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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

EDITORIAL: Postcards from Potemkin Russia


Postcards from Potemkin Russia

Russia these days reminds us of a middle-class man who spends his life savings to buy a shiny new red Ferrari without realizing that the purchase will leave him with no funds to pay for gas, much less costly repairs or insurance. He charges out of the dealership onto the highway headed for a cross-country trek, only to run out of gas before he leaves his own state and ends up hitchhiking down the highway.

Bedazzled by an oil revenue windfall and its sparkly effects on Moscow, some Russophiles have forgotten there's a country out there, one that requires maintenance if it is survive. Just as in Tsarist and Soviet times, modern Russia's oligarchs ignore the welfare of the masses and burn their candle at both its ends.

It will not last the night, and as we reported on Monday the light it gives is far from lovely.

Take, for instance, a report on Monday from Bloomberg News about Lake Baikal:
Lake Baikal is warming faster than the atmosphere, challenging the idea that large bodies of water can withstand global warming, U.S. and Russian scientists said. Baikal, which holds 20 percent of the world's fresh water, has warmed by 1.21 degrees Celsius since 1946, said Marianne Moore, assistant professor of biological sciences at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Global temperatures have risen 0.76 degrees Celsius since industrialization, a United Nations panel on climate change said in March. The Siberian lake holds more than 2,500 plant and animal species, including the world's only exclusively freshwater seal, and some could become extinct by continued warming, said Moore, co-author of a report on Lake Baikal to be published this month in the journal Global Change Biology. The study challenges the idea that thermal inertia of oceans, seas and large lakes would make them more resistant to climate change, Moore said. "The warming that we're seeing in this lake is of more concern than that of any other lake because of the extraordinary biodiversity," Moore said. "You could potentially lose the Baikal seal." Beginning in the 1940s, data on Lake Baikal was collected by Mikhail Kozhov, a professor at Irkutsk State University. The research was carried on by his daughter and granddaughter, Lyubov Izmesteva, a co-author of the journal article. The family has taken samples of the lake every seven to 10 days since 1946, amassing a history that Moore analyzed. The data revealed that the lake's average summer temperature has increased by 2.4 degrees, Moore said. "My jaw just dropped to the floor when I heard this," Moore said. "I was extremely surprised that the data set even existed."
The New York Times adds: "Dr. Izmesteva and her colleagues pay for their work in part with fees they earn by consulting or doing environmental impact assessments. They sustain the program any way they can." In other words, without support from the Putin regime in Moscow. Such support would, of course, divert funds from Putin's parade of tanks through Red Square on Friday and all the other cold-war provocations he has in mind. But if Russia intends to keep control over the world's single largest portion of national territory (by a wide margin) then it will have to bear the world's largest maintenance costs. If it doesn't pay those costs, the nation will dissolve into rust and then be gobbled up by others who will. That's the law of nature.

But Russia shows no inclination whatsoever to do so. The Kremlin would prefer to spend Russia's ready cash on renewal of the cold war conflict with the West, and the people do not seem willing to lift a finger to stop that. Russia stands to lose one-third of its population in the next half-century, a far greater blow than any ever inflicted by a foreign enemy in war, yet the government is silent and the population demands no action, much less change of policy or regime. There is no environmental movement in Russia, because there is no support for one in the population. There is no racial justice movement, no women's rights movement, and indeed no real opposition of any kind to the edicts of the malignant little troll who prowls the Kremlin's parapets by night, spitting on the hapless denizens of his land from on high for his amusement.

Below, we report on Putin's plans to spend piles of money on an outrageous neo-Soviet parade of military hardware through Red Square. Who could ask for any more emphatic proof of Russia's neo-Soviet intentions than this? In another item we report below, Radio Free Europe calls it "a deliberate throwback to the country's communist past, when millions of people watched live on television as the Soviet Union celebrated its vast military might." And so it is, in more ways than one: Ass the report below shows, just as in Soviet times these actions are mere illusions, more efforts to create a Potemkin Village and dupe the unwary, both at home and abroad, into thinking that Russia is more than it is. How dare Putin simultaneously decry the expansion of NATO and parade armaments before a slack-jawed world? Is this man insane?

Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian political analyst, thinks so. He tells RFE: "Putin gives free rein to the Soviet dream. The huge number of people who were brought up in a military tradition, and who conceive the world in terms of the West wanting to enslave them, have the painful feeling that Russia lacks tanks. So why not show them these tanks? Why not roll them across Red Square? Let them watch, shed a few tears, and calm down."

Frankly speaking, though, even if we despise Vladimir Putin, sometimes we empathize with him. Like the rulers of Russia who have come before him, how can he but be infuriated by the craven indifference of the population, by their dogged refusal to stand up and be counted for any reason? Why should he do anything differently, if the people of the country don't demand it? Why should he take any risks when he knows full well that any call for national effort will fall on deaf ears? Why shouldn't he conclude that he rules over a nation of cattle, and proceed accordingly?

Surely, that frustration was just as well known to Tsar Peter, and Lenin, and Stalin, and indeed to Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

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