This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A Weekend Break for Two in Borovsk

OK, so for my first post after a rather long break this is not exactly pressing news, nor the height of journalism, but it will make my fellow bloggees smile. What happens when you book a cheap flight on Kaliningrad airlines and the day before you’re due to fly the company goes bust? If you’re lucky you'll get transferred onto Aeroflot and get a chance to flick through their onboard magazine where you will discover (in the English language section, nestled between a review of Vladimir Pozner's latest book and a guide to a weekend in, erhem, Borovsk)… News from the Eastern Blog! (Thanks to Johann for this!)

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Friday, 18 September 2009

So Long, Georgia

Last month on 18th August, Georgia finally withdrew from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an act of rebellion that was symbolised by the lowered Georgian flag at the CIS headquarters in Minsk, Belarus. The Georgian government first announced its decision to remove itself from the bloc following last year’s war with Russia, declaring that the status quo could not ensue while another CIS member refused to respect its territorial integrity and carried out ‘ethnic cleansing’ in its lands. As a matter of pride as well as principle, Georgia did not want to look like it could be bullied by the leader of the gang.

There are two main schools of thought as to why the CIS, which eventually came to include all the former Soviet republics bar the Baltic States, was set up in 1991. The more pro-Russian, pragmatic analysts see its creation as a means to cushion the shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. With so much shared infrastructure and a network of interlinked economies – not to mention the threat of nuclear weapons being scattered all over Eastern European and Central Asian countries that had little idea of how to handle their new found sovereignty – the CIS was meant to provide a solid framework for dealing with a practical ‘divorce’. The organisation also offered support to those new republics, which had up until the fall of Communism, known nothing beyond dependence and centralisation.

However, those more critical of the inner workings of the Kremlin have always regarded the CIS as a means for Moscow to hold sway over the former Soviet sphere, denying the new republics their right to true independence. They see the bloc as a way for Russia to regain its old Empire and balance the power of the West, which in the 1990s was largely embodied in the form of an ever-encroaching NATO.

But whichever way you choose to view the CIS and its creation, it is worth thinking about the ramifications of the departure, considering that Georgia is the first country to make such a move.

What does this mean for Georgia?

The departure is likely to bolster the already Western-focused foreign policy, which some critics claim will damage ties with other CIS countries. However, the lack of reaction from these states indicates otherwise. It seems that there is a silent understanding of Georgia’s exit amongst the former Soviet states.

Even Russia’s reaction was surprisingly muted. Rather than condemning the actual move, the Kremlin simply mentioned that the withdrawal would have adverse impacts on Georgia’s citizens, as important economic links have been broken.

However, this ignores the fact that Georgia still remains part of a subunit of the CIS, known as GUAM, a supposedly anti-Russian group set up in 1997 comprising of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova (Uzbekistan was a fleeting member from 1999-2005, adding an extra ‘U’ to form GUUAM). Georgia still has the opportunity to pursue multi-lateral trade links within this organisation. Furthermore, there is nothing stopping the Georgian government from setting up bilateral agreements with CIS members.

And for the CIS?

Despite the loss of a member, the CIS is still looking robust, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan still part of the club. However, if Georgia can walk away relatively unscathed, the question then arises: what purpose does the CIS serve?

Whichever side you took with regards to reasoning behind the organisation’s birth, both arguments look redundant now. On the one hand, the shock of the USSR’s collapse is no longer rippling through the region with force; although countries such as Belarus have failed to make the transition to liberal democracies, it has been two decades since the fall of communism and the former Soviet Union is making tentative steps towards integration with the rest of the world. On the other hand, if Russia is set on reasserting its power in the region, the flaky framework of the CIS bears absolutely no weight compared to the Kremlin’s use of ‘petro-politics’.

Does Georgia’s swift exit indicate the beginning of the end of the CIS? After announcing the withdrawal, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili stated that he was waving the final goodbye to the Soviet Union. He may not be right about many things, but Saakashvili seems to have hit the nail on the head. It is time to let go of Soviet-style relationships, which serve only to hinder these countries’ economic development and march towards democracy. This rusty framework needs to be forgotten, and if – as many will argue – some kind of multi-lateral agreement needs to remain, it should be one that is fresh and relevant to the twenty-first century.

What Next?

It seems unlikely that any other members will follow suit in the immediate future, but the potential is there. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Russian-Belarusian partnership is looking decidedly rocky and the relationship between Russian and Ukraine is hardly a match made in heaven. The Central Asian states are also showing signs of rebellion against Russia; for example, Turkmenistan is considering diversifying its energy supplies. It would appear that the former Soviet republics, after almost two decades of taking a lead from Moscow, are really beginning to assert their independence. How much life is left in the Moscow-dominated CIS?

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Monday, 14 September 2009

Not Quite So Eastern

Photo: "Palace Square, St Petersburg", Andrew Moore
None of us have been on the blog recently, as we’ve all been very busy. To update you: Caroline successfully completed her year in Moscow and, despite a couple of near scrapes involving loose man hole covers and dodgy roads, has also survived a summer interning in Uzbekistan. She is now studying in Paris, but will continue blogging on all things Russian as her Masters course will be focused on Russia and Eastern Europe. Helen has finished her dissertation on Russian/Belarusian relations and is now job hunting, so hopefully will have lots of time for writing lovely blog posts. And I am now living in Warsaw, attempting to learn EU law and economics, whilst feeling horribly homesick for St Petersburg. Nevertheless, as my Masters thesis will be looking at Russia-EU cooperation, I’ll still be blogging all thing Russia. So, whilst we may not be in Mother Russia anymore, we’ll try our best to keep on writing, giving our thoughts and observations on Russia, as seen from our various locations across Europe.

At the moment I’m up to my ears in introductory courses so no time to write a real post, but I just found out that this is the first year that Russia will be celebrating Programmers’ Day. Yes, that’s right – 13th of September is officially the day for celebrating the work of all Russia’s dedicated computer programmers. Given that pretty much every third Russian man I know is a programmer, I imagine there will be a fair few celebrations going on tonight!

This Russian habit of commemorating almost every profession is something wonderfully Russian. There's public prosecutors' day, a service workers’ day, a geologists’ day, an astronauts’ day, a miners’ day, a chemical industry workers’ day, a power engineering specialists’ day… I could continue! I don’t want to be cynical or perpetuate drunken Russian stereotypes, but I came across a Russia joke that perhaps explains the popularity of all these days:

A Russian grandfather is asked how often he drinks vodka. He replies, "Not very often - only when it is a holiday or after a sauna. For example, what holiday is it today?" No one can recall any holiday today. The grandfather ponders, "Hmm, sounds like a good day to go to a sauna."

Anyway, Happy Programmer’s Day to all of you out there!

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