2016: THE YEAR OF RUSSIAN SELF-DESTRUCTION?


By Julia Aurell
Staff Writer

While consumers have been enthusiastic about the decline in oil, and thus petrol prices, not everyone shares this vision. In December 2015, Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian economy had contracted by 3.9 percent in 2015, and inflation had risen to be just shy of 13 percent. He attributed the contraction to the fall in the price of oil and natural gas, Russia’s two largest exports. Nevertheless, he assured the public that the worst of the economic downfall had been surmounted, and released a new budget, which estimated that the price of a barrel of oil would remain at 50 USD during 2016. As the first month of 2016 comes to a close, one can observe that the price of oil has sunk to a mere 30 USD a barrel. Thus, the latest concern of the Kremlin is if the worst of the economic hardship has been endured, and how Russia will respond in the face of such economic backlash.

From 2010 until mid-2014, world oil prices remained fairly stable, averaging around 110 USD a barrel. However since June 2014, prices have plunged by nearly 70 percent. The collapse has been associated with the surge of US production as it attempts to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, as well as Iran’s renewed entrance to the market. However, the surge in supply did not need to equate to a decline in prices. Rather, the prices have declined due to the surprising decision by the oil cartel OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), and specifically Saudi Arabia, to not cut supply as a way to increase prices. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and OPEC’s most influential member who could most easily fluctuate the price of oil by restricting its production, has chosen to keep pumping. The decision has stemmed from a political motivation, rather than an economic one. If Saudi Arabia were to cut its production, it would allow Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival, to increase its market share. The continued ramping up of current tensions between the two rivals is likely to continue as they seek to outmaneuver one another for hegemony over the Middle East. Consequently, the supply of oil has outmatched the demand in the world market, pushing prices down.

The increase in supply of oil offers the economic giants, such as China, the opportunity to fuel economic growth, as they now pay a lower price for the same commodity. The euro area’s oil-import bill has fallen by 2 percent of GDP since mid-2014 , and the share of oil in China’s total imports is forecasted to decline by 7 percent. Additionally, cheap oil drags down the price of natural gas which in turn replaces coal, a dirtier fuel. However, not everyone has been equally pleased about the downturn in oil prices, most noticeably the Russian Federation, whose greatest exports are oil and natural gas.
When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the world was experiencing an economic boom. With an economy growing at 7 percent, stock prices heightened and incomes tripled by 2007, Putin’s support base expanded and allowed Russia to regain a voice in the international arena. However, current oil crisis, intertwined with the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2008, has presented Putin with a deeply contrasting scenario. Russia is no longer a rising country, but rather one in relative, if not absolute, decline. Since the annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s proxy-war in Ukraine, Russia has endured continued sanctions from the European Union and the United States. Subsequently, the sanctions which targeted Russia’s energy sector have worsened the economic depression, as most of Russia’s exports until recently went to the European Union and Ukraine.

Looking ahead, some analysts predict that the Russian people will wait out the current recession, as they did during the Soviet era. However, such conclusions should not be drawn so quickly. During the economic boom in the early 21st century, Russian citizen’s experienced and adapted to a new lifestyle of increased incomes, life expectancy, and benefits. As these lifestyle changes began to decline, 400,000 people choose to emigrate from Russia in 2015 alone, compared to 35,000 in 2008. The display of the internal dissatisfaction can also be seen through the continuous protests around the country. Krasnodar, a city of nearly 1 million people located by the Black Sea, has seen continued illegal protests over the last months over suspended senior benefits in regards to public transportation. However, the senior citizens are not alone; members of Putin’s blue-collar support base have begun directing their anger at the state with the fear of increased prices and fees, as Russian truck drivers rallied in opposition to the proposed highway fee. While the government allows for protests regarding matters such as lost wages, the distinct authoritarian nature of the country emerges in the face of political critique, and such critique may be coming sooner than expected.
The New York Times Bureau Chief in Moscow, Neil MacFarquhar, notes “Russia spent around 50 billion to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and a similar construction juggernaut is building stadiums nationwide for the 2018 World Cup.” In the face of the continued budget cuts, such expenditures may not sit well with the Russian public, and the continued military expenditures seem to be making matters worse. Similarly, citizen Sergei Titvo describes the Putin regime as a disappointment as he explains “What we [the Russian people] need is an effective manager, but what we got is the Olympics, soccer and war.”

To address said economic challenges, Putin may attempt a deepening relationship with People’s Republic of China, as PRC will want to take advantage of the decreased price of oil to reenergize her declining economy. Similarly, removing the countersanctions inflicted upon the European Union could improve the standard of living in the nation. However, the fact remains that last time that Russia was hit by an oil crisis of this magnitude, the Soviet Union collapsed. Vladimir Putin will need to work consistently and in uniform with both the citizens of the Russian Federation, as well as the international communities, to ensure that the economic downfall does not translate into a political downward spiral.

