MOSCOW, July 30, 2006 -- While many European and American cities stifle in scorching heat made worse by electricity outages, Moscow has been experiencing unseasonably cool weather over the past couple of weeks. So cool that Muscovites are wearing sweaters and coats and uttering the word “cold” in the third week of July!
It’s dipped down into the 40s (F) with a rather strong, chilling wind.
It hasn’t been too cold to ride my bicycle yet, but the wind did take my Seattle Mariners baseball cap off my head once.
The evidence is becoming undeniable – except to the Bush Administration -- that climate change is underway, and that burning hydrocarbons in the form of gasoline, coal, and natural gas is a major cause. But there are still a few shills making big bucks by saying what Bush and his big industry supporters – including the power companies -- want to hear: There’s no proof!
In the meantime, we are being warned by the world’s most reputable scientists that unless we make serious efforts to change our energy mix within the next 15 years, the planet is doomed. Still, nothing happens.
People are dying of heat in America without their air conditioning, which also won’t be around too much longer because oil has peaked and the entire electric power scene is changing.
The crisis obviously hasn’t hit Moscow yet; and when it does, it probably won’t be reported, just as the threat of peak oil wasn’t reported in America until people began wondering why they couldn’t afford to fill up their SUVs any longer. Even now, some publications – including the English language Moscow Times, owned by the publishers (Independent Media) of Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Men’s Health, Smart Money, and Esquire, among others – refuses to print the “P” word.
So you really can’t expect more from Russian publications, especially when it’s not an issue here, given Russia’s rosy oil outlook – although one world oil expert has warned that Russia’s oil actually peaked two years ago, and Russia, too, is headed for trouble.
But America, which peaked in 1971 and already imports most of its oil, has a 30-year head start on the double whammy of diminishing oil and catastrophic climate change.
Even so, America’s energy and climate problems are just beginning, though Bush and the neocons still think they can stave them off by stealing oil from the Middle East, with the disastrous results we are already seeing.
I think I’ll stay in Moscow.
My new 6-speed K2 American bicycle is not only utilitarian and fun, but it’s also a partial solution to the post-peak-oil transportation problem and to the environmental and global warming crisis, because it doesn’t involve the burning of hydrocarbon fuels.
At least that’s what most of us have assumed. But now comes University of Pennsylvania professor Karl Ulrich, who says – tongue in cheek, I presume -- that bicycles won’t really do that much for the environment because people who bicycle are healthier and live longer, thereby creating greater problems for the environment in the long run.
But somehow, I think that’s not likely to discourage most of us bicycle fans.
Besides, in Moscow, the threat of increased longevity is more than offset by the higher probability that you’ll be blasted to kingdom come by a rocketing Mercedes.
So far I’ve been lucky. Even when I had to retrieve my baseball cap from the street, the cars kindly went around me instead of over me.
Russia has been ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to pay the mother of a “disappeared” Chechen boy $ 40,000 in a landmark case that may, just may, force the renegade Russian government to acknowledge its role in the killing and disappearance of 3,000-5,000 Chechens since the beginning of the Second Chechen War in 1999.
But don’t count on it.
The evidence in the case, widely reported in the Western press (even I saw it on CNN Thursday night) was pretty cut and dried. A Russian CNN TV reporter filmed Russian Colonel-General Alexander Baranov ordering soldiers to “finish off,” “shoot,” “rub out” Chadzhi-Murat Yandiyev, a university student, after he argued with the general about showing his documents.
His mother filed the case with the European Court in 2001 after she saw the TV footage.
Russia was ruled guilty of “violating the right to life” of the young man and of “failing to conduct an investigation” into his disappearance. Civil rights activists say the verdict could encourage many more Chechens to file such cases relating to the disappearance of their sons and family. There are already more than 100 pending before the court.
The Russian attitude is reflected in Baranov’s career path since then. Not only has he not been reprimanded, he has been continuously promoted -- to full general -- and now heads the entire North Caucuses Military District.
Not too different from the American generals in Iraq: “We don’t do head counts.”
Pity the European Court of Human Rights doesn’t have jurisdiction over North America and Asia. Maybe they could try forcing America to compensate Iraqi families for all the civilians they’ve slaughtered in Iraq; or the Israelis for all the civilian Palestinians and Lebanese they’ve killed and injured.
