Thursday, January 31, 2008

Travel Ban

The NYT's Michael Schwirtz, on how Estonia has struck back at the Kremlin youth group Nashi by placing the organization's members on a European Union travel blacklist,
preventing them from traveling not only to Estonia but also, because of its recent entry into the European Union border-free zone, to most of Europe as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Missing Reference

From last night's State of the Union address:
We trust that people, when given the chance, will choose a future of freedom and peace. In the last seven years, we have witnessed stirring moments in the history of liberty. We've seen citizens in Georgia and Ukraine stand up for their right to free and fair elections. We've seen people in Lebanon take to the streets to demand their independence. We've seen Afghans emerge from the tyranny of the Taliban and choose a new president and a new parliament. We've seen jubilant Iraqis holding up ink-stained fingers and celebrating their freedom. These images of liberty have inspired us.

The people of the Russian Federation, however, seem to be less keen on a future of freedom and peace. This is something the President omitted from his speech - including all reference to Russia and things Russian.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cyber assault conviction

The BBC notes that the first conviction in connection with the wave of cyber-attacks which hit Estonia last spring has been made in an Estonian court.

Boomerang



Gyldendal have published Danish poet Pia Tafdrup's latest collection - Boomerang, a series of 101 haiku poems that originated in a visit the poet made to Japan a few years ago.

The trees are there
so that everyone will look up,
the boy says loudly.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bullies with something to hide

Culture and civil society are places to nurture shared values - that is especially important during times of diplomatic strain. Closing British Council offices doesn't strengthen Moscow's insistence that it played no role in the Litvinenko assassination. All it does is make Putin and the Kremlin look like bullies - with something to hide.
International Herald Tribune editorial, January 21

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Unravelling of Russia's Europe Policy

By Peter Zeihan

via Stratfor

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his anointed successor, Dmitri Medvedev, were in Bulgaria on Jan. 17. The point of the trip was to put the crowning touch on a Russian effort to hook Europe into Moscow’s energy orbit. After a touch of bitter rhetoric about how Russia and Bulgaria were “doomed to be partners,” Putin agreed to grant equal rights to the South Stream natural gas pipeline Moscow hopes to lay through Bulgaria. Yet the tension of the meeting and the concessions that Putin had to make simply to get permission are symptomatic of a broad unraveling of Russian foreign policy toward Europe.

The Russian Scheme

Russia often has had a love-hate relationship with Europe. Dating back to the time of the czars, Moscow has had to aim for a mix of economic integration and military intimidation to make its voice heard. In the aftermath of the Cold War and the degradation of the Red Army, the military intimidation factor has largely fallen away, leaving economics as the primary method of impacting Europe. In this, Russia has forces at its disposal every bit as useful as Soviet tank divisions. Cold War-era infrastructure provides the 27-member European Union with roughly one-quarter of the natural gas and oil it consumes. Such dependence might not be sufficient to force European deference, but it certainly guarantees that Europe will hear Russia out.

Natural gas is unique among the various industrial and energy commodities. The combination of its gaseous nature and the sheer bulk that is required to power large economies (the European Union uses more than half a trillion cubic meters of the stuff a year) means that it can only be efficiently transported via pipeline. While oil and coal and alumina and wheat and platinum can all be loaded into trucks, rail cars and tankers — allowing any producer to supply any consumer — natural gas can travel only along existing pipeline networks. Canada therefore only supplies the United States and Russia only supplies former Soviet republics, Turkey and Europe. This contained relationship gives Russia leverage in a way that its mineral and oil wealth do not. And so it is here that the Europeans have tried — with some success — to slice through the ties that bind.

Putin has sought to strengthen this energy leverage via two pipeline projects in particular. The two natural gas lines — Nord Stream, which would run under the Baltic Sea from St. Petersburg to Germany; and the aforementioned South Stream, which would run under the Black Sea from near Novorossiysk to Bulgaria — would increase the European dependency on Russian natural gas from 25 percent to 35 percent of its total consumption.