Image by NWFblogs

Whose Lives Matter?: A Conversation on Police Brutality Across Borders

By Carla Diot
Staff Writer

In recent response to the social unrest over the mysterious circumstances of 25-year old Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei published several tweets expressing solidarity to protesters, all while attacking the United States for its inadequate responses to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. Using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, Khamenei tweeted “It’s ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes against US blacks continue to occur.” The additional tweets, which can be found on Khamenei’s Twitter page, are not the first time that Iran has used such incidents as a platform to attack the United States. During the height of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Ayatollah Khamenei attacked the United States, calling it the “biggest violator of #HumanRights,” committing not only international crimes, but crimes against its own citizens.

The perspective of the conversation on police brutality in the United States has been focused domestically. President Obama recently declared the allocation of $20million to local police departments across the United States to be used specifically for purchasing body cameras to monitor police behavior towards citizens. However, the nationwide issue has also had international repercussions. The United States has received criticism from the international community, including countries such as Egypt, Russia, and Iran, as well as in forums such as the United Nations. This has provoked an international conversation on police brutality, with the United States serving as the principle violator. Yet, many of the countries who saw the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore as an opportunity to attack the United States have also been responsible for police brutality against their own citizens, and have, ironically, been criticized by the United States for doing so.

After the death of 18-year old Mike Brown, the town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a series of protests, and were met with escalated responses by St. Louis county police and the National Guard. In Ferguson, images of the high tensions between the protestors, the police, and the media were broadcast around the world. The images provided an opportunity for international political leaders and media to highlight the United States’ unsolved racial tensions. In Russia, government-controlled channels such as Russia Today and Rossiya 24 reported on the unrest, calling the scene a war zone. The conversation in Russia also focused on comparisons of the unrest in Missouri to the current unrest in Ukraine, even referring to the protests in Ferguson “Afromaidan.” The term gained significant ground and has also been used in describing the current ongoing protests in Baltimore. Russian politicians also got involved in attacking the United States, with the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, Konstantin Dolgov commenting that, “While urging other countries to guarantee freedom of speech and not to suppress anti-government protests, the U.S. authorities at home are none too soft on those actively expressing discontent over persistent inequalities, actual discrimination and the situation of ‘second class’ citizens.” While preaching these values, the Russian government eclipses their own treatment of second-class citizens.

In fact, Russia is not exempt from condoning brutality against its own citizens. In 2014, Human Rights Watch published License to Harm: Violence and Harassment against LGBT People and Activists in Russia. The report was scathing, accusing Russia of treating LGBT citizens as second-class citizens after the passage of a law banning “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships.” While the language behind the law was noted for its vagueness, its intention was clearly seen as attacking LGBT citizens. Since the passage of the law, Human Rights Watch noted a rise in brutality against LGBT citizens. Most of the subjects interviewed for Human Rights Watch claimed that while the attacks were from vigilante groups such as Occupy Pedophilia, police officers often sided with the attackers, with one officer even claiming he would have done the same thing to the victim. Police officers both sided with, and participated in violence against LGBT citizens and activists. For such reasons, brutality against LGBT citizens went unreported, leaving them without any rights to justice.

In Egypt, the foreign ministry called on the United States to show restraint towards demonstrators in Ferguson over the summer. The Foreign Ministry claimed that it was “closely following the escalation of protests” and urged the U.S. government to find answers to Mike Brown’s death. The Egyptian government’s call had come at a time when tensions between the two countries were strained after the Egyptian government arrested and convicted forty-three non-governmental (NGO) workers under charges of operating without a license. The case was controversial, as critics argued that the law was vague and used to control NGOs. Several months after the conviction of the workers, President Obama announced the suspension of military aid to the Egyptian government, only releasing it under conditions that Egypt show credible steps towards free and fair elections. The withholding of military aid was used to show displeasure with Egypt’s violation of human rights at the time. Thus, when instability struck Ferguson, it was an opportunity for Egypt to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the United States in its policing of human rights.

Yet in calling for restraint, Egypt conveniently clouds its recent history of violence against dissidents. One of the most notable cases of violence against protesters was the Raba’a massacre, whose two year anniversary will be commemorated in August 2015. The massacre occurred after supporters of the ousted Mohammad Morsi gathered around the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque to protest the coup against Morsi. The group consisted mostly of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, a group that would continue to be targeted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration after the massacre. The demonstrations began peacefully, with supporters establishing camps around the mosque, but when it came time to disperse the camps, supporters were met with violence from the police. Though the death toll of the massacre is still unknown, it is estimated to range from 600 to 1,000 deaths. The crackdown was met with heavy criticism from the international community, with many groups such as the United Nations calling it a violation of human rights law. The United States immediately addressed the massacre, with President Obama responding through sharp words and the cancellation of a joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercise, known as Bright Star. In his address, Obama noted that “the Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days.” The incident was seen as another step in the deterioration of U.S.-Egypt relations. However, even more notably, the incident failed to create real dialogues in addressing violence against citizens.

