The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

Charles Krauthammer Nailed for Lying

Regular readers may remember the Parallax Brief’s exasperation with Charles Krauthammer’s wooly and wantonly disingenuous column for the Washington Post on missile defense. To use unsound reasoning is one thing, but the Parallax Brief is noticing that the Right is increasingly crossing the rubric into outright lies to pursue its ends.

Now, the Parallax Brief expects this from unhinged demagogues like Anne Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, but he holds intellectuals like Charles Krauthammer to higher standards. Yet here is Krauthammer, in his very next Washington Post column, “Obama’s Manifesto”, lying:

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Filed under: Economics, Politics, , , , , , , ,

Conservative Russia

People simply do not realise that Russia is a deeply conservative country.

Fiscal policy is buttressed on a low, flat rate of income tax (13%), and there is virtually no social safety net, with spending on unemployment security, medical provision, disability aid, infrastructure, the environment, and urban regeneration far lower, in both absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP, than its G8 contemporaries.

Similarly, military spending is high in comparison — and growing — medical care is available free in theory, but requires private insurance or additional cash payment in practice, and businesses are in reality pretty un-regulated.

If that doesn’t sound to you like a set of policies Newt Gingrich or William F Buckley would support, then you don’t know your dyed in the wool conservatives from your woolly jumper wearing liberals.

The Parallax Brief believes, however, that these government policies are generally matched by the views of Ivan Six-Pack. Now, the Parallax Brief had been led to believe by his pinko sociology teachers in college that communism taught progressive views on gender, race, immigration and class, so it therefore came as a shock to find when he moved here that after 80 years of Marxist indoctrination, young ladies in Russia often reject feminism, men ooze with unrepentant machismo, and the population appears to generally support a penal code that could have been based on Dostoyevsky’s work.

The Parallax Brief passes no judgment on Russia’s conservatism (beyond finding it ironic that those who criticise Russia the most would like similar policies implemented in their countries (I’m thinking of you Charles Krauthammer, Ed Lucas, Anne Applebaum and the Republican Party)), but does view it as the foundation from which Russia can be better understood, and its news and policies better analysed.

With this in mind, over the coming weeks, the Parallax Brief will highlight news which he believes can be viewed best through the prism of ‘conservative Russia’, and hopes that in doing so he can provide a fresh and oft ignored perspective on Russian life – as well as, of course, stimulating debate.

First up, on Wednesday 11 March, will be Russia’s recent admission that it is the world’s leading heroin user.

Filed under: Politics, Russia, , , , , ,

Special Relationship Put to Test by Brown’s, Obama’s Gifts

At least now the Parallax Brief knows he isn’t the only one to suffer the toe curling holiday season embarrassment of receiving a hugely expensive or deeply thoughtful gift, and having to present in return some cheap tat picked up at the local bric-a-brac store at 7.30pm on Christmas Eve.

Or the crushing disappointment giving a girlfriend a Christmas gift so breast-quiveringly romantic it could have won a place in Elizabeth I’s bed chamber, only to be handed a 10 pound Woolworths gift voucher in return.

From National Review Online:

“British prime minister Gordon Brown thought long and hard about what gift to bring on his visit to the White House last week. Barack Obama is the first African-American president, so the prime minister gave him an ornamental desk-pen holder hewn from the timbers of one of the Royal Navy’s anti-slaving ships of the 19th century, HMS Gannet. Even more appropriate, in 1909 the Gannet was renamed HMS President.

The president’s guest also presented him with the framed commission for HMS Resolute, the lost British ship retrieved from the Arctic and returned by America to London, and whose timbers were used for a thank-you gift Queen Victoria sent to Rutherford Hayes: the handsome desk that now sits in the Oval Office.

And, just to round things out, as a little stocking stuffer, Gordon Brown gave President Obama a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill.

In return, America’s head of state gave the prime minister 25 DVDs of “classic American movies.””

Nothing goes right for poor Gordon. Let’s just hope the Anglo-American special relationship lasts better than did the Parallax Brief’s own special relationship after the Woolworth’s voucher incident.

