Archive | Russia

Germany’s President May Be Boycotting the Sochi Olympics

German President Joachim Gauck may be boycotting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in order to protest Russia’s human rights abuses:

German President Joachim Gauck will not represent his country at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, his office says.

The announcement makes Gauck, a former pastor, the first major political figure to boycott the games, which will be held at the Black Sea resort in February.

According to a report in the German publication Der Spiegel, Gauck made the decision in protest against human rights violations and the harassment of Russian opposition political figures. The magazine said the Russian government was informed of his decision last week.

But Gauck’s office is downplaying the report. “He simply decided not to go,” his spokesman Tobias Scheufele told CNN. “We’re not saying anything about his motivations.”

Others have called for a boycott to protest Russia’s recent crackdown on gays and lesbians, which is just the tip of the iceberg of the Russian government’s repressive ways under the rule of Ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin.

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin argues for a limited boycott by world leaders:

The athletes are going to the games, for better or worse. (On one hand the almighty dollar and the bizarre primacy of sports make one queasy, on the other, one can sympathize with the young people who’ve devoted their lives for the perfect performance at just the right time.) But the politicians are an unnecessary and therefore dispensable part of the proceedings….

It would be a small but telling gesture if the Obama administration and all members of Congress would steer clear of Sochi. The athletes in full view of hundreds of millions around the world can compete — and then snag their endorsements. Refusal to grace Sochi with the presence of the

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Thanksgiving for Purported Pirates in Russia and the U.S.

It is a happy Thanksgiving for defendants in two very different piracy cases – the trial of Ali, a Somali education official arrested while attending an education conference in the U.S., and the crew of Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise, arrested by Russia last month while minding Russia’s business on an oil rig. I’ve written about both here before.

Both very different cases have one thing in common – aggressive charges of piracy for conduct that has never been treated as such.

Russia had arrested the Greenpeace provocateurs on the high seas for piracy, though their actions clearly did not constitute the crime. However, piracy is the only legal basis for seizing a vessel on the high seas. Afterwards,hooliganism charges were substituted for piracy, making the “Arctic 30” a kind of international Pussy Riot.

Holland, the flag state, brought Russia before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which just ordered Moscow to promptly release the vessel and crew. While the latter are now out on bail (but must stay in Russia), Russia has announced that it will not comply with the prompt release order (see Julian Ku’s discussion). Interestingly, Russia had complied with ITLOS rulings in two prior cases. But that was before the U.S.’s withdraw from global power invited Russia to strut like a Power again. (And its neighbors have noticed, and already turned from the West and come to kiss the ring.)

I’ve written about Ali’s case before: he was charged with piracy on the high seas, though his only role was as an ex post negotiator. No one had ever been charged for “high seas” piracy for after-the-fact dry land activity – the essence of piracy is its location. And this is especially true in a universal jurisdiction [...]

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What Russia’s Piracy Charges Against Greenpeace Mean for International Law

Amazingly, Russia has brought criminal piracy charges against the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which it had arrested on the high seas. The piracy charges make a mockery of international law, for reasons I’ve discussed. Moreover, such clearly abusive and politicized piracy charges are quite unprecedented in modern history, as far as I can recall. Indeed, I am quite surprised by the charges; I had thought Russia would consider the arrest and initial detention sufficient harassment. (But I was more on the mark with my comparison to Pussy Riot – apparently supporters of the Dutch-flagged vessel are now calling it the Pussy Sunrise.)

The charges are significant for international law because historically nations have been extremely wary of pre-textual or politicized piracy charges. To be sure, nations often publicly accused their enemies of piracy – the U.S. in the Quasi-War constantly denounced aggressive French privateering as “piracy.” In the Civil War, President Lincoln also called the obviously-unrecognized Confederate privateers as pirates. But in these cases the matter would almost never proceed from propaganda to prosecution.

