Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: Syria and the Russian Economy

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Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: How Important Is Syria to the Russian Economy?
The Kremlin has been trying—unconvincingly—to repackage its military campaign in this devastated country as a long-term investment project. 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
February 27, 2019

The economy was probably the last thing on the Kremlin’s mind when it decided to get involved in a civil war in the heart of the Arab world. But now that Russian military forces have been in the region for several years, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to spin its support for Bashar Assad’s regime as a sound investment, a contribution to a prosperous trading future between the two countries.

Russia has claimed it is willing to export to Syria anything it can offer in addition to weapons, from wheat to know-how for preventing extremism on the internet. Along with Iran, the country has big plans for taking part in the postwar restoration of Syrian cities and Syrian industry, including the energy sector. Russia’s governors speak touchingly of their readiness to go to Damascus at the drop of a hat to negotiate with the Syrian government.

“When the talk turns to Syria, I immediately catch myself thinking I need these meetings,  I need to see those people again and again, and I need to be useful,” Natalya Komarova, head of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District said at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi two weeks ago.

The expenses Russia has incurred during the Syrian campaign are shrouded in mystery. Analysts at IHS Jane’s calculated in October 2015 that Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day.  In July 2017, the opposition Yabloko Democratic Party published its estimate of the overall bill: as much as 140 billion rubles [approx. 1.87 billion euros], but this total did not include associated costs, including humanitarian aid. In 2017, according to RANEPA, 84% of Russia’s official total of disbursed humanitarian aid ($19.6 million) went to Syria. What kind of economic cooperation could justify such figures?

It would be pointless even to try and find an answer in recent trade trends between the two countries. Its volumes are negligible. During the first nine months of 2018, Syria’s share of Russia’s exports was 0.09%, while Syria accounted for 0.002% of imports to Russia during the same period. This has always been more or less the case.

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“Trends in Russia’s trade with Syria (in billions of US dollars).” The pale violet line indicates Russia’s exports to Syria, while the blue line indicates Russia’s imports from Syria. The data for 2018 is only for the first nine months of the year. Source: Russian Federal Customs Service. Diagram courtesy of Republic

The largest transaction in the history of the economic partnership between the two countries was Moscow’s cancellation of $9.8 billion dollars in debt, 73% of what Syria had owed the Soviet Union. At the end of the 2005 meeting at which this matter was decided, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin also spoke publicly of the idea of establishing a free trade zone. Subsequently forgotten, the undertaking was mere camouflage for the political bargain reached by the two men, which was and remains support for the Syrian dictator’s regime in exchange for the dubious dividends the Kremlin has received by increasing its influence in the region. It is believed Russian strategic bomber saved Assad, who had already been written off by the west. But explanations of what Russia has ultimately won for its efforts and what its economic strategy might look like have been more muddled and contradictory than before.

In an October 2018 interview with Euronews, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov avoided directly answering a question about joint economic projects. During his tenure as head of the Russian Export Center, Pyotr Fradkov (not to be confused with his father former PM Mikhail Fradkov, the current head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR) talked about Russia’s potential involvement in developing the “high-tech segments of Syria’s economy.” A month ago, however, the selfsame Russian Export Center placed Syria at the bottom of its ranking of 189 countries in terms of their favorability for foreign trade.

The Syrian economy, in turn, can currently offer Russia even less. Mainly, its exports boil down to fruit, but in such small and unstable quantities that they cannot seriously compete with deliveries from Turkey. Russia has been promised priority access to the development of natural resource deposits in Syria, which are teeming with oil, natural gas, and phosphates. But the smoldering war and the lack of security guarantees for investments have hampered implementing these plans.

Russian experts pin their hopes on the surviving remnants of industry in the government-controlled areas of Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus. Based on the fact that “the level of production that survived has enabled Assad to almost fully provide himself [sic] with food during five years of war,” Grigory Lukyanov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics has concluded the Syrian government “depends on a well-developed business community.”

Syria, however, seemed like a nightmare for investors well before the country was turned into an open wound. “Only a crazy person would go into Syria at his own behest,” Vedomosti quoted a source at a major company that was involved in negotiations with the Syrian government in the summer of 2012. Suffering from international sanctions, Syria proposed that Russian companies take part in construction of a thermoelectric power station in Aleppo. Four years later, one of Syria’s largest cities had been turned into ruins by heavy bombardment.

The Rothschilds [sic], who made fortunes on wars, thought the best time to invest was when blood was flowing in the streets. Their approach might seem to resemble the Kremlin’s strategy. But let’s not kid ourselves: unlike the famed financiers, President Putin is completely devoid of insight when it comes to the economic consequences of his military escapades. Business plans are not his strong suit.