Chechens are to Russia, after all, no more and no less than what Iraqis are to America or Palestinians and Lebanese to Israel: street dogs whose lives aren’t worth wasting time thinking about, much less preserving, and certainly not worth paying for.
But Russia is taking steps – not to atone for its sins, but to keep them from getting such wide attention.
Filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights is an arduous, time-consuming bureaucratic process beyond the abilities of most uneducated, povertied, and demoralized Chechen families to cope with.
Grieving relatives need help – in finding the forms, getting them, filling them out, sending them, gathering evidence, etc. There are several human rights organizations, or NGOs, who have been providing that kind of help.
One of the most diligent, conscientious, and effective of these has been the Center for Assistance in International Defense, headed by Karina Moskalenko, one of the Moscow team of lawyers for Michail Khodorkovsky.
Last week the tax police presented the Center with a bill for $ 167,000 for taxes they say were not paid on grants it received from 2002 to 2004.
Deputy Director Valentin Moiseyev told the Moscow Times he hoped the tax bill was a mistake. The center can’t afford to pay the bill and if the tax police don’t back down, the center will have to close.
But deep down, he knows, as does everybody else, that it is no mistake. Putin doesn’t like being embarrassed by the European Court of Human Rights, and this is an effective way to help put a stop to it.
“Our organization and the lawyers who work with us already have more than 250 cases in the European Court,” Moiseyev said. “Rulings have already been handed down in favor of many of our clients. The authorities can’t possibly look favorably on these sorts of claims against the state.”
The executive director of another human rights NGO, Memorial, told the MT that accusing NGOs of violation of rules that are not applicable to their work is a common ploy of the tax service. She added that many small NGOs in the Russian regions are already planning to shut down after the tax service inundated them with bureaucratic paper work under the new anti-NGO law.
Naif that I am, my education about “les scandales Russes” never ceases – and never ceases to amaze me.
I found out this week something new about how laws are made and about the specifics of how duma deputies, Russia’s lawmakers, get so rich.
My student Masha is an insurance lawyer. Early in 2005 a new automobile damages and liability insurance law came into effect. Progress, I thought. It’s about time Russian drivers were made to be as responsible as American drivers.
But now I find that personal responsibility had nothing to do with it. The insurance industry saw a chance to make enormous bucksi under the cloak of social development and pushed the law through the legislature, the duma.
“Pushing the law through the legislature” is nothing unusual. How else does a law get passed. But in Russia it takes a different twist.
First, the insurance industry divvied themselves up and apportioned financial responsibility – i.e., donations -- to companies according to their size. Then they hired some lawyers to write the law. Duma staffs don’t write the laws. The lobby group that wants the law passed does that. Duma staffs are woefully underpaid or even volunteers, and you get what you pay for. So they don’t write laws; they do the grunt work, the gofer work.
Masha figures the industry probably paid whoever wrote the bill about 100 grand. Can’t quibble too much about that.
But then the Russian system kicks in. The 100 grand they paid the lawyers to write the bill represented probably about 20% of what it cost them to get the bill passed. The other 400 grand went to the Duma deputy, or legislator, as a bribe for introducing the bill.
True, he may have had to spread the largesse a bit to get support from some of his pals, but probably not much. Just a promise to support their bills when it comes their turn.
Back of the envelope calculations, Masha said, suggest that the insurance industry has probably raked in about $ 100 billion so far off the bill, so a few hundred thou to a friendly congressman isn’t even worth hiding under the table.
And the motorist’s protection isn’t that much. For $ 250 a year, you’re only covered for $ 4,000 in damages!
Now the insurance industry has caught a glimpse of another way to make a killing. It calls for a new law.
Masha told me its purpose, but made me promise not to tell. In any case, it’s going to cost the average Russian a lot of bucksi. This time, Masha is probably going to write the law. It’s too early to speculate which Duma deputy will be bribed to introduce it. She doesn’t even know who did the honors on the last one.
Why am I so shocked?
It isn’t that the same thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. or any other “democracy,” it’s just that it’s so unsophisticated here. They don’t bother to channel it through reelection committees or other fronts.
There’s no finesse, no savoir faire. No PR campaign pretending to get public support. No pretense of concern for the consumer at ballyhooed committee meetings. They simply hand it to the dude in a plain brown envelope – like in an old James Cagney movie, or like Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon’s Veep Spiro Agnew in 1973.
