Thursday, 23 February 2012

Electioneering in Russia- Setting a President?

Putin supporters head to the rally. The authorities provided them with coaches and even city buses and closed roads for them.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's supporters are rallying at Luzhnetsky stadium in central Moscow. They want him to be president for a third term after Russia's upcoming presidential election. There are tens of thousands of them and at least in public they say they have not been forced or threatened to come. It is harder to know if they have been paid to turn out. When I went down to see the crowds there were certainly many of them. Buses had come from as far away as Stavropol in the south of Russia. The man himself is also making a rare public address to them and they seem well organised to receive him. Perhaps suspiciously too well organised. I was asked more than once where 'tribune D' was gathering for instance. There is no such military style marshalling at the opposition rallies which are far more spontaneous. It is also Russian man's day, a famous public holiday and celebration. Do all of these people really prefer attending a rally for a politician they all seem to think win will anyway rather than enjoying their public holiday?

Why bother enjoying a day off when you and your fellow factory workers can stand out in the snow?

However there are genuine displays of political passion and support for Putin amongst the crowds. Rally goers also make fair points when they say they say they are terrified of renewed chaos in Russia. The 1990's were a miserable and impoverished time for most Russians as oligarchs stole former state assets and swindled millions out of their money. Organised crime proliferated and Russia's financial collapse of 1998 ruined the lives of an entire generation. Putin helped control the situation, though he used autocratic methods to do it. Many Russians are understandably thankful he did bring stability back to Russia. Those that oppose him say he simply brought the corruption that flourished outside the state, inside it. Corruption is one of the single biggest issues facing Russia now and whoever becomes the next president will have to try and beat, or give up and join it.

Pro-Putin supporters also say they see no real alternative in the other candidates.

Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist party (they 're not real Communists anymore) is an old veteran of Russian politics. His party have remained the only consistent opposition in Russia (they kicked the ruling United Russia party out of St.Petersburg in December 2011 parliamentary elections) but he's never won the presidency despite many tries. The Communist support base is largely among older Russians and he isn't taken seriously by younger generations.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. He is known for his firebrand style, shouting and fighting in Russia's parliament, the Duma. His party has also come in for criticism for attracting too much support from Russian nationalists, some of them disturbingly hard line. However many agree that despite his rude and controversial comments he does really care about Russia and isn't too want to try and stage manage politics like Putin has done.

Sergei Mironov is the leader of the 'A Just Russia' party. He was the speaker of Russia's upper house, the Federation Council until May 2011 when Putin's United Russia Party forced him out. He had already set up A Just Russia back in 2006, most said with Putin's blessing as a false opposition. But after he lost his role as speaker of the Federation Council his tone changed and he became a lot more critical of Putin and the Kremlin. But he is still seen as a weak candidate without a major reform program or much support outside his small party.

The fourth, and for some the brightest hope, is Mikhail Prokhorov. He's one of those Oligarchs I mentioned earlier, but who knows how he may have come about his hideously huge wealth. This might not be a bad thing, say many Russians. He 's already got so much money why would he want to steal more from us, they reason. But he's a newcomer to Russian politics (at least publicly) and many say they don't expect him to be able to change anything. Some say that may help Prokhorov, not being tainted by former associations. But other Russians suspect him of being a put up candidate by the Kremlin, not an unreasonable suspicion in a country where no dirty political trick is ruled out.

Putin has his share of nationalists in tow as well.

Putin undoubtedly has the most resources on his side. The power of the state, the Russian media and vast networks of patronage spreading out to the regions through his party (Putin's not actually a member but it is a mere technicality), United Russia. Even opposition groups are admitting it's most likely Putin will win March the 4th's presidential election in the first round. Most Russians also think that he does probably really care about trying to create a better Russia. But that doesn't stop the genuine unease or even anger that Putin doesn't want to give up power after a decade at the reins. It seems even Putin was shocked by the mass protests that broke out in December at widespread and well documented allegations of electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections. These tens of thousands supporting him, whether they came of their own will or by bribes or threats, will bring Putin a welcome feeling that his position is buttressed, not just by the power of his old security service friends and the agents of the state, but also by real Russians.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A tale of two villages- the fate Russia's native peoples

Extracts from the remnants of the language of the Nanai people in Russia's far east.

I arrived at the village around mid morning. The snow was deep, the sun bright and the wind sharp. Inside the village hall a group of children and teachers had gathered and proceeded to serenade me with their traditional folk songs. These people are called the Nanai, or Nanaitsi as most Russians call them. They inhabit eastern Siberia, also called Russia's far east, and were here long before the Russians or the Chinese to the south sent their first expeditions here hundreds of years ago.

