Crimea for Dummies: entertaining travelogue, history lesson and Western media propaganda critique rolled into one

Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” (RT Documentary, 2014)

A unique and interesting film by Los Angeles film school graduate Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” is at once a personal film travelogue, history lesson and critique of the Western news media portrayal of recent events in Crimea. MFS sets out to discover how much the global view reflects the actual situation in the peninsula. The Western opinion is that Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula after the Crimean parliament held an illegal referendum that delivered suspect results. The opinion of the Crimeans themselves, as MFS was to discover, is that the referendum not only was legitimate but it reflected majority opinion of Russian voters (and quite a lot of Crimean Tatars who defied their Majlis order not to participate in the referendum) who did not like what was happening in Ukraine and who wanted to secede and rejoin Russia.

MFS visits Crimea to interview people about what they think of Russia and what their lives are now like under Russian rule. Nearly everyone is happy to be living in Russia because among other things people can now apply for free medical insurance which they could not get in Ukraine. According to what he heard in the news in the US, there were food shortages in Crimea after Russian reunification so he visits food shops and finds food in abundance at affordable prices.

Puzzled that the vast majority of people he meets identify with Russia rather than Ukraine, MFS sets out to learn the history of Crimea and how with its mostly Russian-speaking population it ended up as part of Ukraine. He learns that Crimea was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783 – so its association with Russia began only a few years after the United States declared its independence in 1776. He visits memorials dedicated to those members of the Russian military forces who died defending Sevastopol and Crimea from invasion, first in the 1850s against forces from Britain, France, Turkey and Italy, and then second during the Second World War against Germany. Puzzled that none of these memorials mention Ukraine or Ukrainians, MFS consults a historian about how Crimea became part of Ukraine and she informs him that in 1956 the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine because the leader had spent part of his boyhood in Ukraine and he needed Ukrainian support in the various byzantine machinations in Moscow politics at the time. One interesting tidbit is that MFS learns Ukraine had once offered a military base to the US but since it faced Turkey rather than Russia, the Americans turned down the offer.

The documentary works as both history and travelogue: through Francis’s eyes and experiences, viewers see the kind of sunny, tourist-oriented place Crimea (and more specifically Sevastopol and Yalta) could be with opportunities for sight-seeing, walking tours, swimming and boat trips. In his interviews with the local people, MFS apparently does not meet any non-Russian individuals (like Crimean Tatars for example) who might offer a point of view at odds with the majority opinion that Crimea is and always has been a part of Russia since 1783. Crimean history since that year is rich in associations with Russian history and culture – the famous writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov spent part of his life here – and MFS learns to his consternation that from 1991 to 2014, the Ukrainian government actively sought to suppress this rich history and other expressions of Russian identity among the Crimeans.

Playing a wide-eyed tourist naif enables MFS to come close to people who speak more frankly than they might have done otherwise had he come as an investigator or journalist. Plenty of close-ups feature and MFS’s clowning about gives the film the air of a home-made production.

Propaganda this film may be – there is no way of telling what might have been omitted from the film’s final version and how much – though it is very entertaining and informative. I might say at this point that the woman historian MFS consults was incorrect in saying that Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1956: the year of transfer was actually 1954, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, in which Ukrainian cossacks joined with Russia in an alliance against the Crimean Tatar khanate and its allies, and that one reason for the transfer may have been easier administration of a pipeline transporting water for public consumption from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Crimea. The transfer was made quite arbitrarily with no consultation with the Soviet parliament at the time, as should have been done according to the Soviet constitution. Another reason possibly may have been to sway Ukrainians away from supporting nationalist Ukrainian groups agitating for Ukraine to break away from the Soviet Union at the time.

Whether you view the film as propaganda or not, it is nevertheless a good introduction to a small territory in the Black Sea that for centuries has been coveted as prime real estate by great powers past and present.

A snapshot of society on the verge of rewiring its history in “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution”

Artyom Somov, Pavel Burnatov, “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution” (RT.com, 2014)

Powered entirely by interviews with Crimean Russians in the street and following people about as they rouse others and mobilise a referendum for independence and accession to Russia, this RT.com documentary presents what most people in Crimea thought of the regime in Kyiv in Ukraine after the Yanukovych government was overthrown in February 2014. Interviewees included Berkut officers recounting their experiences clashing with neo-fascists in city streets and the parents of a soldier who died in western Ukraine fighting neo-fascists and followers of Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.

Ordinary Crimeans are in no doubt at all that they were betrayed by lies and propaganda from the Ukrainian government since 1991 and that their future lies with secession from Kyiv and accession to Moscow. The astonishing thing about the Crimeans is how very quickly they grasped the situation and united to organise the independence referendum in super-quick time. By the beginning of April 2014, in defiance of Kyiv and its supporters in the West, Crimea had held its referendum, had counted the votes and found overwhelming support for secession, and broken away to join Russia.

The documentary film crew interview a local historian, Oleg Rodovilov, who tells them about Stepan Bandera’s actions during the Second World War and the terror he and his followers spread among Jews, Russians and others. They also show film of scenes in western Ukraine in which fascists beat a governor and intimidate and cuff another local politician. The film crew travels around the peninsula to Sevastopol and Simferopol to find out what people are thinking, saying and doing. In Simferopol, the people cheer on Berkut officers. Later in the film, a peace activist retells the terrifying experience he and fellow activists had when their bus was held up by fascists and everyone was forced out and made to crouch and move while repeating fascist slogans.

