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April 15 2014 4:15 PM

Cossacks Return to the World Stage

Many of the pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine are being referred to in the media—or at least are referring to themselves—as Cossacks. Between this and the role Cossacks played in policing the Sochi Olympics—notably their filmed attack on members of Pussy Riot—the Cossacks have made a fairly dramatic return to the world stage this year.

To non-Russians, this reads as a bit antiquated—as though “Janissaries” or “Hussars” were suddenly playing a significant role in modern warfare. But the roots of the Cossack revival have been apparent for a while now.


Not quite an ethnic or linguistic group—though they are nearly all Orthodox Christians—but more than just a military unit, the Cossacks trace their roots back to nomadic groups—either escaped serfs or descendants of Tatar tribes, depending on which account you read—who spread throughout southeastern Russia and Ukraine during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Though once openly rebellious against Tsarist rule, they were integrated over time into the Russian military and played a key role in securing the Russian frontier, “pacifying” the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus, and beating back Napoleon’s forces. In Russian culture they play a role similar to cowboys and were subjects for writers including Gogol, Tolstoy, and Pushkin.

Outside of Russia, they’re better known for leading Tsarist-era anti-Semitic pogroms.

Having mostly fought on the side of the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the Russian civil war, the Cossacks were treated brutally under the Soviet Union—tens of thousands were killed or deported under the Bolsheviks’ “de-Cossackization” campaign—however, they’ve made a cultural and political comeback during the post-Soviet era.

It began with Boris Yeltsin signing a number of decrees recognizing special rights, including the right to bear arms, for Cossack groups, but their re-emergence has accelerated under Vladimir Putin, who has made them something of a symbol of his conservative nationalist ideology. In 2005 Putin signed a bill allowing registered Cossack organizations to select members of special Cossack units in the Russian military and giving himself the right to appoint Cossack generals.

Cossack military schools have been formed. Cossack patrols have been policing cities in 19th-century military garb, including Moscow. In Krasnodar, home to Sochi, 1,000 Cossacks were put on the government payroll ahead of the Winter Olympics.

They’ve also at times served as conservative cultural enforcers, policing ethnic minorities from southern Russia and leading campaigns against controversial artwork including Pussy Riot and a staged reading of Lolita in St. Peterburg. 

Putin has promoted the use of Cossacks as a police force, saying they’re often more efficient than the official police. Critics charge that they’re also less accountable than the official police and that the modern day Cossacks, are hostile to non-Russian ethnic groups, and have little actual connection to the fabled warriors of yore.

Be that as it may, quite a few people have enthusiastically embraced the identity. In 2010 Cossacks were counted as a separate ethnicity for the first time, and about 650,000 Russians declared themselves members of the group. Cossack leaders say there may be as many as 2.5 million worldwide. But not all governments have been as enthusiastic about the Cossack revival as Russia. As Simon Shuster of Time recently wrote, things are a bit different in Ukraine:

Ukraine’s succession of leaders, regardless of whether they leaned toward Russia or the West, have treated the local Crimean Cossacks with great suspicion. Their commanders in Crimea have spread militant notions of Slavic unity among their young cadets. All of that has attracted scrutiny from Ukraine’s security services in recent years. Under the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russia-leaning leader who was deposed in a revolution last month, Crimea’s leading Cossacks were investigated for training paramilitary groups and speaking out in support of separatism, both of which are illegal in Ukraine. Some of them have had their Cossack training camps raided by police in search of weapons. Others have been deported to Russia on charges of inciting ethnic hatred.

The annexation of Crimea presents local Cossacks with the opportunity to win the favored status that their cohorts in Russia have been enjoying for years. The self-identified Cossacks taking part in the takeovers in eastern Ukraine may be hoping for the same.

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April 15 2014 1:24 PM

A Deadly Decade for Environmentalists

According to a report released today by the London-based NGO Global Witness, at least 908 environmental activists have been killed over the last decade. That number is comparable to the 913 journalists killed in the course of their work in the same period and is likely on the low side—reporting is inconsistent in many countries, and full data for 2013 hasn’t yet been collected. 2012 was deadliest year ever for environmentalists, with 147 killed.

