Archive | November, 2007
November 30, 2007

United Russia’s GOTV activities



A small sampling of GOTV, Russian style:

Ivan, power station worker, Ufa

Every worker is being forced to take an absentee ballot and instructed to vote at one particular polling station with the rest of the workforce, all together for United Russia. It will be very easy for them to count who has turned up, who hasn’t, and how they’ve voted. On every shift, in every department we are constantly being told that if you don’t comply you’ll get the sack.

Yelena, nurse, Ulan Ude
Every week we have a work briefing in our poliklinik [doctor's surgery]. They are always pressing on us to vote for United Russia. The head doctor … says that if we don’t vote for United Russia we won’t get our Putin pribavki [federal funds added to nurses' salaries].

Dasha, 19, student, Moscow
I was hanging out with my friends in Novogireyevo [in Moscow] near the metro. There were six of us. We were approached by a car. A young man came out. He started talking to us about the elections and said if we wanted to vote for United Russia we could get 500 roubles. I didn’t agree but four of my group did. They filled in some kind of form – name, surname and passport data. They were given the numbers of polling stations where they should go and vote and get the cash.

Anastasiya, 40, librarian, Buryatia
There was a meeting in the village where all doctors, teachers, nurses were gathered by the culture department of the local government … The doors were closed and we were like hostages. We were told write a declaration saying “I, name and surname, pledge to vote for United Russia and these are my passport details …” We were told that if United Russia got a high percentage in the village we would get a bonus on our salaries.

Natalia, 29, Novosibirsk
Some activists from United Russia came to my home. They asked if I was going to vote for their party. I said no because I don’t agree with its ideology. And they replied, Well, look, there’s blacklist of people who aren’t voting for United Russia. We know where you live and we are going to add you to that list.

Masha, student, Vladimir
We were told – you study in a state university, so you should vote for the state party. I don’t know what to do. I wanted to vote for another party. But it was so difficult to get into university, I don’t want to be thrown out.

My personal favorite was the line “Well, look, there’s blacklist of people who aren’t voting for United Russia. We know where you live and we are going to add you to that list.” I’ll have to try that out the next time I do some campaign work here in the States.


November 29, 2007

Because he can



In a televised address, Putin urged voters to back United Russia, warning that the liberal opposition would return Russia to the “humiliation, dependency and disintegration” it suffered after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russian Parliamentary “elections” are being held this Sunday, with Putin’s United Russia Party set to steamroll the opposition.

His valor is extolled on billboards across the nation, and his daily feats dominate the television news. At a keynote election speech last week, his handlers even showcased a shimmying girl band singing an ode to that heartthrob in the Kremlin: “I want a man like Putin, full of strength!”

Thousands of candidates are vying on Sunday for seats in the next Parliament, but the election is really about only one politician, President Vladimir V. Putin. After steadily securing control over Russia since taking office in 2000, Mr. Putin has transformed the election into a vote of confidence on his leadership and on the nation’s economic recovery, and he is throwing the full weight of his government and party machine into the fight.

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are sitting this one out. Problems with the visa paperwork, or something like that. Employees are told by their bosses “Vote for United Russia or else…” and members of opposition parties beaten and thrown in jail:

Opposition parties have been all but suffocated by strict new election laws, scant television coverage, curbs on their ability to organize and criminal inquiries. Workers at government agencies and companies that receive state financing said they were being exhorted by their bosses to pull the lever for Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia.

A professor in Siberia named Dmitri Voronin, for example, said in an interview today that he and others at his university had been repeatedly called in by administrators and told that if they did not vote for United Russia, they would be dismissed.


Prosecutors confiscated more than 15 million campaign newsletters, calendars and fliers from the Union of Right Forces, one of the mainstream liberal parties that has come under regular harassment. In some cities, leaflets were anonymously distributed saying that the party was employing people with AIDS as canvassers.
Nikita Y. Belykh, a party leader, said he could not recall the last time that the party was covered by the main television news programs positively. Mr. Belykh was briefly detained by the police last weekend during protests conducted by an opposition coalition, Other Russia, that is led by Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion. Mr. Kasparov was arrested and sentenced to five days in jail.


He added that the party had received numerous reports from around the country of people being threatened with retribution if they did not vote for United Russia.

That was the experience of Mr. Voronin, the professor in Siberia, who lives in Prokopyevsk, 2,000 miles east of Moscow. Speaking by phone, Mr. Voronin said local United Russia officials had guaranteed party leaders that they would receive 80 percent of the vote in the region.

“They periodically summon directors of the local branches of the universities, directors of technical schools, specialized schools, head doctors of clinics and hospitals and give them instructions on how to vote,” Mr. Voronin said. “They also call together different categories of voters — for instance, young people who are going to vote for the first time — and explain to them how they should do it ‘correctly.’”

Via Robert Amsterdam (I’m amazed he has the time to blog…he’s the lawyer for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former CEO of Yukos oil) comes this information on Nashi, the Kremlin funded youth group:

Here’s an interesting bit of exclusive news: a trusted colleague of mine has leaked to me copies of a series of worrying placards being printed right now in Moscow by the Nashi for distribution on Sunday following (or during) the successful elections. These items of propaganda urge Putin supporters to take to the streets in premature celebration, to defend the outcome before it is announced officially on Dec. 6. It is in many ways an open gesture of confession that even the Nashi don’t believe that a real election is taking place.

The posters use highly incendiary language and aggressive caricatures in the name of the president, similar to an exhortation to riot seen in other countries far less developed than Russia. I’m considerably concerned about this development, and I warn all friends and colleagues in Moscow to exercise extreme care in the days between the election and the announcement of results. It seems that the murder of a Yabloko candidate, the arrest and jailing of Kasparov and others, and the ongoing violence at any opposition rally isn’t enough to satisfy the Nashi. I fear the worst could still be yet to come.

I take my cardboard Putin everywhere, too

Anne Applebaum asks the question, “If Putin (and by extension, United Russia) is so popular, why even bother to harass the opposition?”:

Kasparov himself answers this question—one of many political mysteries in Russia at the moment—by arguing that Putin is far less secure than he appears to be. During a recent lecture in Warsaw, I heard him convince a large crowd that Russian opinion polling in general should be taken with a grain of salt: In an authoritarian society, especially a post-Soviet one, who tells the truth to a stranger over the telephone? He also claimed that polls asking more specific questions—”Is your city well-run? Is your mayor corrupt?”—produce a far less contented portrait of Russian society than questions like, “Do you approve of Vladimir Putin?”

Maybe so—but that doesn’t exclude the other, grimmer explanation, which is that Putin beats up his opposition because he can. The dollar is sinking, Bush is fading, and Europe still doesn’t have a unified Russia policy. Meanwhile, Russia is awash in oil money, next week’s parliamentary elections will go the Kremlin’s way no matter what, and why should the Russian president care if there’s some name-calling in the Washington Post?

Exactly. Putin…does…not…care. What can the U.S. do? Not a damn thing.

November 27, 2007

CCCP shirts now fashionable


The $600 shirts, anyways. Still, I feel so trendy now.

Empowered by an oil boom that pushed the country’s trade surplus past $94 billion this year, Russia has been flexing its muscles abroad. At home, meanwhile, young and trendy Muscovites are in the throes of nostalgia for the staples of Soviet childhoods, relics of a time when the U.S.S.R. was at the height of superpower status.

That may explain why one of the most popular fashion designers this fall is Denis Simachev, who is selling overcoats fastened with hammer-and-sickle buttons, gold jewelry minted to look like Soviet kopecks and shirts festooned with the Soviet coat of arms, complete with embroidered ears of wheat.

“People in their 30s see these kinds of symbols as reminders of happy memories, like going to pioneer camp where they lived together, ate breakfast together and played sports,” said Mr. Simachev, 33, who wears his hair in a Samurai-style ponytail. He insists he is no Communist — for one thing, his overcoats sell for about $2,100 and his T-shirts for about $600. His boutique is sandwiched between Hermès and Burberry stores on a pedestrian lane, Stoleshnikov, that is one of the capital’s most expensive shopping streets.

Mr. Simachev first attracted notice with a collection of retro Olympic tracksuits emblazoned with C.C.C.P., the Cyrillic initials for the U.S.S.R., and T-shirts printed with the likeness of President Vladimir V. Putin, which served as a wink at the cult of personality forming around the leader.

By tapping into a generation that is experiencing an identity crisis, Mr. Simachev, who is also known here as a D. J., a Ducati motorcycle rider and a snowboarder, has quickly become the epitome of Russian cool for a subset of gilded Moscow youth.

It’s already on my Christmas list

For those who would rather not spend $600 on a t-shirt, yet still want to participate in the resurgence of Soviet nostalgia, please note that you can acquire low-quality CCCP shirts for a few bucks at your local Russian souvenir market.

