December 31, 2018

Taliban crossing points in Balochistan

Source: Tweet by Col. Lawrence Sellin

Taliban crossing points in Balochistan
1. Bahram Chah
2. Nushki
3. Shorawak
4. Badini.

Pakistan permits Taliban bases with recruitment, training, logistics, R&R and medical treatment in Pakistani clinics. Pakistan’s military allows the Taliban free movement across the border.

The EU Defense Industry: Background

Geopolitical Monitor

BACKGROUNDERS - December 24, 2018

By Geopolitical Monitor


The idea of collective EU defense has been around since the abortive European Defense Community of 1952. Yet over 50 years later, the continent still lacks the shared vision and organizational structures required to turn its oft-cited goal of ‘strategic autonomy’ into a reality. The challenge is compounded by the state of the European defense industry, which is fractured, organized along national lines, riddled with inefficiencies, and largely unable to maintain the extensive manufacturing base necessary to compete with global arms sales giants in the United States and Russia.

Yet the geopolitical shocks of the Ukraine crisis and the Trump presidency have shattered old paradigms, breathing new life into History on a continent that has been happy to ignore security matters since the end of the Cold War. Now the EU has its vision, but can Brussels push through integration in the ever-sensitive security sphere right when populist nationalism is surging across the continent? EU leaders are hoping that by incentivizing voluntary cooperation, they can induce the kind of industrial consolidation that would allow the EU to take greater responsibility for its own defense (and incidentally emerge as a major player in the global arms market).



Among other players in the global arms trade, the European Union stands out as a unique case as a supranational grouping that has little substantive integration in the defense field. However, three of its largest members – France, Germany, and (for the time being) the United Kingdom – rank in the top six arms exporters in the world from 2013-2017.

Yet when you combine the global market share of these three EU states over the past five years, it equals just 17.3% – well short of Russia’s 22% share and the United States’ 34%. The shortfall is particularly stark given that the combined GDP of the EU three is nearly six times the size of the Russian economy. The combined military budgets of the EU three is more than two times what Russia spends. And though French (5%), British (9.6%), and German (1.6%) defense companies are altogether more represented compared to Russian ones (7.1%) on SIPRI’s list of the world’s top 100 private defense contractors, the United States blows them all away with a staggering 57.9%. Indeed, most of the world’s largest defense companies continue to be found in the United States.

The above disparity stems from the fact that EU companies are at a significant market disadvantage vis-à-vis the United States and Russia, both of which can rely on a combination of government subsidized R&D, advanced industrial consolidation, extensive and reliable foreign buyers, and consistently high military budgets to provide a competitive advantage for their domestic arms companies. Though it’s easy to add the military budgets of EU states together to illustrate a point, the reality of current EU law is that these resources aren’t being pooled to create new efficiencies in procurement or research & development. As a result, EU governments are getting less bang for their buck on defense spending and the EU is punching below its economic weight in the global arms trade.

How inefficient is the current EU military industrial complex? According to the EU’s official statistics, a lack of cooperation between members states costs anywhere between 25 billion to 100 billion euros per year. The industry falls almost exclusively under the purview of national governments, with around 80% of procurement and 90% of R&D being conducted on a strictly national basis (2014 numbers). As a result, the EU is home to over 178 types of weapon systems, compared to 30 in the United States. The armies of EU member states field 17 different types of battle tanks; in the US Army there’s only one type. It’s estimated that by cooperating on defense procurement procedures alone, member states could save up to 30% on their defense budgets.

The numbers suggest that there’s a lot to be gained in terms of continental defense just by targeting the low-hanging fruit of eliminating redundancies and fostering cooperation and consolidation in the European defense complex. Defense integration in the EU is thus a two-track process: realizing the ever-controversial idea of an ‘EU army,’ with all its associated historical and command-and-control headaches, and reducing industrial and bureaucratic inefficiencies, which in theory could dramatically improve national capabilities and, since the EU is the sum of its national parts, continental defense as well.

As examined in the first article in this series, there’s an overarching economic logic to the consolidation of the EU’s defense industry. Like in the United States and elsewhere, war is big business and it employs hundreds of thousands of Europeans up and down the defense supply chain, and in supporting industries as well. According to EU statistics, the continental defense industry was worth $97.3 billion in 2014, employing 500,000 people directly and another 1.2 million in indirect jobs. The industry also involves over 2,500 small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) producingcritically important parts of the defense supply chain; these SMES are mostly concentrated in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.


The EU Finds Its Political Will

In the elevated threat environment of the Cold War, West German defense spending routinely exceeded the current NATO target of 2% of GDP, peaking at 3.13% of GDP in 1975. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Bonn’s was spending the equivalent of 2.4% of its GDP on defense. But since then spending levels have trended downward, hitting a low point of 1.179% of GDP in 2016. The German case is one of the more extreme examples of a prevalent trend in the EU, that of the post-Cold War peace dividend. With the immediate threat of Soviet aggression removed, European governments stopped prioritizing the security realm and were content to rely on UN and NATO operations for continental defense and peacekeeping. The trend culminated in European leaders taking a backseat to Washington-led efforts to resolve conflicts in the EU’s own backyard, namely the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 and the Kosovo war of 1999.

Two unexpected developments have since shaken EU leaders out of their post-Cold War reverie. First and arguably most important is the 2014 Ukraine crisis which, in Russia’s sudden and apparently lasting annexation of Crimea, demonstrated that territorial acquisition by force (or other oblique means) is still very much a part of the modern foreign policy toolbox. The Ukraine crisis also brought certain uncomfortable truths into sharp relief. Some are old, like the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Russian army vis-à-vis the combined armies of Europe; some are new, like the lack of any credible swift response or deterrence options for Brussels.

The other wake-up call was Donald Trump’s election as US president. Trump has taken a diplomatic hatchet to the transatlantic relationship, savaging relations with the EU on several fronts: trade, climate, the Iran nuclear deal. But most damaging of all has been President Trump’s approach to NATO, which has hitherto formed the backbone of European defense. Trump’s constant haranguing of European leaders to spend more on defense under threat of ­leaving the Transatlantic Alliance could ultimately produce the opposite of their intended effect. By openly questioning the immutability of NATO, Trump has underscored the need for Europeans to take responsibility for their own security. And so far, EU leaders appear eager to rise to the challenge.


*This article is the first in a series:

Part 2: The EU Defense Industry: Consolidation toward an ‘EU Army’?

Part 3: The EU Defense Industry: In the Shadow of Brexit

**Originally published on December 11, 2018.

December 30, 2018

Zhores Medvedev's Life: A Chilling Reminder of How the Soviets Weaponized Psychiatry against Dissidents

Zhores Medvedev's Life: A Chilling Reminder of How the Soviets Weaponized Psychiatry against Dissidents

The practice of categorizing one’s enemies as “insane” became a ready tool of suppression in the Soviet state founded by Lenin and developed under Stalin.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Image credit: Unsplash


Mark Hendrickson

Politics Soviet Union Communism StalinDissent Torture

The New York Timesobituary opened with a simple recitation of facts: “Zhores A. Medvedev, the Soviet biologist, writer and dissident who was declared insane, confined to a mental institution and stripped of his citizenship in the 1970s after attacking a Stalinist pseudoscience, died … in London.”

Zhores Medvedev, his twin brother Roy (still alive at 93), the physicist Andrei Sakharov, and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were leading dissidents. They courageously put their lives on the line to smuggle manuscripts out of the Soviet Union. They wanted the wider world to learn the truth about the “the workers’ paradise” that so many Western intellectuals (some deluded, others having gone over to the dark side) praised.

Declare Dissidents Insane

One Soviet technique of oppression was to declare that political dissidents were insane. They were then incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals where they were tormented and tortured.

A generation of Americans has been born since the Soviet Union, the USSR that President Ronald Reagan boldly labeled “the evil empire,” ceased to exist. They have little to no concept of how ferociously the USSR’s communist tyranny suppressed dissent. As the Times obituary of Dr. Medvedev illustrates, one Soviet technique of oppression was to declare that political dissidents were insane. They were then incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals where they were tormented and tortured. Some were used as human guinea pigs for dangerous experiments. (Shades of Hitler’s buddy, Dr. Mengele.) Some even succumbed to the not-so-tender ministrations of those “hospitals.”

I recall one particular example of the disgusting abuse of human beings in Soviet psychiatric hospitals. Vladimir Bukovsky, who will turn 76 later this month, spent a dozen years being shuffled between Soviet jails, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals. One of the “therapies” administered in a psychiatric hospital was putting a cord into Bukovsky’s mouth, threading it from his throat up through his nasal passages, and then drawing it out through one of his nostrils. (Maybe the cord went in the opposite direction; I’ve never been interested in memorizing torture techniques.) Alas, this communist “treatment” did not “cure” Bukovsky of his rational (not irrational) abhorrence of tyranny and brutality.

Marx's Influence on the Soviets

The warped thought process that led to the perversion and weaponization of psychiatry in the Soviet Union can be traced back to the communist icon and thought leader Karl Marx. Marx propounded a spurious doctrine known as “polylogism” to justify stifling dissent. According to Marx, different classes of people had different structures in their minds. Thus, Marx declared the bourgeoisie to be mentally defective because they were inherently unable to comprehend Marx’s (allegedly) revelatory and progressive theories. Since they were, in a sense, insane, there was no valid reason for communists to “waste time” arguing with them. On the contrary, communists were justified in not only ignoring or suppressing bourgeois ideas but in liquidating the entire bourgeois class.

The USSR’s infamous secret police energetically wielded quack psychiatry as a club with which to destroy political dissidents. 

The practice of categorizing one’s enemies as “insane” became a ready tool of suppression in the Soviet state founded by Lenin and developed under Stalin. The USSR’s infamous secret police energetically wielded quack psychiatry as a club with which to destroy political dissidents. If you want more information about how the Soviets kidnapped and misused psychiatry, here is a link to a document that describes what American agents of the USSR were taught about psycho-political techniques in the late 1930s. (The provenance of the booklet is murky, and Soviet apologists have long tried to discredit it, but in light of numerous psychiatric abuses known to have been committed with the approval of the USSR’s rulers, the content of the book is highly plausible.)

