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Saturday, 29 November 2014

BBC News - How buckwheat sheds light on Russia's soul

BBC News - How buckwheat sheds light on Russia's soul:

Buckwheat
As the rouble loses value against the US dollar and inflation increases, what do buckwheat sales say about the Russian state of mind?
Legend has it that, 1,000 years ago, when Greek monks spread Christianity to Russia, they brought with them more than just the Bible. They brought a grain, a seed, so magical, nutritious and delicious that it struck an instant chord with the Slavic soul - and the Russian stomach.
That grain was buckwheat.
And because the first people to cultivate it here were Greeks, the Russians called it grechka.
Ever since, Russians have been boiling it and baking it, making porridge and pancakes with it, loaves of bread too - and cutlets.
On dinner plates across 11 time zones in this, the biggest country in the world, you'll find buckwheat in kindergartens and field kitchens, plush restaurants and factory canteens.

From Our Own Correspondent

Spoon and buckwheat
Listen to From Our Own Correspondent for insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers around the world. Broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturdays at 11:30 BST and BBC World Service.
Forget vodka and beetroot soup. It's buckwheat that's really part of the Russian identity.
Those fluffy brown grains deserve a place of honour on the Russian flag. The nation's symbol, the double-headed eagle should, I think, be depicted tucking into two bowls of porridge.
And what about adding a line to the national anthem? "Oh glorious grainy Russia, land of my buckwheat."
I love grechka. (You've probably gathered that by now.) So imagine my distress this week when I walked into my local supermarket and couldn't find any. There are normally five shelves there full of the stuff - but panic buying had left them empty.
Why the panic? Well, in recent weeks buckwheat prices across Russia have shot up. In some areas by more than 50%. Rumours are swirling about bad harvests and grechka shortages.
Buckwheat in shop in MoscowBefore: Plenty of buckwheat for sale in Steve Rosenberg's local supermarket
The Russian authorities say there's nothing to worry about. They've accused "speculators" of trying to make a quick buck - from buckwheat - by creating an artificial crisis.
Some of which may be true. But the interesting thing about buckwheat is that this is more than just a packet on a supermarket shelf. It's a barometer of the social-economic state of Russia.
It's like when people feel they're coming down with a cold, they stock up on tissues. Well, when Russians sense an economic crisis brewing, the first thing they'll do is stock up on buckwheat.
Empty shelvesAfter: Scarcely a carton of buckwheat to be found
And, right now, the Russian economy is exhibiting more than just a sniffle. Inflation is increasing, so is capital flight, while this year the rouble has lost a third of its value against the dollar.

Start Quote

For now, Russians are not blaming their president for their current problems”
The falling price of oil is a huge problem for the country, because the Russian economy is so dependent on energy exports. Western sanctions are playing a part, too, in all of this - they make it much harder for Russian banks to raise money on international financial markets.
But how is this affecting ordinary Russians? Well, at the Moscow motor show last month one visitor told me that, for the first time in a long time, he couldn't afford a new car - credit had become too expensive. He was only there, he said, to window shop.
This week a teacher told me she'll be spending her winter break in Russia. Because of the plummeting rouble, she can't afford to do what she normally does at new year - and that's take a holiday in Europe.
And that brings me to what is known here as the Eternal Russian Question - "Who is to blame?" Who does the Russian public hold responsible for disappearing buckwheat, for rising prices and an ailing national currency?
Russians smoke next to electronic boards showing exchange ratesThe rouble has been steadily losing value against the dollar
To find out, I grab my microphone and take to the streets of Moscow.
Pensioner Alla Giorgievna tells me that because money's tight she's stopped buying new clothes and cosmetics.
"All this is America's fault," she says. "The United States organised that revolution in Ukraine. And now the US is punishing Russia."
I talk to Vera. "The international community has it in for us," Vera tells me. "We'll have to duck and dive to get through this."
And then I speak to Alexander. He's a builder. He complains that his salary is being eaten away by rising prices. But he doesn't know who to blame. He says he doesn't really think about it.
"All I want," Alexander says, "is to have a regular job with regular pay. I just want stability."
A field of buckwheat in RussiaRumours have been swirling about a bad buckwheat harvest
Stability is what Vladimir Putin promised the Russian people 15 years ago, when he came to power after an era of economic chaos.
For now, Russians are not blaming their president for their current problems. President Putin's approval rating remains sky high.
But Russian history teaches us this, that just as supermarket shelves can be full of buckwheat one day, and empty the next, so, too, can a Russian leader lose the support of his people, quite suddenly and unexpectedly.
If the economy crashes.
If that stability disappears.
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30
BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.
Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletterto get articles sent to your inbox.
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Friday, 28 November 2014