The time for the United States to address police brutality may have finally arrived. After the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt, and Freddie Gray, the United States has begun to move towards repairing race relations, and ensuring equity in human rights. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and Egypt are justified in criticizing the human rights abuses of the United States, and their words should be taken seriously. Yet it is their intentions that are lacking and should be criticized. For these countries, including the United States, human rights goes from being a goal for countries to aspire towards, to a back-and-forth game in an international political arena. Countries should reconsider their use of human rights discourse as a propaganda tool, as it results in empty words and fear-mongering. Instead, criticisms of another country’s human rights violation should be used to conduct thoughtful self-reflection and as an initiative to address the abuses seen in a productive way domestically.

Photo by Light Brigading

PUTIN IS TURNING OVER A NEW-OLD LEAF

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By Alex Shkurko
Staff Writer

Since Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea last March, Western observers have debated issues ranging from the extent of Russia’s territorial ambitions to the question of arming Ukraine. Less ubiquitous, but equally concerning is the return of Soviet-style authoritarianism in the age of Putin. Though this is not a new development, the crisis in Ukraine has opened up a new chapter in Russia’s retreat from liberal democracy, unleashing a fresh torrent of media controls and political intimidation.

Under Putin, the media reshapes and redirects events in Ukraine, placing blame on the West for inciting regional conflict in an attempt to economically isolate the Russian people. Russian media is immensely powerful in the shaping of Russian public opinion. This is especially true for older generations, whom receive 90 percent of their news from state-controlled television stations. Anti-Western antagonism is hardly new, but its resurgence is notable both for its scope and effectiveness. While the impact of sanctions has been dubious from the perspective of the West, they have only fervently reinforced the disdain already present in Russian citizens for the United States and its Western allies

Redirecting blame for Russia’s economic woes to the United States has proven to be an effective course of action. The process takes place on the television sets of every citizen in the Russian Federation on channels such as Perviy Kanal. In between pop ballads by Soviet-era singers, Putin appears on screen standing tall and proud, declaring with his body language that Russia’s power has yet to be seen by the world. Putin is first and foremost a nationalist and a populist. However misdirected his criticisms of Obama are, the Russian people are listening and are standing tall with him.

The control of information by Putin and his allies is not limited to traditional media outlets. Restrictions on expression have been given a new life and form by the Internet. Though Twitter and Facebook are accessible, the Russian social media site VKontakte, which translates to “in touch”, eclipses them in popularity and usage. But with constant oversight and monitoring by the Russian government, users are dissuaded from organizing together and from sharing politically damaging news. In 2011, authorities pressured VKontakte to limit opposition posts over concerns about protest organization. After reports divulged that VKontakte shared user information with the government, two major shareholders sold nearly half of the company to suspected Kremlin allies.

In 2013, VKontakte founder Pavel Durov posted Federal Security Service (FSB) requests for information on Ukrainian activists who frequently criticized the Kremlin. Russian social media does not allow anonymous registration and requires users to provide phone numbers, which are linked to passports in Russia. To shield themselves from the eyes of the state, younger and more progressive activists have taken to Western social networks with false names to voice their critiques of Putin’s state. However, their impact at home is negligible given the aforementioned limited reach of Western social media.

For years, the liberal opposition in Russia has experienced a disturbing trend of murders and disappearances among its prominent figures. Victims such as former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Alexander Litvinenko and noted journalists Anne Politkovskaya were known for their outspoken criticism of Putin’s regime. Now, the crisis in Ukraine has added yet another prominent opposition figure to the list of victims. The recent murder of former deputy prime minister and noted Putin critic Boris Nemtsov mere steps away from the Kremlin shook Russian society and served as a stark reminder that in today’s Russia, those who voice opposition to Putin do so at considerable risk. Nemstov was once a contender to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president. That a Jew nearly ascended the highest echelons of Russian power is an incredible thought. However, it was not to be. Yeltsin eventually handpicked Putin to succeed him. Nemtsov instead became a passionate Putin critic and a symbol for human rights and democracy in a gradually authoritarian Russia. Some believe his murder, carried out shortly before he was slated to lead a pro-Maidan rally, was an attempt to conceal and suppress information pointing Russia’s involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukrainian. Though the links between Nemstov’s murderers and Putin is unsubstantiated, the slaying of such a prominent anti-Putin figure further squeezes a hard-pressed opposition.

Russia is heading, or has already arrived, at a point of no return as a result of the Ukraine crisis. The ever-tightening control of information and the murder of a prominent former deputy prime minister within walking distance of the Kremlin, poses an important question: what’s in store for Russia’s future? If current trends continue, little will remain of the hopes some in the country had at the collapse of the Soviet Union for a flourishing liberal democracy. This is no accident and is a progression of Putin’s policies and leadership. That is in itself troubling.

Image by Vladimir Varfolomeev