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klementyev/AP and the Washington Post. Translated by the Russian Reader

‘Ere, or, Applied Culanthics

DSCN5744.jpg‘Ere, 2018. Graffiti found in Central Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

This is a soundbite of champagne leftist culanthical research at its worst.

Monstrations are a symptom of a deep crisis of the pro-state nationalist and anti-state liberal discourses that reduce Russia’s complex political reality to two formulaic camps, obliterating space for democratic debate. Could there be an American monstration? One that resists Trump, but also refuses to explain away the phenomenon of Trump by referring to bigots and Russian agents? One that neither demonizes Russia nor justifies the actions of Putin’s regime?

Is Russia’s political reality really all that complex?

Why, if the US is filled with teenagers who can take the stage at a massive rally on the Mall in DC and make inspiring, cogent, coherent speeches, do we need the incoherent, politically feckless, thrift-store surrealism of the Novosibirsk Monstrations?

If we can either impeach Trump, pin him down with a crippling special investigation or, finally, simply fail to renominate or reelect him, why do we need to explain him away or even explain him at all?

What is the difference between Trump and “the phenomenon of Trump”?

If, nevertheless, well-paid, tenured academics force us to explain this “phenomenon,” why can’t we refer to bigots and Russian agents? Are they mere figments of our imagination?

Who does a better job of “demonizing” Russia?

People trying to explain away the phenomenon of Trump?

(By the way, why isn’t it “the Trump phenomenon”? Is “the phenomenon of Trump” more culanthically correct?)

Or are the true demonizers the Putin regime itself, a regime that has been quite demonstrably engaged in setting a new land speed record in sheer gangster nastiness at home and abroad at least since 2014, although we know they started much, much earlier (i.e., when Putin was deputy mayor of Petersburg in the early and mid nineties, and served as Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s bag man and liaison with dicey “foreign investors” and local gangsters)? // TRR

P.S. The culanthics only go downhill from there.

The banners you see at monstrations state their theme obliquely. In the spring of 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea, the slogan “Crimea is ours!” dominated pro-government media channels and billboards. The liberal opposition, conversely, stressed that the Crimea was illegally stolen. Meanwhile, monstrations sided with neither of these accounts. On May 1, 2014, the Novosibirsk monstration walked behind the banner “Hell is ours!”, a statement that iconically and ironically challenged the official slogan, but also refused the simplified version of the political events advanced by the liberal opposition. The march united young people with different political opinions, from those who saw the annexation as an isolated unlawful act to those who refused the liberal oppositional story and instead saw the Crimea in connection with other events, including the attempts of the extreme right and ultranationalist movements in Ukraine to hijack the popular Maidan revolution.

Such is the secret of the trendy “third position” in Russian and Russophile “anti-authoritarian leftism”: to side with nobody but other third positionists, to hover high above Moscow, Peterburg, Crimea, Donetsk, Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta or, in this case, the Berkley Hills like angels of history. God forbid the third positionists should ever do something so rash as actually organize a real anti-war movement explicitly and loudly opposed to the Kremlin’s predations in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.

One, it would involve a lot of needless work.

Two, it could get the third positionists, otherwise accustomed to a heavy schedule of jetsetting from academic conference to art residency to speaking engagement, into a lot of hot water. They definitely do not want to go to prison for any reason, unlike those careless antifascists from Penza and Petersburg, about whom the third positionists mostly have nothing to say, unsurprisingly.

(Russian and Russophilic third positionism requires its adepts to refrain from criticizing Russia’s foreign and domestic policy catastrophes and crimes as much as humanly possible. People who, on the contrary, criticize the current Russian regime’s actions loudly and often are labeled “liberals” and “Russophobes,” the worst words imaginable in the third positionist vocabulary.)

Three, it would mean the third positioniks would have to give up their firmly held conviction, which they share with Vladimir Putin, Alexander Dugin, and Vyacheslav Surkov et al., that all the evil in the world originates solely in the United States and that, however hamfisted and controversial its actions, Russia has only been reacting to the miseries deliberately visited on it by American unilateral imperialism and neoliberalism.

Russophile leftists lap this spiked rhetorical gravy up like hound dogs who have not been fed for a week, so the invitations to appear at conferences and contempory art hootenanies, and contribute essays to “politicized” art mags and cutting-edge scholarly journals keep pouring in. After all, it is what really matters in life, not Syrian children, blasted to smithereens by Russian bombs, or hapless Crimean Tatars, rotting in Russian prisons because they are too stupid to know what is good for them.

Jerusalem

Waterspout on the Gulf of Finland, June 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of Nation News
Waterspout on the Gulf of Finland, June 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of Nation News

Novaya Gazeta reports the Russian government is planning to cut spending on health care by 33% in 2017.

This reemergent supah powah thing is going really, really well.

But as I was told by a Russian cabbie today, all of the country’s problems, including problems with housing maintenance, actually stem from the “fact” that the current constitution (adopted in 1993) was “dictated by the Americans.”

