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economic_sanctions
The Russian economy is suffering due to sanctions enacted by the United States and the European Union. Inflation has risen dramatically and with the ruble teetering back and forth, the safety of their currency is uncertain.

During the annexation of Crimea and Russian military movement in the Ukraine, the U.S. and E.U. increased trade restrictions on Russia and wealthy businessmen regarded as being close to Vladimir Putin. As the Russian economy shifts focus toward a stronger economic development and trade with the Asian countries, Russia’s reliance on the dollar decreases.

One of the ways in which Russia is attempting to achieve this is by trading in domestic currency rather than relying on the U.S. dollar. Russia’s dependence on Asia in general and China in particular hints at Putin’s larger goal for the Russian economy to be less involved in U.S. and Europe. Among of the most important deals Russia has made is  the Agreement on Cooperation which was signed by Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping. The $25 billion deal will allow Russia and China to trade in domestic currencies rather than the dollar.

Another significant deal is the $400 billion trade deal that will increase oil exports from Russia to China. It includes a proposal for a new pipeline that will send oil directly from Western Siberia to China. Underlying Putin’s unease with the U.S. is the desire to begin limiting U.S. economic hegemony. However, the dollar is so prevalent in the foreign economy it seems unlikely that a dramatic shift will occur in the near future. Russia’s largest market is currently the E.U. and sanctions have reduced the amount Russia is able to export.

Economic sanctions enforced by President Barack Obama seek to undercut Russian oil exports which make up half of Russia’s economic revenue. Putin announced recently at a G-20 Summit that the West needs to lift sanctions. He states, “This is harmful, and of course is doing us some damage, but it’s harmful for them as well because, in essence, it’s undermining the entire system of international economic relations.”

If Russia is less dependent on the U.S. market, sanctions will mean little to Putin and the Russian economy. Eventually there will be little to deter him from further military involvement in the Ukraine or elsewhere. It will be more difficult for the U.S. to influence Putin’s perceived aggression.

Russia is not the only country who wants to decrease dependence on the U.S. market. Other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries are looking to do the same. For the meantime, Russia may be forced to cope with the low price of oil. American economists predict that the prices should level out at about $83 a barrel and stay there for a while to come.

Maxine Gordon

Sources: International Business Times, Reuters, New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: Newsweek

worst dictators current
The world’s most repressed countries live in a dictatorship. Citizens suffering under the rule of harsh dictatorships are often stripped of political rights and civil liberties. Those who express views differing from the state suffer consequences of physical and psychological abuse. Though the number of dictatorships has been on a decline, there is still much progress to be made. Listed below are some of the worst current dictators.

Worst Current Dictators

  1.  Kim Jong-un is arguably the most well-known current dictator in the world with the antics of his late father being publicized in world news all too often. As Supreme Leader of Korea, Kim Jong-un runs his government with a totalitarian rule ranging from his pursuit of nuclear weapons to unapologetic and even public execution of his citizens. Hope for more lenient domestic and foreign policies following his father’s death has since changed as Kim Jong-un continues the ruthless administration his father started years prior.
  2. Bashar al-Assad, leader of Syria came to power in 2000 and was seen by many as a potential reformer by domestic and foreign observers alike. There were high hopes that with Assad in power, the drastic changes that Syria needed would come about sooner rather than later. Instead, Assad has tightened his political reigns and enforced harsh consequences for political opponents and potential challengers which heavily contributed to the civil war that broke out in 2011. It is believed that Assad has tens of thousands of political prisoners being held and tortured in prison.
  3. Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe since 1980, came to power following the end of a civil war which ended white minority rule. Mugabe gained much attention from pursuing land reform policies that focused on reclaiming property and land owned by non-black Zimbabweans. Though some deemed his actions as racist to say the least, Mugabe seemed to gain quite a bit of support from those who felt his actions were making amends to the people of Zimbabwe from the previous abuses by European colonists. However, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party turned the heads of many in 2008 when presidential elections came about versus Morgan Tsvangirai, a pro-democracy supporter. Tsvangirai received much support resulting in Mugabe only receiving 43 percent of the vote in the first round of the election. However, after allegations of fraud, voter intimidation, beatings and rape conducted by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, Mugabe swept the election with 90 percent of the vote.
  4. Vladimir Putin of Russia is known most for the staggering amount of control he has over his country through his political actions regularly linked with corruption. After serving two terms from 2000-2008, Putin decided to create a loophole in the constitution by deeming himself Prime Minister when Dmitry Medvedev became the next president of Russia following the end of Putin’s final term. Medvedev consequently made an amendment to the constitution allowing presidents to serve six terms and giving Putin the opportunity to serve as president for a third term. To no one’s surprise, Putin won the presidential election in 2012.

