A SURREAL SUMMER SCENE: AN UNWANTED WAR
By Stephen Wilson
(Moscow, Russia) - Three times I turned up to a kiosk to purchase a copy of a western Journal. Each time I was informed that 'We don't have any more copies!' I asked, 'Will you be selling it in future?' 'We won't,' answered the vendor.
'May I enquire why not?' The woman raised her voice loudly yet calmly, 'Because this Journal comes to Moscow via Ukraine, and they won't send it to us without us paying for the order well in advance! We can't do that! It is unreasonable! ' So that was the end of that! I got no 'Economist ' journal!
One of my students told me that a Russian colleague at a business conference was the only one not invited by an American to a corporate party because she was Russian. Yet this same American company employs her in Moscow. The pettiness of so called 'sanctions' against innocent people can reach low depths!
One billboard reads, 'Now we have got the Crimea back let us deal with traffic jams!' Even Russians seemed perplexed, amazed and confounded by the statement. What on earth is aim of this message? Who paid for it?
Is it by some crank driven to a frenzy by being stuck in daily traffic jams or is it poking fun at the phony patriotism of many zealously newly born patriots? Okasana Chebotareva, an English Russian teacher, told me she could not make head or tale of it. She did point out that she had already observed a strange and almost surreal mood had arisen in relation to recent events in Ukraine. For instance, one of her colleagues noticed a drunken man who boarded a trolley-bus. He opened a can of beer, started drinking and spilt some over an indignant woman. Instead of apologising, he raved, 'If you don't want beer spilt over you, you can take a taxi.' He later rambled on, 'I might be poor, but what does it matter! We have got Crimea back.' Obviously, this passenger is not going to lose any sleep over traffic jams. So the mood of some local Russians is often euphoric and elated in an eccentric or boorish way. It seems to say, we might not have decent jobs or pay, but at least we have got the Crimea. Now, for the first time in years, Russians feel they are now a great power to be reckoned with and, are at last, alas, standing up to the West!
Later, when Oksana went shopping at the supermarket, just before and was about to be served at the till, an impatient drunkard with a beer belly and bloated face burst in, 'Can you let me go first ? I need Kerosene. It is almost.' Oksana did not understand, but later understood 'Kerosene' was Russian slang for alcohol! She shouted at him indignantly, but then let him go in front. Then another drunkard asked to go before her. The Cashier warned her. 'If you let everyone go in front you will never be served. We close at 9!
In light of what is an increasingly brutal, bloody and relentless war in Ukraine, the mood in Moscow is assuming an air of unreality. While they are trying their best to convince themselves life is blossoming and becoming better, a state of sharper world political tensions between east and west, sanctions and threatened sanctions, verbal skirmishing and a slow down in economic growth suggests otherwise. There is also an intense heat wave which is further disorientating and derailing calm thought. In one Russian school, a teacher tells her English pupils they can't perform plays by Oscar Wilde because 'he was gay' and at Moscow Power Engineering institute, English teachers are told that their services are no longer required as 'students can learn English for free via the internet'. Perhaps it is no coincidence, but unwanted psychiatric patients are often discharged at this time of year. Some of those abandoned patients can be seen aimlessly wandering around the streets in tattered trainers .
IS THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY GOING TO EXPERIENCE FULL-SCALE RECESSION?
For years some academics and Journalists have been expecting the Russian economy to completely collapse.
All the indicators seem to signal trouble, the failure of the economy to diversify, worsening corruption, a huge cash outflow which has risen from 62.7 billion dollars in 2013 to 63.7 billion dollars in 2014 and rising red tape rather than a decline. Small businesses have not flourished, but on the contrary declined! Whereas, only a few years ago there was a kiosk at every street corner and a street trader lurking around, now you can't find a single kiosk!
Russia is moving into a recession. The Russian economy's growth has plunged from 4.3% in 2011 to 1.3% this year.
