Archives for May 2011

How NOT To Be A Whistleblower In Russia: The Case Of Yevgeny Starshov

In 2009, the UK was rocked by lurid revelations about MP’s expenses: home renovations, expensive meals and holidays, and even apartments fraudulently claimed by Parliamentary deputies. Apologies, recriminations, resignations, and even prosecutions followed in the wake of the documented evidence published by The Daily Telegraph. In the past two weeks, an intern at the State Duma incited something similar in Russia, but only superficially so – thanks in large part to his own naivety and incompetence. This is his story.

Evgeny Starshov is a student at a Moscow business school. He is also a fan of Navalny, the “blue bucket” movement against migalki (the sirens on bureaucrats’ cars giving them right of way that many consider a blatant display of unearned privilege) and a blogging, Twittering member of the liberal opposition. An outspoken one, too. @YeenZo123 describes himself as an “extremist with a blue bucket,” while his LJ blog is modestly titled Journal of a Democratic Extremist (complete with rock guitar-strumming priest).

His outspokenness has now gotten him into hot water. As an intern at the State Duma, he was actively Tweeting about the laziness, sleaziness, and pofigism that characterizes life at that hallowed institution. He did this under his own name. A week into the job, he published a blog post on his experiences that spread like wildfire and was eventually reprinted at bastions of the liberal media such as Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow. His internship came to an abrupt. So what exactly were his scandalous revelations?

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In Which La Russophobe Interviews The Russophile Sociopath Blogging At Sublime Oblivion

Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from Kim Zigfeld, she of the infamous La Russophobe, asking me if I was interested in an interview with her. It didn’t take long for me to come to the wrong decision!

And so commenced our interview. It was a long grind. After ceaseless goings back and forth, arguments about what is really going on in that land of Russia, some 12,000 words of it, we finally entered wacko paradise – INTERVIEW: Anatoly Karlin. Here are a few lines from the freak show stage to whet your appetites!

  • Suppose Shamil Basayev had been found in a lovely home just outside Tbilisi and after Russians assassinated him the Georgian president was invited to Washington and warmly embraced by Obama, how would Russians have reacted?
  • So the USA should forget that Russia is trying to destroy it because China is trying even harder?
  • Frankly, we find your intellectual dishonesty really repugnant, and characteristic of the failed Soviet state. The rulers of the USSR always spoke to the outside world as if they were speaking to clueless idiots. But it was the USSR that collapsed into ruin, wasn’t it?
  • We don’t believe any thinking person can argue that any other Russia blog that has ever existed has come close to being as inspirational to the blogosphere as La Russophobe… Yet many of your Russophile brethren insist on pretending to dismiss us. Why are they so unwilling to admit how good we are? Why don’t they realize how foolish they look? Is it some sort of psychological complex on their part, or is it a crazily ineffective propaganda scheme?

Indeed. Anyhow, apart from her flattering review of my work and the conspiratorial theorizing, the interview mostly focuses on the bread and butter politics that many of us Russia watchers love to talk about. Enjoy the ride! (I did!!!)

Because some of you guys don’t want to grace La Russophobe with a visit, or are banned from it, I’m reprinting the interview below and opening it to comments.

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Corruption Realities Index 2010

The most famous corruption indicator is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Its only problem is that the perceptions of their self-appointed experts have nothing to do with reality!

As I explained in previous posts on this blog, it suffers from numerous flaws. Part of it has to do with its questionable methodology: using changing mixes of different surveys to gauge a fluid, opaque-by-definition social phenomenon. Another is its reliance on its appeal to authority, the theory being that “experts” in business and think-tanks know more about corruption relative to anyone else. Countries with more regulations are systematically prejudged, as are those facing hostile media environments such as Russia or Venezuela. Above all, the CPI doesn’t pass the face validity test – in other words, many of its results are frankly ludicrous. Is it truly plausible that Russia (2.1) is as corrupt as failed states like Zimbabwe (2.4) or D.R. Congo (2.0), or that Italy (3.9) is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia (4.7) which is a feudalistic monarchy!?