The incarceration of Zhores Medvedev in psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s was a monstrous injustice. His “crime” was having exposed the bizarre pseudoscience of  Lysenkoism that Stalin had embraced in the 1950s. Lysenko’s quack theories led to deadly crop failures and widespread starvation. Nevertheless, Stalin backed him by executing scientists who dared to disagree with Lysenko. Millions of innocents lost their lives because “truth” in the Soviet Union wasn’t scientific but political.

Another vivid example of the destructive consequences of politicizing truth is related in Solzhenitsyn’s exposé of Soviet labor camps, The Gulag Archipelago. Certain Soviet officials decided to increase the steel shipped to a certain area. When the planners issued orders for trains to carry double the steel to the designated destination, conscientious engineers informed them that it couldn’t be done. They pointed out that the existing train tracks could not support such great weights. The politicians had the engineers executed as “saboteurs” for opposing “the plan.” What followed was predictable: the loads were doubled, the tracks gave out, and the designated area ended up getting less steel, not more.

As the havoc wrought by Soviet central economic planners repeatedly demonstrated, the communist central planners refused to abandon their insufferable self-delusion and mystical belief in the power of their own will to alter reality.

This episode shows where the true insanity was in the USSR. The central planners believed that constructing their ideal country was simply a matter of will. Alas, reality doesn’t conform to the whims or will of any human being, but the arrogance of central planners remains stubbornly impervious to that inescapable fact of life. Instead, as the havoc wrought by Soviet central economic planners repeatedly demonstrated, the communist central planners refused to abandon their insufferable self-delusion and mystical belief in the power of their own will to alter reality. This was the true insanity, compounded by the error of persecuting competent scientists like Zhores Medvedev.

Sadly, the practice of branding political opponents as “insane” is not confined to the now-defunct Soviet state. In 1981, when I was completing my master’s thesis on Solzhenitsyn, I telephoned an American college professor of history to ask whether he recalled if Solzhenitsyn had been granted honorary US citizenship. (He hadn’t. President Ford didn’t want to offend the Soviet leadership.) The reply to my question was this: “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn belongs in an insane asylum.” The virus of Marx’s polylogism is, unfortunately, alive and well in American academia.

As for Zhores Medvedev, may he now rest in peace and receive his reward for his integrity and courage.

This article was reprinted from the Mises Institute.

Israel, Greece, and Cyprus Join Hands in Beersheba

By Dr. George N. TzogopoulosDecember 28, 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu, Nicos Anastasiades, and Alexis Tsipras at Beersheva Summit; screenshot of video from Facebook page of the Prime Minister of Israel

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,049, December 28, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are building a democratic bloc in the eastern Mediterranean. The Beersheba trilateral summit highlighted the strong momentum of this initiative, as well as American institutional support for it. Jerusalem, Athens, and Nicosia are expanding their collaboration in fields including defense, cyberspace, energy, and education. The potential construction of an East Med pipeline could be a flagship project contributing to security and prosperity in Europe and the Middle East.

Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are steadily strengthening their partnership in the eastern Mediterranean, with institutional dialogue organized in the form of tripartite summits. Five such meetings have already taken place – the most recent in Beersheba – and the sixth will be held in February 2019 on the island of Crete. In Beersheba, PMs Benjamin Netanyahu and Alexis Tsipras and President Nicos Anastasiades agreed to establish a permanent secretariat to be based in Nicosia. The three countries will also collaborate, inter alia, on cybersecurity, smart cities, innovation with emphasis on supporting young entrepreneurs, education, environmental protection, research on agriculture, meteorology, health, and tourism.

On the economic front, the Beersheba summit was preceded by the first trilateral business forum, which took place in Tel Aviv. Relevant chambers of commerce are expected to further engage the business communities of the three countries. The potential here is enormous. Israeli foreign direct investments in Greece, for instance, remain relatively low, amounting to €26.7 million in 2016 and €32 million in 2017. But the ongoing interest of Israeli companies in the real estate sector, hotels, and the food industry in Greece can lead to an increase in the future. Similarly, some Greek companies are seeking to increase their exports to Israel or invest in the energy sector. Recently, for example, Energean Oil & Gas announced the signing of a memorandum of understandingwith Israel Natural Gas Lines regarding constructing and transferring the onshore and near shore part of natural gas facilities for the Karish and Tanin developments.

The Beersheba summit was significant for another reason: It was the first time the US participated in and publicly expressed support for the initiative. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said a few words on behalf of President Donald Trump, adding gravitas to the trilateral collaboration scheme. He called the partnership “an anchor of stability in the eastern Mediterranean” and spoke about the importance of the East Med pipeline project, which will “help diversify energy sources throughout the entire region…help bring energy security to Europe, [and contribute to] the stability and prosperity of the Middle East and Europe.”

The process has not always been harmonious. Turkish policy in the eastern Mediterranean is creating obstacles. In the Beersheba summit statement, Netanyahu, Tsipras, and Anastasiades reiterated their full support and solidarity with Cyprus in exercising its sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone. Until now, Washington has preferred to publicly adopt a stance of equal distance between Athens/Nicosia and Ankara.  A recent interview with US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell might, however, signal the beginning of a change in that approach. Talking to the Kathimerini newspaper, Mitchell encouraged Cyprus to develop its resources, characterized Turkey’s view as “a minority of one versus the rest of the world,” and expressed his country’s opposition to any kind of harassment in Cypriot waters. While this message is important, it remains to be seen how Washington will react in the blocs of the Cypriot exclusive economic zone where US ships are not involved in drilling.

The construction of the East Med pipeline with America’s blessing would benefit the democratic bloc of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus and cancel plans for the transportation of natural gas from the Levantine Basin to Europe via Turkey. The US may well wish to warn or even punish Turkey for its expansion of its military cooperation with Russia (for example, Ankara’s deal with Moscow for the supply of S-400 missiles). But while the bilateral relationship with Turkey is vexing, Washington still counts on it.

The Department of State recently notified Congress of a proposal to sell the Patriot air and missile defense system to Ankara, which might be an attempt to halt the S-400 purchase. More importantly, the withdrawal of American troops from Syria means better coordination will now be required between Washington and Ankara. According to media reports, Trump has accepted an invitation from Erdoğan to visit Ankara in 2019.

While Washington is endeavoring to find a modus vivendi with Ankara, it still values its allies in the eastern Mediterranean and southeastern Europe. The fundamental strength of American-Israeli relations is largely taken for granted, and this is slowly becoming true for American-Cypriot-relations and American-Greek relations as well.

Russia is a catalyst in that process. The US and Cyprus are improving their bilateral relationship, a step Moscow is not prepared to handle. In November 2018, Washington and Nicosia signed a statement of intent on security affairs, prompting Moscow to react fiercely against what it sees as a US plan to militarize Cyprus. And in December 2018, the inaugural strategic dialogue between the US and Greece was launched. Among other things, Greece is supporting the enlargement of NATO in the Balkans, as the Prespes Agreement paves the way for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to join it. Moscow made very clear that it objects to the deal reached between the governments of Athens and Skopje (FYROM) last June.

While the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot institutionalized dialogue is yielding initial results and creating a strong basis for cooperation in the long term, further grassroots mobilization is necessary. Unacceptable acts such as the frequent vandalism of the Thessaloniki Holocaust Memorial do not align with Israel’s improving image in Greece and Cyprus and are a warning signal. A nexus of collaboration between the communities of the three countries – with the participation of representatives of several sectors, including media and culture – will certainly contribute to better understanding. The respective diaspora communities, as the Beersheba summit statement illustrated, will provide more assistance and depth.

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Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is a BESA Research Associate, Lecturer at the Democritus University of Thrace, and Visiting Lecturer at the European Institute of Nice.

Africa’s Economic Development Is Impeded by Corruption and Populism

Despite continued support, African governments have been very obstinate in their generally misguided development policies.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Image Credit: Max Pixel


Jorge C. Carrasco

In March 1957, Kwame Nkrumahproclaimed the independence of the British Gold Coast, changing its name to Ghana. Nkrumah was a peculiar person. Trained at British and American universities, he was convinced of two things. The first was that only independence would allow African peoples to overcome their secular backwardness. The second was that in order to achieve it, the ideal vehicle was a sort of African socialism that he called consciencism.

As soon as he came to power, he adopted the title of "Osagyefo" (the redeemer), changed the name of the country to Ghana, which in Akan means "warrior king," and secured absolute power. Nkrumah was a charlatan devoured by narcissism. Although he did not sympathize with even half of his fellow citizens, who spoke dialects different from that of his native ethnicity, he believed the entire African continent should be united under a single flag.

In the West, Nkrumah was very popular. Kings and presidents celebrated him at receptions and enjoyed his company. It could not be less with a man so charismatic that in his speeches he claimed to have the infallible remedy "against poverty and disease."

He didn't end up with either of the two scourges. Nkrumah became a brutal dictator who, supported by the Soviets, authoritatively planned his country's economy with disastrous results. Ten years after Ghana attained independence, one of the most prosperous British overseas colonies had become visibly impoverished and associated with militarism.

The sad history of Ghana was repeated in each and every country south of the Sahara. With some honorable exceptions, such as Botswana, none of the former European colonies have managed not only to develop but also to ostensibly improve their situation. While countries in other parts of the world, especially in the Far East, have grown significantly and even joined the first world, black Africa remains as poor or poorer than when it gained independence.

The cold data leaves little room for interpretation. Africa's GDP is 70 percent lower than Asia’s and 80 percent lower than that of Latin America. Many reasons have been given to explain Africa's stubborn backwardness. It has been said that they cannot develop because they were colonies, and neocolonialism prevents them from doing so. But Vietnam was a colony, for example, and also had to suffer twenty years of civil war. Today, however, it is a country whose economy is growing and to whom the future smiles.

The truth is that the world has not marginalized Africa; it has opened up its markets to it and given it financial means so that, properly managed, it can develop.

Poverty has been blamed on a lack of infrastructure and human capital. No poor country has good infrastructure before it emerges from poverty. Infrastructure is financed by prosperity and, with respect to human capital, the West has earmarked billions of dollars in vocational training programs to prepare local workers.

African politicians often blame the rest of the world, either because it does not open its borders to African products or because it opens them too wide, and Western products flood its markets. The truth is that the world has not marginalized Africa; it has opened up its markets to it and given it financial means so that, properly managed, it can develop.

Both the United States and the European Union have given preferential access to African products and have not spared aid of all kinds and technological transfers. The African Development Bank, financed by the United States and Europe, has allocated $50 billion in credit operations to the continent since 1980. In 2016 alone, the European Union injected 21 billion euros into African countries, to which must be added another 1.6 billion in educational programs. That’s twice the Marshall Plan in just one year.