According to the report, more than two-thirds of these killings took “took place in the context of conflicts over the ownership, control and use of land,” reflecting the dark side of rapid development in many emerging economies.


The most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists is Brazil, with 448 killings over the last 10 years. According to the report, “this can be attributed to Brazil’s land ownership patterns, which are among the most concentrated and unequal in the world.” The country’s rapid economic growth has frequently brought powerful business interests into conflict with small and medium-sized farms as well as indigenous groups, often with deadly consequences.

To be fair, the high totals from Brazil may also be a result of the fact that the country has a relatively robust civil society and media sector, so killings in the context of land and environmental disputes are more likely to be reported. Some of the best-known cases involving the killing of environmentalists have been in the country, including José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo—two Amazon activists shot by gunmen in 2011. There was also the murder of American-born nun Dorothy Stang in 2005, and rubber tapper Chico Mendes—since proclaimed Patron of the Brazilian Environment by the government—in 1988.

These cases were unusual in that they prompted national and worldwide outrage and that in all three, perpetrators were eventually convicted.

Globally, the report found that only 10 killers of environmental activist have been conficted over the last decade.

April 15 2014 12:24 PM

How the Ukraine Crisis Could Work to Iran’s Advantage

European countries have made it clear in recent weeks that in light of the most serious test of EU-Russia relations in years, they’re looking to reduce their dependence on imports of natural gas from Russia.

As the Economist noted a few days ago, “an immediate casualty is likely to be Russia’s South Stream pipeline,” which was intended to bring Russian gas through the Black Sea to Europe, circumventing Ukraine. That’s good news for projects like the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, due for completion in 2018, which would bring gas form the Caucasus via Turkey, cutting Russia out of the equation altogether. Or if the current thaw in diplomatic relations continues, it could be good news for Iran. Home to the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves, the sector has been undeveloped after years of sanctions.


Perhaps reading the writing on the wall, Iranian Trade Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh said yesterday that "Iran should be considered a reliable partner for natural gas supplies to Europe,” claiming that the government was looking into a pipeline to transport gas from southern Iran to Turkey.

The Ukraine crisis may also impact the ongoing international negotiations over the country’s nuclear program, where Moscow has traditionally been Iran’s primary backer. Russia’s delegate to the talks between Iran and the P5+1, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov, hinted last month that “We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes. …  But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.”

The P5+1 have, with fits and starts, showed signs of presenting a united front on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. Any division in the ranks is likely to be to Iran’s advantage in the talks going forward.

Russia and Iran have even been tentatively discussing a gas trade deal that the U.S. says would go against the terms of Iran’s interim nuclear agreement.

Iran and the U.S. are currently locked in a dispute over the U.S. decision not to grant a visa to Tehran’s pick for U.N. ambassador, a participant in the 1979 taking of hostages at the U.S. embassy. I have to imagine this would be a much bigger story, both for the media and on Capitol Hill, if Russia weren’t drawing everyone’s attention right now.

If Iran somehow comes out of this looking like a distant second on the list of states seen as threatening to the EU and U.S., and can maintain its relatively cordial relationship with Russia at the same time (the Iranian government has been studiously noncommittal in its statements on the crisis), it may turn out to be one of the unlikely winners of this mess. 

April 14 2014 3:53 PM

The Google Annexation

NPR notes an interesting recent change on Google Maps. Visitors to Google.Ru/Maps, the Russian edition of the site, now see the Crimean peninsula separated from the Ukrainian mainland by a sold line, implying an international border. On every other version of the site, however, there’s a dotted line implying that the border is disputed:


In a statement to ThinkProgress, the company said, “Google Maps makes every effort to depict disputed regions and features objectively. Our Maps product reflects border disputes, where applicable. Where we have local versions, we follow local regulations for naming and borders.”


According to the Independent, State Duma deputy and anti-opposition enforcer Alexander Sidyakin has called on the country’s "Federal Mass Media Inspection Service" to look into how the Russian versions of sites like Google, Bing, and Wikipedia are representing the territory.

A site as ubiquitous as Google Maps is inevitably going to get drawn into territorial disputes. It was criticized by the Israeli foreign ministry a few years ago for changing its designation from “Palestinian Territories” to “Palestine.” In the 2010 “Google Maps War,” a Nicaraguan official cited the site to justify a military incursion into disputed Costa Rican territory.