The interviewees who appear are articulate and seem well educated. That may or may not be deliberate on the film crew’s part. To their credit, they do talk to some Crimean Tatars attending a rally to support Kyiv and Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars and Russians nearly come to blows on a public street but the tension is defused  by calls for peace.

The interviews may have taken place quite early in 2014 just after Kyiv fell to the EuroMaidan movement and before the independence referendum was held. They constitute a snapshot of the tense yet excitable situation that existed in Crimea at the time. For those viewers unfamiliar with the history of Crimea and its incorporation into Ukraine in 1954, the film unfortunately provides no background history as to why the peninsula is dominated by Russian-language speakers and supporters of Russia. Nor does the film say why Crimean Tatars prefer to support Ukraine rather than Russia.

The Ukrainian fascists and nationalists are portrayed very negatively and the documentary makers did not interview any pro-Kyiv supporters in Crimea. Given the very tense and polarised situation throughout Ukraine, not to mention the violence stoked by the post-Yanukovych regime and its Western supporters, perhaps the film-makers were wise to avoid the pro-Kyiv side. I am sure though that they would make no apologies for not making a film that shows Western-style “balance” in which supporters of two extreme sides are given equal time to make their case in such a way that the film subtly manages to support one side while appearing even-handed.

The documentary can be viewed at this Ukraine Crisis Updates link.

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Safra, Magnitsky and Berezovsky in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M”

“Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M” (EZ Productions, 2014)

Presented by Russian actor Vasily Livanov, known in the West for playing Sherlock Holmes in a highly regarded 1980s Soviet TV series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, this documentary is a keen and critical study into the mysterious deaths of Edmond Safra and Sergei Magnitsky, both associated with the British-American investment fund manager William Browder. The documentary cleverly uses a narrative structure, based on the famous English detective Sherlock Holmes investigating yet another strange crime, to explore the circumstances of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths, compare Magnitsky’s prison experience and death with similar experiences and deaths in the US prison system, and make a case for Browder being linked to the CIA and MI5.

Livanov’s Sherlock Holmes plunges into the mystery straight away by introducing both Browder and his Hermitage Capital Management partner Edmond Safra and mentioning Safra’s puzzling death in a fire in 2007 in almost the same breath. Mention of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison and of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s death by hanging in his British country home in 2013 comes hot on the heels of Safra’s demise. Interestingly the film detours through an interview with human rights activist lawyer Paul Wright into a detailed comparison of the medical treatment Magnitsky received in prison and the way in which the US prison system treats many sick prisoners, and pointedly picks out the hypocrisy in the way the US government and Browder have complained long and loudly about how dreadfully Magnitsky was treated by prison doctors (which he was, there is no doubt he was treated appallingly) but are silent on the equally shocking conditions in which US prisoners are often forced to live and how such conditions affect their health and contribute to their early deaths.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Safra in 1998, Magnitsky in 2011 and Berezovsky in 2013 seem to have quite a bit in common: before both Safra and Berezovsky died, they had been preparing to take steps to reveal some valuable information – in Berezovsky’s case, to reveal valuable information to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. The documentary relies heavily on interviews with freelance journalist Oleg Lurie and Berezovsky’s former head of security services Sergei Sokolov to explain the possible links with the two businessmen’s deaths and HCM and Browder.

A French counter-terrorism officer Paul Barill is roped into the documentary to recount the career of Bill Browder from the time he renounced US citizenship and took up British citizenship, and went on to found HCM and through that investment fund raided the wealth of privatised Russian state corporations and stole other Russian monies. Barill claims that the wealth Browder acquired was used to discredit Russia in various ways, including the destabilisation of Ukraine and the brainwashing of Ukrainians to hate and fear Russia and President Putin.

Technically the documentary is well made and beautifully presented though for Western viewers not familiar with the tax fraud case surrounding Bill Browder and HCM, the treatment of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths together with Boris Berezovsky’s demise might be confusing and leave viewers knowing no more about Magnitsky, Safra and Berezovsky than they did before seeing the documentary. There is enough known about Magnitsky’s career and association with Browder and his own employer Firestone Duncan in the public domain that a shorter documentary about Magnitsky alone could have substituted instead. In particular, the public needs to know that Magnitsky was an accountant who invented a tax evasion scheme for his employer’s client as the mainstream Western media inaccurately portrays the man as a tax lawyer. Some simple animation demonstrating in chronological order what Magnitsky did for Firestone Duncan and Browder would have supplemented the information from the interviews in a way viewers can understand.

The film narrows its focus down to the character of Browder himself and by then many viewers who have followed the sometimes confusing narrative will have concluded that Browder may well be working for the CIA or British intelligence services with the ultimate goal of destabilising and overthrowing the Russian government, and replacing it with one more subservient to the US government which aims to control the country’s energy resources and profit from them.

This documentary could have been a lot more informative and even quite fun. Instead it is quite dry and doesn’t even try to engage with its viewers with techniques such as addressing and challenging viewers to try to solve the mystery of whodunnit to Magnitsky before Holmes does. For all its faults though, this documentary seems to be the only British documentary to show the Russian point of view on the largest tax fraud in Russian history and its reverberations for Russia and its relations with the West.

