Friday, February 29, 2008

A Breakdown of Russia's Presidential Candidates

With Russia's presidential elections this Sunday, I've been getting a lot of questions about who is running, both about current President Valdimir Putin's personal choice and heir presumptive Dimitri Medvedev, but also the other people running against him. Now seeing as Barak Obama doesn't know Medvedev's name at all, preferring instead to call him "the successor," and Hillary Clinton can't pronounce it, I'm not that surprised that others don't know that much about them, and I hope that the following helps.

Dimiri Anatolyevich Medvedev: The crown prince, heir apparent, half of the Kremlin dream team, what ever you want to call him, he is the expected winner of Sunday's elections. In December 2007 President Putin announced that Medvedev was his chosen successor, which, given Putin's own popularity and dominance of the political process, basically means that Medvedev will be president when Putin's second term runs out. The two campaign together, occasionally dress alike, and Medvedev has announced that he will ask Putin to be prime minister if he wins. Medvedev's appointment was a bit of a surprise to many, who expected Prime Minister Vitkor Zubkov, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradov or one several other candidates. Not everyone thought he didn't have a chance, however; his campaign website went online this January, but it was registered by "Private Citizen" in 2005, months before any other potential candidates' domain.

Medvedev's own career looked like it would end in the private sector. He knew Putin from when the current President was in St. Petersburg, working for then-mayor Anatoly Sobchak. In November 1999, he came along with many other St. Petersburg politicians brought to Moscow right before Putin became president . In December of that year, when Yeltsin resigned and made Putin acting president, Medvedev became deputy head of the presidential staff. During the 2000 elections a few months later Medvedev was the head of Putin's presidential election campaign. He then left politics (officially, anyway), to chair or deputy chair the board of directors at Gazprom, Russia's largest, wealthiest, most influential company (which if often used as a tool of domestic and foreign policy) from 2001 until 2003. In 2003, he returned to official politics and became Putin's chief of staff. In November 2005 Putin appointed him first deputy prime minister, first deputy chairman of the Council for Implementation of the Priority National Projects and chairman of the Council's Presidium. He remained in charge of Gazprom's board, although he gave in up in order to become President.

Gennady Andreyvich Zhuganov: Perennial Communist Candidate. Zhuganov leads the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and has been running for president since he ran against former president Boris Yeltsin in 1996 (I voted in those elections, in place of a Russian friend's mother, but, as requested by the person's whose place I was using, I voted for Yeltsin). He promises enhanced social services and higher pensions and salaries, as well as an end to corruption. He has support across all age groups, but older people tend to make up the bulk of it.

Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky: are immune. He also gained attention with some of his crazier pronouncements, like his suggestion that depopulation can be solved by polygamy, or when he gave President Putin a photo of himself for the The leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party, he, and it, are neither liberal nor democratic. They are populist, however, and were famous during the 1990s for having the strongest party discipline of any party, less because of any ideological purity and more because of how corruptible they were. They were also famous during that time for giving criminal spaces as MPs (the party chooses the MPs, and the names provided on the party lists during elections are just campaign promises) to help them avoid prosecution, as MPs are immune from prosecution. He is also famous for giving President Putin a photo of himself for the latter's 50th birthday (a time of general gift giving form all over the Former Soviet Union, including wines from Moldova, horses from Turkmenistan, and an exact copy of the Cap of Monomakh, the fur, gold and gems-encrusted crown of the tsars). He is generally supported either by people looking for a demagogue, or by those voting in protest to the other options, such as happened after Yeltsin and the parliament had a violent showdown over who controlled what powers in 1993, when the LDPR gained its highest percentage of the vote.

Andrey Vladimirovich Bogdanov: The non-candidate. Officially head of the Democratic Party of Russia, a party which is often accused of existing only to give elections the appearance of being truly contested. Bogdanov is the same; after Kasyanov, a more credible (although in reality small) threat, was disqualified, Bogdanov got into the race. His platform is application to the European Union and joining NATO, and then putting NATO bases on Russian territory. Officially this is to protect against China, but it is really to ensure that no one will vote for him. Most Russians don't trust either institutions, and would view NATO basses in Russia as proof that the US DID want to control Russia, and now is. I haven't seen him campaigning either.

And a few people who aren't running, but who merit mention anyway:

Mikhail Mikhailovich Kasyanov: group, he worked for Putin when the latter Originally part of the Yelstinbecame president. He served a Prime Minister in that administration until Putin dismissed him and the rest of his cabinet in 2004. More recently, he was charged with corruption and accused the state of the same, as well as of authoritarian and illegal practices to maintain power. He would probably be a lot more popular in Russia if he hadn't aligned himself with the Other Russia, a political group associated with Gary Kasparov, US neocons and disgraced oligarchs. He doesn't belong to Other Russia any more. Kasyanov leads the People's Democratic Republic of Russia. He also hoped to lead the Russian Federation, but his candidacy was denied on the grounds that 13 percent of the two million signatures on the petitions required to get on the ballot were forged. He appealed this decision, but was rejected. Kasyanov accused Putin of orchestrating his disqualification to ensure that Medvedev had no real opposition, and is boycotting the election.