Whenever I hear something like this, I’m reminded of Mark E. Smith endlessly repeating, “It was the fault of the government. It was the fault of the government…” in the song “Jerusalem” on the glorious album I Am Kurious Oranj (1988).

But in Russia, it’s always the fault of someone else’s government, especially, in recent decades, the US government.

This is total infantilism, and there is no excuse for it anymore, especially with the Russian bombs raining down on Aleppo like there’s no tomorrow.

But isn’t that the point? Putinism has no future. Or rather, its continued existence postpones the future indefinitely. So why not go for the gusto and slash health care for your own citizens while bombing the crap out of people (I will never tire of repeating) who have never harmed a single hair on a single Russian’s head. Maybe something will come of it. Or maybe everything will go up in smoke. Whatever the case, like a two-year-old, you could give a flying fuck.

Facebook Is Fun! (Islamophobia in Russia)

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-1819. Oil on canvas, 491 cm x 716 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

My memories of kindergarten are fairly fuzzy by now, but I do seem to recall we did a lot of sharing. This, I think, explains why the dark satanic mill known as Facebook has become so indispensable and popular in our modern world. Like kindergarten, it’s all about sharing.

For instance, this morning I was feeling fairly glum about the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, the apparently total indifference my Russian friends (and “friends”) feel about the role their armed forces have been playing in this massacre, and my inability to do anything about any of this, much less changing anyone’s mind.

Apparently, Facebook even has algorithms for detecting when you’re feeling blue, and like a cheery kindergarten minder in such circumstances, it gets you involved in some fun sharing to buck you up.

This was what Facebook decided to share with woebegone me this morning.

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“At Venice Film Festival, Sokurov Says European and Muslim Aesthetics Incompatible,” reads the headline on Newsru.com, an alarmist Russophone news website based in Israel.

When I clicked on it, the item turned out to be old news, an article, dated September 8, 2015, quoting controversial statements made at last year’s Venice Film Festival by the Petersburg auteur Alexander Sokurov, who was in Venice to debut his latest indisputable masterpiece, Francofonia.

Presenting his film Francofonia at the Venice Film Festival, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov said the European and Muslim aesthetics were incompatible. Calling for an end to “the endless and pointless incursions,” to immigration by an alien culture, Sokurov thus polemicized with the chair of the festival jury, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who earlier had suggested solving Europe’s rampant immigration crisis by organizing entry for the immigrants. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra reported on Francofonia and Sokurov’s statements.

Presenting what the newspaper called “a brilliant allegorical tale about the Old Continent through its museum symbol, the Louvre,” Sokurov said, “History teaches us nothing. Prudence and compassion are alien to history.”

“Europe, which has attained supreme achievements in art and philosophy, keeps making one mistake after another,” said the Russian maître, as quoted by InoPressa.

“What is happening, these endless and pointless incursions [or, invasions], seem like an indescribable nightmare, a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of which ordinary people are powerless, and politicians do nothing. And no one thinks to protect our culture, which will cease to exist quite soon,” the filmmaker continued.

[…]

The Italian periodical described the action of the film as follows: a ship that must bring European culture to a safe haven sails into a storm. If it sinks, its precious cargo will be irrevocably lost to all Europeans.

“Europe finds itself on The Raft of the Medusa, as in the famous painting by Théodore Géricault, exhibited in the Louvre. Just like the frightening boats, crowded with desperate people making their way to our shores.”

The article here refers to the numerous cases of the illegal delivery [sic] by sea (sometimes ending in tremendous loss of life) of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

During the presentation of his film, Sokurov called for “a stop to these migrations.”

“To really help these people, it is necessary to intervene in the countries from which they are escaping and try to solve the problems there. Instead, we pile them up together here, where they have no prospects, and try and impose our TV lifestyle on them,” he argued.

“The outcome will be catastrophic for both parties,” the filmmaker warned.

Sokurov was certain that “our aesthetic and the Muslim aesthetic are incompatible.”

“With all due respect, we must maintain a distance and protect our culture from the iconoclastic fury that is destroying it,” said the filmmaker.

He reminded the audience of the total destruction of unique landmarks in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, by militants from the terrorist group Islamic State, which is banned in the Russian Federation.

Recently, the extremists blew up three tombs of local patricians in the captured city. Earlier, they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin (2nd century BC) and the Temple of Bel, consecrated to the supreme Semitic deity [sic].

“Even the Nazis would have not dared to do what has happened in Palmyra,” said Sokurov.

I have quoted at length the day brightener Facebook chose for me, because it amply demonstrates a sad but irrefutable fact. Islamophobia is a perfectly common attitude and a perfectly respectable political “stance” in Russia, adopted and bruited loudly and publicly by well-read, highly educated members of the “liberal” Russian intelligentsia, as evinced here by one of their darlings, Alexander Sokurov.