One of the more recent politicized invocations of piracy was the Santa Maria incident of 1961, when anti-Salazar forces hijacked a Portuguese cruise ship. Lisbon denounced the attackers as pirates and demanded their arrest. But because the attackers had come on board as passengers, it did not satisfy the “two ship” requirement, just like in the present case, and the international community did not support the piracy characterization. (The terrorists ultimately got asylum in Brazil.) The point is that looks a lot more like piracy than this, and even still did not meet the requirements.

An internationalist explanation would suggest that this is because nations understood that piracy charges are heavy medicine. It is one of the very few justifications for arresting [...]

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Greenpeace & Russia – an International Pussy Riot

I blogged earlier about Russia’s illegal seizure of a Greenpeace vessel in international waters, and its laughable characterization of their acts as maritime piracy. The ship Arctic Sunrise had been boarded after an attempt to board or come alongside a Russian oil rig for some kind of non-violent protest. Subsequently, Vladimir Putin apparently poured cold water on potential piracy charges, leading some to think it would be a passing squall.

Instead, a Russian court has ordered all 30 crew members of varying nationalities jailed for two months pending an investigation. The ship also not been released, and the Netherlands, as the flag state, may file prompt release proceedings in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The incident is a kind of international Pussy Riot. You may recall that Russia gave two-year jail sentences to members of that “feminist punk rock protest group” for some kind of raunchy, uninvited performance in a Russian Orthodox Church. (I am not entirely clear on the goals of the group or their methods.) While the sentence was widely decried, it does seem that Pussy Riot was engaged in a particularly provocative protest, that almost certainly took liberties with other people’s property. The legal action against them was not unreasonable – it was the nature and severity of the action that defied all proportion, and revealed a heavy-handed intolerance of protest.

Greenpeace is in a similar situation. They may have committed technical trespass, and certainly should not protest at finding themselves in court. But jail is another matter. There is one big difference: with Pussy Riot, Putin was bullying his own nationals, in his own capital. Now Russia is throwing its weight around against foreigners on a foreign-flagged vessel in international waters, which is not just thuggish, but a violation [...]

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Russia’s Piracy Charges Against Greenpeace Groundless and Illegal

Russia has seized a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace vessel in international waters, and plans to charge the crew with piracy. The environmentalists had attempted to unfurl a protest banner on a Russian Arctic oil platform. Russian commandos raided the Arctic Dawn and towed it to port.

The unusual piracy charges may well be inspired by a Ninth Circuit decision holding the Sea Shepherd’s “Whale Wars” against the Japanese whaling fleet could constitute piracy under the Alien Tort Statute, as OpinioJuris notes. I agreed with the Ninth Circuit in that case, against much protest. The question was whether piracy requires a motive to steal, and the Ninth Circuit held it does not. But the present matter is entirely different. Here it is Russia’s actions that violate international law.

The Greenpeace activities are most certainly not piracy for several reasons. The modern definition of the offense can be found in Art. 101 U.N. Law of the the Sea Convention (UNCLOS III), Art. 101(a)(1).

First, piracy requires an attack against a “ship.” The Greenpeace incident involved an oil rig, which is not a ship because it is not navigable. (The 1988 SUA Convention dealing with maritime violence beyond piracy required a separate protocol to apply to oil platforms).

Second, piracy requires “acts of violence or detention.” Here the Greenpeace activist merely put a poster on the platform. This does not constitute violence. In the Ninth Circuit case, by contrast, the Sea Shepherd vessels allegedly attempted to ram Japanese whalers, hurled projectiles at them, and so forth. While the defendants argued this did not amount to violence, it is certainly more colorable than a poster. The Greenpeace activists certainly committed trespass, but not piracy.

Indeed, it is Russia that fairly clearly violated UNCLOS by seizing the ship for the misconduct of the crew. [...]

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Should We Boycott the Sochi Olympics?

Gay rights advocates such as actor Harvey Fierstein are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, over Russia’s highly repressive new law banning “homosexual propaganda,” any speech that equates the social status same-sex relationships with heterosexual ones.
Others argue that the West should not boycott the Olympics, but should instead use it as an opportunity to highlight Russia’s abuses of gay rights. Russian officials have given conflicting statements about whether the law will be enforced against gay athletes and foreign visitors during the games.