Unlike National Geographic’s unfortunate recent decision on Crimea, Google's marking of the territory as disputed seems like a fair compromise between recognizing Russia’s de facto control on the ground, and the fact that no other countries have formally recognized the annexation. But if it’s “disputed” in every other country in the world, it should be “disputed” in Russia too. 

April 14 2014 12:55 PM

Waiting for the Crackdown

We’ve now passed a deadline declared by the government in Kiev for pro-Russian separatists to leave the government buildings they occupied in several cities in the east of the country. The armed militants from the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk” have remained in place, but aside from sightings of a few helicopters,  Kiev’s promised “anti-terrorist” operation hasn’t materialized either.

It seems as though Ukraine is facing the highest risk of civil war and Russian intervention on the Ukrainian mainland since the crisis began. There don’t appear to be a whole lot of good options on the table for Ukraine’s government and its Western backers. An operation to restore control of the east—which would likely be carried out by the military as trust in the interior ministry troops who were strongly identified with former President Viktor Yanukovych is low—seems likely to spark a Russian incursion to “protect” the rights of ethnic Russians. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has tried to appease the seperatists demands, saying he would be open to a referendum on greater autonomy of Ukraine’s eastern regions, but that doesn’t seem to have swayed anyone on the ground in Donetsk.


Turchynov today called for U.N. peacekeepers to be deployed in the country, but given Russia’s veto on the Security Council, that seems like a non-starter.

Washington has been steadily targeting more individuals and companies for sanction, and reportedly has more measures in the works, but efforts have so far been hampered by the fact that European countries have been reluctant to go as far as the U.S. in sanctioning Russia, as well as the fact that Russia’s leaders seem for the most part not to care about the economic consequences of all of this.

Others in Washington, notably Sen. John McCain, have suggested providing weapons to the Ukrainian government. In Berlin today, an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry said, "Obviously we are looking at that as an option.”

But unless the U.S. is really going to put the full weight of its military might behind Kiev, this seems likely to only prolong the fighting without actually tipping the balance in favor of Ukraine’s dysfunctional military.

It’s still not a forgone conclusion that Russia is preparing a full invasion. A unified Ukraine with significant autonomy for the east and a significant political role for Russian-speaking Ukrainians still seems like a better outcome for Russia than a bloody civil war on its border. On the other hand, if the long-term goal is simply territorial expansion, Putin will probably never have a better opportunity than he has right now.

At the very least, Putin will come out of this demonstrating that the post-Soviet borders are no longer set in stone. Where they still exist, it is because he has deigned not to challenge them.

As one paramilitary fighter occupying a government building in Slaviansk told Reuters, "The borders between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are artificial and we are here to take them away."

April 14 2014 10:26 AM

Russia Now Spends More of Its Wealth on the Military Than the United States

In light of the increasingly tense situation in eastern Ukraine, the most eye-grabbing fact in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s newly updated military spending database may be that for the first time in nearly a decade, Russia is spending a greater percentage of its GDP on its military than the United States. Russia’s defense spending increased by 4.8 percent last year and has increased more than a third under a military modernization program undertaken following the 2008 Georgia war.

Elsewhere in the world, amid rising tensions with Iran, Saudi Arabia is now the Middle East’s pre-eminent military power with the fourth-highest military spending in the world. China increased its spending 7.4 percent to $188 billion.


Algeria, where autocratic President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, already in power for 15 years, will almost certainly win a fourth term this week, became the first African country with the dubious achievement of spending more than $10 billion on its military. Oil-rich Angola boosted spending by 36 percent as well.

Overall, military spending around the world actually fell, though every region of the world increased its spending except for North America, Western Europe, and Oceania. The overall fall was driven largely by reductions from the United States caused by “the end of the war in Iraq, the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan, and the effects of automatic budget cuts passed by the US Congress in 2011.” The U.S. still accounts for 37 percent of the world’s military spending.  European countries cut back as well.

Convergence is certainly too strong a word—there’s still a long gap between the United States and the two superpowers that follow it, and between those three countries and everyone else. But the numbers show developing countries in something of a race to catch up. 