Exposing Browder: a glimpse into a sordid world of tax fraud and undermining a sovereign country

“Exposing Browder / Spisok Braudera” (Rassledovaniye, 2014)

At last this Russian documentary exposing the shady activities of the investment fund manager Bill Browder has an English-language voiceover soundtrack and is available on Youtube. The grandson of Earl Browder, a founder and secretary general of the Communist Party USA (which later expelled him on suspicion that he was a spy), and son of Felix Browder, a famous mathematician, Bill Browder gained experience as a consultant in the Boston Consulting Group in London and as an investment manager for Salomon Brothers. Along the way, Browder shed his US citizenship and adopted British citizenship. In 1996, he and a partner established Hermitage Capital Management to capitalise on the large-scale privatisations of state corporations in Russia. The firm used the services of Firestone Duncan as consultants on legal, taxation and accounting issues in Russia and the head of that firm, Jamison Firestone, seems to have become quite close to Browder and HCM in their subsequent forays in the Russian investment scene.

HCM did very well though the financial crisis in 1998 must surely have threatened HCM’s capital inflows and gave quite a few of its investors headaches. Riding on HCM’s success – by 2004, it was the largest foreign investment fund in Russia managing over US$3 billion and representing several thousand investors – Browder became a shareholder in the energy corporation Gazprom where he made a name for himself exposing corruption and financial mismanagement.  HCM’s strategy was ostensibly to buy shares in a large undervalued company (usually an energy company) and demand access to that company’s financial records, supposedly for the purpose of uncovering suspicious irregularities in company management. HCM would loudly bray about such irregularities in articles published in Western financial media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal or use lawsuits to shame the target company managers. Political lobbying was another weapon Browder did not hesitate to use.

HCM’s fortunes took a turn in 2005 when Browder found himself barred from entering Russia on the grounds of “national security”. Initially supportive of Russia, Browder soon turned against Moscow as HCM became the subject of tax evasion probes and government raids on its offices. In following years, Russian police came across a network of various companies based in odd parts of Russia (Kalmykia near the Caucasus being one such place) through which HCM operated. These companies employed mentally and physically disabled people as financial advisors to exploit a loophole in Russia’s taxation system so as to claim tax rebates. This harebrained scheme was the brainchild of the Firestone Duncan accountant / auditor Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky’s subsequent imprisonment and later death from undiagnosed heart disease or a chronic pancreatic condition (I’m not sure which) while in prison received a great deal of publicity and media attention in the West as an example of Russia’s treatment of political prisoners. Magnitsky’s purported ill treatment was one of a number of issues the United States government flagged as a stick with which to beat and taunt Russia, and an example to sell to a gullible news media and its audience as “proof” of the authoritarian and repressive police-state nature of Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power as President in 2000 and set the country on an independent political and economic course that greatly displeased the US. Among other things, the United States government drew up and approved the so-called Magnitsky blacklist of Russian politicians, business people and other prominent figures who could not enter mainland US territory and whose financial assets in the US, if they had any, were frozen.

As there is such a huge disparity between what Browder claims the Russian government did to bring down HCM and Magnitsky, and what government investigators say they found, and given that investing in Russian companies during the 1990s and the early 2000s was a complicated business even at the best of times when the country’s financial markets were unstable and financial regulatory laws and institutions poorly developed – and the country’s assets were being seized by foreigners like Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan – a documentary like “Exposing Browder” is very welcome to help viewers try to understand something of what happened and why the example of Browder and HCM and what they did in Russia in stripping the country’s assets and engaging in tax fraud and evasion on an outrageous scale is so important. There is no little irony in the fact that the grandson of a former Communist Party office-bearer in the US should have become the very exemplar of a predatory self-interested capitalist investor who got to the top in that supposedly time-honoured American tradition of striking out on his own, taking major risks, riding out the bad times, reaping benefits in the good times and presenting as a heroic white knight uncovering and reporting corruption and criminal activity.

It is a pity then that the documentary seems rather rushed in its English translation and looks quite slapdash in its breathless presentation. The film was made for TV as part of a current affairs program and should be appreciated in that light. It follows Browder’s career as an investment consultant and manager in the developing financial market in Russia after the country adopted free market principles in running its economy during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Being a Russian-made documentary, the viewpoint understandably is aligned with that of the Russian government and investigators against Browder. It makes no apologies for being partial. There is plenty of detail and viewers may need to see this film a few times to understand the scale of Browder’s underhand activities.

The second half of the film deals with Sergei Magnitsky and his involvement with Browder and Firestone Duncan, how his collusion in tax fraud led to his imprisonment and death, and the way in which the last years of his life have become politicised and exploited by others, Browder most of all. Though what he did merited serious jail-time, Magnitsky emerges as a pathetic figure. While prisons in Russia are not lovely places to be in, and the medical treatment Magnitsky received from prison doctors speaks of their incompetence and indifference to his plight, his death from heart failure is eerie in that he was one of several people associated with Browder who met mysterious deaths from heart disease and other strange causes. The film makes a case that Magnitsky remained loyal to Browder to the end and counted on the American to get him out of jail. After his death, Browder used Magnitsky’s treatment and death as a stick to continually beat the Russian government, slandering various government officials and lobbying the US government to slap travel bans, asset freezes and other punishments against Russian politicians and civil servants.