Despite this continued support, African governments have been very obstinate in their generally misguided and always opaque development policies. They have done exactly the opposite of what should have been done.  Although Africans work very hard, they are still very unproductive, which is not surprising given the low capitalization of those economies and the string of regulations with which their governments embellish them.

According to a report from the Brookings Institution, Nigeria has already overtaken India in the number of people living in extreme poverty (people who live on less than $1.90 a day), with at least 87 million people in this circumstances in comparison to the 70.6 million in India.

Doing business south of the Sahara is heroic. Opening a business in almost any African country is an uncertain, lengthy, and costly process that often ends in countless bribes. Anyone who crosses through Africa knows it. Traveling across the continent means encountering police posts every few kilometers that check visas and claim their tips in countries with almost no rule of law. If that happens to a motorcycle adventurer, what won't happen to an investor who wants to set up a food processing plant?

All these obstacles to the creation of wealth were not imposed by the former colonial powers but by the governments that arrived later. The main cause of Africa's chronic poverty has been an endless chain of bad decisions made by its leaders over the past half-century.

The continent's proverbial natural wealth has been of no use. Everything has been squandered. For example, since it achieved independence in 1961, Nigeria has earned more than half a trillion dollars from the sale of oil—the coveted Bonny Light oil—which is extracted from the Niger River Delta deposits, a natural wealth that would have allowed this nation to take off like so many other countries in the past that started their developing paths selling commodities. But sadly, that is not the case. According to  a report from the Brookings Institution, Nigeria has already overtaken India in the number of people living in extreme poverty (people who live on less than $1.90 a day), with at least 87 million people in these circumstances in comparison to the 70.6 million in India.

In his book Resource Abundance and Economic Development, Richard M. Auty, professor of economic geography at Lancaster University, emphasizes that the presence of natural resources in large quantities does not predestine a country to prosperity.

The logic of some seems to predict that if a country has an abundance of natural resources, it should show high levels of development. However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, the performance of a large number of countries abundant in these commodities does not support this hypothesis, and Nigeria is no exception.

In his book Resource Abundance and Economic Development, Richard M. Auty, professor of economic geography at Lancaster University, emphasizes that the presence of natural resources in large quantities does not predestine a country to prosperity. Referring to what he describes as the “resource curse or "paradox of plenty," he argues that countries with a large abundance of these commodities (such as fossil fuels and certain minerals) tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. According to his study, this problem generally tends to radicate in economic decisions regarding the use of revenues from extraction and commercialization of these natural resources. Auty explains that the abundance of revenues from these businesses in undeveloped nations tends to make it easier for politicians and bureaucratic authorities to waste them on unprofitable investments and conspicuous expenditures, which very often leads to corruption. This "voracity effect," as Auty calls it, almost always ends by causing stagnation in growth through the misuse and abuse of public funds.

Perhaps the unresolved issue for Africans is to open up their economies, embrace globalization, secure the legal framework for investment to flow with guarantees, and establish a genuine rule of law where it is the law that rules—not populism.

In some instances, the African landscape is so bleak it seems impossible that this unfortunate group of countries could ever develop and break the vicious cycle of poverty. While Asian and Latin American countries are gradually abandoning underdevelopment (the former faster than the latter), African politicians have fertilized the region with perpetual backwardness.

But that won't last forever, and the continent is changing drastically. Poverty in Africa is a global problem that will have to be solved in the coming decades. But sadly, there is a lot of work to be done. Nkrumah-style African socialism failed miserably, as did the mercantilism sponsored by the region's dictators and bureaucrats over the past twenty years, which has only enriched the elites and chronicled corruption, nepotism, and wars for control of the state apparatus all over the continent.

Of course, the roots of African poverty are probably deeper than what is addressed in this article, but maybe it remains to be proven what catapulted countries like South Korea or Taiwan, which were solemnly poor in the 1950s, into the first world. Perhaps the unresolved issue for Africans is to open up their economies, embrace globalization, secure the legal framework for investment to flow with guarantees, and establish a genuine rule of law where it is the law that rules—not populism.

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Jorge C. Carrasco

Jorge C. Carrasco is a Cuban independent journalist and a coordinator of Students For Liberty.

December 29, 2018

AI could fix science's greatest modern time waster

Razi, a Persian scientist, 10th century. Drawing: Louis Figuer's 'Vies des Savants Moyen Age,' 1867. Photo: Hulton/Getty

Ever since science became a formal discipline some five centuries ago, academic research — a fundamental driver of innovation — has, on and off, seemed broken: Scientists have cranked out too many incremental advances, fallen behind on the best research in their field and produced unreplicable work.

Driving the news: Now, some are again rethinking the process, hoping that artificial intelligence could be the long-sought highway to faster and more reliable scientific discovery.

Show less

Why it matters: The U.S. government spends billions on academic research each year — and companies toss in billions more. Yet science can appear to be treading water, turning out a similar scale of breakthroughs as when funding was lower and the number of researchers smaller.

One problem: A combination of factors — higher funding, faster computers and far more data — results in researchers spending much precious time sorting through a relentless avalanche of scholarship.

They can't read everything that is out there or attend every conference. It’s easy to miss a solution that’s already borne fruit in another field, or even an adjacent sub-discipline.In order to connect the dots and come up with the best possible research path, they can only hope that they have read the rightarticles or heard the right public speaker."We need automatic techniques to see what’s missing," said Hannaneh Hajishirzi, an AI expert at the University of Washington.

Language is the core of the problem.Papers are ostensibly written for other scientists to read and understand, but the sheer volume of information means the scientists are in serious need of help.

The answer, some think, is simply to do a better job of sorting, cataloging and assessing papers as they are published.

We’ve reported on efforts to monitor social media activity to boost the best papers — but the next step is to engage with the text itself.Several databases already link papers based on citations. Now, some are using natural language processing to extract actual meaning from research — a remarkably difficult task.

A first step is to automatically check facts and compare results against previous work.

Scite, a new website that catalogs academic papers, uses machine learning to understand the context in which research is cited. For each paper, Scite lists other work that mentions it neutrally, supports it or contradicts its findings.Josh Nicholson, Scite’s co-founder, says he hopes the system incentivizes greater replication of original findings. When AI highlights corroborating or contradicting research, it should create feedback loops that encourage accuracy and reproducibility, he tells Axios.Companies are also using language understanding in the laborious peer review process that precedes publication, reports Douglas Heaven for Nature.

Between the lines: This is the tip of the arrowhead.

Scientists imagine a future where research results are fed into a unified database that is constantly being updated with the latest work.Rather than printing numbers in a table, results would go straight into this database — formatted for computers, not people, to read — and immediately be checked against other researchers’ findings.

"The model of referring to a text-based paper for the purpose of communicating experimental results will probably disappear."

— Robert Murphy, professor of computational biology, Carnegie Mellon

But, but, but: This automated utopia is a long way off. Natural language processing is still hard for computers, and a system trained to understand papers in a particular field might fail when reading another field’s work.

Academic journals are still kingmakers, and possessive researchers may not be willing to share their work freely.But some fields’ early stabs at solving intractable research issues have convinced experts like CMU’s Murphy that they won’t exist in 10 years.

Go deeper: AI is helping automate science

December 28, 2018

Central Asia Digest: Ananta Center

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar
Advisor, Central Asia, Ananta Centre
Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and LatviaDecember 2018| VOL 03 ISSUE 12| MONTHLY 
H I G H L I G H T S 
 Political Developments 

● Economic Developments

● India-Central Asia Relations 
Political Developments

Discussions on divesting former presidents of Kyrgyzstan of their immunity, potentially opening the path for prosecution of former President Almazbek Atambaev, are advancing in the parliament committee for constitutional law.

A group of ethnic Kyrgyz originally from north-western Chinese region of Xinjiang have urged Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbai Jeenbekov to seek release of their relatives from "re-education camps" in China. Kyrgyzstan’s first reaction to reports that ethnic Kyrgyz had been detained en masse as part of a giant crackdown in China’s Xinjiang region suggested that Kyrgyzstan was unwilling to rock the boat. A UN panel has determined that over one million people from ethnic minority communities, mostly Uighurs, may be interned in the camps. Survivors say these facilities, which China has likened breezily to vocational training centers, are little more than jails. Testimonies from victims suggest Beijing is targeting all Muslim minorities there as part of its Strike Hard campaign to bring Xinjiang to heel.

The Kazakh government has been nudged into a reluctant dialogue with Beijing on re-education camps in which Chinese nationals of Kazakh origin are incarcerated.

A preparatory meeting between EU and foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries was held in Brussels to define EU strategy for Central Asia in early 2019. China’s Belt and Road initiative has prompted EU to come up with its own blueprint for how to increase connectivity with Central Asia, on the basis of a rules-based approach.

Kazakh President Nazarbayev has warned of a risk to post-World War II order and proposed that his country host a conference of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020 with the purpose of “updating” the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the then CSCE. Kazakhstan has good relations with all major world players and a track record of organising conferences to promote peace and disarmament.

The Trump administration has acknowledged Uzbekistan’s progress in implementation of crucial political, economic and social reforms but also highlighted problems related to human rights. US-Uzbekistan Relations soared to new heights with the meeting earlier this year between President Trump and Uzbek President Mirziyoev, a first since 2002. 

Economic Developments

IMF has forecast that Kazakhstan will see a GDP growth of 3.7% in 2018. Economic growth will be driven by higher oil production as well as increased activities in trade and manufacturing industry. Kazakhstan’s economic growth accelerated in 2017 due to measures taken by Government, including budget support, flexible exchange rate, use of inflation targeting as well as strengthening banking sector and implementation of structural reforms. Economic growth is expected to continue although some risks such as hydrocarbon prices do exist.

GDP growth in Kazakhstan in 2019 is expected to be 3.8%, while average annual growth during 2019-2023 will be 4.1%. Per capita GDP is expected to be US $9,400 in 2019 increasing to US$12,100 in 2023. Processing and mining industries will see 4.1% and 3% growth respectively. Stable growth rate will be retained in agriculture - 6.4%, in construction sector - 4.1%, and in trade - 4.4%. Exports will amount to US$ 54.1 billion and will increase to US$ 65.7 billion in 2023. Imports will amount to US$ 32.9 billion in 2019 and will increase to US$ 39.6 billion in 2023. Volume of oil output will be preserved at 88 million tonnes in 2019 and will increase to 99 million tonnes in 2023. Inflation is expected at 4-6% in 2019 with further decrease to 3.4% in 2020-2023. 