The Way Forward for Ukraine - WSJ

The Way Forward for Ukraine - WSJ:

As the country integrates more closely with Europe, Russia, in time, will follow.

MAIDAN VOYAGE: One year on, what have we learned?ENLARGE
MAIDAN VOYAGE: One year on, what have we learned? REUTERS
A year after Ukraine’s Maidan demonstrations, it is worth taking stock of where my country finds itself today. If we can move beyond certain truculent characteristics of our politics, I believe there is a way forward. But it won’t be easy.
Like many Ukrainians, I have been torn by these events and their aftermath. Because I believed that Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s president at the time, became hostage to influences on the wrong side of history and did too little to respond to protestors on Kiev’s central square last winter, in January I resigned from my position as his chief of staff. Last month I was elected to Parliament to fight for the rights of Ukrainians who were marginalized in a tumultuous year of revolution, deprivation and war.
Meanwhile, the fighting in our East is getting worse. Separatists and Ukrainian national forces struggle over important installations such as the Donetsk airport. Civilians are caught in the cross fire and being displaced from their homes and places of employment. The war makes normal democratic processes unavailable to much of the country’s East, while the country’s West has splintered into an array of groups, from nationalist extremists to pragmatists.
My country has appeared weak in the eyes of the world as we vacillated between a European Union accession agreement and a counteroffer from the Moscow-initiated Eurasian Customs Union. Lurching in opposite directions then in part led to our instability now, which is why today we must be more cautious and deliberate in charting our path.
Modern Ukraine’s future lies in Europe. Our Western aspiration has, however, in recent times reaped more sorrow than benefit. Integration with Western institutions should not be a zero-sum game with respect to our interests in the Northeast. As we integrate more closely with the West, Russia will—in time—follow our example.
Right now all responsible political leaders in the parliament, regardless of party, need to unite and avoid irreversible mistakes such as passing polarizing laws and compounding our national debt without regard for those on whose shoulders the burden will ultimately rest. Considering the lack of balance in our newly formed government, which excludes the Opposition Bloc, and our new parliament, for which many could not vote, it is especially important to restrain partisanship and extremism.
In October, the Ukrainian government passed a law banning those who served in the Yanukovych government from serving under the executive branch for a decade. The government is the largest employer in our country, and the vast majority of state employees come under the executive. This “lustration law” violates the constitution of Ukraine and discriminates against a large number of honest and experienced people. Victims of this law may soon exceed a million people, possibly more.
There is also a growing distrust between Ukrainians who live in the embattled East and the central government. Last week, President Petro Poroshenko put an end to local self-governance in Eastern Ukraine, and Kiev is now withholding their much-needed social payments. After the recent shelling of a schoolyard in Donetsk, hard-pressed families there are wondering whether the central government is doing enough to protect them.
Such divisive policies will only weaken Ukraine. And so long as the country is weak, it remains vulnerable to interference from Russia. Ukraine’s best chance at survival therefore is to show unity where we have been divided, and accommodation in place of discord. The new government must telegraph a resilient pragmatism if Ukraine is to survive.
This winter will be a tough one for Ukraine’s new government. Kiev has reached a tentative gas deal with Moscow, but on Moscow’s terms, which are not beneficial to Ukraine. Meanwhile the country’s most vulnerable are being saddled with the real burden of our worsening economy. Political infighting within an uneasy coalition threatens to make a bad situation worse. Ukraine’s new leaders must show they can rise above ingrained tendencies in our political culture.
First, we must curb the urge for political revenge. There should be accountability for the 100 deaths on the Maidan, and major corruption should be pursued via reformed courts. But by pandering to extremists, the current government only further divides the nation.
Second, we need reforms that salvage our economy, not radical measures that appeal to far-away bankers. The president should convene those who have experience with actual reforms, and include those with industrial interests in the hardest-hit regions of Ukraine.
Third, and most importantly, we must build bridges, not walls. The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall did not go unnoticed in my country. The value of a physical wall separating us from Russia is illusory. Our top priority must be getting civilians out of the cross fire of today’s ruthless conflict.
The role of the opposition is to hold government accountable and offer an alternative. After Maidan, a new Ukrainian opposition learned the meaning of this the hard way. We have experienced intimidation, physical attacks and political trolling by pro-government forces. Regardless, we resolve to build a stable, united and European Ukraine.
Mr. Lyovochkin is a leader of Ukraine’s Opposition Bloc party and a member of its newly elected parliament.
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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Guest post: in Ukraine, it is time to call a war a war | beyondbrics