This, in turn, explains the near-total silence of “liberal” and even “leftist” Russians on the destruction of Aleppo.

Let me put it as crudely as possible. Despite the court judgement handed down on popular blogger Anton Nosik the other day, a really large number of educated “white” Russians think Muslims are subhumans whom, if push comes to shove or your “civilizational project” has got bogged down and you cannot think of anything better to do, can be slaughtered with impunity and without blinking. In fact, it is better for one’s digestion, state of mind, and personal pursuit of high culture (per Sokurov) to put a mental wall between yourself and whatever is happening to the Muslims in your midst, or to the Muslim Crimean Tatars in Crimea, or to the Muslims in Grozny (back in the first years of Putin’s perpetual reign), or to the Muslims in Aleppo.

If you think I am exaggerating, I invite you to come to the Motherland and have heart-to-heart chats with a sampling of members of the so-called intelligentsia. In some cases (but not, happily, all cases) you will come away thinking you’ve just spent time with Trump supporters, UKIP cacklers, BNP bruisers or clowns from the KKK.

But the funny thing about Facebook is that it is not the only satanic mill on the oppressively vast World Wide Web. Nowadays, you can also ask something called Google whatever question your wicked heart can conceive—for example, how many Muslims are there in Russia?

“In Europe overall, however, Russia’s population of 14 million Muslims (10%) is the largest on the continent.”

Yikes!

Where did all those Russian Muslims come from? Did they immigrate to the Motherland from Syria and other majority Muslim countries?

No, despite the recent heavy influx of migrant workers from the Muslim Central Asian republics (once also part of Russia, in its guise as the Soviet Union), which has even more recently been waning due to the bad economy, among other factors, most of Russia’s Muslims were born and bred in the Russian Federation. Thus, to the outside world, they are “Russians,” if not to many of their fellow Russian citizens, who probably cannot get their heavily bookish heads around such funny facts as Moscow’s being the largest Muslim city in Europe.

You would think that, with so many Russian Muslims and post-Soviet Muslims sharing (there is our keyword again!) your cities, towns, and villages with you, you would not want to go out of your way to antagonize Muslims for no reason at all.

(Not because they are touchier than your average bear, but just because no one in this world enjoys being kicked around for years on end just because they’re different.)

But that is what the Russian government has been doing in Syria, and that is what significant numbers of Russia’s best and brightest have been doing for a long time now, if only rhetorically, if only at the Venice Film Festival, on Facebook or in their kitchens.

The consequences, both now and in the future, could not be more miserable, especially for the alleged “European” culture that only Russian intelligenty and European neo-Nazis seem to get so exercised about.

Thanks, Facebook, for cheering me up! I knew I could count on you. TRR

Crazy Train (In Praise of Boris Johnson)

Except for riding a bike to work when he was mayor of London, calling on people to go to Russian embassies and protest Russia’s sickening, brutal behavior in Syria may have been the only sensible thing Boris Johnson has done in his life, especially given what it has revealed not about him and his alleged hypocrisy (nearly all powerful politicians, even the ones we adore, are horrible hypocrites) but about the psycho-tactical dimension of the Kremlin’s otherwise unmotivated bombing campaign. The properly “hysterical” reaction to Mr. Johnson’s modest proposal by the Russian MoD and the Kremlin is a mirror of the deafening silence on what is happening in Aleppo from the (nonexistent) Russian public. Actually, this deafening silence and meek acceptance are also how the Russian authorities expect, in their “logical” mode,” “the west” and “the international community” to react to their Borg-like crushing of all living life in Syria. So, “logically,” they throw a tantrum and snort fire when anyone has the temerity, like Mr. Johnson, to notice what they’re doing and call it what it is. On the other hand, in their “irrational” mode, whose ultimate expression is rebranding a country that is coming apart at the seams infrastructurally, intellectually, educationally, politically, economically, aesthetically, environmentally, demographically, morally, religiously, ethnically, industrially, socially, etc., into a “reemergent super power,” not for any higher purpose such as “communism” or anything nice sounding like that, but only in order to keep Putin and Co. in power for the rest of their natural lives, the Russian authorities really do want literally everyone in the world to pay attention to what they are doing in Syria and to be awed, to be impressed. That is, to remonstrate, throw fits, descend on their embassies, send them poison pen letters, whatever. Naturally, they don’t want them to go much farther than that, though that might be “fun” too, given that the “development program” they have sketched for their country amounts to suiciding it every which way possible.

This is the only time in my life I have genuinely felt a wan bit of liking for Boris Johnson. If only for exposing what the Stop the War Coalition really are (“Stalinist running dogs” is the proper term, I believe), he deserves a knighthood or a year of free lunches at Subway. TRR

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Hero for a day. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph