ten days ago, for instance, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that the "logic of international development may lead Russia to a situation in which we will have no other choice but to recognize Abkhazia"

October 14, 2006

Cambridge stops Sanskrit

I'm breaking off the Georgia blogging for howls of rage that my old university course is being shut down. Apparently, Cambridge university sees no value in teaching Sanskrit to undergraduates.

Right now, I feel like running into the streets and screaming at the imbecility of the world.

Interesting take on the Lancet figures from Marginal Revolution:

A very high deaths total, taken alone, suggests (but does not prove) that the Iraqis were ready to start killing each other in great numbers the minute Saddam went away. The stronger that propensity, the less contingent it was upon the U.S. invasion, and the more likely it would have happened anyway, sooner or later. In that scenario the war greatly accelerated deaths. But short of giving Iraq an eternal dictator, that genie was already in the bottle. If the deaths are low at first but rising over time, it is more likely that a peaceful transition might have been possible, either through better postwar planning or by leaving Saddam in power and letting Iraqi events take some other course. That could make Bush policies look worse, not better. Tim Lambert, in one post, hints that the rate of change of deaths is an important variable but he does not develop this idea.

Russia has made a point of maintaining transport links to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite the blockade of Georgia. It's something that Georgian politicians have complained bitterly about. Now they're driving it home by sending a train to South Ossetia loaded with $741,000 of humanitarian aid. Behind this is Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is even more energetic than Ken Livingstone in maintaining his own foreign policy agenda. Luzhkov calls the train "a symbol of Russian assistance to South Ossetia, which wants to live independently and not to obey those, who have subjected these people to genocide,

October 13, 2006

Russia puts on its best face for the UN

Russia has made some apparently conciliatory moves towards Georgia this week - notably a promise of early withdrawal of the Russian troops based in Tbilisi.

Is this an olive branch to Georgia? No - it's shrewd international politics. The UN has just passed a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN observer mission in Georgia. Had Security Council members agreed with the EU's (obviously correct, but politically awkward) assessment that "Russia is not a neutral participant in the peacekeeping arrangements", they could have produced a resolution limiting Russia's role in Georgia. So, Russia keeps them sweet by making a concession - but notice that it is a concession that doesn't require any immediate action. By the time it comes to remove the troops from Tbilisi, everybody except the Georgians will have forgotten what Russia promised.

Update: According to Saakashvili,Russia was aiming for - and failed to get - two items included in the resolution:

The first is unconditional denunciation of the Georgian police operation in the upper Kodori gorge that would have a serious legal force, and the second, restoration of the status quo, which existed in the gorge prior to this operation. It would have meant the withdrawal of the legitimate Abkhaz authorities from the Kodori gorge and renaming of the Kodori gorge,

More on Russian anti-Georgian events.

I tried to write a post on the high politics of the Russia-Georgia dispute, but I got sidetracked into the stuff that actually matters: the social impact of it all. There will be another post on Putin and Saakashvili throwing their toys at each other, but first, have something about the real people:

The politicians and pundits are talking up how bad things are. Saakashvili (Georgian president) calls it "a form of ethnic targeting not seen in Europe since the Balkans in the 1990s", and to Bezuashvili (Georgian foreign minister) it is 'a mild form of ethnic cleansing'. At Georgia Online, a columnist collects a list of recent anti-Georgian Russian headlines and comments "Replace 'Georgian' with 'Jew', change the date 2006 to 1933, and we fall back to Nazi Germany."

Certainly, things are bad. Newspaper Novaya Gazeta (employer of Anna Politkovskaya) has printed copies of letters Moscow police sent to local schools, demanding lists of Georgian students. The information required includes:

Relations of children of Georgian nationality with other pupils, cases of hostile relations between children, and such [hostile] relations toward them [i. e. Georgian children], facts about disobedience of Georgian children to teachers, facts of antisocial activities, and unlawful acts.

All this is "For the purpose of securing law and order and abidance of the law, the prevention of terrorist acts and aggressive feelings between children". Sean has full translations and commentary.

But, there is some good news. Many Russian bloggers are still trying to counter the anti-Georgian prejudice - the "I am Georgian" site is one of many examples. And it is striking that the anti-Georgian events in Russia haven't been mirrored by anti-Russian events in Georgia. At Radio Free Europe, Jimsher Rekhviashvili interviews ethnic Russians living in Georgia. And finds...nothing. No mirror of the anti-Georgian sentiment in Russia. One says " I continue to receive warmth and love, the lack of which I have never experienced from the Georgian people.". Another says her friends in Russia " call and ask us not to believe what we're hearing. We are by your side, they say. We love Georgia and Georgians."

October 12, 2006

Child abuse, Skinner style

Wow. Drop what you're doing, and go read this article:

The only thing that sets these students apart from kids at any other school in America - aside from their special-ed designation - is the electric wires running from their backpacks to their wrists. Each wire connects to a silver-dollar-sized metal disk strapped with a cloth band to the student's wrist, forearm, abdomen, thigh, or foot. Inside each student's backpack is a battery and a generator, both about the size of a VHS cassette. Each generator is uniquely coded to a single keychain transmitter kept in a clear plastic box labeled with the student's name. Staff members dressed neatly in ties and green aprons keep the boxes hooked to their belts, and their eyes trained on the students' behavior. They stand ready, if they witness a behavior they've been told to target, to flip open the box, press the button, and deliver a painful two-second electrical shock into the student at the end of the wire.

Now, this is already astoundingly nasty stuff. The justification is that these are severely disabled children who would otherwise be locked up, drugged to the eyeballs, or killing themselves. I can't accept it - because I wouldn't want anybody to have that power over anyone, certainly not in such a regimented system - but at least I can see the defence. Only, read on and it gets far worse:

Sometimes, the student gets shocked for doing precisely what he's told. In a few cases where a student is suspected of being capable of an extremely dangerous but infrequent behavior, the staff at Rotenberg won't wait for him to try it. They will exhort him to do it, and then punish him. In these behavior rehearsal lessons, staff members will force a student to start a dangerous activity - for a person who likes to cut himself, they might get him to pick up a plastic knife on the table - and then shock him when he does.

And worse:

New York state inspectors concluded that "the background and preparation of staff is not sufficient," that JRC shocks students "without a clear history of self-injurious behavior," and that it uses the GED "for behaviors that are not aggressive, health dangerous, or destructive, such as nagging, swearing, and failing to keep a neat appearance."

[crossposted from my livejournal]

October 11, 2006

Paranoid conspiracy theories: not an American monopoly

I'm not sure how much this(RUS) is tongue in cheek, but it made me laugh:

Livejournal is spying on you!
American spies have developed a special search engine. It rummages through all livejournal posts, including locked ones, and adds politically dissident authors to a special list.
All personal information which you entrust to livejournal can be subjected to a political search.
Do you oppose interference of the secret services in personal life?
Do you oppose the illegal opening of internet postings?
Be sensible...don't use Livejournal!

Seems the CIA aren't content with running Facebook,and having the NSA fund research into scraping social software sites ;)

Oh, and before anybody says it: yes, I'm sure the CIA do search through anything you put on LJ or anywhere else on the web. That is their job, isn't it?

More big numbers in Iraq

Update: The report is now available online

How credible is the study about to appear in the Lancet, estimating 655,000 excess deaths in Iraq as a result of the war?