In first half of 2018, Chinese investments in Kazakhstan amounted to US$ 15.6 billion, compared to US$ 14.8 billion in 2017. In last three years, there has been a 6.6% increase in investment flows from China to Kazakhstan. The 5 most attractive Kazakh sectors for Chinese investors are transportation and warehousing (US$4.9 billion), mining (US$2.6 billion), financial and insurance activities (US$2.2 billion), construction (US$2.1 billion) and manufacturing (US$2.1 billion). These industries accounted for 88.9% (US$14 billion) of the total Chinese investments in January-June 2018. Total number of Kazakh-Chinese investment projects is 51, and total investment is estimated at more than US$27 billion. In 2018-2019, eleven more projects worth more than US$ 4.4 billion investment will be launched.

It is planned to implement 30 investment projects worth US$36.5 billion in Uzbekistan in geological exploration, production and deep processing of hydrocarbons for further development of the oil and gas sector until 2030. If specific measures are not taken to increase hydrocarbon reserves, the existing reserves will shrink to half over the next 10-15 years. Most gas pipelines and gas distribution system were built in the last century and are in need of repair. In order to guarantee supply of natural gas to consumers, a project worth US$1.6 billion will be implemented to modernize the trunk gas transmission system and control gas flows.

Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Bakytzhan Sagintayev paid a state visit to China and met with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Both leaders agreed to enhance policy synergy between the two countries by aligning China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) with Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) economic program. Sagintaev said that China is Kazakhstan’s friendly neighbour, close friend, and strategic partner. Kazakhstan has been fully supportive of Chinese SREB initiative since it was proposed by President Xi five years ago. Top exports of Kazakhstan are crude petroleum, refined copper and gas among others. The Kazakh government is keen to increase its gas exports to China next year.

Russia is working on designing a satellite for Kazakhstan, and has invited Uzbekistan to cooperate. The new spacecraft will replace the currently functioning KazSat-2 satellite. The new satellite will be called KazSat-2R, and will be a much more modern and powerful device. 

Russian state-run gas company Gazprom will resume natural gas imports from Turkmenistan for the first time in three years in 2019 seeking to project itself back into a more prominent role in a country tethered to Chinese debt. Russia used to control Turkmenistan’s natural gas export routes, cheaply purchasing the fuel and shipping it to Europe. But Turkmenistan shifted away from Moscow in 2009 when it opened a pipeline connecting it with China. In 2016, Russia stopped importing natural gas from Turkmenistan after the country refused to lower prices. China has since been the sole buyer of Turkmenistan's gas. Turkmenistan, which relies on natural gas exports for 70% of its revenue, has become worse off financially amid a mounting debt owed to China.

Turkmenistan has decided to end its generous subsidies for natural gas, water, and electricity because of its economic problems. Residents will be experiencing this shock after enjoying the benefits for 25 years. Decision announced amid an ongoing economic crisis is rattling more than citizens' psyches. Household budgets, too, will be hit as people are required to pay both for utilities and necessary equipment. Under the subsidies introduced in 1993, every person was entitled to 35 kilowatt hours of electricity and 50 cubic meters of natural gas each month. Subsidies also included 250 liters of water per day per person.

Kazakh President Nazarbayev has said that Astana Hub is to become Kazakhstan’s centre of innovation. Users of the hub’s technopark will enjoy a simplified visa regime, greater labour mobility, tax benefits and expert mentorship on their start-ups. He said that Kazakhstan needs to create a new generation of IT talents, and the government’s main task is to help the country’s smart and capable youth. 

President of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) stated that successful diversification is the way forward for economies of Central Asia as the region reassumes its ancient role as a bridge joining Europe with the Far East. EBRD is the largest single investor in Central Asia with a total investment of US$ 14 billion. 

Bilateral trade between Russia and Kazakhstan reached US$11 billion in first eight months of 2018 and is projected to reach US$18 billion by end of the year. Russia is Kazakhstan’s largest export partner and Kazakh exports of processed goods to Russia grew 82% in the first eight months of 2018. The two countries have traditionally cooperated in oil and gas, mining and metallurgy, agriculture and chemical production and now want to increase tourism cooperation. 

After more than 40 years, billions of dollars, and countless tons of concrete, the first phase of Tajikistan's Roghun hydropower plant was inaugurated by President Emomali Rahmon. Currently standing at 75 meters, enough to begin generating electricity, the dam will ultimately reach a height of 335 meters and be the world's tallest dam. The US$3.9 billion hydro-electric power plant will enable Tajikistan to eliminate domestic energy shortages and export electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to annual World Bank Ease of Doing Business report, Kazakhstan registered an improvement of 8 positions as compared to last year by coming on rank 28.  This is proof that the economic and regulatory reforms, targeted state- and private- sector investments, and President Nazarbayev's clear modernization agenda have had measurable results. Foreign and domestic corporations, investors, SMEs and entrepreneurs have benefited.


India-Central Asia Relations 

For the first-time, troops of a foreign army are serving under command of an Indian Army battalion at a United Nation mission. A company comprising 120 soldiers of Kazakh army were inducted with the 11 Jat infantry battalion of the Indian Army in Lebanon. With a total strength of 850 troops, Indian and Kazakh army are co-deployed in a mountainous, tough terrain along the Blue Line that demarcates Lebanon and Israel. While 90 soldiers from the Kazakh army will be deployed in the area under control of the Indian Army battalion, 30 of them will be placed at the battalion headquarter. Last year, two teams of the Indian Army went to Kazakhstan to make an assessment of the training requirements of their troops for common operational needs. Thereafter 30 troops from the Kazakh Army were trained in Delhi alongside 11 Jat soldiers to prepare for the UN mission.

Foreign Office Consultations between India and Tajikistan took place in New Delhi. Both sides exchanged views on topical issues of regional and international agenda.

In an Article titled “Seven Facets of the Great Steppe”, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has written: ’Ancient India with its rich polyethnic culture and the modern Indian people are naturally considered as one unique civilization, continuing its development in an uninterrupted stream of history. And this is the right approach, allowing you to understand your origins, and indeed the entire national history in all its depth and complexity.’’

International Institute of Hotel Management (IIHM), one of India's leading chains of hospitality management institutes will open its ninth centre in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in collaboration with Samarkand Institute of Economics and Services. Faculty will be a mix of Indian and Uzbek professionals. Tourism is important for Uzbekistan and training students in hospitality will help promote tourism to the country.

The five Central Asian economies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, hold nearly 31.26 billion barrels and 415.4 trillion cubic feet of oil and gas reserves respectively. Given the enormous and ever-increasing energy demand of India and the significance of Central Asia in connecting India to Russia and Eastern Europe countries, the region is a natural geo-strategic partner for India. 

India and Kazakhstan propose to take their bilateral trade to US$ 5 billion from the current US$ 1 billion. During a bilateral Investment Forum held in Delhi, the two sides discussed potential of Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran-India multi-modal connectivity corridor which can be further linked to Russia. More than 50 Indian companies attended the forum. Indian businessmen expressed interest in agricultural, ore-mining, engineering, telecommunications, healthcare and other projects.

Indian students in Kazakhstan appear to be shaken after some of them were subjected to muggings and assaults. Latest case in this was a 23-year-old medical student who was recently found dead under mysterious circumstances.

(The views expressed are personal)

INTERVIEW: Balochistan is a strategic center of gravity - Colonel Lawrence Sellin

Interview with Retired U.S. Army colonel Lawrence Sellin

He is a retired American Colonel, a war veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and a mission to West Africa. He is also an expert of Kurdish and Arabic languages. He has a keen interest in the AfPak region and is also a harsh critic of the lenient USA policy towards Pakistan and China.
Sangar Media Group took the opportunity to hold an interview with Retired USA Army Colonel Lawrence Sellin. We are thankful to Mr. Sellin for taking his time out for this interview.

Q1.      The US has begun to withdraw from Afghanistan. What USA has achieved in the nearly two decades spent in Pak-Afghan region?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:
After an initial victory deposing the Taliban regime, attempting to rebuild the country and establish democratic institutions, Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a major strategic defeat for the United States. We were unwilling to take the fight to the real enemy, Pakistan, without whom the Taliban would never have reemerged and the al Qaeda leadership would not have survived.

Q2.      Despite the temporary setbacks received by Islamic radicals in Afghanistan, there has been an explosion of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan partly at the expense of the US taxpayers who generously funded Rawalpindi. What are the international implications of the hasty US pullout from AfPak?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

I have little doubt that Pakistan has encouraged the Taliban to step up attacks on Afghanistan to increase pressure on the Kabul government to seek alternatives and to hasten the withdrawal of Western forces. President Trump’s announcement of a drawdown of half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity, fronted by Pakistan, joined by Russia and Iran, but orchestrated by China. Their immediate goal is the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan followed by a precipitous reduction of U.S. influence in South Asia.

A hasty U.S. pullout will flood Afghanistan with Taliban from sanctuaries in Pakistan. The current government in Kabul will fall within months, if not sooner. Unless immediate steps are taken to prevent it, some type of bloody civil war could ensue, then followed by international intervention by the same regional powers that collaborated to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan and, again, led by China and Pakistan. A coalition government will likely be initially formed that is subservient to China and Pakistan. The Taliban will eventually be eased out on the insistence of the Chinese, who fear Islamic militancy spreading to China and inhibiting China’s plan to incorporate Afghanistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other Beijing-led diplomatic and military organizations. Nevertheless, the turmoil will fester due to national, ethnic and religious conflicts inherent in the region. Those will have a significant impact on any potential outcome.

Q3.      The US has turned off the tap, but its closest allies in the region Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bailing out Pakistan. Does this mean that the US is left with no leverage in Pakistan?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:
Pakistan is an ally of China and has never been a friend of the United States, only a useful source of financial support, which has provided only a modest amount of leverage. Withdrawal of U.S. financial support was never enough to stop Pakistan from supporting the Taliban in its proxy war against Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently propped up Pakistan’s crumbing economy by infusing billions of dollars. The Saudis and the Emiratis see their investment as a reward for Pakistan bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and as insurance against Iran. They will be disappointed on both counts.