Economically, neither of these projects makes sense. Building long underwater pipelines to Europe — a region with which the former Soviet Union shares a land connection — is simply asinine; landlines typically cost less than a third of their underwater equivalents. Additionally, Nord Stream would be the world’s longest underwater natural gas pipeline and South Stream the deepest.

But the Russians did not plan these projects with profitability in mind — having tripled their natural gas export prices since 2000, they have profit aplenty. Instead, they are thinking of the Americans. The Kremlin’s Cold War mantra has long been that if the Europeans can be neutralized, then American influence can be purged from Europe. Ergo, American presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan have opposed (explicitly or not) any expansion of trade and energy links between Europe and Russia. And there also is the minor detail of Russia hating to involve transit states such as Belarus and Ukraine that are able to siphon off Russian energy en route to hard-currency-paying Europeans.

Given the political nature of these projects, then, the numbers have always been a touch wacky. The Russians have underestimated the costs of both of the natural gas lines to a humorous degree (likely by a factor of four or more), they lack the technological ability to build the lines themselves and they have insisted that the Europeans foot the bills. Specifically they expect ENI to pay for South Stream, and BASF, Gasunie and E.On to cover Nord Stream. Topping it off, they expect themselves — not the countries on which the pipes will lie or the companies that finance and build them — to own the projects when they are completed.

The European Response

The Europeans certainly exchanged some worried looks when these projects were proposed and Russia started assembling consortia to work on them. But in January 2006 an event happened that galvanized European action to wean the Continent off of Russian energy. A natural gas pricing dispute with Ukraine resulted in a brief suspension of deliveries to Europe (Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe currently transit Ukraine and Belarus). Russia attempted to leverage this energy crisis to force the Europeans to back Russian policy in Ukraine. Specifically, Moscow wanted Europe to repudiate Ukraine’s Orange Revolution against Russia’s preferred Ukrainian government and recognize Russian suzerainty in the former Soviet Union.

The strategy backfired and sparked intense interest across Europe in diversifying sources of petroleum and reducing total demand. European states and firms launched alternative supply lines, rafts of terminals were built to import natural gas shipped by tanker in more expensive liquefied form, a new fleet of nuclear reactors were commissioned, and the European Union adopted ambitious alternative energy and conservation programs (which incidentally dovetailed nicely with Europe’s anti-greenhouse-gas plans). The formal European goal is now to reduce total energy consumption by 20 percent — with 20 percent of the remaining total coming from alternative sources — by 2020. The EU states are still squabbling over who needs to bear what specific burdens, but there is no disagreement as to the goal — or the reasons it exists in the first place.

There are two questions remaining.

The Question of Time

First, how long will it be until the Russians realize that their energy tool is no longer sharp? The answer is, longer than you might think.

The Russians have persevered in their pursuit of these projects despite increasingly obvious signs that the Europeans not only are not interested in the projects, they are not interested in the Russians. In part it is because, if Moscow’s plan were realized, it would be a very good plan indeed, as it would harness Europe irrevocably to Russia.

But mostly the lack of realization is because of Russia’s historical blind spot. Russia’s wide-open geography means that it has few barriers to invasion. Consequently, Russian history is one of occasional foreign occupation, which has resulted in a culture that mixes xenophobia, bitterness, persecution and a sense of entitlement in equal measure. This idea of “we have suffered so much so you should do what we say” — a sort of superiority complex based on an inferiority complex — clouds Russian strategic thinking and contributes to the seeming inability of the Kremlin to sense that the Chinese are stealing Central Asia from under the Russian nose.

It also explains why the Russians have not realized that the Europeans are moving away from them in as expeditious manner as feasible. The European reactions to Russian entreaties on these natural gas projects can best be summated as humoring the Russians. Few states want an out-and-out breach in their relations with Moscow, which could result in an actual and immediate energy cutoff before the Europeans are prepared to sever economic ties. So they have been taking advantage of Russia’s cultural blind spot while quietly developing alternatives.
This is doubly true for firms such as E.On and Gasunie, which supposedly are involved in consortia to build the projects. All are key purchasers of Russian energy exports and have found it easier to feign support than to be bluntly honest and so risk losing reliable deliveries of Russia natural gas. The one possible exception might be ENI, which is desperate for any source of natural gas to maintain its market position in Italy. But even here, it is far from clear that a single firm — even one as large as ENI — can shoulder realistically the massive burden of financing and building a project as questionable as South Stream by itself.