Garry Karparov: Famous chess champion, beloved in the West as a defender of freedom, mistrusted in Russia for his willingness to accept parties such as the National Bolshevik (read Russian neofascists) and the Vanguard of Red Youth (ultra-left, with a Kashnikov and a Communist star on the flag). He is also mistrusted because he as a board member of the US neo-con Center for Security Policy and has given speeches at the equally neo-con Hoover Institute. From my US-centric perspective, it looks like Kasparov's politics are scary and objectionable. To many Russians' eyes, this looks like he is in Cheney's pocket. He wanted to run for president, and expressed his plan to do so, but in order to do so, his party is required to meet, and vote for him as their candidate. Oddly enough, every single venue large enough for his party to meet was unavailable, and he was therefore unable to run. Funny that. The following video is one targeting Kasparov for his connections to the US neo-conservative political movement. Its mostly wordless, but the title and end phrases say "it would have been better had he stuck to chess." This phrase is a lot shorter in Russian because the Russian language is cool like that.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin: The President. Dominates politics. No real opposition, crushes any that could become such. Many of the accusations of authoritarianism, corruption and fixing the elections are true. He has also stabilized Russia, increased Russian power abroad and doubled incomes across the country during his tenure. He chose Medvedev as his successor, and campaigns heavily for him. He has also declared his willingness to serve as Prime Minister for as long as the country needs him after Medvedev becomes President. He's also a bit of a babe, when he wants to be. This picture came from his office's website.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lost Treasure Found: Did Someone Solve the Mystery of the Tsar's Lost Amber Room?

A few days ago, a German treasure hunters and politician Hans-Peter Haustein and his partner Christian Hanisch announced that they may have found the lost Amber Room of the Tsar's Catherine Palace. The entire room was covered in amber marquetry placed above gold leaf and mirrors, a feat which took eight tons of amber, several years and even more millions to complete. During World War Two, however, German forces looted and destroyed every palace and museum they came across. The Catherine Palace was not spared, and the entire Amber Room was stripped from the walls and sent back to Germany. As the Soviets advanced, it disappeared again, this time to destination unknown.

The Old Amber Room from a 1940s Photograph

Since that time, many archaeologists, historians and treasure hunters claim to have found the Amber room, always to turn out wrong. The Soviet government eventually gave up, reconstructing the Amber room (a project which began in 1979 and only ended in 2003). I don't know the total cost, but when the project ran into financial difficulties, a German company made up the shortfall with a 3.5 million dollar donation.

Now someone may have found it for real though. The difference between this theory and the others is that something is already found. Mr. Hanisch found notes in his father's documents after the latter's death that said he had helped bury the Amber room as well as large store of precious metals in a man-made cavern near the Czech border. The two men already conducted scans of the spot using a sophisticated metal detector, which found a large quantity of what is probably silver or gold 60 feet (20 meters) beneath the surface. If this is true, and it really is a store of hidden gold, then the Amber Room may be there too. Which would be great. Although what they will do with the new, already-installed replacement room I don't know.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Diaghilev Burns, the Moscow "Elitny" Scene and Property Raids

Moscow club burns itself down to avoid going out of style?

One of the more annoying features of life here in Moscow is the obsession with "elitny." A cognate of the English word "elite," and sometimes used to mean exclusive, it really means expensive. There are elitny apartments, elitny restaurants* and even a free HR and employment newsletter available at my gym, "Elitny Personnel." The reason this is so annoying is that Moscow doesn't have much "in the middle" - most of the city is either cheap, and not that nice, or "elitny," which means you have to buy into the whole "I am visibly and vocally better than everyone else" vibe. Which is a pain if you're me, who likes nice things, and even a flashy time sometimes, but lacks the patience, insecurity and (hopefully) pettiness that means it needs to be about being better than others more than just a good time with the people I came with. The whole vibe makes me feel guilty and is a real turn off. It also calls to mind one of my favorite sayings by former British Prime Minister* and chancellor of my undergraduate university Margaret Thatcher; "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."The same applies to being elite, and while Moscow does have some of the truly elite, they aren't at most of these establishments, and most of the people aren't them.

The main focus of all this is a few night clubs, where a door policy called face control (really money control. People like to say it is wealth for men and beauty for women, but I’ve noticed that the former goes a lot farther than for both genders). It can be strict, or arbitrary, and groups of friends are sometimes broken up to increase the social pressure. The weird part is how pushy it can get; I’ve seen people bunch up at the door and push, so that there is a dense cluster at the entrance and empty space a few feet back. Everyone wants to be in front of the bouncer and is afraid to wait their turn.

Of course this isn’t a very line-friendly country anyway (trying to navigate the aisles at my Perekrestok grocery store during peak hours can be hazardous), but the tight ball of people/empty space pattern is fairly extreme, and a little silly. Back in the day (I think it was in 1999) I went to a Versace show in Milan where the Backstreet Boys performed. The entrance was swarmed with girls wanting to see their idols (one of which kissed the gay director’s cheeks to kiss the Backstreet Boy molecules which might still be there after he cheek-kissed them hello). Face control involves less people than that shriek-fest, but is more intense.