All this is based on the media coverage I've seen (Wall Street Journal, WaPo, NYT). I haven't seen the report, so I can't say it is trustworthy. All we can say for now is that it is consistent with other figures, and using an appropriate methodology. First, the plausibility. Yes, 600,000 is a very big number. It is about 2.5% of the population of Iraq. But remember that this isn't anywhere close to saying that 600,000 people were directly killed by American soldiers. It is just that the overall death rate has increased massively - that might include inadequate healthcare or nutrition, more traffic accidents, whatever. It certainly includes the violent crime, which we know there is a huge amount of. Granted, it is at the high end of the scale, and I'll want to look at the methodology in detail before I say that I believe it. This is not inconsistent with other accounts. In particular, it isn't disproved by the fact that Iraq Body Count, give a much lower death toll, between 43,850 and 48,693 deaths. It's because they are counting different things. Iraq Body Count simply totals up the civilians reported in the media as having been killed. By their own admission this is will always be an undercount:

We have always recognised and made explicit that our media-derived database cannot be a complete record of civilians killed in violence, and have called forproperly supported counts since the beginning of our own project. What IBC continues to provide is an irrefutable baseline of certain and undeniable deaths based on the solidity of our sources and the conservativeness of our methodology.

The figures are higher than the death counts based on bodies in morgues. These generally relate only to violent deaths (narrower than this study), and count about 100 a day. Juan Cole doesn't find this discrepancy too large to deal with:

First of all, Iraqi Muslims don't believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address. Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers. A fisherman on the Tigris looking for lunch recently caught the corpse of a woman. The only remarkable thing about it is that he let it be known to the newspapers. I'm sure the Tigris fishermen throw back unwanted corpses every day.

I'm not entirely convinced by Juan Cole's line of argument here, simply because people generally were able to produce death certificates:

When people reported deaths, researchers asked them about the cause and obtained death certificates in 92 percent of cases (Baltimore Sun)

And at the Washington Monthly blog, Kevin Drum adds:

This time around, the figures from their new study buttress the previous one, and also match up with other data, which suggests their methodology is on target.

How reliable is their methodology? Not perfect, but better than anything else available. As far as I can see, the methodology is the same as what they used back in 2004 - see a collection of defences of it here. Probably the biggest criticism of the 2004 report was the small sample size. But now, as Rubicon says:

For statistical purposes, the sample size is very large, much larger (for example) than typical national voter polls in the US, which sample about 1,000 to 1,200 individual respondents. If we presume 4 persons per Iraqi household, the sample size is over 7,000 persons—in a country one-twelfth the population of the US. The data-gathering and estimation techniques are quite reliable; according to one of the lead researchers, Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins, "This is a standard methodology that the U.S. government and others have encouraged groups to use in developing countries."

One likely methodological problem is 'recall bias' - that is, the possibility people will have forgotten deaths that happened in the past. This would decrease the figures for pre-war mortality compared to post-war mortality, and so give an inflated count of excess deaths. The issue was raised with the 2004 study, and the longer timescale of the latest report makes it an even bigger issue.

Note: I am updating and amending this entry as I find out more about the study. I haven't yet made up my mind on how much I believe it - and in any case, I still haven't seen the report.

Blogs defending the study: Amptoons, mahablog, Barista, Deltoid (not much yet, but likely will have more in time)

Blogs arguing against it (only the ones I think have halfway-decent arguments): Jay Reding. No doubt there are more decent arguments against this, but I've not been bumping into them much.

October 10, 2006

Web hosts get in on the Russia-Georgia fight

Oh, now this is getting silly...

Russian hosting company Garanthost is closing down the accounts (RUS) of Georgian customers, and refusing to serve Georgians.

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, Hostovik is offering discount hosting for anybody who will display an "I am Georgian" logo on their site.

[via webplanet and kbke]

just because you've got a rose, doesn't make you a revolutionary

Warning: cynicism ahead...

It seems that now Saakashvili has won his elections, he knows he can stop ratcheting up the rhetoric, and grovelingly offer (RUS) to meet Putin anywhere for talks.

Back home, the Industry will save Georgia party are making a pretty futile shot at copying the imagery of the colour revolutions. Roses in hands, they held a march in protest at alleged election fraud last week - and would doubtless have been totally ignored, except that somebody decided to take some potshots at them

UNSCR RSS plz

You know what would be useful and doesn't exist? An rss feed (or similar) for UN Security Council resolutions. Anybody found one hiding somewhere in a corner of the internet?