November 26, 2007

Missing Romanovs found

Tsarevich Aleksei and a Princess whose identity has yet to be determined. Discovered by a group of dedicated amateurs who spent their weekends scouring the forests outside Yekaterinburg:

Eleven people were said to have been killed that day in July 1918 on Lenin’s orders. Just nine sets of remains were dug up here and then authenticated using DNA. The remains of the czar’s son, Aleksei, and one daughter, whose identity is still not absolutely clear, were missing. Did their bones lie elsewhere, or could it actually be that they had escaped execution, as rumor had it for so long?

Only in the past few months have these questions dating from the Russian revolution apparently been resolved here, and only by a group of amateur sleuths who spent their weekends plumbing the case. In fact, it appears that the clues to what happened to the two children were always there, waiting to be found. All that was needed was to listen closely to the boastful voices of the killers.

Their accounts are in secret reports in Soviet-era archives, one of which offered the most tantalizing hint: a single phrase in the recollection of the chief killer that seemed to suggest where the two bodies might have been deposited.

“All of them wanted to leave a trace in history, for they considered that this was a kind of heroic deed,” said Vitaly Shitov, who lives in the area and undertook a review of the testimony to hunt for the remains. “They wanted to promote their roles.”

Following that wisp of a clue this summer, Mr. Shitov and other amateur investigators went to where the other remains had been found — and they kept walking. Away from the road, about 70 yards from the first burial ground, is a slightly elevated area among the trees.

It is there that the bodies of Aleksei, 13, and his sister were apparently consigned.

November 25, 2007

I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California stars

I was in California for the Thanksgiving holiday but am now back in hell, more commonly known as Washington, D.C., our lovely nation’s capital.

This is only the third time in the past seven years that I’ve actually spent Thanksgiving with my family, so it was a welcome change. In the past, it’s been too short a period of time to fly all the way out there for the holiday, as well as incredibly pricey, so I always opted to stay in DC (or London). This year, though, I decided to take the extra day off (Wednesday) as well as fly into the less desirable Ontario airport so that I could make it work.

Of course, with my luck, I was struck with an incredibly nasty bout of food poisoning on Monday thanks to a chicken salad sandwich from Corner Bakery. On the food poisoning scale, it was just a step above the Paris incident of ’05, in which the French attempted to kill me with Brie.

I woke up on Tuesday morning fully intending to go to work for most of the day (flight wasn’t leaving until late afternoon) but realized that I couldn’t stand up for more than two minutes without becoming incredibly nauseous, so decided I should stay home. I am not quite sure how I managed to drag myself to the airport, but looking back I really should have taken a taxi instead of the metro. After checking in, I had to sit down and rest for a few minutes before heading to the security checkpoint, which was full of newbs who were oblivious to the fact that you can’t walk through a metal detector with your cell phone, iPod, and assorted bling without setting the damn thing off.

I caught my connecting flight in Houston (where, I kid you not, a girl asked “Is there, like, a time difference between here and California?” WTF!) and arrived in Ontario before midnight. I finally got into Palm Desert a little after 1am. Unfortunately, I had to skip the obligatory double double from In-N-Out due to being damn sick.

I thought I would be over this food poisoning by Wednesday morning, but woke up in even worse shape. I basically spent the majority of the day curled up in bed, dressed in a fluffy oversized Ritz Carlton – Rancho Mirage robe (legally acquired!), downing liters of Gatorade and wishing someone would just put me out of my misery. Katerina and I were supposed to go hiking in Ladder Canyon, but for obvious reasons had to cancel.
As you can see, our training regimen for Mount K is going quite well.

Thanksgiving rolled around, and I was feeling a little better, but still not well enough to eat anything substantial. I had a few bites of mashed potatoes and stuffing, but that was about it. I am quite possibly the only American who lost weight over the Thanksgiving holiday.

By Friday morning, though, I was back to normal. My face had regained its color, and I no longer looked like a starved zombie. The rest of my time in PD seemed to be a non-stop schedule of engagements. I had people to see, double doubles to eat, Mexican food to enjoy – the usual Palm Desert activities.

This morning, I left the house at 3 to catch my 6am flight out of Ontario. While our plane was pulling away from the gate, the girl sitting directly across from me screamed “Oh my God! Did you see that?!?!” Well this is great, I thought, I’m sitting next to an insane person. But then a flight attendant said that she had seen something as well, and they both concurred that a large mouse had scurried across the aisle. So our plane pulled back into the gate, an operations crew boarded, and after several minutes of deliberation, a decision was made that we would proceed to Houston with the mouse on board. The captain announced that anyone who did not wish to fly with the mouse could get off the plane and take a later flight. No one took him up on his offer.

And now here I am, back in DC. Food poisoning aside, I loved being able to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Hopefully next year I will be able to do the same without having to fly 3,000 miles. I’ll steer clear of the chicken salad as well.