This suggests that we urgently need another, more objective index. Thus I present the Corruption Realities Index (CRI)!

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Interview with Craig Willy (Letters from Europe)

After a year long hiatus from interviewing Russia watchers, I decided it was time to get back in the game. As it happens, my attention first fell on a Europe blogger – and not just any incisive, counter-intuitive scribbler whose intellect and analytical acumen is matched only by the number of themes he is prepared to expound upon, but also someone who has experience in politics (work in both the US Congress and the European Parliament), journalism (with the EU policy news site EurActiv), ideological adventurer (started off very neocon, but Iraq War and education fixed that), and a fellow rootless cosmopolitan (having been raised in France and briefly in the US, and studied at the London School of Economics). I am talking of none other than Craig Willy, who writes the irreverent (and informed) Letters from Europe.

Craig Willy: In His Own Words…

What first sparked your interest in blogging and Europe, and how did the twain meet?

I’ve been in love with history, politics, thought and argument since I was maybe 14. I remember very clearly telling a friend at the time that I wanted to “be paid to say my opinion”… Perhaps not the easiest career path and not one I persistently pursued!

Blogs don’t provide money, usually, but they are an absolute liberation for the aspiring writer: costs are zero, middlemen are eliminated, and you can reach every person on the planet who has Internet. How could I not blog? I started my first blog in 2004 and I don’t think I’ve changed the mix of more analytical pieces with humor, including on Euro-nonsense.

I have always been interested in Europe as I was born and raised here (specifically in France and the UK). I have been interested in the EU insofar as it seemed to represent Europeans reclaiming their power in the world and historical agency. It usually fails in this respect and hence I used to find the United States of America – its historical role, politics and foreign policy organizations – much more interesting. I now think all areas of the world are worthy of study. The US is probably over-written about and, being based in Brussels and involved in EU journalism, I can genuinely add value writing about European affairs. If I wrote about the US I would be just another opinion. I also think Europe needs more pan-European writers: it is a very real entity but it has no public space.

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Decade Forecast: The Downsizing Of Pax Americana

This is the first post in a series of three, in which I will analyze the major trends that will define the next ten years and their likely impacts on global regions. To put these forecasts into context, I must first describe the narrative through which I view the history of the post-WW2 era (the Oil Age, the Age of Hubris, or as John M. Greer aptly described it, the “age of abundance industrialism” – now on the verge of meeting its Nemesis, the waning of Pax Americana and the demise of global Western hegemony), which is dominated by the concept of “limits to growth” – the 1972 Club of Rome thesis that finite resources and pollution sinks will ensure that business-as-usual economic growth can never continue indefinitely on planet Earth.

A Short History of Abundance Industrialism

Driven by an electro-mechanical revolution powered by a windfall of cheap oil, the world registered its highest GDP growth rates in the 1950-1973 period. The era was defined by self-confidence and a secular “myth of progress”, which reached its apogee with the 1969 moon landings. But the next decade saw the arrival of major discontinuities. American oil production peaked in 1970, and went into decline. Saudi Arabia settled into its role as the world swing producer, enabling it to inflict a severe “oil shock” on Western economies in 1973 to punish them for their support for Israel, to be followed by another in 1979 coinciding with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The decade also saw milestones such as the publication of Limits to Growth, the ending of hyperbolic growth of the world system, and a new emphasis on conservation and sustainability (which led to significant improvements in fuel efficiency and pollution control – back then, the fruits were all low-hanging, so impressive results were not hard to achieve). Yet the first tentative steps towards sustainability were not to be followed through, as the newly-elected Reagan took office proclaiming “Morning in America!”, with its implicit promise of a return to a past with no future. It was a false dawn.

