Monday, May 12, 2014

#LessonsForSmallCountries #Singapore #Ukraine #Crimea

I wanted for some time to make a post on "Lessons For Small Countries", but I've been so busy recently that all I've managed to do was to start a hashtag, #LessonsForSmallCountries, a snarky series of tweets containing well-meaning, but occasionally misguided advice for small nations.
Not trending at the moment, though I think it ought to be. If there's anything good to come out of Ukraine's problems, it's a good example of what not to do. Russia or the US will most probably come out fine, but I worry that Ukraine won't. Mostly because of size. 
Bring a citizen from a very small country, whose vital water supply is still controlled by a larger, occasionally prickly, neighbour, the crisis now has got a lot of us thinking: if we're so small, we can easily be pushed and shoved by larger countries for their own political and economic advantages. We can't always depend on the international community to help us.

Of course I have been accused of victim-blaming for saying that Ukraine has invited this problem into their country, but larger nations simply do not understand that it takes a special kind of stupidity and incompetence to allow their country to be put in a position where they're screwed politically, economically, and militarily. Fact is, nobody will care about the wellbeing of your country and its citizens. Even your most "brotherly" neighbours. You have to be responsible for your own country.
Lots of articles have been written about what the US or Russia should learn from the Ukraine crisis. I think there are lessons to be learnt fromt he crisis that are more relevant to small countries such as Singapore. Of course, I'm not the only Singapore citizen who sees the crisis through this lens. The political community in Singapore is also seeing it in the same way.

The speech that inspired #LessonsForSmallCountries was given by our Minister of Foreign Affairs, K Shanmugam

Our PM visited another cute little country and they both found some common views as well:
LUXEMBOURG: Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said there are lessons to be learnt for small states from Russia's annexation of Crimea.
He said small states must tend to their network of friends and have an effective foreign policy.
Mr Lee was speaking to the reporters at a joint press session with his counterpart from Luxembourg, Mr Xavier Bettel.
Both leaders stressed the importance of upholding international law.
Mr Lee said: "The only thing a small state has is words and treaties, but in addition to that because depending not (on) the goodwill and good faith of others, we also must have the wherewithal to defend ourselves because in extremis, you must be prepared to stand up and defend your position, if necessary, with our lives."

More recently, PM Lee also expressed his concern over China's land (or rather, sea) grabbing in the South China Sea:
NAY PYI TAW, Myanmar: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must play a constructive role in managing problems in the South China Sea, said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.
And that also means not taking sides with the countries making various territorial and maritime claims.
Speaking at the 24th ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, Mr Lee echoed the sentiments of foreign ministers that ASEAN should have a common position on the issue.
He said incidents, like collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea within the past week, could easily spiral out of control and trigger unintended consequences.
PM Lee said: "ASEAN's view has been that, whereas ASEAN doesn't take a position on the individual, on the merits of the claims, ASEAN does have a view on the overall issue of the South China Sea, because it is happening on our doorstep and we must have a view, because the security, stability of the region depends on what happens in the South China Sea and we cannot, not take a view as ASEAN."

Well, maybe Singapore might have some lessons for Ukraine. I'll leave you with another video from our Foreign Minister and one a couple more tweets. (Updated to include awesome fighter pilot story.)

It's a matter of military advantage as well:
For the first three days, our F-16 pilots, no matter how much they planned and prepared, they were always ambushed by the USAF F-15s. Then they realized that the USAF pilots were eavesdropping on their conversations (not disallowed by the rules), so they switched from plain English to Singlish/Chinese/Malay.
Suddenly the F-15s lost their magic, and for the last three days, found no way through the defensive screen set up by our F-16s. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Character arguments and Sharon Tennison's article on her working relationship with Putin

Sometimes it's possible to make a good character argument. Here's an article from someone who worked with Putin before he became President. There will be a few surprising details for those who only know about Putin through mainstream media reporting. But then again, you can go ahead and lump us all together in the "Putin apologist" pile, because we know how logical and analytical that type of thinking that can be: If someone don't compare Putin to Hitler or Stalin, they must be apologists and therefore be shot on sight. Or at least, they must be idiots or brainwashed imbeciles. You're welcome.