That said, I occasionally yield to the temptation and abandon my one-woman abstention from the elitny fuss. They are flashy, they are trashy, they are overpriced and they aren't elite, but they can be a lot of fun.

Which is why I was torn between Schadenfreude and dismay when Diaghilev burned down. Arguably the most famous of the elitny clubs, Diaghilev has been promoted by a thousand reviews and travel guides calling it "the most exclusive club in Moscow." This was not entirely true, but it was elitny, and it was one of the best clubs in the city. Named after Sergei Diaghilev (who really was elite), it was for a time the premier club of Moscow, or at least the hardest to get in. So hard, that when a Moscow Diskoschnitte actually risked denial and insulted the chief bouncer, a local expat paper wrote an article about it.

This started to change last summer; new competition combined with the natural life cycle of any "next big thing" meant that face control relaxed a little (although not so much, as to do that would immediately make all the people who still wanted to go there, stop). The holiday week following New Year's even brought an advertisement for Diaghilev's events in a banner over Tverskaya Street.

Which is why, when the club burned down (on a Thursday morning - three people were injured but no one waas killed), my first reaction was aggravation, as the Leading Man was visiting from the US and this meant that a lot of Diaghilev's customers would be at Rai, the club to which I planned to take him. Russia must be wearing off on me because my second thought was "whom does it benefit?" This is a Russian phrase used to work out the true machinations behind any government conspiracy and/or shady deal. There are a few explanations, all of which are completely crazy, but which shed interesting light into some of the craziness at work in this wild city.

The first theory was hinted at in the Associated Press story which, in a parting sentence, mentioned that "more recently a Moscow government-linked construction firm has been pushing to redevelop the building, which occupies valuable land." Real estate in Moscow's center is very hard to come by; 140 million people want to live there, but only 1.5 million do, and raids on companies lucky enough to occupy it are common. In the early nineteen nineties, when the city was even wilder and property rights less clear, this could take the form of an actual raid, with mafiosi thugs physically taking possession of a building and then arguing that it was theirs to being with. Now it is a bit more complex, and often business owners are charged with crimes, or forced out in some other way. This may be what happened to Diaghilev; someone wanted their property, but they weren't leaving.

Diaghilev was fairly high-profile though, making it that much harder to launch a raid, but add in an an unfortunate accident in the form of a fire, and then all of a sudden, it becomes a bit more possible. What is more, it occupied city land, and Mayor Luzhkov is expected to leave office soon after the upcoming presidential elections. He and his associated patronage networks including his wife - quite possibly Russia's wealthiest woman - and her multi-billion dollar business empire, much of it in Moscow real estate). Someone may be feeling the pressure to move now, while their own position and influence is more certain.

The story I prefer, if only because it is more dramatic, and, in a way, more principled, is that the people behind Diaghilev may have burned the place down itself. Ad I mentioned before, although still popular, its star was on the wane, and the management, aware of how much their status and that of all their establishments (they own several clubs and other businesses, both within Russia and without) hinges on the hyper-fickle wind of popular opinion and reputation, may have opted to burn out rather than fade away.

It could also be some combination; knowing that Diaghilev was doomed to fade eventually, the arsonist may have gambled that it was a bit safer to go after Diaghilev when the management wouldn’t mind quite as much, or the management could be sing the fire as part of the larger real estate scheme, this way preserving their reputation and eliminating some restrictions on building/renovating/tearing down yet another historical building.

Of course, it could really have been just a fire. My gym was a strip club previously, before a fire gutted it and it became my gym. It's a nice gym and the prices relatively steep, but such a moneymaker it isn't.

*Cafe Pushkin is perhaps the most famous, and is the subject of way too much hype, but it is exempt from the above complaints. I really like it, in spite of (and perhaps a little because of) all it's theme-iness. That the first floor is open 24 hours is the icing on the cake.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Corporate Raids for Moscow Real Estate

A nice article from the Moscow Times providing an overview of the risks faced by businesses in possession of valuable real estate. One day I will write a full post on the reasons behind the insane real estate prices in parts of Moscow, but for now, here is a piece by someone else on one of the consequences.

Corporate Raiders Use Cash, Friends

When the police came to search his office in central Moscow, Andrei was surprised but calm. He had nothing to hide, after all.

But that sunny spring morning two years ago turned into a nightmare. The policemen showed Andrei a transparent bag with a white sugar-like substance that they said was cocaine found in his office. They detained Andrei and shoved him into an isolation cell. He was not allowed to make any telephone calls to his family or to speak with a lawyer.

"I racked my brains for two days trying to understand what was going on and why someone wanted me in jail," Andrei said.

The mystery was cleared up when a smiling lawyer came to the cell on the second day and announced that he had a solution. He said the criminal case would be dropped if Andrei signed a contract transferring ownership of his office to a company that he represented.

"I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I had read about people losing their property this way, but I never thought that something like that could happen to me," Andrei said.

"I signed the contract, and they got my property. I had no choice," he said.