Thus began the “age of diminished expectations”. In the US, physical production by volume and real working class wages stalled in the 1970’s, and have since been on a plateau (slightly tilted up according to official statistics, slightly tilted down according to unofficial ones). The age of Mammon saw rising inequality, both within and between nations (the sole major exception being China whose ascent to world power began in the late 1970’s). As the American industrial base entered its long atrophy, its economy shifted towards construction, services, and finance, – symbolized by metastasizing suburbia – and made possible by new drilling by the oil majors in remoter areas like Alaska, the Mexican Gulf, and the North Sea, a political-security rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the IT revolution, and the rise of multinational corporations exploiting globalizing markets and cybernetic technology in a flattening world. Sustainability went out the window; quite literally, as Carter’s solar panels were removed from the White House roof in 1986. Finally, the US harnessed its new role as the focal point of the emerging global neoliberal system to open up their economies to the world, unleashing China’s “surplus armies of labor” and the former USSR’s energy resources in the service of Pax Americana.

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A Gambler’s Odyssey: The Beginning

Many people dream of breaking free of the 9-5 rat race, e.g. by acquiring an income stream – or a “muse,” as Tim Ferriss calls it – that is independent of bosses, location, and schedules. For most it remains just a dream. But for some it comes from creating an Internet business, a profitable patent, or a good play on the financial markets. A few realize it through professional gambling.

Of course, to do this sustainably you need to maintain a positive rate of expected winnings, which is impossible with most casino games. For instance, even under optimal play, the house will always a retain a wafer-thin advantage in blackjack (unless you count cards, but casinos have caught on to that nowadays). The biggest exception is poker. Though luck is very significant for the first few hundreds of hands, the effects of skill begin to predominate after c.15,000 hands in Texas Holdem No-Limit.

My experience of poker, until recently, came from the odd home game and the one or two times I bought in at a casino table. I was pretty crap at it. I limped in with hands like K7 offsuit and went all-in chasing straight draws. But a few months ago, one of my net buddies pointed me to a thread in a forum he used to frequent, in which a Las Vegas hustler recounts how he started playing online poker and ended up making $100/hour by the end of the month. Then soon after I came across Tim Ferriss’ concept of the 4 hour workweek, and exploiting geoarbitrage – the art of earning money in high-income countries and spending it in cheap, low-income ones where one can live like a king on a US minimum wage. I added two and two, realizing that online poker has potential for a great synthesis of these principles; if you earn $200 in a day playing online poker, then you could spend the rest of the week lolling on the Thai beach in style and comfort. All you need are skills and a reliable Internet connection. I had all the Internet I wanted, but acquiring the poker skills was going to take a lot more work.

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Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System?

One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

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Top 10 Most Useful Languages

Knowing a second language is a highly desirable trait in today’s world, especially if your work or hobbies have an international focus. But for most people, learning languages is an arduous undertaking, constituting a big investment of intellectual resources. The best advice is to learn something you enjoy or gives you meaning, as by far the biggest challenge in learning any language is maintaining the motivation to keep studying and improving month after month. But if you’re one of those who have difficulties choosing, perhaps this list will help. I rank the languages based on their global importance (demography; economic & political influence), ease of learning, and personal usefulness (e.g. good tourist destinations; are in demand).

1. English is first, without competition. It is the world’s lingua franca, with people from different non-Anglophone countries frequently using it to communicate among themselves. About a third of the world’s population understands it to some extent. Almost all international business, academic, and diplomatic discourse is held in the language of Shakespeare. In many European countries, it is now hard to hold down high-paying professional jobs without some command of this language. Fortunately, English is relatively easy to learn.

2. Español is arguably the second most desirable language, at least for Americans. It will facilitate communications with Spanish-speaking citizens (especially in the south), as well as enrich travels in Latin America or Spain. It is a UN language. But best of all, the language of Cervantes, Borges, and 700 million other people is by far the easiest to learn on this list.

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