Q4.      Similarly, the US might have scaled down military support to Pakistan, but the latter can now count upon China and, possibly, even Russia. How will the US deal with Pakistan when its friends and foes alike are flocking to Pakistan?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

American carrots did not work with Pakistan. The U.S. has only sticks left to use against Pakistan. It's most significant pain points are the economy and ethnic separatism.

Q5.      Balochistan is crucial for stabilising Afghanistan. But AfPak is no longer a priority for the US. What interest, if any, does the U.S. have in Balochistan?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

Balochistan is strategic because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is the flagship of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese military facilities, in particular, naval bases on the Balochistan coast are key to China’s plan to control the vital sea lanes in the Arabian Sea and access to the Persian Gulf. It is the link connecting Chinese military bases in the South China Sea and its Djibouti base at the mouth of the Red Sea and the entrance to the Suez Canal, all of which are important to Chinese domination of South Asia and isolating India.

Q6.      Do you think the dream of a free Balochistan is compatible with the US-led world order?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

Yes. An independent and secular Balochistan could prevent Afghanistan from becoming a puppet state of China and Pakistan, thwart Chinese hegemony in South Asia, undermine the terrorist-sponsoring regime in Iran and drive a stake into the heart of radical Islam.

Q7.      The radicalization and militarization of the Baloch society has happened on the United States’ watch. The US intelligence agencies have until recently worked very closely with their Pakistani counterparts. It is safe to assume that they are fully aware of the unlawful detention and torture of Baloch nationalists and the use of Islamic radicals, drugs and the army to suppress our people. Does the US and its European allies have a moral obligation to stop the state-sponsored genocide of the Baloch people?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

The human rights violations occurring in Balochistan are tragic, but as important as they are, nations are primarily driven by strategic interests rather than moral obligations. Pakistan is an artificial state cobbled together after the partition of British India by joining together ethic regions that never substantially interacted. Pakistan is the Yugoslavia of South Asia. Its existence depends upon stamping out ethnic self-determination. That policy is unsustainable and self-defeating.

Q8.      Supporting the Baloch means openly opposing Pakistan, a rogue nuclear power presently in the good books of an equally rogue permanent member of the Security Council. Can the US change half a century old policy? Can the US afford to support the Baloch and open a new front in its ongoing cold war with China?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

Opposing Chinese domination is not the only issue confronting the United States in South Asia. There is Iran, the future of Afghanistan, the growing extremism in Pakistan, the isolation of India, to all of them the Baloch could contribute.

Q 9.   As someone who has seen conflict for a long time including in Afghanistan where Pakistan is involved what advice do you have, if any, for our struggle for independence from Pakistan?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

The struggle for independence is a marathon not a sprint. The Baloch need to maintain their ethnic identity, their language and culture and resist oppression when possible. The case will be made for Balochistan independence by focusing on its strategic importance. Human rights are also important, but the world suffers from “compassion fatigue,“ overwhelmed by too many human rights violations occurring in too many places at the same time. It is tragic, but, unfortunately, it is the reality.

Q10.   Soon after the US decides to withdraw Pakistan feels emboldened to strike in Afghanistan. Do you think volatility on the Baloch front WILL draw the US once again into the region?

Mr.Lawrence Sellin:

I think Balochistan is a strategic center of gravity. Volatility will draw significant attention, which the U.S. cannot and should not ignore.

Russian Analytical Digest No 228: Cultural Politics

18 Dec 2018

By Ulrich Schmid, Peter Rollberg and Andey Makarychev for Center for Security Studies (CSS)

This edition of the Russian Analytical Digest considers the politics of culture in contemporary Russia. Firstly, Ulrich Schmid focuses on the reactions to the house arrest of acclaimed director Kirill Serebrennikov. Secondly, Peter Rollberg considers the contested legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Russia, outlining how Solzhenitsyn has become a useful authority legitimizing Putin’s statist agenda. Thirdly, Andrey Makarychev notes that, from a cultural standpoint, the strong Russian roots of the Estonian city of Narva represent an opportunity for, rather than a threat to the efforts aimed at Europeanization.

The articles featured here were orignally published by the Center for Security Studies (CSS) in the Russian Analytical Digest on 30 November 2018. Image courtesy of (CC BY 4.0)

Kirill Serebrennikov and the Changing Russian Politics of Culture

By Ulrich Schmid, University of St. Gallen

DOI: <10.3929/ethz-b-000309181>



The house arrest of the acclaimed theatre and cinema director Kirill Serebrennikov provoked a wave of protest and solidarity among Russian as well as foreign artists. Serebrennikov is accused of embezzlement and misallocation of state funds. To be sure, irregular accounting practices at theaters throughout Russia are quite common; yet, Serebrennikov credibly denies any personal misconduct. The Serebrennikov case illustrates most aptly the volatility of Russian cultural politics over the last ten years.


Once Strong Connections to the State

Kirill Serebrennikov (born 1969) is a maverick in theRussian theater scene. His unorthodox education places him outside existing traditional structures. Serebrennikov staged amateur spectacles already in high school, and later-on during his education in physics at the University of Rostov-on-Don. At the same time, he began to work as a film director. In 2000, he moved from his native Rostov to Moscow. Here, he successfully staged contemporary plays by Vassily Sigarev (born 1977) and the brothers Presnyakov (Oleg, born 1969, and Mikhail, born 1974). He was soon reputed to be the most innovative theater director in Russia.

The government kept an eye on him as well. Vladislav Surkov, the “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin, was highly impressed with Serebrennikov’s achievements. Surkov held a nominally modest governmental post, serving as the deputy chief of the presidential administration. His main task consisted of raising acceptance for Putin’s rule among the younger, urban generation. He coined the term “sovereign democracy”, and developed an ambitious project to turn Russia into a modern, efficient, and attractive state. To achieve this objective, he initiated a dialogue with leading rock bands in2005.Surkov controlled large funds for cultural projects and eventually decided to involve Serebrennikov in his activities. In 2011, Serebrennikov was offered the leadership of a large state project under the title “Platforma”.The main goal of “Platforma” consisted of developing and disseminating contemporary art. Four branches were established: dance, music, theater, and multimedia. “Platforma” organized and staged 320 events between2011 and 2014. In 2012, Serebrennikov was promoted to artistic director of the Gogol Center in Moscow. Not without noise and protests from the former ensemble of actors, he turned the Gogol Center into one of the hotbeds of contemporary dramaturgy. Surkov’s injection of state funds considerably facilitated Serebrennikov’s rise to fame. At the same time, Surkov’s personal vanity played a role in his backing of Serebrennikov. In2011, Serebrennikov agreed to stage Surkov’s own controversial novel Near Zero in one of Moscow’s theaters. During the political protests in the winter 2011/2012in Moscow, Surkov temporarily fell from grace and was removed from his position. Of course, Serebrennikov knew he was treading on thin ice. Nevertheless, he continued to collaborate with the state in the field of cultural production. In a column for the September 2014Russian Esquire, he confessed: “We have to visit every government and to initiate talks. We have to say: Government, listen, I know that you are mendacious and selfish, but you have to support the theater and art by virtue of the law, so please fulfill your obligations. For the sake of theater, I am not ashamed to do so.” 2

This ambivalent attitude towards the state proved to have painful consequences for Serebrennikov. Close relations with the authorities worked fine during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, but turned disastrous during President Putin’s third term in office. While Medvedev championed the slogan of “modernization” for Russia, Putin changed the political leitmotif to “securitization”.

By 2012, Serebrennikov’s cinematographic and theatrical art was no longer deemed “innovative” or “daring”, but an undesirable expression of a decadent, post-modernist, global, and therefore “un-Russian” aesthetic. The Russian ministry of culture played an important role in this shift towards conservatism. Immediately following his inauguration in May 2012, President Putin appointed the conservative historian Vladimir Medinsky as minister of culture. Medinsky pursues an unabashedly nationalistic course in his approach to the arts. In his 2011 doctoral dissertation, Medinsky dealt with the allegedly false or condescending representations of Russia by Western historiographers. In the preface to his dissertation, he scandalously stated “the national interests of Russia” create an “absolute standard for the truth and reliability of the historical work.”3

Medinsky also presides over the Russian Association for Military History, which turned into one of the most active players in the patriotic reshaping of the public space since its foundation in 2013. Medinsky understands culture as an “integral part of the Russian national security strategy” and openly advocates conservative tastes. The official document “Foundations of the cultural policy of the Russian Federation” from 2015 highlights the principle of the freedom of artistic creativity. However, the document continues, the state should not blindly support every creative effort: “No formal experiment may justify the production of content that is at odds with the traditional values of our society or the absence of any content at all.”4

The Taboo of Homosexuality

Apart from this shift in the official cultural policy, homosexuality became an important zone of conflict between the state and the artist. Serebrennikov is openly gay and does not bother to hide his sexual orientation, including frequently wearing extravagant outfits. In 2012, he planned a biopic about Piotr Tchaikovsky who struggled his entire life with his homosexuality. Serebrennikov planned to address this strain, but the minister of culture Medinsky opposed the plan and maintained that Tschaikovsky’s music had nothing in common with his private life. After this falling out, Serebrennikov returned a first installment of a governmental grant, and announced that he would look for sponsors abroad.5 In 2013, the Russian debate around homosexuality acquired a legal dimension. The Duma passed a bill that prohibits the propaganda of homosexuality among minors. This new law practically banned the topic of homosexuality from the Russian public sphere. Nevertheless, Serebrennikov continued to present artistic elaborations of homosexuality in his works, most notably in his ballet “Nureyev”(2017). The premiere of the show was postponed by half a year because the production was allegedly not yet ready. The true reason was, of course, the ongoing investigation in the Sererbrennikov case. Ironically enough, prominent members of the cultural establishment, including Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and the general director of the influential First Channel of Russian TV Konstantin Ernst, eventually showed up at the premiere and admittedly enjoyed the ballet.

Images of the Soviet Past

An additionally significant shift took place with the official image of the Soviet Union. In his famous “Millennium Manifesto” from 1999, Putin had presented a grim view of Russia’s Soviet past: “Communism and the power of Soviets did not make Russia a prosperous country with a dynamically developing society and free people. […] It was a road to a blind alley, which is far away from the mainstream of civilization.”6 Around the end of the first decade of the 2000’s, a slow but steady rehabilitation of the Soviet Union began. Even Stalin was given credit for “effectively managing the country”. Putin’s administration turned the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany into a spectacle for the masses in 2005. In 2009, the Moscow station “Kurskaya” was renovated and, without much ado, Stalin’s name reappeared in full readability on the stone pillars. To be sure, Putin observed a cautious distance towards the bloody tyrant until 2015. And yet, in his interviews with Oliver Stone, Putin spoke about Stalin and compared him to Western dictators like Napoleon or Cromwell. He pointed to the public veneration of these figures in France and Britain, and warned against the demonization of Stalin that led to the rise of Russophobe sentiments in the West.