Andrei's business is among thousands that are taken over in illegal raids every year in and around Moscow. The number has soared in recent years, creating such a huge problem that the State Duma intends to consider legislation to fight the raiders this spring, Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov said last month.

In the West, corporate raids are run-of-the-mill affairs: A stronger company legally takes over a weaker one, and both sides usually benefit from the deal.

Not so in Russia. Raiders here use their links to corrupt officials to illegally seize businesses, often with the aim of acquiring prime real estate. The raiders often include former intelligence officers, policemen, lawyers and people with ties to well-placed state officials. On their payrolls are judges, prosecutors and bureaucrats on all levels. Through them, the raiders can order a search of a business, gather information about the owner, and falsify whatever documents they need to take over the business.

"Unfortunately, raiders are people who work for the system, and through it they can falsify anything they want," said Gennady Gudkov, former head of a working group that tracked the issue in the previous Duma.

There are no exact figures for how many raider attacks occur annually. Gudkov said his working group registered about 1,000 cases per year in Moscow and a similar number in the Moscow region. But these, he said, "were only the tip of the iceberg." The real figure is probably four to five times higher, he said. Media reports have put the countrywide figure at around 70,000.

Other than Moscow and the surrounding Moscow region, the favorite targets for raiders are in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region. Real estate commands top prices in these areas, and competition is brutal for the few properties that are available for legal purchase.

Many businessmen, police officers and other officials interviewed for this report spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue and fear of reprisal. The businessmen also asked that their former companies not be identified. They said they had not complained to police, prosecutors or the Federal Security Service because they believed the raiders had links to these agencies.

Konstantin, a Moscow businessman, said he learned in 2006 that he stood no chance against raiders. He said two tall men in their mid-30s entered his shop in central Moscow one day, looked around and announced that the location was perfect.

Konstantin told them that the shop -- his main source of income -- was not for sale. But the men laughed and said they did not intend to buy it. "You can make things easy and sign a sales contract. If you don't, we will get a signed contract anyway, but we'll have to hurt you and your family first," one of the men said, Konstantin recalled.

Days after the visit, tax and fire inspectors carried out separate checks of the shop. The taxmen accused Konstantin of evading taxes, and the fire inspectors said the electrical wiring was in such a state of disrepair that it had to be reinstalled completely.

Konstantin tried to stall the inspectors, hoping to find a way out of the dilemma. He said, however, that he gave up within weeks -- after he was beaten by unknown assailants, his wife was threatened and his daughter -- who never drank alcohol -- was detained on suspicion of drunk driving.

"I understood then that they really had powerful ties and that it was impossible to refuse their offer," Konstantin said.

He signed the sales contract, and the men got his shop. He said they even helped him to pack up and, in parting, asked him whether he knew of anyone who owned similar real estate.

How It Works

Raiders are split into two groups -- those who raid for their own gain and those who organize raids for money.

Those seeking their own gain scout locations on their own and work out a takeover plan. These raiders usually target small -- and easy to get -- businesses, like those of Andrei and Konstantin.

The hired raiders tend to work for big businesses and to target medium-size companies. The client tells the raider what kind of company or property he wants, and the raider estimates whether a takeover is feasible.

"Companies with a strong security service are difficult to get, and raiders prefer to ignore them," said a police officer who works for the Moscow force's anti-organized crime division.

He said many of these raiders are former officers from special units that were set up within the intelligence agencies in the early 1990s to keep an eye on new growing businesses. The officers' duties included checking whether the businesses acted within the law and did not sell sensitive technology abroad.

"They use their links and experience to make money," the police officer said.

The small-time raiders pay bribes out of their own pockets, while the hired raiders get their expenses covered by their employers. They charge a fee of about 20 percent of the value of the targeted business.

The police officer said a judge could be bought for $5,000 to $9,000, while it cost $5,000 to $70,000 to get someone arrested. Through their connections with intelligence officers, raiders are able to listen in on the telephone conversations of their targets at a cost of several thousand dollars per week.

The police officer said Andrei's arrest probably cost around $5,000, while $3,000 was more than enough to get his daughter detained.

In other words, the raiders paid no more than $50,000 to seize Andrei's and Konstantin's businesses but walked away with assets worth millions of dollars.

To get the assets of a medium-size company is relatively simple, according to the people interviewed for this report. Typically, raiders send a falsified protocol of an extraordinary shareholders meeting to the tax authorities, showing that the company has nominated a new general director. The new director signs a contract to sell a company asset -- usually the main building -- to a fictitious buyer, who in turn quickly resells the asset to someone else. If the real owner wants to prove his rights, he has to go through complicated bureaucratic procedures -- and even then he is unlikely to hang on to his business since it has been sold and resold so many times.

"All of this is impossible to achieve without the cooperation of people in high posts," said a former intelligence officer who is familiar with the issue.

In this scenario, the raid costs $200,000 to $250,000, and the new owner usually makes a profit of 1,000 times more. Companies unable to protect themselves might lose their property within two weeks.

A New Trend

The tactics for illegal acquisitions have evolved over the past 17 years, the former intelligence officer said.

"When someone opened a shop in the beginning of the '90s, bandits would visit him to offer protection in exchange for money," he said. Those who refused to pay lost their businesses.