April 11 2014 4:34 PM

Italy Asks for Help in Dealing With “Biblical Exodus” of Migrants

Italy is currently dealing with what one official called a “biblical exodus,” as nearly 6,000 migrants have been intercepted and picked up by the navy, on boats from Libya,  in past four days. The migrants come from countries including Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Mali, and Senegal, and the recent uptick is likely the result of warming weather.

More than 15,000 have reached Italy this year, and this year’s influx may rival the Arab Spring year of 2011, when a record 64,000 reached the country’s shores. Hundreds of thousands more are though to be waiting in Libya to make the dangerous journey in rickety boats. The Italian navy began an operation to spot migrant boats in transit after two disastrous shipwrecks off the island of Lampedusa last year that killed 350 people. 


The death rate of the Africa-EU crossing is about 10 times what it is at the U.S.-Mexico border, and some critics say the Italian navy's operation has actually made things worse by encouraging people to undertake the journey in less seaworthy boats with the expectation they will be rescued.

Italy feels, with some justification, that it's shouldering a major burden on behalf of the rest of Europe. More than half of the people who enter Europe do so through Italy, most planning to eventually make their way to Northern Europe. Already the largest recipient of EU aid for migration, the Italian government, which takes over the EU’s rotating chairmanship in June, argues it needs more funds to address the problem.

At the same time, human rights groups have criticized the grim conditions inside the camps set up for new arrivals—26 migrants underwent a gruesome hunger strike to protest the conditions at a holding facility in Rome in January—and critics say the issue has only become an overwhelming crisis “because of the bad management of Italy's asylum system.”

Italy is currently in the midst of a plan to move migrants to camps throughout the country so no one region becomes overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the influential Lega Nord party has argued for years that migrants should be barred from entering entirely.

The migration of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe is one of the major stories of the last few years. And as long as the economic gulf between Europe and the countries across the Mediterranean continues to grow, and political conditions in North Africa remain unstable, the issue likely isn’t going anywhere.

April 11 2014 3:13 PM

Syria’s War Economy

Even at an annual growth rate of 5 percent, which seems extremely optimistic, it would take Syria 30 years to get back to its pre-war GDP, according to a recent analysis by Jihad Yazigi, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who writes about the country’s economy on his website, the Syria Report.

After three years of war, the country’s poverty and unemployment rates are both over 50 percent, deficits have increased by over 10 times, and foreign exchange reserves are dwindling.


According to Yazigi’s analysis, Syria’s economy has fractured in two. In regime-controlled areas, basic services and goods and still largely available and salaries are being paid. Perversely, the fact that the country’s population has been reduced by 15 percent though refugee flight and war casualties as well as the fact that those who are left have lower purchasing power, makes it easier for the government to keep everyone paid and maintain services like water, electricity, and health care.

In rebel-controlled and disputed areas, it’s a different story: Between 30 and 40 percent of the country no longer possesses basic services.

Yazigi writes of the emergence of a parallel “war economy”: “As security has collapsed, an informal economy comprising looting, kidnapping, and smuggling has become an important source of income. Entirely new business networks, often illicit, are emerging and new groups and individuals are being empowered at the expense of the traditional business class.”

He singles out the country’s northeastern region, home to significant agricultural and energy resources, which has now “developed an economic life of its own with the development of a particularly buoyant oil trade and the enrichment of a new class of tribal and rebel leaders.”

The more troubling aspect of this, he writes, is that “significant sectors of the economy now live and thrive off the conflict, creating a growing pool of individuals and groups that have no interest in seeing the conflict end.”

While it will take Syria decades to recover from the human and economic costs of this war, there are, as always, some people who are making out very well.  

April 11 2014 1:39 PM

The World’s Murder Capitals

The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime released its 2013 Global Study on Homicide this week. Overall, the number of murders in the world is relatively stable—even declining slightly—but the most striking finding in the report is how geographically concentrated homicide is become.

According to the report, a group of countries—all of them in either the Americas or Africa—accounting for just 11 percent of the global population are the location of 46 percent of the world’s homicides.


Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate at 90.4 murders per 100,000 people, and it’s not even close. Venezuela is next with 53.7. Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Jamaica all have rates around 40.