Filed under: Politics, , , , , , , , , ,

Levine’s Lackluster Labyrinth

The Parallax Brief was last year so looking forward to the release of Putin’s Labyrinth that he pre-ordered it on Amazon and had a friend pick it up on a trip to the US. Its author, Steve Levine, had written a well respected account of the post-communist scramble for Caspian hydrocarbons, The Oil and the Glory, and penned consistently solid analysis on the activities of Big Oil for Newsweek.

But what a disappointment.

Weighing in at less than 200 pages, Putin’s Labyrinth is a shallow, banal examination of Putin’s Russia. The book suffers from tired writing, poor investigative journalism, personal subjectivity, a paucity of research and a seeming absence of understanding or experience of the subject matter, as well as an unwillingness to think in nuances rather than absolutes, on the part of the author: Nothing that hasn’t already been repeated ad infinitum is said, no new analysis is offered, no fresh insights are provided and the conclusions drawn are risibly passé and wholly, in the Parallax Brief’s view, wrong.

In fact, the Parallax Brief has been meaning for some time to get around to savaging Levine’s pathetic effort to chronicle modern day Russia, but after stumbling upon Stephen Boykewich’s review of Putin’s Labyrinth in the unlikely confines of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), he decided that now was the time.

Written through the prism of his own experiences in Russia, Boykewich’s essay on Putin’s Labyrinth is sensational, and is so well written, tightly constructed and acutely observed that the Parallax Brief suddenly understood the difference between those who get paid for this stuff, and those who have to set up their own blogs on freeware platforms like WordPress in order to satisfy their burning ego.

Boykewich’s 5000 words contain more thoughtful and fresh insights into modern day Russia than Levine’s entire book – a damning indictment of Levine’s effort – and all those interested in Russian politics or foreign policy should click here for thoroughly recommended weekend reading.

Filed under: Foreign policy, Politics, Russia, , , , , , , , ,

Boris Nemtsov: The Gift to Putin that Keeps on Giving

When Vladimir Putin’s critics craft shrill op-eds about opposition parties being ruthlessly crushed in Russia, they often miss the salient point: really, the opposition in Russia is unsuccessful and unpopular because it isn’t very good and doesn’t have many popular policies.

Of course, it is true that the Russian media and society are not as free as in the West, but more often than not, Russia’s opposition simply does Putin’s job for him. The Parallax Brief is sure that even Robert Amsterdam would agree that Putin and Medvedev are preferable to Vladimir Zhirinovky’s comedy-fascist LDPR, Gennady Zyuganov’s communists, or the array of hapless or nasty nationalists, bolsheviks or white power groups raging at Russia’s political fringes.

But beyond this gallery of unelectable extremist halfwits, even the pro-west, pro-business, supposedly democratically minded group of former Yeltsin era Young Reformers that currently call themselves Solidarity offer little.

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Filed under: Economics, Politics, Russia, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Moscow on Ice

Moscow’s refusal to use salt or chemicals on the pavements in winter to aid deicing and snow melting is crazy. These proven and safe methods would make a huge difference to the walking conditions in Moscow, which have at times this winter become so impassable that good old treacherous becomes a halcyon memory.

Yet despite knowing that each year the streets will be covered in snow and ice for a large portion of the six-month Russian winter, and that only a very small number of days will be too cold for salt and chemicals to work, the city still refuses to bow to common sense. Why? Well, of course, because salt damages shoes.

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Filed under: Politics, Russia, , , , , , , , , ,

Medvedev’s Visit to FDR Fireside Bodes Well for Russia

There are many reasons to believe the Kremlin’s policy to publicly obfuscate the severity and implications of the crisis afflicting the Russian economy is counterproductive.

First, denying the existence of the obvious doesn’t fool any of the people any of the time, and cultivates distrust. When officials do eventually need to appeal for calm, they will find they have diminished authority.

Second, a limited understanding of a situation enfeebles the population’s ability to make rational decisions and plans, leaving it likely to move in irrational, dramatic lurches rather than manageable shifts. Finally, news does not sit still simply because the Kremlin decides it won’t contribute. Refusing to admit the problem, simply allowes other, less responsible sources shape opinion and understanding.