"Now, these bandits have been replaced by the police and FSB," the officer said.

Also, big companies were the main targets of raiders in the early 1990s. Those companies now have organized themselves into powerful holdings or state corporations, putting them out of reach of even the most experienced raiders.

"Big companies have good juridical and security departments to protect them from those predators. They are difficult to get," Gudkov said.

So raiders instead have set their sights on small and medium-size businesses. An estimated 50 percent of all illegal takeovers involve shops and offices. The raiders are rarely interested in the businesses themselves but in the real estate where they are located. The properties can be rented for a high price or demolished to construct higher buildings.

"It is impossible these days to hang on to a property in Moscow if you don't have really good protection. And by that I mean people from the police and the FSB. I'm not talking about ordinary guys, but people who have good links," the police officer said.

As a result, small and medium-size businesses are bringing in former intelligence officers, policemen and bureaucrats with good links as co-owners.

Sergei said he spent several years worrying that someone would notice his flourishing factory, located 10 kilometers outside Moscow's city limits, and take it away. His worries lessened three years ago, when he made a well-connected intelligence officer a co-owner.

"If you don't have someone protecting you these days, anyone can take what you have. And as you are running like an idiot from court to court to prove that you are the owner of your property, they will sell and resell it so many times that you'll never get it back," Sergei said.

The intelligence officer got 30 percent of Sergei's business and, in addition to offering security, he deals with fire and tax inspectors and local bureaucrats. Besides intelligence officers, businessmen take police officials and local bureaucrats as co-owners.

"You really need people who can fire back if you want to keep your business away from the raiders," the former intelligence officer said.

Sergei said he was not aware of any small or medium-size businessman in Moscow or the Moscow region who had been able to hold onto his property without protection.

"If in the '90s the bandits protected us," he said. "Now I see former bandits giving shares of their now-legalized businesses to police officers or intelligence officers to protect themselves from the raiders."

Friday, February 22, 2008

A [Literal and Figurative] Sign That the Revolution May Be Over For Good

It's an ad from the Moscow metro for ArbatPrestige cosmetics and accessories stores, and says "Great October Price Revolution."

PS The owner of the ArbatPrestige (Arbat is a nice area here surrounding the charming Old Arbat and busy New Arbat streets) chain may have been adhering to free market principles a little too well; he was just arrested for tax evasion. I believe he did it (almost everyone does), but I wonder whom he upset to be arrested now? Maybe someone wanted his stores' real estate?

Update: It turns out that Semyon Mogilevich and Arbat Prestige are not the victims of a real estate raid or some other, more prosaic, type of conflict. That may be part of why he was targeted for prosecution now, but Mr. Mogilevich's history is not that of an honest businessman. He is wawnted by the FBI for racketeering, fraud and money laundering and is also accused of running drug, prostitution, smuggling and stolen art operations. He hasn't been on the run or in hiding - he's been operating quite openly here in Moscow, but now something happened so that he could be arrested. According to the Economist, he is also tied to a company that trades gas between Russian and Ukraine, a very sensitive issue, and one which makes the issue that much more complicated. Shortly after Mr. Mogilevich's arrest Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko came to Moscow to discuss just that, with little real progress.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

UN Watchdog Censures Google, Gets Censored

I really don't want to become one of those preachy, over-exaggerating bloggers writing for effect or out of bias, but I keep coming across these stories. The next one will be different I promise. An entry about why Russian women are hot or something (a surprisingly popular topic lately, and I have my own theory). But for now, the facts..

You know its a real story when even Fox News, that "fair and balanced" bastion of right-wing fuss TV-watchers* picks it up.

The short version: Inner City Press, a small but successful UN watchdog, is dropped from Google News after the Inner City Press publicly questioned Google's refusal to sign the UN compact on human rights and anti-censorship principles. Google responded by delisting Inner City Press from its Google News Service. On February 8, 2008, Google News sent Inner City press an email which began:

We periodically review news sources, particularly following user complaints, to ensure Google News offers a high quality experience for our users. When we reviewed your site we've found that we can no longer include it in Google News.

"Don't be evil" indeed. The Global Accountability Project has further details here.

I would like to stress that although the Inner City Press clearly has an agenda, that is to monitor the doings of the United Nations and point out wrong-doing when they see it, they do it from a straightforward journalistic approach; they aren't a political group of permanently seeking to paint the UN in a bad light. Having spent time in Afghanistan, where UN malfeasance and mismanagement played role in killing much of the naiveté I had left, I can say the Inner City Press is a model of restraint, if not too restrained. The problem with such truly bad things is that others tend to thing you are exaggerating or operating on too extreme of a bias when you say them. I used to think such people were foolish too, until I became one of them. The same thing applies to some of my more outlandish adventures; I generally don't tell most people because they just don't believe it (one of the reasons I have over 4,000 pictures on my personal flickr page. Having a photo of myself flying a helicopter over the Pakistani mountains or playing snow polo is a lot easier, and faster).