I did not mean "good character argument" to be interpreted as "good character" argument--that an article needs to glorify Putin in order for me to consider it a persuasive and convincing piece. (That's actually a formula for a really awful piece. See Russia Today for examples. Yuck.) In fact, some months ago Masha Gessen published a little piece in 2012 about her phone call and meeting with Putin--and this is better than most of the rubbish that's being published in the past few months. While I do not completely agree with her conclusions, she supports her arguments with an account of the meeting, rather than resorting to name-calling and character attacks--even though she hates him. I don't know if this is the case with her book, Man Without a Face, but this was written before the face-to-face meeting.

One thing I can assure you, though, is that someone who actually has had a working relationship with him (or at least have met and spoke with him for 20 minutes) is a lot more credible than an armchair Russia-watcher (such as myself... OK, save for the 3 years living in Putin's Russia in early 2000s). I'll be a lot more inclined to believe someone like Tennison or Gessen than with some hack from CNN or Fox News who can't even pronounce his name right.


by Sharon Tennison

Friends and colleagues,

As the Ukraine situation has worsened, unconscionable misinformation and hype is being poured on Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Journalists and pundits must scour the Internet and thesauruses to come up with fiendish new epithets to describe both.

Wherever I make presentations across America, the first question ominously asked during Q&A is always,  "What about Putin?"

It's time to share my thoughts which follow:

Putin obviously has his faults and makes mistakes.  Based on my earlier experience with him, and the experiences of trusted people, including U.S. officials who have worked closely with him over a period of years, Putin most likely is a straight, reliable and exceptionally inventive man. He is obviously a long-term thinker and planner and has proven to be an excellent analyst and strategist. He is a leader who can quietly work toward his goals under mounds of accusations and myths that have been steadily leveled at him since he became Russia's second president.

I've stood by silently watching the demonization of Putin grow since it began in the early 2000s –– I pondered on computer my thoughts and concerns, hoping eventually to include them in a book (which was published in 2011). The book explains my observations more thoroughly than this article. Like others who have had direct experience with this little known man, I've tried to no avail to avoid being labeled a "Putin apologist".  If one is even neutral about him, they are considered "soft on Putin" by pundits, news hounds and average citizens who get their news from CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

I don't pretend to be an expert, just a program developer in the USSR and Russia for the past 30 years.  But during this time, I've have had far more direct, on-ground contact with Russians of all stripes across 11 time zones than any of the Western reporters or for that matter any of Washington's officials.  I've been in country long enough to ponder Russian history and culture deeply, to study their psychology and conditioning, and to understand the marked differences between American and Russian mentalities which so complicate our political relations with their leaders.  As with personalities in a family or a civic club or in a city hall, it takes understanding and compromise to be able to create workable relationships when basic conditionings are different.  Washington has been notoriously disinterested in understanding these differences and attempting to meet Russia halfway.

More: Russia: Other Points of View: RUSSIA REPORT: PUTIN

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Some advice from David Johnson (Johnson's Russia List)

Just received my daily dose of Johnson's Russia List, and found this in the header:

"DJ: It's time for some wishful thinking about how to start to understand recent events vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia. The first step is humility. You simply don't know as much as you think you know. Some semblance of an open mind about events as they unfold is needed. Very hard for some people. Second, you need to be able to accept that Russian perceptions of what has happened in Ukraine have some quality of legitimacy. I realize that for some people anything of the sort makes you a Putin apologist. Actually, you have to stop trying to interpret everything thru the Putin prism. There is much more to the Russian posture than the personality of Putin. Demonizing Putin is not helpful to accurate perception and understanding. This is not a matter of choosing sides. It is a matter of choosing not to take a side, at least on occasion. If you can't move on from that you can stop here.
    "Third, I am referring in part to Russian perceptions of what happened in the Maidan events and their consequences. You need to be willing to accept that there is complexity and uncertainty and some fuzziness about the facts. If you have a romantic view of Maidan you will stop here. So... the main thing is to try to understand events and unload the partisan burden. Of course, a lot of people WANT to be partisan. That's their current role and compulsion. I hope there are still some that want to try to understand. JRL has always presented diverse information and interpretation. It is one of the few sources of genuinely balanced information about Russia. And, incidentally, going in this direction does not mean that everything becomes clear and understandable. Probably quite the contrary. But if prediction is your thing you might get a little better at it. Of course, I could be wrong and it is Armageddon."

Sound advice, it is. I have no interest with discussing politics with partisans. They need no discussions and want no discussions. This includes people from both the pro-Russia/Putin camp and the EuroMaidan camp.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Writing about Russia or the FSU? Please don't do these things...

Russia is in the spotlight again, mostly because of Ukraine. With the huge influx of news articles, op-eds, blog posts, etc., it would be almost pointless to add to this pile of word slush with yet another blog post about Russia-Ukraine issues. Instead, I will comment on something else altogether: about the stupid things writers and bloggers do when they write about Russia or the former Soviet Union. This often happens when they write about a country they barely know or care about, but even seasoned Russia-watchers (or Russians themselves!) aren't immune.

Here are a list of things writers shouldn't do when they write about Russia or the FSU.

1. Make the title of the article any of the following:
  • "From Russia With Love"
  • "Georgia on My Mind"
  • "Crimera River"/"Cry Me a River"
Use these, or variations of them, as your title will tell your reader nothing about the content of the article, and show that you know nothing about Russia or the FSU so you have to reach out to Western cultural references that have absolutely nothing to do with Russia or the FSU.


This is actually a pretty good article, too bad for the title! But it also is guilty of No. 8... read on...

The Wall Street Jounal did it. Probably not the first time either.

Even a respected think-tank didn't resist this.

It's just appalling at how many articles borrow the James Bond title. It's probably the longest-running meme in recent history. Just set up a Google news alert for "Russia with Love" and you will get a daily dose of bad reporting on Russia.

And as for Georgia... at least the former reference did have something to do with Russia. But the Ray Charles classic had absolutely nothing to do with Georgia (the FSU country). One would have thought that the song was a hit at the height of the Russia-Georgian war in 2008.

Now let's all drag the already disputed Crimea further into it: 

2. Begin the article with:
  • "Since the fall of the Soviet Union..."
  • "Since the end of the Cold War..."
The first sentence of your article is important, and it's not to be spent on a pseudo-history lesson. It also still tells me you are probably stuck with the Cold War mentality and have nothing new in your article. Don't do this unless you're writing a history essay. Even then, it's a bad way to start the said essay.


Bad student essays such as these.

Some writers can't wait and just decided to use this in the title: After the Soviet collapse--A globe redrawn: Welcome to the new world disorder. From The Economist

3. Use faux-Cyrillic font.

Book writers (or more likely, their publishers) are most guilty of this. Some of us actually read Russian, and it can, at the least, make your book/article look cheesy, or render it completely unreadable.

4. Colour everything red! (And yellow)

Again, book writers/pulishers are most guilty of this. Only one third of the Russian flag is red. Whatever happened to blue and white? Oh wait, you mean you thought that Russia still uses the old red-and-yellow flag of the USSR?

5. Put hammer and sickle symbols on everything.

If you're writing about the USSR, that's fine. But I'm guessing you're not. 

Book covers guilty of 3, 4, 5, or all of the above:

6. Compare Putin with Hitler.


7. Compare Putin with Stalin.

Same as above. It makes a weak argument. If you're going to do a hatchet job, do it properly. But remember, attacking the person, rather than his policies or actions, doesn't make your argument a sound one.



Even as a satire piece, it's not that funny. It's cheesy.