The last few minutes are a revelation in which the value of Browder and the Magnitsky List to the US government’s agenda against Russia, and the propaganda potential that can be milked from it to convince Western audiences and Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin and Moscow (whether they are genuine oppositionists or those liberal oppositionists funded by US agencies) that Russia is an authoritarian police state hell bent on persecuting individuals, is spelled out. As of this time of writing, Browder is protected by the United Kingdom from arrest by Russian authorities for tax fraud and tax evasion. He is currently working towards convincing the European Community into adopting its own version of the Magnitsky List to further damage Russian financial and other interests in European Community member countries (especially Cyprus). The feeling that Browder may be acting as an agent provocateur and spy on behalf of the UK and US governments is hard to shake off. Why have so many individuals close to Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan died in mysterious circumstances nearly all at once? How did Browder manage to convince the US government into passing bans and restrictions against Russia and Russian individuals despite his having renounced US citizenship?

With all its faults, the documentary is an excellent introduction into the complexities of the tax fraud / tax evasion affair of Bill Browder, HCM, Firestone Duncan and Sergei Magnitsky from the Russian point of view.

Spotlight on Cuban medical diplomacy and ISIS in “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)” (RT.com, 3 October 2014)

In the first half of this episode, George Galloway interviews Bernard Regan from The Cuban Solidarity Campaign / The Campaign for Cuba on Cuba’s response to the Ebola epidemic outbreak in western Africa by sending a team of doctors and nurses there as opposed to the automatic US and UK emergency response in sending thousands of soldiers to the region. Galloway and Regan discuss Cuba’s use of medical professionals as diplomatic shock troops and bearers of goodwill who ask no questions and demand no payment as they assist Third World nations deal with unexpected medical emergencies. They contrast Cuba’s response in Sierra Leone with the tortoise-like reactions of First World nations in providing medical help to Guinea-Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone which have been badly hit by the Ebola disease outbreak since March 2014 when Guinea-Conakry reported its first case. Both host and guest then discuss the punitive US attitude towards Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power in the country in 1961 and how this has affected Cuba’s economic development and trade relations with other countries.

The focus is mainly on how Cuban medical diplomacy has benefited Third World countries, having helped over 80 million people throughout the world since the 1960s and trained many doctors from many of these countries and even from the US itself. Unfortunately there is very little about how Cuban medical training might emphasise the importance of community and public health infrastructure and policies, and how these affect the health of individuals and their families, over medical technologies that favour wealthy individuals and the diseases and conditions they suffer (like heart disease and certain cancers) as a consequence of their life-styles. There isn’t much about the history of Cuban medical diplomacy, how and why it developed, what its goals and agendas originally were and how these might have changed over time, and what future developments the Cuban government intend for it. There is no discussion of what threats the program might face, how continued US economic isolation might jeopardise its future, and what might happen after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul pass on.

The Ebola outbreak itself is not dealt with on the program and viewers interested in a discussion about how the disease appeared in the poorest west African countries, all of them with a history of unstable politics, civil war, interference from foreign powers coveting their considerable natural resources (diamonds, oil to name a couple), and Liberia and Sierra Leone especially host to US bio-weapons laboratories, will have to wait for another episode.

The second guest invited onto the show is Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent Patrick Cockburn, recent author of a book on the Middle Eastern terrorist organisation Islamic State (hereafter referred to as IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Cockburn describes the connections between IS and previous terrorist organisations like al Qa’ida and those Sunni Muslim nations whose religion is Wahhabi Sunni Islam, and the severity with which IS applies its narrow and literal interpretation of Shari’a and Islam to captured Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Galloway and Cockburn then go on to discuss the ways in which Western nations, in particular the US and the UK, have shaped the conditions in the Middle East that have given rise to IS and allowed it to flourish in the borderlands of NW Iraq / NE Syria. The opposition from Sunni Muslims in Iraq to the Maliki government, appointed by the US, practising sectarian politics and looting the country’s treasury and resources, has been instrumental in allowing IS to grow by recruiting disaffected youth in Sunni Muslim communities. The Western decision to bomb IS-held territories (and also areas reclaimed by the Syrian Army, for the real goal of Western intervention is the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al Assad) will only make a bad situation much worse and benefit IS.

In 12 to 13 minutes, the conversation can’t penetrate very deeply into the complicated politics involved and why the West and its barbarous allies in the Middle East resort to more violence and brutality to deal with violence and brutality. Nevertheless the discussion is wide-ranging and very informative. Cockburn is a very eloquent speaker and Galloway and Pertiwi listen attentively and respectfully.

By now, Galloway and Pertiwi are a good double act, Galloway often quite theatrical and Pertiwi acting as his foil. Their program has a very marked politically socialist bent with guests usually coming from that side of politics but, given the often extreme right-wing bent of most mainstream news and current affairs media, the Galloways provide a welcome breath of fresh air with their discussion of topics that would otherwise remain unknown.

Sunday evening TV discussion of geopolitics on “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ”

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ” (Rossia 1, 2014)

In Western countries, Sunday evening TV consists of reality TV shows, nature documentaries or light entertainment; in Russia, or at least on one TV channel, there is “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” which comes in prime-time viewing right after the evening news and which draws in a large audience. Host Soloviev interviews various public figures on the hot issues of the day and this episode, featuring six experts on geopolitics, revolves around US President Barack Obama’s speech to the UN in October 2014 in which he effectively said that Russia was a greater threat to world peace and stability than either ISIS in the Middle East or the emerging Ebola pandemic in western Africa.