– Janelle Mills

Sources: Forbes, Kizaz, Freedom House
Photo: Toon Pool 

putin
The Russian Federation’s President, Vladimir Putin, has made a nasty habit of irritating the Western world. When he is not riding through the Siberian wilderness, shirtless and on horseback, Putin has found the time to annex land from a sovereign state, harbor an American whistle-blower and effectively silence most of his opposition.

Surprisingly, the invasion of Ukraine has been largely popular among Russians; recent polling suggests that 71 percent of Russians believe in aiding fellow Russians living in the Crimea. In fact, Putin has seen his approval rating grow to 86 percent—only two percent lower than at its peak in 2008.

Why do the Russian people favor a president with so little regard for human rights? The answer lies within the history of Russia’s economy, and that in the choice between poverty and tyranny, the latter is the lesser of two evils.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy was all but devastated. In an attempt to adjust to capitalism, the government enacted a series of mass privatizations via vouchers divided among the population. However, in a country where at the time a pair of stockings from Finland could afford a weekend of luxury in Moscow, a voucher meant much less to the average citizen than the small price it could fetch in criminal or ex-Soviet elite circles. It was during this period that many of Russia’s current oligarchs gained their vast wealth in buying up vouchers well below their value.

In this time of great despair, President Boris Yeltsin allowed the economy to run wild as he amassed his own fortune. So when then-unknown Putin took power on New Years Eve in 1999 without warning, the impoverished Russian people had little to lose.

Since taking office, Putin has brought some amount of economic stability to the country, confronted oligarchs, and reignited patriotism with the Sochi Olympics and Security Council vetoes of resolutions on Syria. Members of the older generation are quick to remind the youth that even in lieu of democracy, at least there is bread on the table. The $50 billion price tag for the Olympics and the annexation of Crimea inspire new waves of pride among Russians who hope to see Russia reclaim its status as a serious rival to the West.

Regardless of whether Putin’s reputation as a bold enough leader to challenge to West will sustain his popularity, his iron rule has far from solved Russia’s economic woes. With ever-increasing inflation and investors taking their business elsewhere, perhaps it is time for Russians to expect more from their government.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: Diplomatic Courier, NPR, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, The New York Times
Photo: Business Insider

LGBT Rights
Hillary Clinton has reportedly gotten into “shouting matches” with top Russian officials regarding LGBT rights. Russia is home to a set of very controversial laws, for which being homosexual, attending pride events or spreading propaganda regarding homosexuality to minors, is punishable by law. Putin’s views regarding gender equality have proved controversial, too: just recently, Putin went on a sexist rant about Hillary Clinton, calling her “weak,” further explaining that it was easier to just “not argue” with women.

Clinton has put up a fight regarding her side of the story. While on tour for her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” Clinton recalled the increasing amount of LGBT backlash she came to see, leading her to push and become an ardent activist for the cause. “I began to vigorously protest with governments in many parts of the world,” Clinton said. “Like what Putin’s doing … it’s just a cynical political ploy.” Regardless, without a strong-standing platform, the LGBT movement could go mute.

While LGBT rights are improving in many areas of the world, they are worsening in others. Today, there are around 76 countries in which being gay is a crime; of these 76, there are at least 10 in which being gay is punishable by death. Laws aside, more LGBT hate crimes are continuing to occur throughout the world, where they are often overlooked by the police. In the past year, a study regarding LGBT hate crimes in Europe — a fairly tolerant country on the issue — proved horrific: 17 percent of LGBT citizens have been victimized by a hate crime, and of these victims, 75 percent did not report the incident to law enforcement. 

Clinton has been able to remain relatively tongue-in-cheek, yet vigilant, regarding Putin and the controversial laws he has strictly enforced. When asked if it was hard to maintain relationships for her position as United States Secretary of State, Clinton stated that, at times, it was. “I’m talking about you, Vladimir,” she coyly said. “But it doesn’t mean that you don’t keep trying. You do have to keep trying.”