What Russians think about Georgia

Underneath the media hysteria, Ella-p links to a few polls suggesting Russians aren't really all that passionate in their loathing for Georgians. All these figures predate the current scuffle. They also conflict with my own experience of Russia, which is of a pretty widespread loathing of anybody from the Caucasus.

Firstly, two polls on opinions of Georgia:

View of GeorgiaJan 2004June 2006
Good 41 27
Bad 10 26
Indifferent 42 42
No response 7 6

So opinions of Georgia have worsened over the time Saakashvili has been president, but not to any truly terrible levels.

Another poll concerns attitudes to Abkhazia. Throughout several questions, the same small majority are in favour of keeping Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia (51%), supporting independence for Abkhazia (53%), and welcoming Abkhazia as part of Russia, if requested (54%). The rest are divided between a good 20-30% who support the opposite position, and a large number who didn't answer.

Disclaimer: I know nothing about polls, and my Russian is ropey enough that I've probably misunderstood some of them. If you're interested, look at the "Public Opinion Foundation": other polling data on Georgia, or the English-language section.

Wine, water and the Rose Revolution: background to the Georgia-Russia dispute

In one of those 'far more comprehensive than you'd ever want' posts, here is a little background to the current dispute between Russia and Georgia. Things haven't been quite this heated before, but all the elements have been there for a while. There's the political grandstanding by both Putin and Saakashvili, partly animated by personal dislike but mostly a strategy to enhance their domestic popularity. Then there are the plausible underlying causes: the Russian soldiers who are in Georgia and helping separatists, and the overall story of Georgia's attempt to get out from under Russia's thumb.

A war of words

How much of this is just about looking good on TV? A pretty huge amount, I'd say. Saakashvili's persona is based on being unremittingly pro-Western - look at how he has presented defiance of Russia as his personal contribution to politics:

"...we're no longer the country we were two or three years ago. We're not afraid of anything and we won't let anything upset us"

Saakashvili loves political grandstanding against Russia. He has loudly accused Russia of arming separatists, sabotaging gas pipelines to leave Georgia without winter fuel, even involvement in kidnapping a Georgian child. In the UN, he has hinted about Russian aims of annexing Georgia.

There's a kernel of truth in a lot of this rhetoric, but Saakashvili is saying it all so publicly for his own political interests.

There's been almost as much verbal nastiness on the Russian side. Some of it is personal tension between Putin and Saakashvili. Putin has, for instance, blamed a previous crisis on "the ability of individual political figures in Georgia to respond adequately to the situation in the relations". Then there's the time a Russian Foreign Ministry official seemingly encouraged assassination of Saakashvili

I'd count Russia's ban of Georgian wine and mineral water, and their occasional refusals to issue visas to Georgians, in this category of 'political grandstanding'. They aren't insignificant (wine and water are two of Georgia's main exports, and the million or so Georgian workers in Russia need their visas), but the measures were obviously driven by politics rather than necessity.

The unwanted soldiers

Then we get onto the underlying issues - and yes, it's military and it's ethnic. It's about the Georgian separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an about the unwanted Russian troops still stationed in Georgia. Some of the troops are (not exactly neutral) 'peacekeepers' in the separatist regions. Others are loitering on old Soviet bases: everybody agrees they have to go at some point, but Russia is dragging its feet and trying to keep them in Georgia for another few years.

Saakashvili certainly isn't the only Georgian to be angry about all this, but he has gone particularly far in trying to change it. There are fairly frequent military skirmishes, particularly significant ones being in South Ossetia in August 2004 (causing a row with Russia), and this summer the Kodori gorge of Abkhazia (causing - you guessed it - a row with Russia)

Georgia has also tried arresting the Russian soldiers before. I imagine this is partly to nudge Russia towards withdrawing them, partly for domestic political reasons, maybe even because they were breaking the law. I can't find any for spying until recently, though - mostly they've been about smuggling and visa irregularities. Georgian police even had a punch-up with Russian soldiers after a road accident.