However, it appears the Kremlin may be arriving at the conclusion that continuing on this track is inadvisable, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s television address Sunday was an important part of that process. Taking a leaf from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s now famous fireside chats, which acted as a reassuring, calming influence on the US populace during the Great Depression and Second World War, Medvedev appeared on national television to “speak the truth” and explain the economic problems “that the entire world is living through, and that our country is living through.”

According to Reuters, Medvedev said:

“I consider that the authorities are obliged to speak about this (crisis) frankly and directly, to speak about the decisions which the authorities are taking to overcome the crisis and about the difficulties with which we are faced… The forecasts really don’t make anyone happy… [and] We should expect our development to undergo a pretty tough scenario.”

This more honest approach will pay dividends by avoiding the issues outlined above; however, honesty in an unpleasent and politically difficult situation should not be seen as a sign of weakness. When Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain in the darkest hours of World War II, he did not gloss over the problems or tell the nation that victory was close. Instead, he painted a bleak picture:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

By doing so, he gained respect. And stoicism in the face of suffering is something Russians admire.

Of course, Medvedev as Churchill is quite a step,  and whether Medvedev’s fireside chat was simply part of the wider propaganda mechanism (first, deny; second, claim only decadent, rotten Western economies will be affected; third, admit Russia will be affected, but blame the decadent, rotten US; fourth (now) admit the truth but reassure), or a genuine change in direction remains to be seen, but at first glance, it appears the Kremlin has finally accepted its role as a positive, reasurring and honest intermediary between the crisis and Ivan public.

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Russia, , , , , , ,

Fresh Angle on US-Russia “New Era”

Sometimes the Moscow Times opinion editorial columns can be a little overbearing. While undoubtedly well written and informative, they are almost universally po-faced. Amid this environment of solemn political analysis and grave social policy, Mark H Teeter brings a delightfully light touch and sharp wit to his keenly observed bi-weekly columns on life and news in Russia.

Most weeks he addresses US-Russia relations through the prism of an American living in Moscow, and this week must have provided a bonanza for Teeter, as Barak Obama apparently “pressed the reset button” on US-Russia relations, and wants to reopen nuclear arms control talks with the Kremlin.

(Note to self: I do wish the press wouldn’t refer to the pressing of any kind of button when it comes to nuclear arms. It causes a certain… frisson. NTS2: And speaking of uncouth Obama press coverage, when will they stop referring to the fiscal stimulus bill as Obama’s stimulus package? How can I take this stuff seriously when I read things like, “Obama’s giant stimulus package was viewed for the first time by the Senate today,” and “Obama’s massive stimulus package was cut in size by a bi-partisan group of centrist Senators.”)

Anyway, back to Teeter: funny guy, sublime writer, irreverent vignettes on US-Russia relations and cultural differences through the eyes of a veteran American expat in Moscow.

Today, Teeter has managed to trump every single one of the major op-eds and foreign policy wonk notes I’ve read on the start of a another new ‘new era’ of Russo-Yankee relations. He notes that a cabal of experienced and baggage free Russia veterans sit waiting for Obama, if he chooses to use them, and outlines just what kind of benefit they can bring.

Click here for an engaging read.

Filed under: Defence, Foreign policy, Politics, Russia, , , , , , , , , , ,

World Economy at One Minute to Midnight

Over the last week, portents of doom have enveloped the Parallax Brief. Increasingly, a Great Depression of the Twenty Tens looks to be the fate of the world. Lest we forget, the economic turmoil between 1914 and 1945 led to political upheaval almost unimaginable now, and unleashed the horrors of total war on the developed world.

Why do I feel so pessimistic?

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Filed under: Economics, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Clinton Transcended Bush League

I have said many times before that defending the Bush administration is impossible. It was catastrophic on so many fronts, and plain abysmal on pretty much every other, that I think its fairly safe to say he was the worst president ever — if to say so isn’t already a ‘stating the obvious’ banality.

Here’s a stark measure of his economic performance from Paul Krugman’s sublime blog: unemployment rates from 1993 to 2009. So how do the Clinton and Bush administrations match up?

Filed under: Economics, Politics, , , , , , , ,