— Nick Magnanti

Sources: Advocate, Huff Post, Global Eguality, 76 Crimes, Washington Post, Care2
Photo: Mashable

circassians in sochi
With the Winter Olympics now over, many are lamenting the failure of civil society and LGBT advocacy to impact the games, due in large part to the IOC’s unwavering apolitical stance. Yet what is more shocking is how little of Sochi coverage went to the Circassians, a North Caucasian ethnic group indigenous to the region.

In the 19th century, Circassians were the subject of a bizarre European and American fixation which arose in part from anthropologist Johan Friedrich Blumenbach’s claim that they were the origin of the white race. The image of the “Circassian Beauty” was extolled by authors from Pushkin to Dumas—all while the Arab-African slave trade imported Circassian women into Ottoman harems through the 18th and 19th centuries. Then in the early 1800’s, the Russian conquest into the Caucasus led to what many are calling the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Circassians.

During the years before the Winter Olympics, the Circassian Cultural Institute, among other organizations, united Circassians worldwide to raise awareness about the tragic history of the region and get recognition from the Russian government that the Russo-Circassian War was in fact a genocide—an allegation that Russian leaders, from Tsar Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin, have downplayed and denied. Roughly 700,000 Circassians live in Russia, with significant numbers in Turkey, Jordan, Syria and New Jersey in the U.S., where the Institute is based.

Delegations in Israel and Turkey have lobbied and protested both the IOC and the Russian embassies in their respective countries, with little response from either. Moreover, Circassian advocates and local community leaders were detained in the months prior to the Olympics. Many have also accused Putin of downplaying the ethnic heterogeneity in the region, and misleadingly portraying Sochi as an ethnically Russian region. While the struggle has been reported on by several reputable news outlets, discussions on Circassians in Sochi have failed to launch from the blogosphere into mainstream media.

Martin W. Lewis at Stanford University attributes the lack of reporting to confusion, uncertainty and overwhelming lack of awareness by Western audiences of the history and demographics of the Caucasus region.  Lewis suspects that the story, in the minds of reporters, may be too complicated for observers to bear, and furthermore distracts audiences from the “tunnel vision” of the Caucasian narrative—which has predominantly focused on Chechnya, not Circassia.

The disproportionate focus on LGBT rights and allegations of corruption in funding—not to mention the anecdotal and overdone coverage on Sochi hotel rooms and bathrooms—may have very well swayed attention away from the plight of Circassians in Sochi. And now that the Olympics are over, Ukraine and Crimea take center stage in Eastern European affairs. Looking back, Sochi seems like a lost opportunity for garnering the global awareness that only the Olympics can bring, especially for a region that has, until now, kept out of the spotlight.

– Dmitriy Synkov

Sources: Buzzfeed, The New YorkerGeoCurrents, The Asahi Shimbun, Mirror of Race
Photo: The Nation

u.s._russia
In a Cold War-style competition between the U.S. and Russia, Ukraine’s ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych insinuates that the West, for now, holds the upper hand. Yet saying so could fuel the Russian fire to turn back the current state of affairs.

The conflict began when Yanukovych refused to sign a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the E.U., instead leaning on inevitable trade ties with its Russian counterpart to the East. Many Ukrainians did not see the appeal. On February 21, in response to violent protests and backlash, Yanukovych gave up responsibility for his country.

Purporting to support a peaceful transition in Ukraine, President Barack Obama and senior officials discussed the situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides. The main effort emphasized a multibillion-dollar aid package for Ukraine with the International Monetary Fund. Various governments in the European Union support this endeavor, or at least intend to contribute economically to peace in Ukraine.

Ultimately, the goal is to keep Russia from sending troops into the country. Interference by Russia in order to restore a pro-Russian government in Ukraine would be detrimental to all parties involved. United States national security advisor Susan Rice emphasized on an episode of Meet the Press that Russian interference “would be a grave mistake.” Likewise, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed the importance of persuading “Russia that this need not be a zero sum game.”