High politics and international relations

But, in the end, it all comes down to wider disputes. Saakashvili wants Georgia to be all but a part of Europe, Russia wants to keep it as a client state.

Georgia has always been among the most Westward-looking of the former Soviet states. Then in 2003 came the Rose Revolution, bringing in the Kremlin-baiting, West-loving Mikheil Saakashvili, and the course was fixed. As with the separatist republics, Saakashvili has only been doing what most Georgian politicians also want - but he's been pushing it a lot harder than they would dare.

His first foreign minister was not just (in what is perhaps a diplomatic first) the former French ambassador to Georgia, she was also Georgia's first non-Russian-speaking foreign minister. Then there's the new oil pipeline running through Georgia on its way from Azerbaijan to Turkey, cutting Russia out of the supply route. Or the WTO membership (something Russia hasn't yet managed), the understandable desperation to join NATO.

All this unnerves Russia, which needs Georgia as a client state. It's not that Georgia is intrinsically all that valuable to Russia - but if this one gets away, it undermines Russia's ability to browbeat the rest of the post-Soviet states. Putin is seeing his 'near abroad' crumble as hte 'colour revolutions' remove pro-Russian elites, and as the CIS (a loose political union of the former Soviet states) is replaced by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia, and GUAM further West.

So there you have it, from spheres of influence down to looking good on TV.

[incidentally, a lot of the articles I link above have been pulled out of a useful del.icio.us collection by Nathan Hamm of Registan. Even if Georgia isn't his main focus, and he hasn't blogged on the latest crisis, he still has a decent eye on what's happening there. Go Nathan!]

October 8, 2006

Eep! The US is beginning a 'major operation' in Kirkuk. Not the kind of place you want Americans blindly wading in.

In Kirkuk, a volatile mixed city in the north, Iraqi and U.S.-led forces launched a major security operation, dubbed "the key to peace," to root out members of al-Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups. Authorities imposed a 6 p.m. curfew and announced the detention of 155 suspected insurgents. (Washington Post)

I hope they know what they're doing; in particular I'd be worrying about the background of the Iraqi troops, the demographics of who they're arresting, and generally how much they're shaking things up :(

October 7, 2006

slightly illegal

Another quick note on the persecution of Georgians in Russia.

One thing making it easy for the authorities to go after ethnic Georgians is that, like everbody else in Russia, most of them break the law in one way or another. It seems that almost everything is slightly illegal there - not illegal enough that you expect to get arrested for it, but enough that the police can go after you if they want to. So for example, they can inspect Georgian restaurants and find they all fail to meet some health requirement. Or they can audit the taxes of prominent Georgians, and find that they're bending the rules. Because that's what everybody does.

It's just another spin on the old truth that the more laws you pass, the more corruption you get.

Anna Politkovskaia killed

Wha? Russian blogs and media are reporting that Anna Politkovskaia has just been killed. She is - was - one of the most impressive campaigning journalists around, with some very brave investigations into Chechnya and into Russia under Putin.

Ah, the joy of Babelfish. It has got over its old habit of turning Putin into Fishings, but has a great new trick of interpreting Первый канал (Channel One) as "Pervy Channel"

October 6, 2006

anti-racist livejournal

Russian livejournal-users are talking non-stop about the spat with Georgia mentioned below. Plushev has a heartwarming roundup of what people are saying.

Cook wants to make badges with the slogan "I am Georgian", and Antoshkin has a template for a banner saying "I love you, Georgia!".

A protest is being planned this Sunday in Pushkin square in central Moscow, "against the kindling of hostility againstGeorgia, and against discrimination against Georgian citizens and citizens of Georgian origin"

I'll try to translate more of this, because it is inspiring stuff. Unfortunately it'll have to wait until tomorrow :(.