The economic development industry predicts it could fall to 0.5% this year and the I.M.F. suggests it might fall to even 0.2%. By all standards, Putin 's popularity should be falling! It is not. On the contrary, his is showing in the polls has soared to an all high rate of over 80%. The voice of the opposition seemed to have faded into obscurity.
The scenario of an uprising against the government has not happened. Why is this the case? Because many Russians believe the situation could be much worse. Things might not be so wonderful as a few years ago, but at least Russia is not as bad as Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, at least Russia has no mass unemployment, civil war or such hopeless mass poverty. The catastrophe which occurred after the protest at Maiden in Ukraine has meant the death sentence of the opposition in Moscow. Many Russians look at this, and think, well, if a civil war in Ukraine was the result of mass demonstrations and protest, who needs or wants this disorder. It is a case of 'Better the Devil you know, than the Devil you don't'. More importantly, what matters is not just the real worsening economic situation of a person, but how he perceives it. If a person keeps on perceiving the worse scenario,then he can keep on going through a lot of hardship.
For all the euphoria concerning Crimea, the vast majority of Russians don't want a war in Ukraine. Neither do most Ukrainians. In fact, the greatest enthusiasm for 'Anti-terrorist operations ' against the Republics of Luhansk, Slovyansk and Donesk are not Russians or Ukrainians, but representatives of the American Government and a newly elected President who is already breaking his promises to broker peace. The soldiers of the Ukrainian regular army, who are largely untrained, unfed and poorly paid, don't want to enlist or perform any assault. Even the Russian rebels are having difficulty recruiting local Russians to volunteer for in their army. One mayor went so far as to make an appeal for female volunteers who were deemed as 'more enthusiastic and devoted to the cause.'
It is fair to claim that the Russian rebels were counting on the Russian government intervening to defend them.
However, despite much misguided and misleading rhetoric of Putin being a madman bent on unleashing a war to seize more territory in the Ukraine, the Russian state has not invaded or fully supported the rebels. On the contrary, they have had a hard time controlling those largely free-lance republics. For example, Putin's call not to prevent or interfere with the latest presidential elections went unheeded. If the Russian government is encouraging and actively supporting those republics, it must be having a hard time! The spate of kidnappings by Russian rebels was extremely embarrassing rather than welcoming to the Russian government.
WHY IS THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT NOT EAGER ABOUT INVADING UKRAINE?
Due to horrific attacks against innocent civilians, growing hunger, the cutting of water supplies and abysmal conditions where sick patients can't even get access to urgently required medicine, the Russian Government is under immense pressure to intervene. Despite endless pleas of peace, neither the European Union, American government or the state in Kiev are listening. In fact, genuine peace-makers of any kind, Russian or non-Russian, feel they are up against a brick wall. This is because what counts is not human lives, but the growing political power, prestige and influence of NATO and the self-determination of Ukraine! The complexity of the Ukrainian situation is beyond the empathy of many European and American politicians. It is perhaps no accident that in the recent European Union elections to parliament, the opposition took a huge vote at the polls. Many of those politicians, such as Maria Le Pen and the British leader Nicholas Farage are highly sympathetic to the Russian Government's position on Ukraine. Some go as far as blaming the war in the Ukraine on the botched negotiations of European Union diplomats.
Although the Russian government would like to defend Russians in Ukraine, it is highly reluctant to resort to full scale military force. The Russian government lacks the full economic resources to occupy any more territory of Ukraine. It is already facing an economic recession which would only be intensified by being dragged into a long-term war. An invasion by Russia would strengthen the arguments of Ukrainian nationalists who would claim that this act only confirms their entrenched beliefs in Russian aggression. In such a bleak scenario, the economic and political price would spell disaster. As one Russian Journalist succinctly told me, 'A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be suicide!' However, quick military intervention to protect or evacuate Russian refugees can't be entirely ruled out. The main axiom of living in Russia is 'Never presume'!
This summer is likely to be heated, hazy and agonising for both Ukraine and Russia. It is time some sober-minded people sent a cool calm breeze to dowse the relentless and remorseless flames.