Then three readings of the law and a final vote. Bingo.
Everybody knows the routine, and it’s simply another accepted corruption ritual. Not even a tsk-tsk, much less a criminal investigation.
In any case, it just proves that if you want something done right, bribe them to do it yourself.
Had a little scare about a place to sleep in Tivat. Adrian (Chapt. 110) sent me an e-mail on Monday apologizing for having to cancel the room he had promised me, but he didn’t know his mother had already rented it!
What am I going to do? Sleep in the streets for two nights waiting to meet Marco and the guys in Dubrovnik? Or maybe the bus station?
There’s nothing like sheer panic to clear your mind.
I re-wrote all the hotels and private accommodations in Tivat. I also replied to Adrian: “Can you help me? I will pay 40 euro a night for a place to sleep Aug. 12 and 13. Do you have an extra sofa, or perhaps one of your friends has an extra sofa in his/her home. I am meeting American friends in Dubrovnik August 14, but arriving in Tivat August 12. I need a place to stay for those two nights. Can you help me find a place?”
“Ok I can help you,” he replied immediately. “When you arrive here in Tivat call me +381 67 851 474, or say to a taxi driver address 85332 Donja Lastva, NikolicTonka or Adrian.”
A few minutes later I also received an offer from a woman named Olja offering an apartment for only 30 euro a night. But I already have, after all, an Adrian fantasy working, so I turned down the apartment in favor of an unknown sofa for 40.
Speaking of Montenegro and Croatia, Slava sent me an e-mail about Slovakia. Well, aren’t Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Slovakia, sort of basically all the same?
I suppose not if you live there, but for most of us Westerners – and apparently to some Russians as well – it’s just one big bowl of alphabet soup.
Actually, while Slovenia abuts Croatia and used to be part of Yugoslavia, Slovakia is the other half of what used to be Czecho-. Anyway, Slava suggested that life in Slovakia “drastically differs from the one we lead here in Russia. For instance, to rent an apartment might cost you only $ 200, and food is extremely cheap. Moreover, the quality of living is much better than in Russia, except there are certain national and cultural peculiarities.
“I don't know what kind of gay community they have.”
He said he happens to know something about life in Slovakia “because my ex-school mate lives there. She married a Slovak guy and moved…to Koshice.
”So, I thought that if life here becomes intolerable, you could think about living in Slovakia or somewhere. They respect English-speaking people and need teachers.”
Slava, I really appreciate that. If I keep writing increasingly acerbic columns about life in Russia and they keep writing increasingly restrictive laws prohibiting it, sooner or later the lines are going to cross, and someplace like Slovakia might look really good.
But life without smothering bureaucracies, illogical government, and venal corruption would not be nearly so fascinating.
And Darling, what would the Red Queen do in her spare time?
UK Gay Times reporter Debbie Stowe contacted me, along with a number of other gays in Russia, for comment and observations back around the time of the aborted Moscow Gay Pride Parade (Chapt. 202). Her article on the parade and the status of gays in Russia appears in the July issue.
It’s a good summary. I especially liked it because she quoted Yours Truly and the Red Queen several times. As Dan Schramm said when I mentioned him several months ago, “It’s always nice to see your name in print,” even if – in my case – it’s not your own.
But then vanity is a luxury that we who hide behind pseudonyms cannot afford.
If Sir Francis Bacon really wrote Shakespeare -- and it’s quite possible he did; he was queer, you know -- can you imagine how he must feel?
Not a single college course or summer festival named after him?
Anyway, Debbie’s a good writer. If you’re living in the UK or have access to Gay Times, I recommend reading the July issue for another perspective on gay life in Russia.
The pettiness and vindictiveness of Russian bureaucrats has never been in doubt, but we were reminded anew by gay columnist Marsha Gessen in the Moscow Times this past week.
Gennady Onishchenko, the chief health inspector in Russia, is the muddle-headed bungler whom we have to thank for so adroitly eliminating imported wine and spirits from Russia’s grocery shelves (Chapt. 207).
Before botching the re-labeling project, he – on Kremlin orders, of course – is also the guy responsible for banning Georgian and Moldovan wine for alleged health violations, a specious camouflage for getting revenge on the two countries for thumbing their noses at Mother Russia and deserting to the Western camp.