Until then, thanks to Livejournal, and to the Russian LJ-users!

respect

From the comments of an Abu Aardvark post: "Subjectively speaking, I think we (the US) had a lot more respect for the Soviet Union than we do for Islamists and their allies"

This rings true. I can't work out what it proves, but I'd love to be able to. I would have expected al-Qaeda to get a lot of respect, through being caricatured as an comic-book evil genius. Instead, it seems the stereotype has stuck to evil, without any of the genius.

Why? Do the powers that be have less respect for non-state actors? Is it because nobody reads Arabic, so we can't understand their cunning plans? Have we got so hung up on the 'they hate us because we're free' angle that we're blind to the Cunning Plans they do have? Is it objectively true that the leaders of al-Qaeda are less cunning than the old men in the Kremlin?

And what are the consequences of this different stereotype on how the USA (and Britain, by extension) behave?

Also: yes, I know I'm posting a ridiculous amount today. I had one of those moments where I did a word count on my 'notes too shoddy to put anywhere', and decided that 400,000 words of notes kept to myself is utterly useless. I apologise to my lone reader for inflicting all this on you - I still have a vague hope that one day I'll find the right balance between hoarding information and inflicting all my crap on people.

Revolution-proof fence

Two scary things about the Saudi plan to building a 550-mile fence to shut out Iraq:

  1. It'll take 5-6 years for them to complete. They reckon things will be bad for a long time
  2. The cost is some £13bn. I know this is a country rolling in money, but still: that's an awful lot to pay just to keep Iraq's rebels from getting out.

Now, maybe I'm overreacting. Building protection along a border is normal, and normally expensive. It's only the Telegraph spin linking this so directly to Iraq. But still, it does suggest that the Saudis are working on an assumption that Iraq is going to end up in civil war within the next few years.

Did the postmen give up?

Looking through Brookings Iraq Index for something else entirely, I came across this baffling table. The amount of post sent each year in Iraq:

YearTons of mail
2001 148 tons sent (231 received)
2003 37 tons sent
2004 43 tons sent
2005 54 tons sent

Huh? Use of the postal system is a third of what it was under Saddam? Why on earth would that be the case?

Granted, dodgy statistics are the most likely culprit - the figures are sourced to an article in the New York Times, and its quite likely that the Baath figure is dodgy for some reason or other. Odder still: somehow the Times writer interprets the figures as "evidence of recovery".

Still, it'd be nice to think there's some mystery in those numbers, waiting to be uncovered.

Hungary: because I'm here, not because I know anything

Quick news from Hungary: the Prime Minister is keeping his job. There are protests going on outside Parliament at the moment: I'll waddle over in an hour or two, but judging by Sunday it's unlikely to amount to much.

The next date for things to happen is Revolution Day in a fortnight's time.

Lara Logan, journalist with a brain

Parties, and not the government, rule Iraq now

One line that tells you more than most articles, out of an excellent piece of journalism by Lara Logan. It's also a perfect example of how compelling human interest journalism can be, when it's done on the basis of a lot of facts, not just telling the story of the first native you meet.

Lara has framed what seem like two of the most important issues in Iraq. The first is the role of parties, mentioned above. The other is this picture of befuddled GIs surrounded by two conflicts they don't understand:

...American soldiers are bearing the burden of a failed strategy and being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, suddenly caught in the midst of two distinct wars: a counter-insurgency and a rapidly escalating sectarian conflict. And their partners in the counter-insurgency war are participating in the sectarian conflict they're being asked to stop.

I'd not heard of Lara Logan before, but from here on in I'm reading everything she writes.

Skippable rant: consequences of talking tough

Just as al-Qaeda (*) love prolonging the war in Iraq, so they must be overjoyed every time Blair or (usually) Bush go on some belligerent, over the top rant about Iraq. Then, it becomes so much easier for them to paint as evil megalomaniacs.

So, whenever Bush ramps up the rhetoric about Iraq, what he's doing is putting domestic party politics above the fight against al-Qaeda(*). In other words, helping his country's enemies to score a few political points.

Yes, this point has doubtless been made better elsewhere. But obviously it still hasn't got through.