* To be fair, most TV news channels are mostly fluff. I stopped watching any of them when I saw a pieces titled "Bush Girls Good Girls - Where Did They Go Right?" Not only is this not true, it is not news, and therefore a waste of airtime.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Obvious Statement of the Week Award

Six cables damaged in under two weeks and you think it may have been the work of saboteurs? At least the story is getting out there.

Undersea Saboteurs May Have Been Responsible For Cable Cuts

Some highlights:

Reports from those vessels have apparently indicated that the may not have been caused by accident or through natural events. According to the ITU's (International Telecom Union) head of development, Sami al-Murshed, "We do not want to preempt the results of ongoing investigations, but we do not rule out that a deliberate act of sabotage caused the damage to the undersea cables over two weeks ago,"

"Do not rule out," doesn't carry quite the same weight as "have proof of sabotage," but of the five cable cuts, only one (the link between the UAE and Oman) is definitely established to have been an accident. There are doubts regarding the others, as some experts feel that the cables were too deep to be cut and lie outside of normal shipping lanes. The short period of time between the other four failures may also be indicative of deliberate action, as its unusual for multiple critical cable breaks to occur that close together. Four of the five cables have been repaired at this point the repair status of the fifth cable is unknown.

Just because an abandoned anchor was found at the damaged point of one cable doesn't mean that it was an accident. It is possible that one of the cables providing connectivity was damaged by accident on the same day that another, distant, cable providing connectivity to the Middle East was also damaged, but somehow I doubt it. I don't know who or what was behind the cable breaks, but six cables down in under two weeks is not an accident, especially compared to the previous record - the last serious damage to a cable was in 2006, when an earthquake disrupted (just) one cable serving parts of Asia.

The damaged anchor discovered at the site of one of damaged cables.
This photo comes from the
FLAG website, two of FLAG's cables being among those damaged.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Beef Removed From Menus Across the US

What happened in the CA slaughterhouse isn't new, it was just caught on film. I was sad to see the videos, but glad that the issue is getting some attention. Maybe the ensuing publicity will result in at least a slight improvement for the animals involved. I'm not against eating animals, I'm against abusing them first, and the standard slaughterhouse practices used in the US definitely count.

Original Article Here, Highlights Follow

By GREG RISLING, Associated Press Writer Mon Feb 18

LOS ANGELES - The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sunday ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse, the subject of an animal-abuse investigation, that provided meat to school lunch programs.

Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said his department has evidence that Westland did not routinely contact its veterinarian when cattle became non-ambulatory after passing inspection, violating health regulations.

Federal officials suspended operations at Westland/Hallmark after an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States surfaced showing crippled and sick animals being shoved with forklifts.

Two former employees were charged Friday. Five felony counts of animal cruelty and three misdemeanors were filed against a pen manager. Three misdemeanor counts — illegal movement of a non-ambulatory animal — were filed against an employee who worked under that manager. Both were fired.

Authorities said the video showed workers kicking, shocking and otherwise abusing "downer" animals that were apparently too sick or injured to walk into the slaughterhouse. Some animals had water forced down their throats, San Bernardino County prosecutor Michael Ramos said.

No charges have been filed against Westland, but an investigation by federal authorities continues.

Federal regulations call for keeping downed cattle out of the food supply because they may pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease because they typically wallow in feces and their immune systems are often weak.

Raymond countered a claim leveled by Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle, who said a USDA inspector was at the Westland plant for about two hours each day. USDA inspectors are there at slaughterhouses "continuously," Raymond said.

Advocacy groups also weighed in, noting the problems at Westland wouldn't have been revealed had it not been for animal right activists.

A Good Time at Jeddah Airport

I generally don’t write about things such as airport layovers, but given how unpleasant they usually are, I thought I’d give a shout out to Jeddah Airport. It’s not the largest, and not the most luxurious, but they definitely earned the Gold Star.

Due to a mix-up regarding Dubai versus Abu Dhabi as the departure point for my flight to Sana'a, I missed by flight. I didn't even get that far, really, I didn't even get a ticket (which in this case is good, as I would never have made it to AD in time). I was on fire to see Sana'a though, and had a very limited time in which to do it, so I bought the next possible ticket, which took me through Jeddah. I was a bit worried, as Josef warned me that I would have to go through immigration to switch terminals, and I had no Saudi visa, but I called Emirates and they told me it would be fine. I was also a bit worried as I didn't have my abaya with me (an invitation for harassment or hostility in many cases, or at least a lot of unwelcome staring), or even a scarf for my hair, and I wasn't sure what Saudi immigration would make of a single woman, under 40 (their cut-off point for women traveling alone, at least as far as the foreign ministry is concerned. Anyone younger is still suspect), traveling alone, inappropriately dressed and without a visa.

Well, it turns out that Josef was right and Emirates was wrong, but in the end it didn't matter. Everyone was extremely nice and helpful. To get around the visa issue they provided a dedicated runway transport buses to take me across the runways, picking me up and dropping me off at gate entrances, thereby negating the need to go through immigration. The various staff were all helpful and friendly. Even if they did all ask to see my passport "for official reasons" just because they were curious. They directed me to my gate, sought plug adapters and were generally helpful and friendly. The one question I had the entire time was when I went through security. The man at the X-ray machine didn’t recognize my curling iron, and made me show it to him. He had a much better sense of humor than most TSA employees, joking that it was maybe “a funny bomb” (it was funny the way he said it) and being generally polite. Of course, I was the only person there unlike the TSA lines with hundreds of hurrying passengers, but still, there is no need to be as nasty as some of those people can get.