Each expert gives his view – by the way, all six experts are male – on what the problem is, and how the US is trying to undermine Russia and conduct warfare through economic and diplomatic means, and via proxy nations like Ukraine. The discussion initially focuses on what has influenced Barack Obama to say what he said in the speech and one interviewee notes that in the past Obama had read works and was inspired by past American Cold War-era politicians such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan who held anti-Soviet views and advocated “containment” of the USSR. One expert eventually swings the discussion around to what Russia can and should do, which is to focus on its own economic development and progress, and to curb the growth of Bandera worship among Ukrainians. (Stepan Bandera was an infamous Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis, was jailed by them, and after the Second World War worked with British, American and West German intelligence agencies to run agents into Ukraine before eventually being assassinated by Soviet spies who infiltrated West German intelligence.)

The second half of the program becomes considerably animated as host and interviewees decry what they view as shortcomings in Russian society and culture, in particular the shallow materialist culture that took hold during the 1990s with its emphasis on immediate gratification, a consumerist mind-set and the degradation of values, qualities and beliefs that conflicted with the demands of a consumption-based society where people are treated as clients and consumers and not as citizens. Soloviev and his guests all agreed that Russia needs to develop a different economic system that includes its overseas partners in China, Iran, Pakistan and several others in Asia and Latin America, and that the Russian state must improve upon and escalate its manufacturing and engineering sectors. The moral fibre of the nation is also found lacking, evidenced in the high rates of vodka consumption and alcoholism, and the experts agree more must be done to improve people’s lives.

The program is interesting in one way in that it affords Western viewers the opportunity to see what Russians themselves consider to be ideal Sunday evening TV viewing and what the important issues facing their country are. They take quite seriously the threat against them posed by the US and its allies. Russians are deeply aware that there is still a lot they have to do to advance their economy and manufacturing before they are equal to the US. They know they need China’s help and friendship, and the friendship of other countries such as Brazil and India.

The program may be an example of state-controlled TV, and is very mainstream in its views and presentation, but at least it treats its audiences as intelligent and familiar with the topics it presents, and does not talk down to them. The pace is fast and viewers need to concentrate quite closely on what Soloviev and his guests say. The discussion is quite lively and there is no obvious Putin worship that Westerners might have expected. Unfortunately there is no opportunity for the studio audience to ask questions of Soloviev and his guests but this does mean that the program does not get bogged down in confrontational politics. Soloviev is known to detest the so-called liberal opposition forces in Russia who receive funding and instruction from various US agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy, so presumably the guests who appear on his program will be those public figures who more or less support the current Russian government under President Vladimir Putin and its agenda.

Brain-washing propaganda or not, this particular evening with Soloviev is good viewing and one only wishes that Sunday evening TV viewing in Australia could be even half as good.

Thanks to Vineyard of the Saker for uploading the episode of the TV program onto his website and to his team for translating the Russian dialogue into English and providing sub-titles.

An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Dmitri Rogozin Interview: revealing the direction and agenda of Russian military modernisation

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Dmitri Rogozin Interview” (Rossia 1, 2014)

A very grateful thank you to The Vineyard of the Saker blog for uploading a video of the current affairs TV show “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” together with an English-language translation of host Vladimir Soloviev’s grilling of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, Dmitri Rogozin, before a live audience. Rogozin is the head of the Military – Industrial Commission and is tipped by TVotS blogger The Saker himself as a successor to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The interview can be viewed on TVotS at this link.

The two men stand some distance apart facing each other at white lecterns in a setting that might remind some people of the sets for the famous quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Initially Soloviev asks Rogozin about the current state and progress of Russia’s military technology since 1991: a timely question given that as of this writing Russia was facing the likelihood of war from NATO due in no small part to the conflict that has been ravaging Ukraine since April 2014 and Russia’s supposed role, talked up by the US government with no evidence to support its statements, in directing the activities of the anti-Kyiv separatist rebels in the Donetsk and Lugansk areas in eastern Ukraine. Over the past 20 years, Russian military technology has had mixed fortunes: during the Yeltsin years, technological advance in this area stalled for lack of funding and corruption in government, and since 2000 military designers have been playing catch-up with the rest of the world. Particular emphasis is placed on having technology that can project power away from Russian territory in a way similar to how the US projects power throughout the world through its aircraft carriers and other technology, and on training soldiers to be highly mobile and flexible, able to use a variety of technology at different levels of complexity in different defence contexts. Quality of weaponry and of soldierly preparation over quantity of weapons (the Soviet Union was infamous for having too many weapons that were never used) and soldiers (Rogozin believes that the country’s population is too small for the geographical territory Russia covers) is preferred.

The conversation moves to a brief discussion of the decline of the engineering and manufacturing industries in Ukraine since 1991, how industry in that country has frozen and been left behind by both the EU and Russia for lack of funds and the crony capitalism looting the country’s assets and wealth, and how Russia has ended up benefiting from Ukraine’s loss as Ukrainian scientists, engineers and technicians move to Russia and put down roots. Rogozin emphasises how the defence industry is not only attracting good workers with high technical and scientific skills but it is attracting such a large number that the average of defence workers has dropped by more than ten years since the early 2000s to age 45 years. The two men also discuss the Mistral warship contract, the behaviour of the French government over the warship and what that implies about the character of such a government in refusing to supply the ship, built to Russian naval specifications and therefore useless to other countries, to a country that had already paid in full for it. Interestingly, Rogozin says that the ship is not needed (in fact, it was ordered by a former disgraced defence minister who has been charged with corruption).