8. Whitewash the 90s, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin.

The 90s in Russia was not as bad as during Stalin's time, but it is still pretty bad. Transitional periods generally are. Boris Yeltsin is no angel and remains one of the most unpopular Russian leaders of all time--more unpopular than Stalin and Lenin

Guilty: Masha Gessen, on the Intelligence Squared debate as described (and disputed) by Mark Adomanis here: The Intelligence Squared Debate: Masha Gessen Has Some Really Strange Ideas About The 1990's

Michael McFaul in his book, Russia's Unfinished Revolution, which I will admit that my reading of this book was unfinished as well. (It wasn't humanly possible to finish reading such an awful book.)

9. Not researching or checking your facts.

Don't think that only ignorant people will read your article or book and will take every word you write as truth... or that your readers aren't armed with an internet connection and Google. 

10. Insert naked Putin photos in your article.

Enough is enough! Putin's PR team may thank you, but your readers will not. I might have been guilty of this myself, but I'll stop doing it.

It's not easy to write about Russia and the FSU, and many good writers have committed many of these sins at one time or another. I know I have. But I think it's about time to put a stop all these mistakes if we want to have any meaningful debate about Russia and the FSU countries. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

More Pussy Riot nonsense, but this time they didn't spare Solzhenitsyn

Sure, we need more tabloid-style reporting to tell us that Pussy Riot is the new Solzhenitsyn and everyone should worship them:

Pussy Riot, the Solzhenitsyns of a new Russia? - The Globe and Mail

No. Just, no.

Please do not insult Solzhenitsyn.

Finally, just to be clear:

Pussy Riot ≠ Solzhenitsyn 

I also had the displeasure of having to address the fact that these idiots had to choose Singapore to make their first public appearance. Fortunately the locals didn't really care about them, and those who did expressed contempt. I don't think anyone was interested in starting another riot so soon after the last one we had, and because, well... we don't think authoritarianism is a bad thing. We do think, however, that religious and political turmoil that Pussy Riot has incited, is. Still, I had to address the issue on The Singapore-Russia Connection page. You can read the statement here:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Khodorkovsky ≠ Solzhenitsyn

I think whatever I have wanted to say has already been said about Khodorkovsky, so this post will mostly just be a footnote.

I guess one solution is for Russia to have more visible, credible dissidents so at least the ignorant portion of the West can at least notice them. (Or is it just the West's fault for not noticing any?)

Pussy Riot, Berezovsky, Navalny, and Khodorkovsky are not true dissidents. They are perhaps some of the most self-serving people in Russia.

They are not heroic individuals who deserve to share this title with Solzhenitsyn.

You can read my angry rant from my earlier post about how the West and Russia consider different people to be dissidents and whistleblowers and you can see why I am so disgusted by the fact that certain people think Khodorkovsky as the "second Solzhenitsyn" . It's not just "inappropriate and impolite", it's degrading and extremely insulting to the memory of Solzhenitsyn.

Finally, just to be clear:
Khodorkovsky  Solzhenitsyn 

Interfax: Comparing Khodorkovsky with Solzhenitsyn is inappropriate – top Russian senator | Johnson's Russia List
MOSCOW. Dec 24 (Interfax) – Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, has advised against comparing former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was pardoned by the Russian president on December 20 and flew to Berlin immediately after his release from prison, with Soviet writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Matviyenko described as a prominent public figure.

“Solzhenitsyn was a person who did a great deal without politicizing the situation. He was a true fighter for human rights, freedom and equality. Solzhenitsyn was a great patriot of his Motherland. He was recognized by all people. And comparing Khodorkovsky with Solzhenitsyn is inappropriate and impolite,” she told reporters.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Again! So-called "dissidents" are lauded in the West

Rant on these pseudo-dissidents who were just granted amnesty coming up soon. Maybe after Christmas. I'm just annoyed and irked enough to post a short update about what I am generally feeling about the whole thing.