Years from now, Putin’s Jan. 17 trip to Bulgaria will likely be seen as the turning point in the European-Russia power balance, because that is when the humoring broke down. As Putin was en route to Bulgaria, Sofia insisted that, should South Stream come about, it will be Sofia — not Moscow — that holds a majority share in the portion on Bulgarian territory. A compromise — a 50-50 ownership split — was ultimately struck, simply because there is little Moscow can do to punish Bulgaria without deeply damaging its own interests. Bulgaria does not border Russia (or any former Soviet republic) and since it is a transit state for Russian natural gas to third countries, it cannot simply be cut off.

Bulgaria is hardly the bravest or most powerful of the EU states. It also is not among the crop that has done the most to diversify its energy consumption away from Russian sources. Consequently, it stands to reason that the nod-and-smile approach that has dominated European attitudes toward all things Russian is starting to crack. In the first 10 months of 2007 alone, total European demand for natural gas already dipped sharply, according to International Energy Agency data — reversing a 50-year upward trend.

Add in increased alternative supplies that are not merely prospective (such as the Nord and South Streams), but actually under construction — within three years Europe will have established alternatives for at least two-thirds of the natural gas Russia currently supplies — and Russia’s energy grip on Europe is slackening quickly.

In short, Europe is reorienting its entire energy sector to eliminate the “Russian factor.” This is allowing the Europeans to take a firmer line on Russia in other areas as well. For example, on Jan. 17 the European Union gave Ukraine the green light to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Until recently the Europeans had expected Ukraine under a pro-Russian government to join the WTO at the same time as Russia, so the Europeans played softball with the Russians in accession negotiations. But now that a pro-Western coalition has returned to power in Kiev, and since a pro-Western Ukraine will have the ability to block Russian accession on its own, the Europeans sense an opportunity to pry Ukraine out of Russia’s economic orbit and lash it into Europe’s. Consequently European negotiators have switched to hardball tactics on economic issues ranging from timber to transport, pushing back — yet again — serious efforts to bring Russia itself into the WTO.

Such isolation is far more damning than it sounds. According to the European Commission, if energy is shorn from Russian-European trade, then the new (much reduced) total value of that trade shrinks to an amount equal to that of the European Union’s trade with Iceland, a country with fewer than half a million people.

The Question of Response

That brings us to the second question. What will the Russians do about it?

For Russia, the challenge is not about the lost income — between rainy day funds and currency reserves, Moscow has socked away nearly $700 billion — but lost influence. Russia’s other exports, primarily metals, minerals and weapons, still fetch a pretty penny and put Russian fingers in pots the world over, but none grant it influence where it truly matters: in Europe.
Russia faces a near future in which the economic might of Europe will reinforce the geopolitical ambitions of the United States. Washington’s desire to whittle Russia back to a more manageable size is nothing new, but few realize that Brussels has its own ambitions. The Europeans would like to expand their economic reach into the bulk of the territory between the EU border and Moscow, as well as into the Caucasus. Europe does not see this as an imperialist venture, but simply as the natural order of things. The Russians, of course, see the world through a different lens, and European plans would be even more damaging in the long run to Russian interests than will American efforts, as they would make these border territories not only politically unreliable, but rather like the Baltics: firmly integrated into a rival system.

If economic tools no longer are relevant, Russia will be forced to fall back on political and military tactics, including:

Military intimidation of the Baltics and Finland.
Reunion with Belarus and a return of the Red Army to the Polish border.
Overt intervention in the Russian-speaking portions of Ukraine.
Active and public participation in Georgia’s secessionist conflicts, both to block European influence and to disrupt some of those alternate energy supplies.
Support for Europe’s various secessionist regions.