Guest post: in Ukraine, it is time to call a war a war | beyondbrics:



By Taras Kuzio of the University of Alberta
US President Barrack Obama dare not utter the word ‘invasion’ and asks his advisers why Ukraine is so important. Russia denies it has troops in eastern Ukraine while Ukraine itself describes its own military actions there as an “anti-terrorist operation”. In reality, Europe is witnessing a war that is producing casualties for the Russian army on a scale not seen since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is time to recognise it as such.
Russian NGO activist Elena Vasilieva described this week how she set up a Facebook page Cargo 200 from Ukraine to Russia – a reference to the Soviet/Russian euphemism for transport of dead soldiers. Based on information from families across Russia she calculates that 4,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far in Ukraine.
Vasilieva’s estimates have been backed by other Russian NGOs such as theCommittee of Soldiers’ Mothers and Inform Napalm. Vasilieva herself launched the Forgotten Regiment NGO in 2007 to collect information on Russian veterans of Soviet and post-Soviet conflicts.
In only five months of fighting, Russia has lost the same number of soldiers as the US did in more than 12 years in Iraq and about a third of the Soviet losses in Afghanistan during a nine-year occupation. Such very high casualty rates reflect a full-blown war between Ukraine and Russia rather than a small-scale insurgency or terrorist campaign. The UK lost 600 troops and police in Ulster over three decades during the Irish troubles.
The ferocity of the Ukraine-Russian war has continued since the September 4 Minsk Accords that produced a tentative ceasefire. Hundreds of combatants and civilians have continued to die. In mid-November, a Russian missile battalion was destroyed by Ukrainian forces who claimed 150 Russian dead, including General Sergei Andreychenko, the highest-ranking reported casualty of the war. Russia’s losses from this battle are greater than the Ukrainian losses at Illovaysk in late August that forced Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, to the negotiating table.
Chuck Hagel’s resignation as US defence secretary over weak US policy towards Russia is a portend of what to expect from a Republican-controlled Congress that – as in the 1980s over Afghanistan – supports hitting back at Russia by providing arms to US allies on the ground. Ukrainian envoys to the US are seeking weapons such as FGM-148 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles to use against Russian armour that has been building up during the ceasefire in the Donbas enclave. Senator John McCain increasingly resembles Congressman Charlie Wilson in the 1980s, who organised a massive crease in US covert assistance to the Afghan mujahideen.
Vasilieva lives in exile in Ukraine because it has become dangerous to collect and publicise data on Russian casualties in an invasion that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, denies is taking place. Lev Shlosberg, a Russian lawyer, was beaten after attending funerals of 76th Airborne Regiment soldiers in Pskov who had been killed in battle in eastern Ukraine. Shlosberg had been interviewed by one of Russia’s last remaining independent television channels, Dozhd, whose journalists were also attacked.
Although Russia’s denials of its invasion of eastern Ukraine increasingly resemble Soviet deception over its invasion of Afghanistan, there are two caveats.
First, under Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader in the latter stages of the war in Afghanistan, there was greater media freedom than in Putin’s Russia.
Second, Putin cannot close off all channels and information about Russian casualties is available on the internet. Ukraine publishes the freest Russian-language media in the world and these publications are available online, at least to those who have internet access.
Putin is hamstrung in achieving his objectives in eastern and southern Ukraine given the resolve of Ukrainian patriots to defend their territory, and rising opposition to the war in Russia. In September, 50,000 Russians marched in Moscow for peace in Ukraine. Russia’s respected independent Levada Centre issued a survey that found as many as 65 to 70 per cent of Russians oppose sending Russian troops to Ukraine.
In the USSR and in today’s Russia, soldiers have caused themselves horrific injuries to avoid being sent to Afghanistan and the Donbas. Vasilieva recalled being told how one soldier thought up a way of breaking his own leg, and how another burned himself with ammonia.
It is time to recognise the Donbas conflict, which has caused thousands of casualties, widespread destruction and over a million refugees, as Europe’s first inter-state war since 1945.
Taras Kuzio is a research associate at the Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and non-resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Relations, Johns Hopkins University.
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Monday, 24 November 2014