The anti-gay crackdown is just one of many human rights abuses undertaken by the regime of ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin. Others include repression of opposition media and persecution of critics of the government. Indeed, the government’s promotion of homophobia is just one facet of its broader ideology of authoritarian nationalism.

In terms of promoting the cause of human rights in Russia, I suspect that a boycott would be more effective than merely calling attention to abuses, while simultaneously attending the Games. Hosting the Olympics is nearly always a propaganda victory for the government of the nation where they take place. Even an otherwise corrupt and inefficient government can put on an impressive dog and pony show that draws favorable media coverage, if given years to prepare. The nation that gave the world the concept of the Potemkin Village is surely no exception.

A boycott has a greater chance of effectively punishing Russia for its unjust policies, and stimulating pressure for change. Sports boycotts against South Africa may have helped hasten the fall of apartheid. The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the US and sixty other nations is often seen as a failure because it did not put an end to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. [...]

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Communism, The Americans, and the Nature of Evil

The Americans, FX’s new TV series about KGB sleeper agents living in America in the early 1980s, has drawn mostly rave reviews. I have a somewhat mixed reaction. On the positive side, I thought that Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are extremely effective in the lead roles of Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, KGB agents who were inserted into the United States at a young age so they can pose as “ordinary” Americans while carrying out their espionage missions. While it is easy to dismiss this scenario as fanciful spy fiction, the KGB and its post-Soviet successors really did use sleeper agents of this type.

My main criticism of the portrayal of communism in much of Western popular culture and intellectual discourse is that it tends to ignore or downplay communist crimes and atrocities, as most recently evident in the fawning obituaries of the late British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm; a lifelong Nazi sympathizer would never have been so lionized by mainstream media and academia. To its credit, The Americans avoids this mistake. The Jennings’ superiors and the KGB generally get a uniformly negative portrayal. If anything, the KGB agents portrayed in the series actually commit more violent crimes and assassinations than actual KGB operatives in the United States did (in part because such activities greatly increased the chance of agents’ getting caught).

My biggest reservation about the series is that a key part of its premise breaks down if you think about it carefully. What makes the show work is that the Jennings (unlike their superiors) are in some ways sympathetic, and often portrayed as basically good people who happen to be in the service of an evil cause. The problem here is that, by the time the series starts in 1981, they have already lived [...]

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Immigration Stories Event in Lexington, MA

For readers who may be interested, my father, Yefim Somin, will be speaking on his experience of immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States at Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA on February 28 at 7 PM. His talk will be part of a panel on the experiences of immigrants who have settled in Lexington. The other speakers will be Brandeis Professor Mitra Shavarini (Iran), and Weidong Wang (China). The address and other details of this event are available here.

My father’s account of his immigration experience is available in this recent book of Russian Jewish immigrant memoirs published by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which you can purchase either online or at the Cary event itself. Other contributors to the volume include well-known novelist Gary Shteyngart and artist Marc Klionsky. I have an essay in volume as well, an earlier version of which I blogged about here.

Copies of Prof. Shavarini’s memoir will also be on sale at the Cary Library event. [...]

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Putin Signs Law Banning Adoption of Russian Orphans by Americans

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans:

President Vladimir V. Putin signed a bill on Friday that bans the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, dealing a serious blow to an already strained diplomatic relationship. But for hundreds of Americans enmeshed in the costly, complicated adoption process, the impact was deeply personal….

The law calls for the ban to be put in force on Tuesday, and it stands to upend the plans of many American families in the final stages of adopting in Russia. Already, it has added wrenching emotional tumult to a process that can cost $50,000 or more, requires repeated trips overseas, and typically entails lengthy and maddening encounters with bureaucracy….

The bill that includes the adoption ban was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Obama this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.

As the New York Times article quoted above points out, the new Russian law is a traumatic blow to American parents currently in the process of adopting Russian orphans, including some who have already formed relationships with particular children. It also probably violates a recent US-Russian agreement on adoptions, that requires a year’s notice prior to any termination by either side. Worst of all, the law consigns thousands of children who might have been adopted by Americans to life in Russia’s horrendous system of orphanages, which is among [...]