None of these options is clean and easy, and all are laden with consequences. Two of those consequences are critical enough to warrant mention here. First, any action from this list would rejuvenate NATO to the point that a Western military response, likely resulting in a new containment strategy, would be a foregone conclusion. Second, a renewed Russian confrontation with the West would certainly provide ample opportunity for China to make inroads into Central Asia and the Russian Far East, a region where Russia’s own intelligence services warn that Chinese squatters already might constitute the majority of the population. Yet with Russia’s economic toolkit impotent, such options are all that remain before the Kremlin.

Russia’s best hope is to recognize, before it is too late, that the tide is irrevocably turning. But Moscow faces one other complication in wrestling with the changing geopolitical reality — one that could critically delay an adjustment in strategies: itself.

Though Putin is undoubtedly the man in charge, he is not the only one with ambition. His inner circle is split roughly in half by a clan war between Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Ivanov. Both are loyal to Putin, but their battles have absorbed the majority of the state’s ability to deal with any issue. While the two overlords clash, the Europeans make ever-greater strides toward freeing themselves from dependence on Russian energy, steadily closing the window of opportunity for the Russians to adjust.

And when that window closes, Russia will face a world in which the United States no longer is consumed with all things Middle Eastern and the Europeans no longer are afraid of all things Russian.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

An offer that can be refused

After the British government denied that there were any plans to expel Russian diplomats in London, as some newspapers had claimed, the Kremlin began to try a different ploy, offering a proposal that the British Council's offices in Russia could reopen if the Britain resumed talks on counter-terrorism and entry visas, broken off in the wake of the Lugovoy/Litvinenko affair. Now Britain's foreign secretary has responded by refusing to link the matter of the closure of British Council offices in Russia with political issues that affect relations between the two countries. The British Council issue is not a political matter - solely a cultural one.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Half of UK Poles plan to return home

A report in the Telegraph notes that the fall in the value of the British pound is leading many UK Poles to plan a return to Poland:
Economists have said that with the pound falling from seven Polish zloties last summer to around 4.7 now, many of the estimated 600,000 Poles who have moved to Britain could see their saving power slashed by more than 35 per cent.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sauce for the Gander - II

From the Mail on Sunday:
The Government is preparing to expel dozens of Russian spies operating in Britain as the diplomatic tensions with President Putin escalate.

MI5 has helped draw up a list of suspected agents, including at least 34 diplomats in the Russian embassy, who could be targeted in a mass expulsion.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Words of Warning

In the Daily Mail, Edward Lucas has some words of stark warning about what is happening to Russia now:
Russia still, outrageously, belongs to the G8 club of big rich Western countries and the Council of Europe, a talking shop that also guards the continent's human rights conventions.

But that should fool nobody.

Russia has explicitly abandoned Western values of political freedom, the rule of law and multilateral security, in favour of its own ideology, "Sovereign democracy".

That is a mixture of xenophobia, nationalism, autocracy, self-righteousness and nostalgia for the Soviet - and Stalinist - past.

Kennan on Russia

"At the bottom of the Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area.

"Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within... "

George Kennan, in a document sent to President Harry S. Truman in 1946

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sauce for the Gander

From the Financial Times:
But Mr Putin should beware. The British Council has operated in Russia for many years in an open and transparent manner. By contrast, there is plenty of covert financial and lobbying activity by Russian individuals inside the UK. If Mr Putin wants to start challenging the way foreign organisations operate inside his country, he had better realise that the British have plenty of questions of their own.
Via Robert Amsterdam

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Russia's Reputation

The British Foreign Secretary has said that Russia's actions against the British Council call Russia's reputation into question. Though after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the radiological poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the hounding of the British ambassador by Nashi thugs, one might have thought that Russia's reputation had already fallen to its lowest point ever:
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has described Russia's actions against the British Council as "reprehensible" and a "stain" on the country's reputation.

He said council staff had been grilled by Russian security services on issues including their family pets' health.