Soloviev asks quite searching questions and Rogozin is up to the task of explaining in detail how the Russian defence ministry is modernising the country’s armed forces and its equipment. For someone who trained in economics and has a doctorate of philosophy, Rogozin’s knowledge of Russian defence capabilities is wide and quite deep without being very technical. (His father was a military scientist by the way.) He presents very well without coming across as having been groomed and rehearsed through his speech, and he is genuinely passionate in his explanations. Rarely does he repeat himself or resort to stock phrases as most Western politicians put on the spot do during interviews. During the course of the interview, viewers discover Soloviev has known Rogozin for a long time and the two men are friendly, so Western audiences expecting an adversarial and aggressive interviewing approach will be surprised. Perhaps Soloviev could have asked Rogozin more awkward questions about how Russia can finance all its defence improvements and how quickly and well the country can do so in a global environment in which its enemies are circling it and pushing it towards a major war. He could have probed some of the risks of the agenda adopted by the Russian government in modernising the armed forces and military technology.

Western audiences will be intrigued that the interview takes place before a live audience who listen intently and seem very interested in what Rogozin has to say. There are no interjections and unfortunately at the end there is no opportunity for the audience to ask questions. A sceptical Western viewer might say this episode is merely full of hot air in its own way, if less glossy.

The interview is important for what it reveals about current Russian military strategy and the Russian government’s view of the challenges it faces in changing its armed forces, plotting a direction for its military and seeking to avoid war while it is still modernising its industry, while the West grows ever more hostile and rattles its sabres against Russia and the country’s allies.

Formation of a State: the fight for independence by Donetsk National Republic

“Formation of a State” (NovorossiyaTV.com, 24 August 2014)

After capturing a group of neo-Nazi fascists fighting for the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine, the self-proclaimed Donetsk National Republic paraded the prisoners on 24 August 2014, the day of Ukrainian independence. Later Alexander V Zakharchenko, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Donetsk National Republic, and Vladimir Kononov, Minister for Defense of the DNR, gave a press conference in which they informed the press of the current situation on the battlefield and invited the journalists to ask questions. The Q&A session makes up the overwhelming bulk of the press conference.

Facing the camera directly, Zakharchenko and Kononov are open and frank in the answers they give and the two give no impression of hiding anything or dissembling in any way. They are well-informed about Donetsk’s history, economy and resources, and about other countries as well. Zakharchenko, fielding the bulk of the questions, is polite, speaks quickly and well, and never bats an eyelid in the face of sometimes aggressive and even hostile and biased questioning from reporters. Kononov is attentive in listening to Zakharchenko and never interrupts what he says.

Zakharchenko has a lot to get off his chest and what he says is not only highly informative but dovetails with other news from alternate news blogs and websites about the astounding incompetence and lack of proper military leadership and management within the Ukrainian armed forces, resulting in high Ukrainian soldier casualties and desertions, and instances of Ukrainian soldiers being surrounded by DNR forces who cut them off from reinforcements that never arrive due to bad logistics, of which Kyiv tries to downplay by reporting many deaths, desertions and surrenders as soldiers missing in action. Zakharchenko quickly addresses a question on the marching of Ukrainian prisoners down the main street of Donetsk city by noting that Kyiv had earlier declared that its soldiers would be marching through Donetsk, though not in the way the Kyiv regime imagined. He denies that Russia is sending DNR soldiers, weapons and ammunition. He sarcastically notes that some western European countries have charters guaranteeing the right of self-government and separation after referendum and that Scotland will be holding an independence referendum in September, 2014.

A French reporter refers to two French volunteers who have arrived in Ukraine to fight with the DNR and Zakharchenko says they will be available for a later press conference. He then answers a question about what Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko might discuss at a summit in Minsk, Belarus, by saying that Donetsk will now not agree to federalisation (which option both Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts had hoped for initially after the February 2014 overthrow of the previous Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukoyvch) and has vowed to go its own way after the war crimes committed by the Ukrainian government and forces against it and Lugansk. Contrary to Western media reports about Donetsk’s economy, painting it as inefficient and run-down, the self-proclaimed republic has what it needs to be self-sufficient in food, manufacturing, energy and natural resources and tourism potential. (Indeed before the war began, Donetsk was one of the richer oblasts in Ukraine and had a very high gross regional product compared to other oblasts.) The press conference concludes with a couple of questions on the adoption of the death penalty and laws pertaining to the keeping of prisoners: Zakharchenko admits that the death penalty is in effect to safeguard security in Donetsk and that a new criminal code has been adopted with courts-martial and tribunals to support it.

For many people who so far have received all what they know about the situation in Ukraine from mainstream Western news media, the press conference is sure to make a stunning impact on them. For many if not most, this will be the first time that they discover that the war has not gone well for Ukraine and that thousands of its soldiers have died unnecessarily. They will also discover that the defenders of Donetsk are determined and have a great belief and confidence in their cause. No matter what the odds are and what sacrifices they will have to make, I feel sure that the Donetsk National Republic will achieve the independence and freedom they have fought hard for.