November 19, 2007

Required reading: November 19, 2007

Instead of erecting statues of national heroes, several Balkan towns are opting for monuments to Rocky, Tarzan, Bruce Lee and a former Playboy model.

The U.S. Census released their list of most common surnames in the nation. Fincher is not in the top 1000, which I am going to use when justifying my reason to not change my last name when I get married (uh, yeah, whenever that is). Besides, I can’t be bothered to change my e-mail address or domain name.

The world would love America if they knew how boring Americans are. Expand the Peace Corps, send Americans to study abroad, bring foreign students to study at U.S. universities. What a concept.

The Ultimate War Simulation Game

November 18, 2007

Required reading: November 18, 2007 (Oil spill edition)

Bay Area surfers were so frustrated with the government’s response following the Cosco Busan spill that they took it upon themselves to organize volunteers and clean up their favorite breaks:

Aghast at what he saw as the government-run cleanup’s slow pace, Rosas teamed up with two Silicon Valley friends, Byron Cleary and Kathleen Egan. All three are surfers. All three loathe red tape.

Their beach was getting slimed. Oil-smeared seabirds were in a death dance. The friends wanted action.
Risking arrest, they took time away from work to hit the sand — and get others out there with them.

In a matter of days they had launched a remarkably successful campaign, harnessing both the high-tech chutzpah and the environmental passion of the Bay Area.

Tapping into far-flung communities of techies and surfers, they marshaled volunteers over the Web. They set up a blog. They offered cleanup tips that others posted on Craigslist. They persuaded local businesses to pitch in by providing paper towels, synthetic gloves, even bagels.

As to be expected, some surfers did show up to the contaminated beaches wearing flip flops.

Several thousand miles away, the cleanup continues after an oil tanker loaded with 1.3 million gallons of fuel oil sank in the Black Sea.

It’s highly doubtful that this latest incident will lead to any improvement in Russia’s enforcement of its environmental standards (or lack thereof). Remember, only non-Russian companies have to abide by those regulations.

November 16, 2007

The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea



“You know, these resources in the Caspian were discovered by Russians, and Russian companies will be the ones developing them.” Yuri Shafranik, Russian Minister of Energy to Bill White, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy. Mid 1990s.

I recently finished Steve LeVine’s The Oil and the Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea, a solid and fascinating account of the efforts by Western energy companies to gain access to the abundant reserves of oil and gas in the former Soviet republics surrounding the Caspian Sea. This is a subject of particular interest to me, as I spent a majority of my time at LSE researching Caspian energy issues, and in particular, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

One of the problems I encountered while writing my dissertation was that despite the region’s significance to geopolitics and energy, there is a lack of reliable source material. There are a few academic articles out there, but the topic is so contemporary that you end up relying heavily on newspaper articles and industry journals. Lutz Kleveman’s The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia is a captivating account of his journeys through Central Asia, but the book sometimes has a tendency to veer into conspiracy theories. Fortunately, LeVine’s The Oil and The Glory fills the void, finally bringing a well-written account of Caspian energy politics into the mainstream.

In particular, LeVine provides a fascinating description of the early days of the Baku oil boom (1870s), where the oil was so plentiful and close to the surface that men could simply dig it out with shovels, wells spewed 3,500 wasted barrels an hour for days on end until they could be brought under control, and the Nobels (of the dynamite and Peace Prize family) and Rothschilds built large baroque mansions with the money they earned from their oil investments. The Nobels, in fact, built the region’s first pipeline to transport crude from their fields to their refineries. In an event that would repeat itself throughout the region some 100+ years later, the Nobels found the government authorities hostile to their plan, and it was only until they paid off key government officials that they were granted the necessary right-of-way to build their pipeline. Of course, the Nobels still had to contend with the soon to be unemployed drivers who transported barrels of oil on their horse carts, so they hired Cossacks to protect the project from sabotage attempts.

early Baku oil wells
Early Baku wells

In the early 1990s, Baku experienced another oil boom as Western companies competed for influence among Azeri officials. In those days, oil company representatives from Houston and London, fresh off their corporate jets, slept in hotel rooms bugged by the local intelligence agency, witnessed a systematic breakdown of law and order in the city streets, and had guns pointed at them by their Soviet counterparts. The region was a true Wild West.

oil pollution outside Baku
Massive pollution on the outskirts of Baku (taken during a July 2006 visit)