Technically, none of this was not allowed, but the official helping me went to his boss and asked him to sign that I was allowed to anyway. The director protested, saying that it was against regulations, my helper pushed him to "do it anyway," so he did. A weak rule of law can be a great hindrance in most cases, but in cases like this I appreciate the ability to circumvent obstructionist bureaucracy. I wasn’t trying to enter the country illegally and I wasn’t a threat, so it would have been a real shame if I were sent back to Dubai instead of Sana’a. Not to mention the Sana’a flight left earlier than the next Dubai flight, so if they really wanted to get rid of me, the fastest way would be to let me just continue on.

The airport is also undergoing some renovations including a new business class lounge (I was in the temporary one, which was quite fine with me, but the ticket desk worker and those in the lounge itself couldn’t stop apologizing for not being able to offer a more luxurious lounge), and more expansive plans may be in the works, but in general it was very nice to be there, as Jeddah Airport hasn’t changed much since I was there last, half my life ago. All of which made me a bit homesick and that much more dedicated to plan my next trip to Riyadh.

Thank You, Jeddah Airport!

PS The flight to Sana’a was less exciting – being the midnight flight the Saudis used it to deport illegal Yemeni workers they had caught and held for up to ten days. It wasn’t the Yemeni’s fault, as the Saudi jails in which they were held are not exactly paragons of hygiene, but they smelled really bad. I made friends with the Saudi woman sitting behind me who sprayed me with her perfume every 15 minutes for the duration of the flight, which was appreciated until I walked off the plane and saw Josef waiting for me on the runway with some of his colleagues and a car. I said soothing about wanting to enjoy the cool mountain air and rode back with the windows open – I didn’t want to knock everyone out with my super-strong perfume. It was actually really nice, but there is such thing as too much of a good thing, and I definitely reached that limit.

The Physics of Zam Zam Water

I flew via Jeddah recently, and Jeddah being a major destination for pilgrims going on Hajj or Umrah, the pilot told us when we flew over Mecca so that they could conduct their proper prayers. My customs form also informed me that I was able to bring up to 10 liters of water from the Zam Zam well, which makes me wonder how large that well really is. A well large enough to support a woman and her child, or even thousands of pilgrims in centuries past, may not be large enough to support the millions that come now. It might be, Mecca and the well are located at the lower end of a long geographic tilt which funnels what rain and underground streams fall in the region, but I still wonder, especially if each of the estimated two million people who come each year are allowed to take 10 liters with them. 20 million liters is a lot for a spring. Demand expands beyond those actually on a pilgrimage as well, as Zam Zam water is sold commercially outside Mecca (despite it being against Saudi law to do so). There is even counterfeit Zam Zam water, something to be avoided, as not only is not from the site that matters so much to the purchasers, at least one lot of it was found to have come from an area where arsenic tainted the groundwater, thereby poisoning the counterfeit water as well.

It Wasn't Just One Cable

This month brought a bit of drama as damage to undersea cables providing service to the Middle East severely cut Internet access in many countries and weakened telephone capacity as well. Affected countries included the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iran.

The most popular story appears to be that only one cable was damaged, possibly in two places. This cable is roughly 8km off of the Egyptian coast, near Alexandria. Although true press accounts do exist (see here, here, and here), the majority seem dedicated to preserving this fiction. They mention two cuts, both at that one site, and both taking place on February 1, 2008, but make it sound like they were both near Alexandria. They do mention the other cable cuts, but make it sound as if these were just rumors which "could not be confirmed."

Even those news outlets covering more than the official two cuts seem willing to chalk the entire thing up to an “unfortunate," as were the conspiracy theorists. A poll (translated version) of visitors to the Egyptian site accepted the story of just two cable breaks near each other, and 13.36% saying they believed an accident caused the cuts, 17.26% thought the damage was due to the natural breakage due to aging infrastructure (which shows you Egyptians' expectations from their infrastructure. Of all the possible explanations I considered, it never occurred to me that such vital telecommunications equipment was just falling apart due to age and poor maintenance).

Mini Cable Damage Timeline
23-Jan-08: The Strait of Hormuz - Off Iran, near the UAE
25-Jan-08: Off Malaysia
30-Jan-08: Mediterranean - off Egypt
30-Jan-08: Mediterranean - off France
01-Feb-08:Off Qatar
01-Feb-08: Off Qatar- connecting to the UAE

Neither explanation is plausible when one considers the high number of broken cables in such diverse locations, but they are if you believe the only damage took place off in one area off the coast of Egypt. Another 52% thought it was Israel, a knee-jerk reaction I'm inclined to disregard as one of many uneducated knee-jerk reactions (blaming the Jews for the Asian Tsunami comes to mind). That said, unlike the Jews-caused-the-Tsunami insanity, this particular conspiracy theory is based on a bit of fact, namely that the cable serving Israel and Iraq remained untouched while so many cables targeting the rest of the Middle East were damaged, and much of the diverted Internet traffic was routed overland through the US. This does not a conspiracy make by any means, but in the absence of a more rational explanation, US and/or Israeli involvement sounds just as reasonable as all the other improbably explanations out there.