However, the Russian importers of these wines have filed a suit against the ban, and the case is now being heard in the Moscow Regional Arbitration Court.
And quite by coincidence, the cafeteria at the Moscow Regional Arbitration Court has been closed by the safety-conscious Mr. Onishchenko for the dire health threat it posed to the hapless judges hearing cases in the court.
In fact, he declared, it was “pure luck” that none of them had yet come down with food poisoning, so complete was the disregard the cafeteria had shown for the most basic of health standards.
He took the court’s management to task for not “taking measures to normalize” the feeding of judges, and for refusing to permit Onishchenko’s public-spirited sleuths to inspect labor conditions at the court.
Gessen surmises that he will not be able to put the arbitration court out of business as easily as he did the wine importers, “but his agency may be able to declare the entire court building a health hazard, forcing it to suspend operations until the Health Code violations have been addressed.
“If you were a judge,” she continued, “you might think twice about offending a man who had just shut down your cafeteria and was threatening you with indefinite leave….”
Such is the vast, smothering web of the Russian bureaucracy.
It turns out that this is not Gessen’s first brush with said health department. Six years ago she was working for the magazine Itogi when it became one of the first victims of Putin’s vendetta against the mass media.
“The tax people came first,” she recalled, “and had to admit that the magazine’s payroll and other financial records were in good order. Then the fire inspectors came, and the magazine banned smoking on the premises, posted inane evacuation instructions on every wall, and appointed the managing editor emergency fire chief.
“Finally, the health inspectors came and claimed that one of the typefaces used in the magazine lacked a requisite sanitation certificate and might therefore be harmful to readers’ eyes.
“I think that’s when we knew we had lost.”
Hugo Chavez was reunited with his old pal Vladimir in Russia last week and they shared diatribes against their common enemy, the Bushwhacker, and struck a deal over fighter jets, helicopters, and Kalashnikov rifles.
Ya gotta like Hugo. He survived an attempted U.S.-backed coup against him in 2002, brought the oil giants to heel in Venezuela, embarrassed Bush with offers of cut-rate oil to the American poor, and generally calls ’em as he sees ’em.
And now Bush is out to change the regime for him and his fellow anti-Gringo reformer, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
He has denounced the U.S. as an "obscene, immoral and genocidal empire." And during his Russian visit, he ratcheted that up to “a mindless, blind, and stupid giant that does not understand the world, does not understand human rights, does not understand anything in humanism, culture, and consciousness.”
Many observers suspect that Hugo is saying what Vlad would like to say, but can’t because of the niceties of international diplomacy.
But am I letting my loathing for Dubya cloud my objective reasoning? There are many in his own country who are calling Chavez a tinhorn dictator; and the lavish praise he heaped on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko for creating “a model of the socialist society that we have only begun to create at home” went a little beyond the pale -- Belarus, even more repressive than Russia, a “model of socialist society?”
That’s like U.S. Creep – er, Veep -- Cheney praising Nursultan Nazarbayev, the barbarian dictator of Kazakhstan, a few months ago for his Democratic leadership.
Now Chavez is championing a law in Venezuela not unlike the anti-NGO law in Russia, aimed at preventing the U.S. from channeling money into Venezuelan NGOs which could help fund the overthrow of his government.
Given Chavez’ past experience with CIA-funded coups against him, it’s probably a justified concern, agree Larry Birns, director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, and Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies program at Johns Hopkins University.
But couldn’t the same thing be said of Putin, who watched U.S. funding for NGOs in Georgia and Ukraine help overthrow those governments in the “color revolutions” there? Isn’t Putin, too, simply trying to protect his own country from U.S. interference?
So why do I admire Hugo for being a gutsy reformer but condemn Vlad for being a ruthless dictator?
Is there a difference in kind here? Or only degree?
In self defense, I really think it’s a difference in kind. The Russian repression of NGOs is not only intended to curb funding of anti-Kremlin political cells, but is also aimed at stifling critics of inhuman Kremlin policy such as army hazing, the prison system, etc. I have the impression that Chavez, on the other hand, is honestly attempting to enhance and strengthen those basic human rights.
But might I just be turning a blind eye, or applying different yardsticks?
What do you expect from a guy who turns down a nicely furnished 30-Euro-a-night apartment in Tivat from Olja in favor of a 40-euro-a-night sofa and a fantasy from Adrian?
Surely, not logic!