Another Caspian issue which LeVine recounts particularly well is the battle over pipeline routes to export the oil to world markets. All the pipelines built during the Soviet era were routed through Russia, so the flow of oil from Azeri and Kazakh fields was literally at the mercy of the Russians. They could turn off the flow at will regardless of contract terms, and, in several instances, did exactly that by denying Chevron the use of an agreed daily quota of 65,000 bpd for a pipeline transporting crude from the Tengiz field in Kazakhstan. As such, the U.S. Government was clearly worried that the Russians would continue to use their control of export routes to undermine the independence of the former Soviet republics and restrict their ability to ship oil to Western nations. The construction of a pipeline route that avoided Russian territory became the top priority of the Clinton Administration’s Caspian foreign policy. In fact, among certain policymakers in the White House, it became an obsession to undermine Russia’s so-called “iron umbilical cord” that controlled the fate of oil exports from the former Soviet states. The centerpiece of this “happiness is multiple pipelines” policy (indeed, this slogan was plastered on bumper stickers distributed throughout the region) would be a main export pipeline that began in Baku and ended in Ceyhan, thus bypassing Russia.


The problem, however, was that the Clinton Administration’s promotion of a Baku-Ceyhan route was met with skepticism by the Western oil companies, who considered it to be little more than a geopolitical pet project of the U.S. government. It was the companies, after all, and not the government, who would have to finance and build this $3.6 billion “political” pipeline. As LeVine details, a variety of events (i.e., Turkish opposition to increased traffic in the Bosporus Straits, BP’s merger with Arco requiring the approval of U.S. regulators, and assurances on construction costs and security from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey) eventually led to the construction of the 1,099 mile pipeline, which now ships some 750,000+ bpd of crude to world markets (expected to reach 1 million bpd by 2010).


Something I particularly enjoyed about The Oil and the Glory was LeVine’s tendency to throw in some of the more absurd, and therefore amusing, details surrounding the efforts of Western companies to develop the Caspian’s resources. Among my favorites:

• In order to land the Tengiz contract in the early 90s, Chevron had to convince Soviet officials that their offshore drilling operations would not cause any environmental damage (besides oil, the Caspian’s other moneymaker is caviar). Chevron flew the Soviet officials to an offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico, handed them fishing poles, and invited them to catch the fish swarming below. Still, one of the Soviets was convinced that no oil production was actually taking place, and that the rig was just a “Hollywood prop” erected to deceive the delegation.

• Yet another official worried that deepwater drilling in the Caspian would somehow set off an earthquake, causing chaos in Kazakhstan.

• Azeri President Heydar Aliyev apparently had a crush on Hazel O’Leary, Clinton’s first Secretary of Energy

John Browne, the former CEO of BP, refused to fly Aeroflot, was accompanied by staff members who set out china and silverware for him wherever he dined, and once ate a sheep’s eyeball – a Kazakh delicacy traditionally offered to the guest of honor. Apparently, some guys will do anything to land a contract.

• Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev wanted to witness the perforation operation on a Kashagan well, but the drilling crew was worried about something going wrong, and, you know, killing the president. It was decided that they would have to fool Nazarbayev into thinking that they were performing the operation, so they acquired 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel and jury-rigged a tank with an on/off switch. When Nazarbayev arrived, they faked the operation and flipped the switch on the tank, which made it appear as if the well was flaring natural gas. Nazarbayev watched the “flare” for TWENTY MINUTES, and by then the crew was worried that the fuel would run out. Fortunately, Nazarbayev moved on to take part in the tradition of smearing his face with oil…which was actually acquired from Tengiz. Nazarbayev left the rig that day, satisfied that Kashagan was producing.

He’ll never know the difference…

After all that, how can you not find the Caspian intriguing?

This book is a quick and easy read, and LeVine has done an excellent job detailing the power politics and corporate struggles that have accompanied the pursuit of the Caspian’s natural resources. If you have any interest in energy issues, Russia, or the former Soviet Union, I cannot recommend The Oil and the Glory enough.

November 15, 2007

They are not helicopter parents, but they do read this blog

And they occasionally comment, for instance, on the last post:

Lindsay if you wanted to be a slacker in San Diego couldn’t you have gone to San Diego State instead of those high price schools. I think it’s a little late to think of you as a slacker, Miss LSE.
Mom & Dad

FINE! I’ll go to business school in Houston!

(I know how much you love that city.)

November 13, 2007

Fifty years of this stuff ahead of me

I’m sick of Washington.

The slacker part of me just wants to move back to California and do whatever. Live in San Diego, surf, work for whoever.

The ambitious part of me thinks that maybe I should move to Houston and work for a gigantic corporation while pursuing one of those part-time MBAs. Rice University, or something. I can’t believe I just typed that.
There’s gotta be a compromise somewhere.