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“Failure: Why We Need It”

That was the provocative title of a seminar earlier this month organized by the Istituto Bruno Leoni, Italy’s free market think tank. The event was the IBL’s 9th annual Mises Seminar. As is common at multinational seminars in Europe, the event and the papers were in English, which is today’s lingua franca among well-educated Europeans.

My favorite paper was presented by Kaetana Leontjeva, who is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Lithuanian Free Market Institute. Her paper, Old-age state social insurance: may its failure be averted?, examines the history of old-age pension systems throughout Europe, with a special focus on the USSR, Lithuania and Georgia. She shows how these programs, initially of modest size, grew to an unustainable  level that is financed by borrowing. She argues that there are only two realistic alternatives:

1. Continuing the present systems, with only “technical” reforms. This will eventually lead to complete failure of the old-age pension system, as occurred in the USSR. ” This would lead to a sudden and dramatic change in conditions of the elderly, bringing about poverty and chronic insecurity.” OR

2. “managed failure.” This means starting to shrinking the existing pension systems, by requiring that they operate on a balanced budget. Young people should not be told to depend on the current system, but should be encouraged to start making plans for their own retirement, by setting aside some of their current income to provide for their retirement. “For the ‘managed failure’ approach to work, one generation has to concede and make a sacrifice by paying for the pensions of the current retirees and for their own. In the absence of such a consent and solidarity, the generation to make the sacrifice would emerge spontaneously, and the process of an unexpected old-age social insurance [...]

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How Are Things in Russia?

Occasionally, people ask me how things are in Russia, and I say that I haven’t been following Russian events in any detail. Still, I do have an opinion, albeit uninformed, and it echoes a poem by Bulat Okudzhava, my favorite Russian singer. As I mentioned eight years ago, the poem was written in 1989 — much has surely changed, some for the better and some for the worse, since then, but from what I’ve heard much hasn’t. I give a quick and dirty translation below, which unfortunately doesn’t preserve the rhyme, the meter, or much of the sensibility, but what can I do? (Note also that the translation borrows in one place from the version of the song that I heard, which differs in some respects from the written version.)

A bit of background that would be obvious to Russian listeners: Since Leo is an emigre returning from Australia, he’s certainly Jewish (only Jews and a few other ethnic groups were allowed to leave during the Soviet era, and the emigres of Okudzhava’s circle were overwhelmingly Jews). Okudzhava himself was a Georgian by ethnicity, but many of his close friends were Jews; judging by the dedication in the print version, the song was written with one particular friend (Leo Liukimson) in mind, though most of Okudzhava’s listeners wouldn’t know that.

From Australia Leo to Moscow returned
At his sister’s finally arrived
From the taxi’s window at Moscow he stared
Felt a chill running down his spine

These days, Moscow doesn’t quite look cruel —
Doesn’t shoot, doesn’t tie you in knots.
But suddenly asks “Are you scared, little kike?,”
And gives you a friendly wink.

In Australia, likely, the weather is hot,
Easy life that the pen can’t describe;
While in Moscow it’s worse than it was yesterday

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The Gulag Museum and Russia’s Historical Memory of Communism

During my recent visit to Russia, I visited the Gulag Museum in Moscow, one of the few recent Russian efforts to accurately portray the horrible atrocities of communism. The mass murders and other crimes of communist regimes have often been neglected in both Russia and the West. In recent years, that neglect has deepened in Russia, because of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to whitewash the record of the Soviet regime in order to legitimize his own government and promote Russian nationalism.

The Gulag Museum, established by Gulag survivor Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, is an admirable effort to counter these trends. There are several interesting exhibits, and I certainly recommend it to visitors to Moscow who are interested in the subject and can read Russian. But I also have some serious reservations about the Museum and its approach to the subject matter.