It is time for the west and Ukraine to offer Putin a deal - FT.com

It is time for the west and Ukraine to offer Putin a deal - FT.com:



Ukraine will never succeed with a hostile Russia on its borders, writes John Thornhill
Under pressure: his inner circle is worried that Vladimir Putin has overplayed his hand©Getty
T
here is a military saying that armies have to fight the wars they can rather than the ones they wish to fight. It is a maxim that western leaders should consider in their confrontation with Russia.
Roughing up Vladimir Putin at the recent G20 summit in Brisbane may have given them a warm moral glow but did little to advance peace in Ukraine. Gesture politics does not substitute for a coherent strategy needed to address the most alarming threat to European security since the end of the Soviet Union.
Western leaders have been right to sanction Russia for unilaterally redrawing international borders. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine have recreated anarchy in Europe. Such aggression could not pass unanswered.
But although sanctions were a necessary punishment they have proved an ineffective deterrent. They have not changed Russian behaviour. Indeed, they may have only worsened it. Their impact has been to boost the regime’s popularity and strengthen the Kremlin’s hardliners, who relish isolation.
What next? Realism suggests it is time for the west and Ukraine to try to cut a deal with Russia. The imposition of sanctions – and the threat of more – has provided necessary leverage. For the sake of Ukraine’s stability, the west should use that leverage to achieve the diplomatic solution it can rather than the one it may ideally wish for.
The main priority for the west has to be to help a prosperous and secure Ukraine emerge from the turmoil. That is a gargantuan challenge. But it will never succeed with a hostile Russia on its borders (and within its borders) determined to emasculate Ukraine as a political and economic entity.
One response would be to force Russia to withdraw. But short of starting World War III, that is not going to happen. The west is not prepared to deploy troops to defend Ukraine, nor – for the moment – is it even willing to supply heavy weapons to Kiev.
Worse, the west is failing to provide the financial support needed to prevent the Ukrainian economy disappearing into a black hole. The economy is forecast to contract by more than 7 per cent this year and the threat of default looms.
The Minsk Protocol, the ceasefire agreement signed by Russia and Ukraine in September under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, provides the basis for a comprehensive political deal.
the west is failing to provide the financial support needed to prevent the Ukrainian economy disappearing into a black hole
On the economy, Kiev should ensure that trade deals with the EU do not entangle its ties with Russia. Before the conflict, Russia accounted for one quarter of Ukraine’s exports. Russia too has a big stake in Ukraine’s economic revival: its banks and exporters are staring at massive losses in one of its most important markets.
The west should also respond to Mr Putin’s desire to discuss Europe’s security architecture. He should be reminded that Nato’s collective self-defence means what it says, especially in the Baltics. But the west should also accept that Nato will not expand into Ukraine. It would be unwise for the security alliance to push for the inclusion of a country that is so divided.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Mr Putin would agree – and deliver on – any such deal. His goal may be de facto partition of Ukraine. Moscow has ripped up the Budapest Memorandum it signed in 1994 guaranteeing Ukraine’s independence and so far failed to uphold the Minsk Protocol.
But as George F. Kennan wrote in his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 on how to contain Soviet expansionism, the west’s “demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.” Given that Russia’s president insists no Russian forces are present in eastern Ukraine it should be easy enough to magic them away.
If Moscow were to reject a deal, then it would be time to re-read and implement the rest of Kennan’s prescriptions. Then we will be back to the world of counter-force and containment.