Decades of imperial rule by Russia and then the Soviet Union has seen their culture atrophy. Native peoples all over Russia have seen their traditions waste away. Cultural missions by the Russian and Soviet states to try and record and even help maintain these native ways simply weren't compatible with the simultaneous desire to spread Russian/Soviet culture and industrialise. The result is that, like the dances and songs presented to me it's very hard to tell what is genuine time honoured Nanai tradition and what is essentially a mock up, a caricature of a culture that never existed. The dances and music were nevertheless beautiful and some of the village teachers there, both Nanai and Russian, were keen to teach the children the orgins of the sounds that came from their instruments, which represented the qualities of forest animals.

Centuries ago when the Chinese stumbled upon the Nanai and similar tribes they called them the ‘fish-skin tartars’. Some of them still know how to make shoes and clothes from fish skin. One local, eighty year old Mikhail Bildey, who was busy cutting up some fish in his house, waxed lyrical about the usefulness of fish. "Clothes made from fish skin," he said, "protect against the wind and keep out water. Fish make up a large part of our diet and are wonderful at treating ailments like stomach trouble as well." The village was by no means rich but seemed well enough kept. The school children were polite, motivated and lively.

Mikhail Bildey chopping up some fish for supper.

There was a tacit acceptance that, except mostly for posterity and to keep in touch with their roots, the Nanai culture was largely gone. One example was sixteen year old Nadia Pasara. She performed a dance of the drums with her friends, spiralling and circling with them round the village hall as they beat their loud, tambourine type instruments. She explained afterwards how she enjoyed coming to the centre to learn about her Nanai heritage and perform. But that was enough for her. "My parents don't observe any Nanai rituals at home although they're happy for me to come and dance here." At home though, Nadia is a modern Russian. She watches TV and listens to music, currently it's Korean hip hop.

Nadia and her fellow villagers represent a relatively smooth path that some native communities have taken into modern times. We might lament their loss of independence as a people, but they have done far better than some others in Russia’s Far East.   

The village of Datta is huddled up near the snowy coast of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Khabarovsk itself is over a day away to the west by train. The nearest settlement is the burgeoning port of Vanino twenty minutes drive away down the coast. Stray dogs pad the snowy streets past tumbled down houses. As I walk down a street, I'm struck by the contrast with Nanai villages. They were basic, yes, but whereas their garden fences are simple wooden ones, at least they stand upright. Here they lay about at various angles of collapse. Windows were smashed. Many houses were deserted. The largest building in Datta, a two story concrete construction supposed to have become a school and cultural centre had clearly stood for a long time as an unfinished shell.

A typical sight in Datta. A tumbled down house littered with rubbish.

The people who live in Datta seem afflicted by the same malaise as the houses. It's one of the last villages left of the 'Orich' people. They were pre-Russian hunters and fishermen as well. But decades of Soviet influence has all but destroyed them as a people. There are now just a few hundreds Oriches left. There used to be upwards of ten fishing boats operating out of this village. Now they lay rusting on the shore. Alcoholism here is rife, as is unemployment.

Datta's fishing fleet, once subsidised by the Soviet state, now lays in ruins.
Oxana Punadinka lives with her unemployed husband and her two children near the shore. She complained that her house was falling apart. It was hard to know how much her and her family had done to keep the place repaired but inside huge cracks were running across the walls and ceiling, the central stove had packed up and the windows were at lopsided angles. She said she wanted repairs to the house to be made by the local government, free schooling and food deliveries. When I asked why her husband hadn't found work she said there was none. When it was suggested that the nearby town wasn't so far away she said the bus fare to Vanino was too expensive and shrugged in resignation.

Oxana Punadinka's kitchen. She seemed a kind and loving mother but when she showed us her pantry there seemed hardly enough food to last the month let alone the winter.
Next I found Olga Kostaseva, who was walking around the ruined boats near the grey waters which were close to icing over. She was a security guard here she said. Like Oxana she is an Orich. She laments the state of her village. "Most of the children drop out of school very quickly," she explained, "there's nothing to do here so they just hang around and get into bad habits. Smoking, drinking. Some kids start smoking here at age 6."