The newest chapter in the positive assessment of the Soviet past is the controversy about Solzhenitsyn’s100th birthday in December 2018 (see related article in this issue of the RAD). In 2000 and 2007, Putin had courted Solzhenitsyn and paid him personal visits in his Moscow flat. Already in 2014, Putin signed a decree ordering preparations for celebrating Solzhenitsyn’s birthday. By now, the enthusiasm has shrunk considerably. The main reason for this shifting attitude is the reassessment of Solzhenitsyn’s exile in the USA, and his relentless fight against the Soviet government. For the Kremlin’s current perspective, the Soviet Union serves as an incarnation of the 1000-year-old tradition of Russian statehood, however imperfect it may have been. Serebrennikov’s latest film “Summer” about the Rock legend Viktor Tsoi (1962–1990) is guilty of the same sin. Set in expressive black and white, this movie insinuates that real artistic life in the Soviet Union was only possible in the underground, far away from any state structures.

Yevgeny Fyodorov: Instigator of the Serebrennikov Case

It would be too simplistic to see the persecution of Serebrennikov as the sole reaction of an increasingly repressive state against artistic provocations. As such, it seems rather improbable that the center of Russia’s political power ordered the attacks on Serebrennikov. The relatively mild punishment, consisting of house arrest, indicates special treatment for the famous director. By contrast, the former minister of economic development Aleksei Uliukaev was swiftly sentenced to eight years in a labor camp and a fine of 130 million rubles in a similar case of alleged embezzlement. The main difference between Uliukaev and Serebrennikov lies in who stands behind the legal actions against them. Igor Sechin, the almighty head of Rosneft and Putin’s close ally is likely behind the Uliukaiev case, whereas the ultra-conservative deputy of the Duma Yevgeny Fyodorov pulls the strings in Serebrennikov’s confinement. Fyodorov is the infamous founder of the patriotic “National Liberation Movement” who seeks for Russia to regain its “cultural sovereignty”. This claim is mainly directed against Western popular culture. Against this background, it comes as no surprise that it was Fyodorov who asked the Investigative Committee to look into the financial details of Serebrennikov’s Gogol Center in 2013. Sechin probably acted at least with the tacit approval of the Kremlin. Fyodorov’s case is different. He belongs to the enthusiastic followers of Putin’s aggressive turn in both his domestic and international politics since 2012. These enthusiasts may pose a problem for the Kremlin who may perceive their radical claims a nuisance over time. Another case in point would be the former Crimean state attorney Natalia Poklonskaia, who is now a hardliner among the deputies from “United Russia” in the Duma. In two incidents, Poklonskaia overtook the patriotic Kremlin on the right: After Putin’s public debunking of Lenin, she compared Lenin to Hitler. Moreover, she heavily criticized the historical film “Matilda” (2017), which narrates the romance between future Tsar Nicholas II and a Polish ballerina. To be sure, both the film and the director are fully in line with the official patriotic culture of politics: The Tsar eventually leaves his concubine for the throne, and the director joined an open letter signed by more than 500 loyal intellectuals in support of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014.

Both Fyodorov and Poklonskaya are ambivalent phenomena for the Kremlin. On the one hand, the Kremlin is embarrassed by such radical positions, but at the same time it may not discipline its most fervent supporters too harshly. On the other hand, people like Fyodorov and Poklonskaya allow the Kremlin to present itself as a moderate player in the field of Russian culture. In contrast with the claims of extreme nationalists, the general public will perceive the Ministry of Culture as taking a “middle ground”. In a certain sense, Peskov’s and Ernst’s presence at the premiere of the “Nureyev” ballet may symbolize a mild reprimand of cultural extremists like Fyodorov.

As usual in such cases, President Putin distanced himself from the investigations against Serebrennikov. In May 2017, he commented on the razzia in the Gogol Center with the phrase “Idiots”. Later, he explained that the Serebrennikov affair was exclusively a criminal case without political implications. During a meeting of the “Council on Culture and the Arts” in December 2017,he called the investigation against Serebrennikov not “a persecution, but a prosecution”. At the same time, he proposed to draft a new law on culture, indicating the rising importance of culture in the political design of the Russian Federation.7


1 David-Emil Wickström, Yngvar B. Steinholt, Visions of the (Holy) Motherland in Contemporary Russian Popular Music: Nostalgia, Patriotism, Religion and Russkii Rok. In: Popular Music and Society 32 (2009), 313–330, S. 321.

2 Pravila zhizni Kirilla Serebrennikova. In: Esquire (24 Sept. 2014). <>

3 V.R. Medinsky: Problemy ob-ektivnosti v osveshchenii rossiiskoi istorii vtoroi poloviny XV–XVII vv. Moskva 2011 <>

4 Osnovy gosudarstvennoj kul'turnoi politiki. Moskva 2015, 3, 28. <>

5 Ulrich Schmid: Technologien der Seele. Vom Verfertigen der Wahrheit in der russischen Gegenwartskultur. Berlin 2015, 351f.

6 Vladimir Putin: Russia at the Turn of the Millenium. In: Richard Sakwa: Putin. Russia’s Choice. London 2008, 317–328.

7 Putin o dele Serebrennikova. Eto ne presledovanie, a rassledovanie. (21.12.2017). <>

About the Author

Ulrich Schmid is a Professor of Russian Culture and Society at the University of St. Gallen.



Russian Public Opinion About the Case of Kirill Serebrennikov

Figure 1: Have You Heard That Kirill Serebrennikov, Director and Artistic Administrator of the Theater “Gogol-Tsentr”, Was Arrested and Placed Under House Arrest?


Source: representative opinion poll by Levada Center, 15 –19 September 2017, <>, published
2 October 2017

Figure 2: In Your Opinion, Why Were Criminal Charges Actually Brought Against Kirill Serebrennikov? (this question was posed only to respondents who answered “You attentively follow current developments in this case” and “You have heard something about this case”)


Source: representative opinion poll by Levada Center, 15 –19 September 2017, <>, published
2 October 2017

Solzhenitsyn’s Embattled Legacy

By Peter Rollberg, George Washington University

DOI: <10.3929/ethz-b-000309181> 



Russian president Vladimir Putin’s praise for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn raised eyebrows; Solzhenitsyn’s public agreement with Putin’s domestic and foreign policy caused widespread dismay. Despite strong opposition, Russia’s establishment has remained firm in its endorsement of the Nobel laureate’s literary and political legacy. Ten years after his passing, Solzhenitsyn has become a useful authority legitimizing Putin’s statist agenda. 


Remembering Solzhenitsyn

The government of the Russian Federation has declared 2018 the “Year of Solzhenitsyn.” In August, numerous cultural events were dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the writer’s death, and many more are to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth on December 11, including several documentaries produced for these occasions and already screened on TV. At the Bolshoi Theater, the opera One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Tchaikovsky will premiere; Vladimir Spivakov’s “Soloists of Moscow” will perform Solzhenitsyn’s “Russia’s Prayer,” set to music by Yuri Falik; as part of that concert, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s son, will play one of Beethoven’s piano concertos. The Central Academic Theater of the Russian Army is putting on a dramatization of Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Red Wheel. Rostov-on-Don, where the writer grew up, will hold a documentary and feature film festival, and students at the local university have created a virtual Solzhenitsyn museum. Natalya Dmitrievna, Solzhenitsyn’s widow, tirelessly acts as the authorized spokesperson for her late husband, enjoying the status of a premier celebrity in Russian society.

Not everybody is celebrating, however.

Will the Real Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Please Stand Up?

During an election forum with one of the candidates for mayor of Moscow, several participants asked that the planned construction of a Solzhenitsyn monument in central Moscow be halted. The Solzhenitsyn monument in Vladivostok, the city from whence the writer’s return from exile began in 1994, is regularly vandalized by hanging a cardboard placard with the inscription “Judas” around the sculpture’s neck. While newspapers such as the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta celebrate Solzhenitsyn’s legacy as a writer and political thinker, other publications point to the government’s hypocrisy in embracing one prominent victim of Stalinism while persecuting Memorial and other efforts to keep the memory of communist oppression alive.

In current Russian discourses, Solzhenitsyn is interpreted and quoted with deliberate selectiveness, causing widespread confusion about the writer’s real positions. Was he a Russia-hater (“Russophobe”) or an ethnic nationalist? Did he side with the West or yearn for a strong Russian state, beyond his militant anti-Soviet rhetoric? And was he a genuine literary genius— a legitimate heir to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky— or a mediocre megalomaniac whose verbose narratives have negligible aesthetic value? The spectrum of responses is wide and multifaceted. Remarkably, opinions are not always in sync with the political positions of those voicing them.

At no time did Solzhenitsyn’s star shine brighter than in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and being forcibly expelled from his homeland in 1974 transformed the erstwhile math teacher into a writer-cum-martyr, revered as an international moral and political institution. His works enjoyed an unparalleled status in academia and were debated not only by Slavic specialists, but also by historians and political scientists, while his statements about global issues were eagerly quoted by the international mass media and feared by Soviet watchdogs. This hype ended when it became obvious that Solzhenitsyn was far from advocating Western values. His Harvard graduation speech in June 1978 signaled that this victim of totalitarianism was not a liberal democrat at all. The question of what exactly he was became the topic of intense discussions, with labels ranging from “fascist” to “saint.” Then, safely self-isolated from U.S. society (which he never understood nor cared to study), Solzhenitsyn fell into oblivion. By the mid-1980s, the recluse from Vermont had lost most of his influence.

In hindsight, Solzhenitsyn’s main accomplishment was the permanent damage he inflicted on the image of communism. After One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and especially The Gulag Archipelago, Soviet communism was forever associated with its gigantic network of concentration camps. Just as the writer had predicted in his autobiographical The Oak and the Calf, one man managed to discredit an entire empire and the ideology sustaining it.