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ukraine seeks visa-free regime as compensation for commitment to EU values

Ukraine seeks visa-free regime as compensation for commitment to EU values:

One year after the outbreak of the civil unrest and demonstration against former President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine is raising its voice by asking Brussels to compensate its commitment to European values. 
"A visa-free regime is what the EU can reward Ukrainian citizens for their commitment to the common European values. Freedom of movement is one of these values. I am convinced that by the time will be finally completed all items of the second phase of liberalization and visa will be canceled," Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers Ostap Semerak said on Friday.
Kiev hopes the EU will take a final decision on the abolition of visas for Ukrainian citizens during Latvia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2015, adds the note. 
"Ukraine counts on active support from Latvia during its presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2015," Semerak said during the joint press conference with Foreign Minister of Latvia Edgars Rinkēvičs in Riga.
The call for help could ignite some discussions at the European level, possibly triggering tensions between Brussels and Kiev.
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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Ukraine’s Slow Collapse - NYTimes.com

Ukraine’s Slow Collapse - NYTimes.com:

Photo
Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in October. CreditShamil Zhumatov/Reuters
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The crisis in Ukraine has reached an impasse. The cease-fire signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September never really took hold, but at least it provided a cover for efforts to reduce the level of fighting and focus on stabilizing and reforming the Ukrainian economy as a prelude to a serious, long-term search for a resolution of the crisis. Now even the fig leaf of cease-fire is gone. Russian armored vehicles are rolling into eastern Ukraine — disowned, of course, by Moscow.
Gunfire is exchanged constantly in and around Donetsk, and Kiev has basically disowned residents of territories claimed by separatists by cutting most government services, benefits and pensions. And though elections to the Ukrainian Parliament on Oct. 26 brought in a new, pro-Western legislature, Kiev is still far from forming a government or producing a viable program of reforms.
The United States and the European Union have made clear, and correctly so, that they hold President Vladimir Putin of Russia largely responsible for this state of affairs. He was snubbed at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, once the European leader deemed most cautious in relations with Moscow, assailed him for reviving a Cold War atmosphere 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
There is no question that by annexing Crimea and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin has done great damage to East-West relations — and to his country, which finds itself isolated and in economic trouble. The decision on Monday by the European Union to add more separatist leaders to the list of Mr. Putin’s allies barred from Europe may be largely symbolic, but along with the cold reception in Brisbane, it does let the Russian leader know that the West is not about to let him off the hook.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that officials in Kiev, and more specifically President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have responsibilities they must live up to. Ukraine has been plagued by corruption since it became independent, and the current crisis has made it even more imperative for the leaders to form a government and come up with a credible economic and political strategy.
The Ukrainian economy is in terrible shape — the currency has lost almost half its value against the dollar in 2014, the industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk are in separatist hands, coal mines have shut down. The International Monetary Fund has provided emergency aid, but the hard fact is that the European Union and the United States cannot be expected to make substantial commitments until Ukraine provides a clear reform plan and priorities for outside investment. Johannes Hahn, the new European Union commissioner for enlargement, is right to insist that the union will not hold a donors’ conference without this.
In addition to an economic strategy, Kiev needs to prepare a plan for loosening central control in a way that might satisfy residents of the eastern provinces. The decision by President Poroshenko to cut government benefits and pensions to residents of areas under the control of Kremlin-backed separatists, though understandable in the circumstances, has left those unable to flee feeling betrayed by Kiev, creating a vacuum for Moscow to fill.
There is no question that ordering painful reforms when a country is already on its knees is asking a lot. That is why it is imperative that Western leaders make clear that they will give Kiev substantial assistance only after it embarks on a serious program of economic and political reform. After all, that was what the Ukrainians who took to the streets in December 2013 fought for.
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