Of course, given the wide geographic range of the damaged cables and the concurrent timing of several cuts leaves me no choice but to conclude it IS a conspiracy, the question remains what type, and by whom? Was it the Big Bad US and their favorite ally, Israel? Was it terrorists out to cause damage to the hated businesses and governments in their own region? If so, why didn't they claim credit yet? Was it the US, seeking to weaken Iran, or at least test that country's ability to recover ahead of an attack?Was it Alcatel-Lucent, who signed a 125 million dollar deal with the less than wealthy Telecom Egypt two days after the last cuts (Egypt had several cable connecting it to Asia, four of which were cut)?Dragging a few old anchors over some cables is a fairly inexpensive way of gaining multi-million dollar contact from a country with dire infrastructure development needs and several undersea telecommunications cable already connecting it to the outside world. And why is there this fake cover up? Lazy journalism? A true conspiracy? It all sounds so crazy but something is up.

I am usually so disdainful of those that believe in the unseen hands (the conspiracy kind, not the economic one) and one time even subjected a poor Afghan coworker to a four hour history lesson on the origins of the American Civil war beginning in the late 17th century (he thought it was the creation of the Rothschild family so that they could get wealthy on contracts) in my quest to end them, but in this case, I am willing to make an exception. Games are afoot, I just don't know which. Which is rather frustrating. Further inquiry is required…

A Bit About Me

And now a little bit about me. I decided to start with the absolute basis and a few questions that I hear often.

1. How old are you? 30. I turned thirty a few months ago. It's not like I didn't know it was coming, but it was a bit of a surprise. I made the most of it, and went through two months of birthday parties in Las Vegas (overrated, but necessary as the home of weightless flight), New York, Washington DC, London, Berlin , Belgium and Dubai (that's a separate post, or possible posts), but in the end I still turned 30. I even have white hair! (although I blame 85% of that on the Taliban, a story which is a lot less likely to ever be a post than my never-ending 30th birthday celebration, although other Afghanistan posts will most certainly be here).

2. Are you married? No. I get asked this a LOT, especially in certain areas of the world. My family likes to pressure me as well, if somewhat more subtly. All of the pressure is actually a small part of why I've resisted it so long, despite two separate proposals in the past four months (the big reason is fear). I'm contrary like that. There's more to it of course, but that's enough for here and now.

3. Do you have family? Yes. They are a bit dispersed, living in eight cities and one village in three continents, bu I do my best to see them as often as possible. There are also friends, love interest (interests?) and the occasional source of drama. I also have a horse and a dog, both of which I love more than most of the people I know.

4. Where are you from? Where are you? I don't know! I spend a lot of time in the US and in Dubai, get to Austria at least once a year and am currently spending a few months in Russia (Moscow). I was born in a Middle Eastern country, am a dual citizen of the US and an original EU country and currently live in a fourth country, one of the five in which I've lived, and I move around quite a bit. For example, in the past 12 months I was in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Washington DC, New York, Long Island, London, Berlin, Austria, Belgium, Russia, Dubai, Yemen, Bahrain, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka. There are probably a few more, but that's all that I can remember right now. So really, it depends. My main failure is the Southern Hemisphere; I've been within four miles of the equator and even saw the Southern Cross, but a trip to Australia this Spring will be my first time to cross it.

5. What do you do when not working/starting new blogs? I read a lot, particularly history, sociology, politics or good old fiction. I like blogs, if they tell me something about the places or situations they cover and don't just talk about people's personal lives. The one exception is Crystal. She lives in a different universe and can sometimes put me off with some of the vulgarity, but I still find her so very funny. I also travel, play polo (on horses and on elephants), and am getting ready to compete in the summer 2008 Mongol Rally London-Mongolia car race. When not engaged in "official activities," anything that involves dancing, be it clubs or the Mariinski Theater, is likely to attract my attention.

6. Why are you writing this blog? I grew tired of hearing "you should write a book," so I decided to try blogging first as practice, both to see if I like it or if I'm any good.

7. What's with the veil in the picture? That isn't accurate you know. Er, yeah. I drew the black over a real photo in paint. I generally appreciate emails, but if you are sending me messages about th, ye lack of a strip of fabric between my eyes, you need a hobby. :)

Origins of the Name

Hello all, and welcome to Archaeology Versus Diplomacy. The name is based on a quote by former US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering, "In archaeology you uncover the unknown. In diplomacy you cover the known." My goal is to be as truthful as possible about my adventures and perspectives as I move throughout this world, but I can already think of a few cases during which I will have to change the facts a little, usually spare feelings or to conceal identities, including mine. That said, my life is unique enough that anyone who knows me and reads this blog will probably be able to figure it out pretty quickly. Hi darling!