  • no, I'm not happy boiling 'The Enemy' down to one sinister cartoon organization. Nor do I much like world politics being a 'fight' against anybody - but it'll do.

It is hard to resist the temptation to scream at the Iraqi government to get on with doing something. But Condeleezza Rice is going a bit far telling them: "They don’t have time for endless debate of these issues, They have really got to move forward.". In other words, stop worrying about all this democracy business.

Tbilisi-Moscow, yet again

Even the Guardian has devoted several articles to the spat between Russia and Georgia. Georgia arrests four 'Russian spies', Russia cuts off all links with Georgia. Georgian businesses in Moscow start getting raided (there's nothing Russian police enjoy more than going after anybody from the Caucasus). No word on what is happening to ethnic Russians in Georgia, who make up some 6% of the population.

All this sabre-rattling seems very good for helping Saakashvili and Putin get their parties re-elected, but not much use for anybody else. Grr!

October 4, 2006

A well-regulated militia?

[crossposted to IAG]

A while back the New York Times and the BBC cheerfully reported that 25 Sunni tribes in Anbar had decided to support the Iraqi government in attacking insurgents.

Am I too cynical in thinking that the crucial sentence is this one:

In addition to the government’s blessing, Mr. Rishawi said, the tribes also wanted weapons and equipment to confront the Qaeda-backed insurgents.

Asking for weapons from the government isn't a sign of loyalty - it's about getting yourself the equipment to defend yourself against anybody - government, American, jihadi, whatever - who attacks you.

Every Iraqi grouping with an ounce of sense wants to keep itself heavily armed at the moment - and if the kit comes with a vague government permission to use it, so much the better.This isn't any different from the militias that were incorporated into the various security forces, or the employment of tribes to guard oil pipelines.

Or am I being too cynical?

Al Qaeda: "prolonging the war is in our interest"

This post deserves propagation. Abu Aardvark points out the key sentence in the letter to Zarqawi from al-Qaeda's central command: "prolonging the war is in our interest". As he explains, this makes perfect sense: the jihadis are unpopular in Iraq, and they would have no chance at all were the country not under foreign occupation. But while we are in the country, they can use their fight against us to build international support. Yes, that's been obvious for a long time, but it's something else to have it confirmed from the horse's mouth. Full letter http://www.ctc.usma.edu/harmony/CTC-AtiyahLetter.pdf, others captured in the same batch here

October 3, 2006

I'm temporarily turning off comments on this blog, because of the ridiculous amount of comment spam I'm getting right now. No promises about when they'll come back; probably when I'm sorted out enough to put a bit more content around here.

Conference reloaded

How can you develop a service without sharing a language with your users?

Holed up in Budapest, my head too messed up to do any proper work (eep! the doom she is a-coming!), I've been listening to danah Boyd's keynote at the blogtalk conference that's just winding up in Vienna.

She touches on the fact that the creators of Orkut don't have the faintest idea what their Portugese or Hindi-speaking users are doing. I'd always vaguely assumed that there would be a fair few Portugese-speakers within the Orkut development team, for instance. But obviously not.

It'd be a nice little project for a journalist or an anthropologist, to work out how much the developers of these sites know about their users.

October 1, 2006

Congress, Iraq, sanity?

The US Congress has done something remarkably sensible, by tacking onto a defense spending bill a guarantee that they will not establish permanent bases in Iraq. As Reuters says,

"Democrats and many Republicans say the Iraqi insurgency has been fueled by perceptions the United States has ambitions for a permanent presence in the country."

Yep. A poll released a few days ago found that 77% of Iraqis believe that the US plans permanent bases in Iraq, down just 3% since January.

The problem is, not even most Americans are going to notice this little message in a corner of a bill, let alone Iraqis. US-funded propaganda outlets might publicise it if they're smart, but they don't have any credibility. And anyway, why should they believe what Congress demands, if Bush isn't willing to state it openly, and if there is always a way to work around it?