The Americas overtook Africa as the region with the world’s most murders in this year’s report, accounting for 40 percent of the world’s homicides, though that's a somewhat misleading figure as there are wide geographical variations among and within countries in the region. The rates were driven largely by gang and drug violence. The Americas were also the only region where shooting accounted for the majority of homicides. 

The world’s safest country, in terms of homicide, is tiny Liechtenstein, which didn’t have any murders in 2012, but there are a number of countries, especially in Europe and East Asia, with rates lower than 1 per 100,000.

Homicides are concentrated by gender as well. Men accounted for 95 percent of the perpetrators and 79 percent of the victims of homicide in 2012, a rate that is “consistent across countries and regions, irrespective of the homicide typology or weapon used.” Overall, one in seven homicide victims in 2012 were men between the ages of 15 and 29 living in the Americas.

The one encouraging bit of news for Central America in the report was that a controversial truce negotiated in 2012 between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, halved the country’s homicide rate, which had been the second-highest in the world. Unfortunately, this week brought news that the rate of killings has since increased again.  

April 10 2014 5:39 PM

Introducing Mrs. Modi 

BJP leader and likely future prime minister Narendra Modi has based much of his personal appeal on his humble beginnings as the son of a tea seller who carried hot kettles up and down the cars of trains in his native state of Gujarat—in case you didn’t get the message his party opened tea stalls as a campaign stunt and he brought a tea seller with him to file his candidacy—as well as his current ascetic bachelor lifestyle. But both images were complicated a bit this week by his first public admission that he has legally been married since he was 17.

Modi was wed in an arranged marriage to a woman named Jashodaben, then 18, who now goes by the name Jashobaden Chimanlal Modi—they had been betrothed when he was 3—but he abandoned the marriage and his own family just a few weeks later, leaving to travel the country on his own. The two haven’t seen each other since.

The existence of Jashobaden hasn’t exactly been a secret, or even an open secret. Now a retired schoolteacher living on a pension of about $233 a month, she was discovered by reporters in 2002 living in a one-room apartment, and she’s been giving interviews to curious reporters for years. But likely due to advice from his legal advisers, this week saw Modi’s first public acknowledgment that he’s married, when he put her name down as his spouse in his nomination form to run for parliament.

As the Times of India notes, he had “left the column blank in the last four state assembly elections in 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2012.”

Modi has, in the past, used the fact that he doesn't have family dependent on him as evidence of his incorruptibility. The fact that he actually has a wife living in near-poverty doesn't exactly bolster that argument. Interestingly, given Modi’s past as a militant Hindu nationalist and accusations of complicity in violence against Muslims, Jashodaben taught in a predominantly Muslim school

The acknowledgment may prompt some more scrutiny of Modi’s early years, which seem to have gotten the full George Washington cherry tree treatment from his supporters. (According to one story, as a boy he swam alone through a crocodile-infested lake to reach a submerged temple.)

Jashodaben doesn’t seem bitter and says she supports Modi’s candidacy, but the picture she painted of their brief relationship in an interview with Indian Express isn’t exactly flattering:

Did he ever tell you he was leaving you or quitting the marriage?
He told me once that “I will be travelling across the country and will go as and where I please; what will you do following me?” When I came to Vadnagar to live with his family, he told me “why did you come to your in-laws’ house when you are still so young, you must instead focus on pursuing your studies”. The decision to leave was my own and there was never any conflict between us. He never spoke to me about the RSS or about his political leanings. When he told me he would be moving around the country as he wished, I told him I would like to join him. However, on many occasions when I went to my in-laws’ place, he would not be present and he stopped coming there. He used to spend a lot of time in RSS shakhas. So I too stopped going there after a point and I went back to my father’s house.

Still, the revelation seems unlikely to sway the election, which began this week and will continue until May. He has a healthy lead in the polls and if accusations of complicity in an sectarian massacre that resulted in 1,000 deaths didn’t derail his rise to power, the fact that he ran out on a two-week relationship when he was 17 probably won’t. (And of course, Modi won’t be the only world leader whose marital status is a bit ambiguous.) 

But assuming Modi wins this month, it will be interesting to see how life changes for the suddenly rediscovered Mrs. Modi.