Such actions were "not worthy of a great country", he said, reading out EU and US messages of support for Britain.

The council has suspended work at two Russian offices, saying "intimidation" made it impossible to continue.

British Council Statement

Statement by Martin Davidson, British Council chief executive:
At the start of this week the Russian Government initiated a campaign of intimidation against our staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

On Tuesday 15 January, the Russian State Security Services (FSB) summoned over 20 Russian staff to attend individual interviews.

Late that night 10 members of staff were visited at home by the Russian tax police and called to further interviews yesterday.

The interviews had little to do with their work and were clearly aimed at exerting undue pressure on innocent individuals.

Our paramount consideration is the wellbeing of our staff and I feel we cannot continue our work without significant risk to them.

The Russian authorities have made it impossible for us to operate in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg so I have taken the decision to suspend operations in both cities.

I want to reiterate that the British Council is a cultural relations organisation. Our work connects ordinary people around the world.

It is wrong to draw cultural relations and the British Council into an international political dispute.

I am bitterly disappointed that the Russian authorities have sought to limit our cultural and educational links at the very time when they can be of most value.

I want to reiterate that we operate in Russia in full accordance with international and Russian law and I am deeply grateful for the strong support of our fellow cultural organisations across Europe.

We remain committed to Russia and hope to continue to work with our one-and-a-quarter million Russian partners and customers from our Moscow office.

True Colours




By its recent actions in harassing, threatening and intimidating British Council staff in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, the Russian government has shown its true colours. This is not a government for which the ideals of friendship and cultural co-operation between nations have much or any resonance at all - rather, it is a narrow-minded, vengeful and politically-motivated clique, intent upon cynical troublemaking and the stoking of international tensions.

BBC correspondent Paul Reynolds has drawn attention to the link between the present crisis and the legal ramifications surrounding the actions of the Russian nationalist Andrei Lugovoi, who is suspected of involvement in the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in the autumn of 2006. Again, the Putin government's support and protection of Lugovoi points to its true nature, and should leave no one in any doubt as to what its inclinations are.

An interesting feature of the present crisis, which was obviously prepared in advance by the Russian authorities, is the flooding of British media comments boards (the Mail and Telegraph are the two leading examples at present) with anti-UK and pro-Putin messages posted by Russians posing under English-sounding names.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

British Council Fights Back - V

Via BBC:

Foreign Secretary David Miliband has warned Russia that "intimidation" of British Council officials is "completely unacceptable".

The council is "deeply concerned" about its staff's safety after its employees were interviewed by security services and a director was detained by police.

Mr Miliband said the Russian ambassador in London would meet the head of the diplomatic service over the issue.

"Any intimidation or questioning of officials is completely unacceptable."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Support the Voice of Beslan

Via Maidan

Remember your very first day at school? Perhaps you remember your children’s. So do the members of the civic organization “Voice of Beslan”. They remember three days from the 1st to the 3rd of September 2004 which ended in carnage, tanks and the death of their children.

The “First Bell” is a major event for families throughout the Russian Federation. In Beslan parents and grandparents came. There were over 1100 people in the school on 1 September although the authorities there and in Moscow insisted to the world that there were 364 hostages. This was only one of many discrepancies.

“Voice of Beslan” was formed by survivors of Beslan for one purpose only: to find out the truth. How many terrorists were there and who helped them smuggle so many weapons into a school? Why were there conflicting stories as to whether the terrorists were ready to negotiate, and over their demands? Why were tanks and flamethrowers used? What provoked the chaos which took the lives of 331 people, over half of them children, given the evidence that the first explosions did not come from inside the school? They want to know why their children died.

Over the last months, the organization has been facing concentrated efforts to stifle its voice. The latest is the call by the Prosecutor to have an appeal which dates from November 2005 (!), (http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1200015650 ) declared “extremist”. The letter of appeal asks the world community to help them establish what happened. The authorities’ response: an application from the Prosecutor claiming “extremism” over accusations directed against President Putin.Yes, they accuse Mr Putin of aiding and abetting terrorists. We would, however, remind the Russian Federation authorities of a much better method of fighting wrongful accusations. Prove them wrong by finding the truth. “Voice of Beslan” asks no more.