The video can be viewed at this Youtube link created by Vineyard of the Saker and a transcript in English can be read here.

Aliens (dir. A Gaponenko): the plight of Russians forced into twilight-zone lives as non-citizens in Latvia

Alexander Gaponenko, “Aliens” (2014)

In August 1991, the Soviet Union broke up after a failed coup d’état and 15 new countries arose from its remains. Latvia  was one such country, reclaiming independence after over 45 years of Communist rule from Moscow. One of its post-Soviet legacies was the multi-ethnic composition of its population: native Latvians constituted just over half the people and Russian speakers of various ethnicities from all over the Soviet Union made up most of the rest. This was a result of policies made by Soviet governments that included forced removal of Latvians from Latvia and distribution to other parts of the USSR and their replacement by Soviet immigrants, themselves often forcibly relocated from their homelands. The goal was to break down ethnic, religious and other differences which might serve as foci for self-determination and autonomy and to create new Soviet citizens.

After Latvian independence, about 300,000 Russian-language speakers (hereafter referred to as “Russians” for the sake of convenience) many of them concentrated in Riga the capital and eastern Latvia, especially in and around the city Daugavpils, found themselves subject to certain conditions demanded by Latvian nationalists in the new government if they wished to become citizens. These conditions included knowledge of the Latvian language to a level not always achieved by many native Latvian speakers themselves, taking an exam to prove their proficiency in Latvian and to give up Russian citizenship. Almost overnight these Russians became “non-citizens” – a category ironically invented by the Communists in the late 1980s for reasons of self-interest – and found themselves barred from public life: to this day, non-citizens cannot hold public office or own property, are barred from certain professions and may not serve in the military.

The 27-minute documentary takes the form of interviews of nine such non-citizens, director Gaponenko among them, and include a journalist who supported Latvian independence, a World War II veteran, a construction worker, a lawyer, a private detective and an unemployed single mother. Several interviewees admit to not applying for citizenship on the basis of principles: they were robbed of a choice to decide whether to retain Russian citizenship or apply for Latvian citizenship, and they do not agree with having to meet the conditions of applying for and acquiring Latvian citizenship. One interviewee organised protests against “reforms” of Russian-language schools proposed by Latvian nationalists and another currently campaigns against the rise of neo-Nazi groups. The single mother and her son have tried to adjust to the new situation by trying to learn Latvian but without much success.

Though their backgrounds are diverse, the interviewees are articulate and most of them are aware of what they are up against. They readily see parallels between their current twilight-zone lives and the situation in pre-1991 Latvia. A few of them speak of the fragmentation of Latvian society by nationalists who pit Latvians and Russians against one another over petty cultural and language issues while real problems go unnoticed.

At the end of the documentary, the film-makers chat to people on the street and ask them for their views on the Russians’ plight. Nearly everyone spoken to believes that Latvian citizenship should be extended to Russians. One man mentions that Estonia, Latvia’s northern neighbour, practises similar discrimination against its Russian communities. A few people say that Latvia’s population is falling and that the country needs more citizens.

Unfortunately very little is mentioned about how easy or how difficult it is for Russian-language speakers to learn Latvian to a level  where they could sit the compulsory exam and pass. I suspect that the Latvian authorities themselves do not care about extending Latvian-language classes and teaching resources to the Russian community and that their attitude is lazy indifference: they do not actively discriminate against the Russians (so that Russians themselves are unable to complain) but neither are they proactive in allocating money and resources towards lifting non-citizens to the level of citizens.

The section in the film in which a woman, Elizaveta Krivcova, states in detail the petty discriminations against non-citizens – non-citizens cannot work in the legal profession, they suffer restrictions on buying real estate and they cannot even work in forestry-related jobs – is quite chilling: the discriminations and the attitudes implied in them have their parallel in current Israeli treatment of Palestinians or the past treatment of Jews by various European governments. The ban on Russians working in forestry-related jobs possibly suggests a sinister tendency in current Latvian culture to romanticise and glorify peasant culture and nature, similar to the way in which past Nazi German ideology exalted nature, imbued it with mysticism and linked nature to racial purity and hygiene.

Bizarrely perhaps, the plight of the non-citizens has led them to create their own parliament and related institutions in which they can air their views and problems. The fact that the Latvian Russians have taken matters into their own hands and created underground institutions should fill us with hope. Since joining the EU in 2005 and some years later shifting into the eurozone, Latvia suffered severe hardship as a result of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and remains one of the poorest nations in the EU. The birth rate is falling and the ethnic Latvian population is decreasing as more people vote with their feet to find jobs overseas. Suspicion of Russia and Russians is apparently so strong that politicians in the Saeima wishing for more government regulation of the economy cannot voice their opinion for fear of being labelled disloyal to Latvia. As Latvian society falls into an existential crisis due to external economic and political pressures – at this time of writing in 2014, the country is preparing to host NATO troops, in effect becoming a likely warzone – perhaps the non-citizens might find they can play a useful role in offering an alternative way of doing things, one not following a US-style neoliberal economic and political path that enriches a few at the expense of many yet also one different from what Latvia experienced in the 20th century.

A recent article in European Business Review on this issue can be viewed at this link.