The U.S. and Russia, according to Rice, share hopes for a unified, independent Ukraine that is capable of exercising freedom amongst its people. Obama and Putin jointly aim to see the agreement of February 21 carried out in peaceful terms. Constitutional reforms, near-term elections and a government to bring together the unified desires of the Ukrainian people shall be implemented in due process. These efforts shall reflect “the will of the Ukrainian people and the interests of the United States and Europe,” said Rice.

While Rice did not mention Russian interests, one might hope that continued violence is not among them. Perhaps diplomacy can win this war.

– Jaclyn Stutz 

Sources: Businessweek, Foreign Policy, New York Times, Wall Street Journal
Photo: BASIC

roosevelt Quotes from World Leaders on Human Rights
1. David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
“If we are going to try to get across to the poorest people in the world that we care about their plight and we want them to join one world with the rest of us, we have got to make promises and keep promises.”

2. Irene Khan, former Secretary-General of Amnesty International
“Poverty is not only about income poverty, it is about the deprivation of economic and social rights, insecurity, discrimination, exclusion and powerlessness. That is why human rights must not be ignored but given even greater prominence in times of economic crisis.”

3. Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

“Discrimination and multiple deprivations of human rights are also frequently part of the problem, sentencing entire populations to poverty… It is surely a matter of outrage that over half a million women die annually from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. This is nearly half the annual global death toll, and arguably, a direct reflection of the disempowerment of women in social, economic and political life.”

4. Jesse Jackson, American Statesman and Civil Rights Activist
“The great responsibility that we have today is to put the poor and the near poor back on front of the American agenda.”

5. Pope Francis “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.”

6. Dalai Lama XIV “No matter what part of the world we come from, we are all basically the same human beings. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering. We have the same basic human needs and concerns. All of us human beings want freedom and the right to determine our own destiny as individuals and as peoples. That is human nature.”

7. Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani Human Rights Activist
“I don’t know why people have divided the whole world into two groups, west and east. Education is neither eastern nor western. Education is education and it’s the right of every human being.”

8. Pranab Mukherjee, President of India 
“There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger.”

9. Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations
“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.”

10. Barack Obama, President of the United States
“This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share its benefits more equitably. Trade has been a cornerstone of our growth and global development. But we will not be able to sustain this growth if it favors the few, and not the many.”

11. Desmond Tutu, Noble Peace Prize Laureate
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

12. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
“History proves that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient. Only democratic systems are not transient. Whatever the shortcomings, mankind has not devised anything superior.”

13. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian President
“The world is in need of an encompassing and of course, just and humane order in the light of which the rights of all are preserved and peace and security are safeguarded.”

14. Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuban Foreign Minister
“This problem will knock on the doors of all of us, whether through uncontrolled and unmanageable migration flows, by means of diseases and epidemics, as a result of the conflicts generated by poverty and hunger, or as a result of events which are today unforeseeable.”

15. Warren Buffett, American Investor and Philanthropist
“Someone is sitting in the shade today, because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Tyson Watkins

Sources: Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights: Quotes, Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights: Statement by Navenethem Pillay, Catholics Confront Global Poverty, Dalai Lama, Think Exist, Brainy Quote

Photo: Vintage 3D

Russia Institutes Public Smoking Ban
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that has created Russia’s first public smoking ban. People will no longer be allowed to smoke in restaurants, trains or entranceways into public housing. Additionally, beaches, children’s playgrounds and other public places are now off-limits to smokers.

The measure had been a significant part of the government’s plan for bettering overall public health. Its effects include rolling prohibitions on where people can smoke, as well as new limits on marketing and selling tobacco products. All but one member of the State Duma voted in favor of the bill.

Lung cancers are the fourth-biggest cause of death in Russia, and more than 40 percent of Russians smoke cigarettes. The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a study of smoking in Russia in 2011, and the results pointed out many of the deficiencies which this bill solves. For example, “the retail price of a pack of 20 of the cheapest brand of cigarettes in 2010 was 11 roubles.” This is the equivalent of 36 US cents or roughly one-third of the cost of a bottle of water in Moscow.

Russia’s new smoking laws on public smoking ban increase the minimum price allowed to be charged for a pack of cigarettes, hoping to reduce the amount people spend on tobacco while increasing the tax revenue for each pack sold.

Jake Simon

Sources: BBC, World Life Expectancy, Numbeo