YOU CAN HELP

Please write a simple message of solidarity to “Voice of Beslan” at golosbeslana@mail.ru

Tell them that you support their efforts to learn the truth and that seeking the truth does not constitute extremism in any free country.Please also copy your letters to ourvoicescarry@gmail.com.

TOGETHER WE CAN HELP TO ENSURE THEIR VOICE IS HEARD.


Halya Coynash Yevhen Zakharov, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Vyacheslav Khavrus Oleksandr Pylypenko, “Maidan” Alliance

British Council Fights Back - IV

The Telegraph's analysis of the current situation is probably quite accurate:
Britain feels confident enough to defy the order because senior officials calculate that Russia is exhausting its diplomatic capital by fighting on too many fronts.

President Vladimir Putin is confronting America, Britain and the West over a series of crucial issues: the future of Kosovo; the proposed missile defence shield; sanctions on Iran and an arms control treaty.

Instead of dividing the Western powers, Mr Putin's brand of diplomacy is uniting his opponents.

If Russia decides to shut down the British Council offices by force, perhaps by deploying riot police, a senior official said the Kremlin would make itself look "ridiculous, absurd and appalling".

Britain is gambling that Russia will confine itself to verbal protest because Britain is the largest European investor in Russia.

Put simply, Russia needs British capital and expertise to develop the oil and gas reserves which form the backbone of its economy. It makes Britain confident enough to face down Mr Putin.

Monday, January 14, 2008

British Council Fights Back - III

The BBC reports that the British Council has reopened its offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. In response, the corporation notes, the Russian foreign ministry has "summoned" the British ambassador.

According to Sky News, the Kremlin later said it would stop issuing visas to all new British Council staff sent to work in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, thus placing the Litvinenko affair once more at the centre of deteriorating British-Russian relations.

The Telegraph has more.

Relatives of Beslan victims to go on trial

From the Guardian:
A group of women whose relatives were killed in the Beslan school siege are to go on trial in Russia today after they accused President Vladimir Putin of complicity in the deaths.

The Voice of Beslan group has been charged with "extremism" over an appeal to politicians in Europe and the US which implied that Putin assisted terrorists.

The prosecution was launched under legislation introduced last year which civil rights activists warned could be used to attack critics of the Kremlin.
The UK Times newspaper also has a report here, and the Financial Times covers the item here.

The Precedent

Elena Bonner, widow of academician Andrei Sakharov, discusses the contemporary state of Russia in a recent interview published in the Weekly Standard, pointing to the correct historical analogy for what is currently taking place:
...the bigger picture in Russia saddens her deeply. Bonner believes it is a mistake to see Russia as backsliding toward the Soviet era. "This is a completely different historical point. Analogies to the Stalin era or to the 1970s do not feel real to me," she said in a telephone interview days after Putin's United Russia party won the massively rigged parliamentary elections on December 2. "I am closer to the view that there are many parallels to Germany in the 1930s. The same decrease in unemployment, economic stabilization; people are living better. Putin, like Hitler, is seen as the man who brought Russia out of chaos, raised her from her knees. It is ridiculous and embarrassing when the leaders of United Russia refer to Putin as 'the national leader.' What's a leader? The F├╝hrer. It's a carbon copy of a word that inevitably evokes certain associations."