A Star Reborn

Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia in 1994, rendered with effective mise-en-scene, was intended to establish him as a permanent institution in the post-Soviet nation. That strategy failed miserably. The writer’s personal television show was cancelled in September 1995 after only five months, due to either low ratings or too many ruffled feathers; his relationship with Boris Yeltsin went sour; and readers were no longer interested in his fiction, which had lost its sensational edge. Solzhenitsyn’s 80th birthday in 1998 was more a private than a public affair; his angry rejection of the Order of Andrei Pervozvannyi— the highest honor of the Russian Federation— bestowed on him by Yeltsin was a barely noticed gesture of protest against a morally bankrupt kleptocracy that no longer needed a self-appointed sage speaking truth to power.

Then came Putin, and everything changed. Russia’s new president immediately made advances toward the marginalized author, honoring him as a “living classic,” visiting him at home as early as 2000, and even seeking his political advice. Solzhenitsyn was awarded a State Prize of Russia in 2007 and accepted; the president of Russia once again visited him at his estate and had one last, very long, off-the-record conversation with him. The writer repeatedly spoke out in support of the Russian president, stating that he “brought Russia a slow and steady rebirth.” Simultaneously, Putin’s continued attention fostered the rebirth of Solzhenitsyn’s influence. The apparent alliance between the two was so pronounced that Solzhenitsyn’s sharpest critic, the journalist and Soviet loyalist Vladimir Bushin, pointed to the writer as the conceptualizer leading Putin from behind—one of his books is titled Solzhenitsyn’s Total Project: How Putin Will Reconstruct Russia (2013). French author Mathieu Slama analyzed the similarities between Solzhenitsyn’s worldview and the ideological framework conveyed in Putin’s speeches, identifying state sovereignty, conservatism, and Christian morality as points of consensus.

With Putin’s presidency, the writer’s pamphlets, such as How We Can Reconstruct Russia (1990), which had been ridiculed and then forgotten, suddenly gained in status and were consulted for insights into Putin’s strategy. Indeed, during one of his visits to the writer’s home, Putin pointed out that large parts of his program for Russia’s future were in accordance with Solzhenitsyn’s ideas. More recently, the annexation of Crimea was legitimized with Solzhenitsyn quotes: government loyalists cited the latter’s view that the peninsula should never have been part of Ukraine and should be returned to the Russian Federation.

Endorsement and Subversion

The more Putin’s presidency solidified, the more Solzhenitsyn once again became a public figure of the highest order, only this time endorsed by the Russian establishment and criticized by Western observers. The Solzhenitsyn Prize, awarded by the Solzhenitsyn Foundation, regularly honored geopolitical nationalists such as Aleksandr Panarin. Despite countless attacks launched against him by liberal intellectuals such as Vladimir Voinovich, Solzhenitsyn ultimately succeeded in securing his status as an officially approved classic of Russian culture and thought. Conspicuously, his grave at Donskoi monastery is situated next to those of the émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin and the historian Vasilii Kliuchevsky.

For Putin, incorporating Solzhenitsyn into the architecture of his Russian reconstruction project had two main functions: firstly, to assure the West that Russia had broken with its communist past for good; and secondly, to assure the Russian citizenry that post-Soviet Russia possessed moral and cultural legitimacy. However, because Solzhenitsyn’s reputation in the West had already declined substantially in the 1980s and 1990s, the first effect was limited. Likewise, the liberal segments of the Russian intelligentsia no longer viewed Solzhenitsyn as the standard-bearer for anti-totalitarianism, but rather as a neo-nationalist to be watched with suspicion. They were particularly disturbed by the fact that Putin’s increasingly illiberal domestic policies did not seem to disturb the writer in the least—a fact that further alienated him from those intellectuals who were critical of the direction that Russia had taken in the new millennium.

Nonetheless, the Putin establishment has remained firm in its endorsement of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as one of its patron saints. The writer’s funeral in August 2008 was staged as an event of national significance, with both the president and the prime minister in attendance. In 2009, several works by Solzhenitsyn were incorporated into textbooks for Russian high school students, an initiative that was personally proposed by Putin and implemented by then-president Medvedev. Thus, Russia’s youth reads The Gulag Archipelago, albeit in an abridged version composed by the writer’s widow. In 2017, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (!) proposed marking 2018 as the “Year of Solzhenitsyn.”

Russia’s communists are outraged and frustrated by this massive promotion of Solzhenitsyn, and they are not alone. Critics refer to the disingenuous idealization of the writer’s official image, citing, among other examples, the exclusion of his positive view of the Hitlerite Vlasov Army from the truncated Archipelago tome. Symbolic acts honoring Solzhenitsyn become particular points of contention. Thus, inhabitants of Moscow’s Taganka district passionately protested when Dmitri Medvedev announced the renaming of Grand Communist Street (Bol'shaia Kommunisticheskaia ulitsa, the name it had borne since 1924) into Solzhenitsyn Street just a few months after the writer’s passing. To communists and their sympathizers, such renaming was a provocation. Advocates against Solzhenitsyn correctly described the move as a violation of Russian law, which only allows the naming of a street after an individual a minimum of ten years after the honoree’s passing (the law has since been changed). Although the anti-Solzhenitsyn crowd lost their lawsuit against the city, acts of vandalism, including torn-down street signs, continue to make news. Given the current aggravated mood in Russian society, it is easy to envision that the soon-to-be dedicated Solzhenitsyn monument on Solzhenitsyn Street will likewise become an object of political discontent.

Old Clichés and New Controversies

The statist-militarist segment of Russian society, whose views are most vocally expressed by the weekly Zavtra, maintains a generally hostile view of Solzhenitsyn’s legacy. The two notable exceptions are the editor-in-chief, Aleksandr Prokhanov, and the literary critic Vladimir Bondarenko, both of whom deviate from the paper’s conspiratorial mainstream. Prokhanov, who never ceases to surprise, admits that Solzhenitsyn “heroically fought communism” and that the “red empire was not defeated by the West in battles fought with tanks or rockets but in a competition of meanings (v sostiazanii smyslov).” In that competition, Prokhanov wrote, The Gulag Archipelago was victorious, not The Young Guard and How the Steel Was Tempered.” However, Prokhanov’s generosity with respect to Solzhenitsyn is an anomaly among Russian militarists. More typical among his newspaper’s clientele is the notion of “the agent from Vermont” whose end goal was the destruction of Russia. A major source of Solzhenitsyn’s historical concepts was, according to Zavtra, the YMCA and its publishing arm YMCA Press (including its Russian-language branch, Vestnik RSKhD, and the journal of the same title). Zavtra’s Andrei Fefelov wrote, apparently alluding to his own extravagant editor-in-chief, that “those who believe that during the Cold War (…) there was some loner, a romantic hero who fought the system (…) either don’t understand anything, or they are complete… romantics.” This internal dissent in an otherwise ideologically homogenous newspaper highlights the unease that Solzhenitsyn’s legacy inspires in all levels of Russian society.

Conspicuously, the one aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s legacy never mentioned in the current controversies is his last major work, the monograph 200 Years Together (Dvesti let vmeste). The writer’s attempt to bring clarity to the history of Russian-Jewish relations initially raised eyebrows, even more so than had his political pamphlets of the 1990s. The émigré historian Semen Reznik devoted an entire volume to a thorough analysis of the book and drew a profoundly negative conclusion, charging that not only did Solzhenitsyn fail to discover anything new, but his two-volume opus, with its “lackluster style [and] incohesive composition,” was based on secondary sources that were tendentially and superficially interpreted. Had this unoriginal work appeared under another author’s name, Reznik opined, few people would have paid any attention at all. The fact that the book, with its many formulations that smacked of anti- Semitic clichés, had been written by Solzhenitsyn, however, seriously tainted the writer’s name. As this aspect of his legacy is certainly of no use to the current Russian establishment, the entire causa has simply been ignored during the current commemorations.

Consequences, Intended and Unintended

Solzhenitsyn’s emphatic endorsement of, and by, Vladimir Putin will tie the writer’s reputation to the Russian state for a long time. Due to the profound politicization of his legacy and the impossibility of making a reasonable distinction between the genuinely artistic qualities of his oeuvre (which are the focus of another ongoing controversy) and the effects of his political activism, an objective assessment of Solzhenitsyn—the man and the writer—will remain hard to come by. A related problem is the textological analysis of his legacy: Solzhenitsyn maintained strict control over this process, claiming that the changes he made to his works, for example the novel The First Circle, were de facto reconstructions of the original texts, which had been adjusted to render them publishable and evade censorship. Only a critical historical edition produced by truly independent specialists, without the interference of family members or state authorities, can bring us closer to a future objective assessment of Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre. Indeed, only a thorough textological analysis will provide answers about the extent to which Solzhenitsyn’s views underwent transformations from the 1950s to the 2000s. (The writer himself carefully avoided that question, claiming that his worldview had fully emerged from the time of his imprisonment.) Without this, the textual basis for any discussion of Solzhenitsyn will remain blurred, enabling representatives of opposing worldviews to take from his fiction and non-fiction whatever suits them.

As for the current Russian administration, it has been instrumentalizing the name and the legacy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for a variety of purposes and will continue to do so. Among these purposes are to claim that Russia has irreversibly abandoned the totalitarian communist system; that the Russian state is developing and defending a unique civilization different from all others, especially from Western liberalism; and that the values of this new Russia have been endorsed by the universally recognized heir to Russia’s cultural greatness. These purposes will continue to be activated, regardless of the status of literature proper in Russia’s contemporary culture and education system. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn has become more valuable as a symbolic figure than as an author to be read, with the consequence that the proximity of the writer’s persona and legacy to the Putin establishment will continue to make him a prime object of both official adoration and intellectual disdain.

About the Author

Peter Rollberg is the director the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is Professor of Slavic Languages, Film Studies, and International Affairs. 



Narva as a Cultural Borderland: Estonian, European, Russophone

By Andrey Makarychev, University of Tartu

DOI: <10.3929/ethz-b-000309181> 



Looking at Narva, the Estonian city with strong Russian roots, through the lens of culture allows us to see it less as a threat and more as an opportunity. Current Estonian policy seeks to Europeanize Narva, making it cool rather than alien. This effort, instead of pushing Russia aside, provides a platform for Russian artists to perform on an European stage and reach an international audience.