 

A tale of two countries, the question of independence and misrepresentation of the truth on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)” (RT.com, 8 March 2014)

I haven’t been following this weekly series of interviews since December 2013 – I made up my mind to tune in only if someone of interest featured on the show – and Episode 17 piqued my interest as it features RT.com legal commentator Alexander Mercouris giving his opinion and insights on the Western media’s presentation of events in Ukraine since November 2013. As a visitor to and commenter on Russia-related blogs The Kremlin Stooge and Da Russophile, I’ve come across Mercouris’s comments on many topics that the blog authors and their guests post and have occasionally conversed with Mercouris myself. If this background means of course that I’m biased in my assessment of this episode, then so be it: at this point in time, I think it impossible to be impartial on the events in Ukraine and how they are being interpreted in the Western press, if one believes that the role of the media is not only to report accurately on events as they occur but also strive for truth and be an advocate for those whose interests are not served or enhanced by violent seizures of power from legitimately elected governments (no matter how incompetent and corrupt those governments may be) by groups who pretend to be one thing but serve hidden masters and agendas.

Mercouris is a clear-voiced and articulate speaker who is easy to follow, thanks to his careful arguments which are evidence of his ability and legal experience in analysing complex issues. Galloway’s interview of Mercouris focuses largely on the telephone conversation between Baroness Ashton, chief foreign envoy of the European Union, and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who at the time of their conversation had just returned from a fact-finding mission about the demonstrations and shootings on the Maidan in Kyiv over February and March in 2014. In their conversation (hacked and made public by Russian hackers), Paet speaks of talking to a woman doctor who is not identified in the conversation but is known to be Dr Olga Bogomolets, a pro-Maidan supporter, about the attacks on the Maidan demonstrators by unknown snipers on 22 February 2014. Bogomolets mentions that she treated both the police and some of the demonstrators for bullet wounds and noted that the bullets that hit the police were similar to those that hit the demonstrators: an indication that the bullets came from the same fire-arms.

Galloway and Mercouris note that the phone conversation is calm in its discussion of the sniper attacks and that Ashton expresses surprise and shock and makes noises about investigating the sniper attacks. Since the attacks though, Ashton appears to have done little to start an investigation. Mercouris  compares the sniper attacks with the ongoing war in Syria, noting that the same people who funded the neo-fascist seizure of power in Kyiv, forcing the legitimate if weak President Yanukovych to flee for his life to Russia, are much the same people funding the Free Syria Army and jihadi forces in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. Both interviewer and interviewee agree that if Ukraine is to avoid falling apart, with eastern Ukraine threatening to break away after the recent Crimean referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West must work together with Russia to help Ukraine financially.

In just under 14 minutes, both interviewer and interviewee can’t hope to cover all aspects of the crisis in Kyiv and Ukraine. They note that the Western media has done a poor job in reporting the situation there: while mainstream news media in the US have completely ignored events in that faraway country, so-called quality news media like the BBC have misrepresented the situation as one in which Russia is the villain threatening Ukrainian integrity and must be stopped with threats of war or actual war. Unfortunately neither Galloway nor Mercouris touch on why the Western media might be doing such a shoddy job, nor why a situation exists in which the quality news media tells more lies than the tabloid news media, for all its obsession with celebrity gossip and sport, does. The time passes very quickly and Galloway is forced to cut off his interview quite abruptly.

Galloway’s second interview is with a former UK Labour Cabinet minister, Brian Wilson, who happens to be a long-time friend of Galloway’s and who plans to tour with Galloway promoting the “No” case against Scottish independence ahead of the September 2014 referendum. Surprisingly, Galloway does not compare the upcoming Scottish referendum on the question of independence with the mid-March referendum in Crimea on whether to accede to Russia or revert to the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution’s position on Crimea’s status in Ukraine (in which the peninsula would enjoy autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty) though I suppose to have done so would have bogged him and Wilson down in a long discussion comparing the two.

Wilson makes a point that Scottish people living and working in England apparently will be unable to vote in the referendum; though he does not elaborate further, that fact may well suggest that the organisers of the referendum have chosen to obscure the extent to which the Scottish economy is enmeshed with the economy of the rest of the UK and independence could have quite adverse consequences on Scottish employment levels. Would Scottish people living and working in other parts of the UK be forced to return to Scotland where there may not be any jobs available in the general industry area these people work in? For that matter, would non-Scottish UK citizens have to leave Scotland to try to find work elsewhere in the UK – and end up finding none? Additionally Wilson points out that the obsession with independence and Scottish identity might be obfuscating other more pressing issues that Scots are interested in. If Scottish identity depends on Scotland being independent, then Scottish identity might be very weak to begin with and independence will not solve that problem. The experience of Ukraine as an independent country since 1991, during which time the government made few attempts to establish a Ukrainian identity and a Ukrainian culture to bring together and unite different groups with varying histories, languages, religions and cultures, should serve as a warning.

There’s much to be said for Wilson and Galloway’s case against independence for Scotland but 13 minutes just aren’t enough time for a deeper discussion and the “No” case seems a bit superficial. I’ll have to find out more myself about what independence might mean for Scotland and whether there’s a real case for the “No” cause.

Though Galloway and his missus Gayatri Pertiwi might not have realised at the time, Scotland could learn something from Ukraine’s experience of independence and proceed a bit more cautiously down the road towards breaking away from the United Kingdom. The case for independence may not be as clear-cut as Scottish voters might be led into thinking it is.