So far, of course, Russia has no state ideology similar to Nazism; however, Bonner cautions, "there is a very strong nationalist idea, as well as the idea of Russian Orthodoxy as a state church. Authoritarianism, Orthodoxy, populism--not even focused on 'the people,' but on ethnic Russians--this formula, which is being more and more broadly adopted by the powers that be, seems to me a very frightening direction for my country. A large part of the population is unhappy about this. But when push comes to shove, even most of those people will not vote for the opposition but for Putin and United Russia, because they've been persuaded that the rise in prosperity today is the merit of Putin and United Russia."
See also: Putin's Nazi Inheritance

Friday, January 11, 2008

Chechen Poets

The Wikipedia wiki on Chechen poets already has 5 entries - more are likely to be added. The poets represented so far include Raisa Akhmatova, Abuzar Aydamirov, Musa Geshaev, Hasan Israilov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

It's to be hoped that at some stage an English-language anthology of Chechen poetry will be forthcoming from an enterprising UK or US publisher.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Poetry Now

The texts of the three lectures which constitute the parts of the ongoing StAnza (St Andrews Poetry Festival) debate on the situation of poetry and the poet in contemporary Britain can be read on the StAnza website which, I recently discovered, has a new URL. The fairly lengthy but intriguing and memorable contributions are by publishers Neil Astley and Michael Schmidt, and poet and critic George Szirtes.

An excerpt from Michael Schmidt's lecture gives something of the quality of the discussion and the often interesting international perspectives it opens up. Here he is, arguing the need for "a diverse and vigorous culture of reception", a concept which could indeed be the key to much that is puzzling and unfocused about the present day poetry scene in the UK:
W.H. Auden understood what the pressures on a writer can be when that culture of reception becomes unitary and coercive, and how it is necessary if one is to grow to make tracks. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States, leaving his admirers and their over-insistent politics behind. What marks the Auden who obtained his freedom is a refusal to conform, to come down from his brilliant linguistic and cultural perch, to trim. What is a highbrow? he asks in an early piece. ‘Someone who is not passive to his experience but who tries to organise, explain and alter it, someone in fact, who tries to influence his history: a man struggling for life in the water is for the time being a highbrow. The decisive factor is a conflict between the person and his environment…’ That conflict occurs in art; it also occurs in criticism.

‘Poetry is not concerned,’ Auden says, ‘with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.’ Poetry is still instrumental; and that word rational is there, virtually synonymous with moral.

Friday, January 04, 2008

British Council Fights Back - II

From today's RFE/RL Newsline:
BRITAIN DETERMINED TO KEEP BRITISH COUNCIL OFFICES OPEN IN RUSSIA
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow was quoted by the BBC on January 3 as saying that the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg will stay open despite a Russian order to close them. The spokesman said that the British Council's legal position in Russia is "rock-solid." The council plans to resume work on 14 January after the Russian New Year break. It's perplexing that the Russian government is pursuing this vendetta against the British Council, which does only good things for Russia and Russians." The dispute over the British Council is widely seen as part of the continuing row stemming from the 2006 London poisoning of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 21, 2007, and January 2 and 3, 2008). On January 3, Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin as saying that "we have not raised the question of the British Council's office in Moscow thus far, and this is an act of goodwill." This was the first time that a Russian official made mention of the council's Moscow office in the course of the dispute. Kamynin also accused Britain of "politicizing" the issue. On January 4, the "International Herald Tribune" quoted an unnamed British Embassy official as calling Kamynin's remarks "hypocritical in the extreme." The daily also quoted Kathryn Board, who heads the council's overseas network, as saying that "if there is a law that we don't comply with, the Russian government has yet to point it out." She added that Britain is in contact with the Russian authorities to enable the offices to reopen without incident on January 14. "We still have a week or so to go and very much hope this will be seen through to a proper conclusion." PM

Thursday, January 03, 2008

British Council Fights Back

The Telegraph notes that
The British Embassy in Moscow has said that it would defy a Russian order to close two offices of the British Council outside the capital.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Full Hearts

I've been watching one of the Christmas presents my daughter sent me, a remarkable set of DVDs that goes by the name of Friday Night Lights - an NBC television serial drama based on the life of a fictional small town in Texas, with a particular focus on high school football. Season One is really fine - like other serials in the genre (Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) it both pas homage to its subject matter and transcends it, becoming an analysis not only of issues that trouble Middle America, but also of the human condition itself. There may be some echoes of British director Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life of 1963, based on David Storey's rugby classic, but in terms of human tragicomedy and sheer epic sweep this show goes far beyond anything in that novel or movie.