First, the Museum simply lacks the resources and scale to do the subject justice. Most of the exhibits are primarily photos attached to bulletin boards, often with not very detailed explanations. If you are not already familiar with the relevant history, it’s hard to grasp the true scale and horror of what happened just by looking at the exhibits in the Museum. This problem is not so much the fault of the people who run the Museum as that of Russian government and society, which have been unwilling to devote enough resources to create a facility truly worthy of the subject. In contrast with Germany’s extensive efforts to document and publicize Nazi crimes and make the younger generation of Germans aware of them, Russian endeavors to acknowledge the horrors of communism are comparatively piddling.

The second problem with the Museum is more easily remedied: Far too much of the material in the exhibits focuses on Stalin’s purges of communist party [...]

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Weapons Laws of the Russian Federation

For those of who have been waiting for an English translation of Russia’s arms statutes, your wait is over. Independence Institute intern Margot van Loon is the author of the new Issue Paper, Weapons Laws of the Russian Federation. Here is a synopsis:

  • No permission or registration is needed to purchase and carry chemical defense weapons (e.g., tear gas guns) or electric defense devices such as stun guns.
  • Citizens have the right to acquire shotguns for self-defense and sport.
  • After five years of lawful ownership of a shotgun, a citizen may obtain a permit to purchase and use rifles for sporting purposes.
  • An individual may own up to five rifles and five shotguns.
  • Handguns are prohibited.
  • All firearms must be registered.
  • Before obtaining one’s first firearm, one must receive instruction in firearms laws and safety. Every five years, the firearms owner must pass a test demonstrating continuing knowledge of these subjects.
  • The first-time owner must also obtain a medical certification that he or she does not have any disqualifying conditions, such as mental illness or alcoholism.
  • In order to use a firearm for lawful self-defense, the crime victim must first attempt to give the criminal a warning, if practicable. Defensive use of firearms against women, the disabled, and minors is prohibited, unless they are attacking as part of a gang.

On the whole, the Russian Federation’s arms laws show considerably greater respect for the fundamental human right of self-defense than do the laws of some other European nations, such as the United Kingdom or Luxembourg.

The Russian Federation paper is part of continuing series of research papers from the Independence Institute providing full English translations of the arms laws of other nations. Other papers in this series are:

Colombia’s National Law of Firearms and Explosives. Full translation of [...]

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The New York Times on the Politics of Russian Immigrants

The New York Times has an interesting article on the political attitudes of New York City’s Russian immigrant community. Unlike most New Yorkers and especially most New York Jews (the Russian immigrant community is overwhelmingly Jewish), they tend to support the GOP over the Democrats:

To many Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, the cornucopia in the shops along Brighton Beach Avenue — pyramids of oranges, heaps of Kirby cucumbers, bushels of tomatoes with their vines still attached and a variety of fish, sausages and pastries — seems like an exuberant rebuke of the meager produce that was available to them when they lived in the Soviet Union.

This contrast helps explain a striking political anomaly: immigrants from the former Soviet Union are far more apt to vote for Republicans than are most New Yorkers, who often drink in Democratic Party allegiance with their mothers’ milk and are four times as likely to register as Democrats than as Republicans….

One reason these voters tend to support Republicans is that they see them as more ardent warriors against the kind of big-government, business-stifling programs that soured their lives in the Soviet Union. Their conservative stances on issues like taxes and Israel seem to outweigh their more liberal views on social issues like abortion.

Tatiana Varzar came to the United States in 1979, at age 21, from the Ukrainian seaport of Odessa. She worked as a manicurist and then opened a small restaurant on the boardwalk that grew into Tatiana Restaurant, a spacious magnet for foodies who like a whiff of salt air and a sea view with their pirogen…..

“I am what I am because of capitalism,” Ms. Varzar said, “and Republicans are more capitalistic.”

Obviously, this article is not the first to point out the stark contrast between Russian Jewish political attitudes [...]

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HIAS Book of Immigration Memoirs by Soviet Jewish immigrants Now Available Online

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has just published a book of thirty immigration memoirs by Soviet Jewish immigrants, which is available for sale here. My father, Yefim Somin, and I are among the contributors. There are also several well-known contributors such as novelist Gary Shteyngart and artist Marc Klionsky.

I blogged about my contribution here. [...]

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