Olga Kostaseva. She guards the village's boats, but I couldn't help thinking there might be more pressing uses for her time.
Others told similar stoires. No employment, no education, just a bit of recreational angling, alcoholism and a culture of dependence on the state. So who's fault is all it this?  Lyubov Varshavskaya is a local ethnologist who has studied and tried to preserve the Orich language and has been to Datta many times. She thinks it all started with the well intentioned efforts of the state. "We provided them so much because we wanted to integrate them into soviet society, but instead we made them dependent." Many Orich children were sent away to special schools in Soviet times. People here say that was where they initially had everything handed to them on a plate, including their first taste for alcohol. But, Lyubov goes on, "nowadays the state simply doesn't have the money to support these communities like that. They've tried to educate these people and get them into work. They need to help themselves but the're not willing to do it."

The view of Lyudmila Bisyanka, the oldest member of the village, is even more bleak. Her grandfather was the last Grand Shaman here. She tells of how he was hugely respected, set Orich codes of conduct and mediated in disputes. But there has been no figure here like him since he died decades ago. Although Lyudmila lives in a clean, well kept house very different from the others, she ends by saying of her fellow Oriches, "they've given up. They don't want to live a decent life any more."

Lyudmila Bisyanka. She seemed stoical about it all, resigned to her village's decline.
One comment really brought home to me the tragic irony of the situation. This once proud fishing village which had lived off the fruits of the sea since time immemorial, and which Soviet and Russian authorities hoped could take fishing here on into the industrial age, now has 50 kilograms of fish delivered to it every day by the local government, an exasperated official told me. Most think the time to preserve the Orich as an independent people has long passed. Now it seems the very time for this village to find a path like the Nanai and escape this cycle of destruction is itself running out.


Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Croatia and the EU- We don't know what we don't want

There were about a hundred people gathered in Zagreb’s central square, placards waving, slogans being chanted. Suddenly the crowd started surging around a point of commotion, baying with indignation. As I rushed forward with the other journalists I saw around a dozen police officers in riot gear hauling a struggling man into the back of police van.

These were Croatian nationalists intent on stopping their country joining the EU. The next day, the 22nd of January 2012, a referendum was due to be held to vote on accession to the 27 member bloc in July 2013. These people screamed into the cameras and at the police that this was giving away Croatian sovereignty to Brussels, and shame on Croatia’s leaders for doing so. The police remained steely faced and carted away about a dozen of the most intransigent demonstrators.

Before the referendum there was a marked divide between Croatia’s political class, who were almost unanimously in favour of EU accession, and the populace where opinion polls done only a week before had put the split as low as 50:50. People, I was told, were under-informed, misinformed and frightened. Fishermen on Croatia’s Adriatic coast thought, not without justification, that fleets of Italian trawlers would come and hoover up all their fish while their small family boats would be relegated under EU rules to mere pleasure craft for personal use. Farmers along the same coast, this time without justification, thought they would have to tear up their olive groves if Croatia joined. People said that the southern tourist towns would be bought up by foreigners and that Croatia would be made to bail out the likes of Greece, ruining its industry.

But once you talked to pro-EU Croatians, who were not in short supply, you heard a different story. “The economy is f****d,” one taxi driver put it bluntly, “destroy our industry? We have no industry left! We already sold it all. Our coast owned by foreigners? It’s already owned by rich Russians!” He has a point. Croatia’s credit rating is hovering just above junk status. It desperately needs investment.

“Without the confidence to investors of joining,” says Croatia’s cosmopolitan Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic, “our budget is in serious trouble.” She’s out on the streets trying to explain to people the benefits of joining. Croatians aren’t used to seeing their politicians out on the street. As one local puts it, “we’re used to having our leaders up there on the hill (the parliament is perched above the rest of Zagreb) for us to either adore or hate. We’ve not actually had to meet them.”

Both the pro and anti EU Croatian public share a general distrust of politicians. Perhaps it’s healthy. Both Vesna Pusic and her opponent, nationalist party leader Ruzhia Tomasic share their own general feeling too. They both say the debate has been held in an atmosphere of general ignorance. Both though seem resigned to the vote taking place now. In fact the more I thought about it, the strident pro and anti EU voices were perhaps even a distraction. The vast majority of people seemed to have better things to do.

In the end 66% of the Croatians who voted chose join the EU, 33% were against. The turnout was just 43%. After all the hubbub the nationalists didn’t even show up on the square on the day of the vote. Neither did the pro-camp celebrate. You would hardly have noticed it.  

On the way out of the hotel I thanked the receptionist with an unconventional, “welcome.”
“Welcome?” she cocked her head.
“Welcome to the EU.”
“Oh that! Thankyou,” she replied, then pausing for thought, “I didn’t much bother with it. Well at least it’ll be easier for you to come back.”

It was pretty easy to get into Croatia anyway, but I’m sure the nationalists and europhiles who care so much, and the rest who don’t, will still be there when I do return.