From Geopolitics to Culture

From 1991 when Estonia regained independence, the predominantly Russian-speaking Narva earned a reputation as a borderland city detached from the Estonian political and cultural mainstream. Economic deprivation added a lot to this problematic image. Narva connoted peripherality (both within Estonia and the EU) and was largely perceived in the dominant discourses as Estonian’s “internal other”, often Orientalized due to its cultural connections with Russia. In Russia itself, Narva is referred to as a city with a strong Russian cultural legacy, which, in particular, was verbalized by the presidential candidate Ksenya Sobchak’s controversial statement on the “Russian World” allegedly “stretching from Vladivostok to Narva”.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Narva became a security flashpoint with strong military and strategic connotations (Dokladnaya…2016). Based on analogies with eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, multiple alarmist scenarios envisioned that the Kremlin might incite disobedience among Russian speakers, provoke disorder, and infiltrate its “little green men” (Mackinnon 2015). “The main reason for Crimea’s reincorporation into Russia was the inaction of the Ukrainian authorities when it comes to regional development. From this perspective, Ida-Virumaa1 is similar to Crimea… Some say that it is sufficient to make local people cross the bridge and have a look at dilapidated Ivangorod to persuade them not to think about Russia… But we need to create internal magnets within Estonia, rather than persuade people by the claim that our neighbors live worse.” (Denisov 2016).

In the following analysis, I discuss Narva beyond the dominant frameworks of securitization and marginalization (Tiido 2018) and look at this city as a “meeting/ connecting point”, “bridge”, and “hybrid space”. More specifically, I wish to see how performative arts and cultural practices contribute to this transformation of the dominant attitudes to Narva in Estonia. Therefore, I propose to refocus from geopolitics and security studies to cultural semiotics (a discipline that studies signs, cultural representations, and symbols) and cultural governance as a set of tools for fostering social integration and inclusion. The sub-discipline of popular geopolitics— which studies home-grown, vernacular, grass-roots cultural forms and discursive genres—might also be helpful in this regard.

Narva: From ‘A City in Estonia’ to ‘Estonian City’

The official Estonian discourse avoids exceptionalizing Narva and drawing parallels with Donbas or Crimea. Many Russian speakers agree with that approach (Smirnov 2015). “People who live in Narva and who didn’t see the state of the Russian provinces, might believe in a glamour image of Russia created by TV… But I don’t think that Moscow would succeed in utilizing the Russophone diaspora in Estonia the way it did in Donbas”, the former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves assumed (Donbasskiy… 2017). As the current President Kersti Kaljulaid noted, “I have not noticed any troubles with the ‘Russian question’ in Estonian society… In Narva I’ve met with many people striving to act. And language is of secondary importance for that, particularly when I see how well Russian school graduates speak Estonian” (Prezident…, 2017). In the words of the Estonian Interior Minister, “the sunrise from Narva moves to Rakvere and Tartu, Tallinn and Kuresaare, Pärnu and Valga. Estonia starts with Narva” (Stepanov 2018). The view of Narva as a city with a strong Estonian legacy, where many fighters for independence and Second World War prisoners were buried, is lucidly expressed in the EstDoc film festival prize-winning short documentary “Narva 2018: The National Debt” (dir. Maarja Lohmus and Marina Koreshkova).

There were many attempts to rebrand Narva by developing transportation projects, spa and sport facilities, or environmental tourism (Denisov 2015). Symbolically important was that the Estonian President moved her office to Narva for one month in Fall 2018. As a part of the centenary celebration of Estonian independence, she awarded state medals in Narva. It is these attitudes to Narva as a normal Estonian city that stand behind and explain the new cultural policy of the central government that became particularly prominent after the eruption of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. As I will argue further, this policy of Estonization and Europeanization of Narva is not detrimental to Russian cultural identity; on the contrary, it contains new chances for Russian culture to reinstall itself in Estonia and Europe.

Culture Matters

Until recently, cultural life in Narva remained relatively scarce. In the exposition exploring the 1990s which opened in Fall 2018 in the Estonian National Museum in Tartu, Narva is represented as a city where youngsters were mainly interested in alcohol and boxing, with minimal contacts with the rest of Estonia. As other towns of the Ida-Virumaa county, Narva had to deal with the legacy of Soviet industrialization, and struggle with the prospect of peripheralization and transformation into a ‘hollow” and “empty” land devoid of importance for the country. Yet it was a series of politically meaningful cultural projects initiated from Tallinn that raised Narva’s visibility and credentials, and attracted lots of attention to the city.

One of the first steps in the direction of more closely integrating Narva into the Estonian polity was a 2016 photo and video exhibition “How Narva remained with Estonia” dedicated to the 1993 referendum on autonomy in this city. Initially the exhibit was shown in Tallinn’s Museum of Occupation, and then moved to Narva’s city museum. The context of the exposition was implicitly related to the occupation of Crimea and the ensuing debate about the Russian World doctrine. In the words of Katri Raik, the rector of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences, Narva’s push for greater autonomy was comparable with similar trends towards disintegration in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (Kak Narva… 2016). Yet today’s lesson of the 1993 referendum—which was ultimately annulled by the Estonian government— is that “here in Estonia we solved all the issues without bloodshed, and nowadays we should be grateful for that to both Russians and Estonians” (Raik 2017).

In 2016 Narva co-hosted an annual Opinions Festival (Festival… 2016), an open forum to publicly address issues of national importance to Estonia. The openness of the discussions inspired some commentators to articulate visible distinctions between Estonia and Russia: “All these free debates take place only 100 meters away from Russia. Yet here the mentality is different: participants listened to drastically dissimilar voices and nobody was afraid of any accusations” (Shtepa 2015).

Since 2016 an important locus for new cultural practices was formed around Narva’s Art Residency,2 a program that started inviting young international artists to spend some time in the city that had a reputation as a small borderland place “in the middle of nowhere”, where there was strong nostalgia for the Soviet past, but an equally strong demand for translating historical memories into the present. In August 2018 the Residency hosted panels of the “Narva – Detroit Urban Lab”, a discussion club seeking to use Western experiences of transforming formerly industrial cities into post-industrial spaces of new lifestyles and cultural practices.

Another salient cultural point in Narva is the territory of Krenholm Manufacture, one of the largest textile producers in Europe in the past. As an industrial enterprise, Krenholm nowadays is technically dead, but its territory can be rejuvenated through new art projects. Recently Krenholm inspired a number of artists who re-imagined it as a space in-between the past and the future, as well as Russia and Europe. The bilingual musical “Kremlin’s Nightingales”—staged by the Tartu-based Uus Teater—in summer 2018 became a highly successful spectacle about the Estonian pop star Jaak Joala, who was a top singer in the late USSR. The show engaged with the Soviet cultural legacy rather than rejecting it, and offered a depoliticized narrative of memory politics that is of particular traction for Narva with its cultural roots in the Soviet past.

In October 2018 Krenholm hosted another theatrical piece named ‘Omen’ and staged “Poetics of a Workers’ Punch”, a production by avant-garde socialist author Aleksei Gastev on the basis of a 1923 poem. This interactive (and bilingual, Russian and Estonian) spectacle deconstructed the glorious image of the industrial age and represented the Krenholm textile plant as an oppressive machine exploiting human beings, and comparable to the repressive apparatus of the Stalinist state.

When it comes to popular culture, a landmark event in 2018 was the Baltic Sun festival that, according to its organizers, in the future might transform into a Europe wide cultural event modeled after the Montreux jazz festival (Vikulov 2018). However, this orientation to Europe created chances for Russian musicians—such as, for instance, the “The Crossroads” and “Bravo” bands— to promote themselves among their European peers.

A similar event that Narva hosted in September 2018 was Station Narva, a festival of contemporary rock and pop music, which also included a number of Russian language public discussions. Again, the festival gave the floor to several performers from Russia (for example, the singer Grechka and the “PSAQ”, “Shortparis” and “Elektroforez” bands) to share the stage with European stars and sing for an international audience. Due to these endeavors “Narva has become hip in Estonia… The abandoned factory buildings, cheap living space and the frisson of sitting on a cultural front line between Russia and the West will attract trendsetters…. Making Narva cool is part of Estonia’s new strategy to integrate Russian-speakers” (Estonia gets… 2018).

The idea of cultural hybridity inspired the local rap singer Yevgeniy Liapin, whose bilingual composition “I am Russian but Love Estonia” (Stuf 2017) became a hit in 2017. Lyapin, a Narva resident and holder of a Russian passport, himself personifies the possibilities of the Russian youth culture to become part of the Estonian cultural milieu and be accepted in this capacity.

By the same token, Narva became a place for a series of cultural projects striving to discuss issues pertinent to the Russophone community. In particular, the exposition “Reflection: a Glance from Inside” (Reflektsioonid … 2016)—first took place in Tallinn and then in Narva— offered an artistic problematization of the hardship of Russian-Estonian linguistic communication. The Estonian artist Evi Pärn in her ‘Manifesto’ issued on the occasion of the exhibit, argued: “I want the media to stop portraying us, speaking different languages, as enemies to each other… Language learning should have nothing to do with coercion and violation of civic rights” (Pärn 2016). In 2018 Pärn was a co-organizer of an ecological art festival titled “Grow and Rot” in Narva’s suburbs, where a major headliner was Max Stropov from the art group “Rodina” known for its performative protest actions in Russia.

The cultural promotion of Narva reached its peak in the application for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2024. It is Tallinn that stands behind Narva’s bid, promoting this cultural project with the strategic political aim of overcoming a deep-seated inferiority complex embedded in Narva’s collective mentality and representing the aspirations of a culturally unified Estonia. The competition for the European Capital of Culture is a core element in the larger project of Europeanizing Narva, yet in the meantime it can also become a springboard for Russian cultural producers to get a stronger foothold in Europe (Kallas 2017).

Some Conclusions

Narva, the most Russian of all cities in the EU, is developing as a cultural space replete with hybrid cultural practices, which creates fertile ground for projecting Russian culture beyond Russia’s national borders. The geographically peripheral Narva is becoming central to Estonia in the sense that the new cultural and political dynamic will define what Estonia is likely to be in the future. Perhaps in the near future Narva can become a laboratory where some post-modern and post-national approaches to language, citizenship and territoriality might be tested. Russian culture might become an integral part of Narva’s rebranding as an Estonian and European city, with a hybrid identity that in the long run might build an alternative to the Kremlin-patronized “Russian World”.


1 The Estonian region where Narva is located.

2 <>


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About the Author

Andrey Makarychev is a Visiting Professor at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu. 

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