Russian Constitution

A respected writer-journalist mentioned Article 38 of the Constitution recently. I’ve read the Russian Constitution but truthfully if you asked about Article 38 I’d normally be clueless. Its not something one carries along to pass the time on flights or use as a bedtime story at night.

Perhaps I should. The observation prompted a check and sure enough, Article 38, Section 3 says very clearly…”Able-bodied children over 18 years of age shall take care of disabled parents.”

Well pardon me for being so bold, but that isn’t exactly “cradle to grave” socialism, unless I have missed something. The last time I seriously looked at the Constitution was a couple months ago when the “31” protests (Article 31 guarantees free speech and freedom of assembly) were at the top of the news.

Related, and I’ll leave this one for the reader to determine as to whether it belongs in the “odd” or “end” catagory: President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin and the Duma seem to agree that health care costs are out of hand. There was a lot of angst in the Kremlin during the “Obamacare” debates in Washington as the Kremlin is looking at methods to move towards a more market driven system, with the goal of saying goodbye to socialized medical care in a managed transition over time. (You may have noticed that everything in Russia is “managed,” from health care to democracy.)

But wait, there’s more! This autumn there was no shortage of discussion taking place in the Duma (Parliment) about the cost of education. The Russian Constitution guarantees free public education for levels from “Children’s Garden” (Kindergarden) to high school graduation (11th grade). With the annual average salary of around $600 per family across the country, it seems that parents are less than happy about the extra fees required of student families.

What fees, inquiring minds wish to know? Thanks for asking. There are fees for all sorts of things from extra care after school (tutoring and academies) to uniforms and payments for school security guards. Ranging in some areas upwards of $100, the average salary for parents doesn’t go very far when children are involved.

Most schools provide a free lunch which I should point out proves that just when you were convinced that there “is no such thing as a free lunch,” leave it to the Russians to step in and prove that old saying to be wrong! Some schools provide free breakfast too, I’m told. So there.

Moving on (we don’t need a .org), did you hear the analogy about life in Russia as compared to taking a ride on a bus? Okay, here we go:
Q: How’s life in Russia?
A: Like a bus trip, one comrade is driving and all the other comrades are holding on for dear life!

Here is another one:
Q: What does a Russian bride get on her wedding night that is long and hard?
A: A new last name.  

Finally, and this question has always been puzzling: In a land where there is lots of snow and very cold temperatures this time of year, why do young Russian women bundle up to the hilt by layering multiple blouses and sweaters, the heaviest possible winter coat with a sash around the neck to protect the throat, tall leather high heeled boots, and a thick hat with ear warmers…yet still wear miniskirts in winter?

If you have an answer to that or any of the other probing and thoughful inquiries raised on this post, I’d love to hear from you.

Will he run?

Whether inquiring about Dmitry Medvedev or Vladimir Putin, that is an oft asked question these days.

Yes, is my ready answer.

No matter who ends up on the ballot for United Russia (the ruling party), both men are actively running. Already.

They’ll most likely settle the question before the election becomes heated, not as if the question isn’t already generating sufficient heat behind the scenes. Both are jockeying for position and at least for now careful not to step on the other’s toes–too hard.

They’ve been associates for decades and have worked together in various capacities during that time. But Russia is maturing to the point of making a choice: will it continue to be a “managed democracy” where leaders are pre-chosen by powerful Oligarchs in the shadows with the public’s stamp of approval only after the candidates been selected, or will Russia begin to emerge as a flourishing democracy?

That will be the real question in the next election cycle and Russians know it. The only two questions of import are:
1- Does the average Ivan feel a vested personal interest in the outcome, that his life will improve if his candidate is elected?

2- Does Ivan on the street feel his vote really counts, that his mark behind the curtain in the voting booth can positively impact Russia’s future?

Those are intertwinned yet separate issues. If the answer to either or both is yes, then Vladimir Putin will have a difficult time laying claim to the top spot no matter how many Oligarchs give their blessing. Knowing this, Mr. Putin is intent on grabbing his share of publicity. “Out of sight is out of mind” has never been more true than in the world of politics and so the Prime Minister is making preparations for the ninth annual live radio call-in show with the public in December. While the exact date has not yet been announced, state-controlled Rossia One and Rossia-24 television channels and Mayak and Radio Russia radio stations have already been given marching orders to carry the show on their vast Russian networks.

Mr. Medvedev meanwhile has been consistently laying out a vision for a Russia that looks far more democratic than today and a nation that would allow Ivan on the street much more of a say in Russia’s future. While he believes that needed reforms should be gradual, and in fairness so does Mr. Putin, the President would like for those reforms to come faster and more consistently.

President Medvedev is clearly aware of voter manipulation that has taken place in the recent past. At present only 5% of the country has access to electronic voting and opposition parties have legitimate concerns about the way hand ballots are counted. Electronic voting can be an expensive investment but the Medvedev budget includes plans to make meaningful improvements in those numbers.

During the Medvedev presidency, opposition parties are now guaranteed equal access to state-run media at both the federal and regional levels, a request to the president by representatives of opposition parties. Mr. Medvedev has authorized the access and is now taking on the federal electoral commissions that are responsible to monitor the implementation of these guarantees. The president has ordered that equal media access be accounted for in “real time” as measured in hours, minutes and even seconds of airtime, not only in simple declarations of compliance.

A serious point of departure between Misters Putin and Medvedev is the debate on whether opposition parties should also benefit from equal rights to use various premises for meetings and campaigning. Mr. Medvedev has stepped up his campaign for these reforms, causing some tension between the President and Prime Minister.

Another important change during the current presidential administration is that the opposition is guaranteed certain senior positions in regional parliaments. Also, the number of signatures of party supporters required for registering to participate in elections has been reduced and the threshold for allowing party representatives into all levels of parliament has been lowered to five percent of the vote.

These changes have not come easily. Mr. Medvedev introduced a package of election reforms to the Duma (Parliament) in early 2009 and it’s been a slugfest through the end of 2010. But the reforms mentioned have been won. Hopefully these changes will translate into real wins for Russian voters and those in the loyal opposition.

In remarks yesterday the president reflected on his first term by saying, I believe that political reforms should not result in chaos and the paralysis of democratic institutions; as I have stressed on numerous occasions, they must strengthen, not destroy, democracy. Therefore in the article Go Russia!, which I wrote last year, I described the method and style of these reforms: reforms must be gradual, but steady.

Our democracy is imperfect and we are absolutely aware of this. But we are still at the beginning of the road. The most important thing is that we are not standing still: we are going forward.

Leaving Katya

Leaving Katya is the title of a book by Paul Greenberg.

 Many days of my week are spent traveling in the immediate region and rather than waste the couple of hours between destinations I often read. Some reading is professional but some is for personal enjoyment too and after allowing Leaving Katya to sit on a bookshelf for years, last week I threw it in a briefcase and have managed to consume it in small chunks, a chapter or two at a time.

Leaving Katya is Greenberg’s own sad story: the story of an American man (who in the book is called Daniel) a young American who goes to St Petersburg to study in the closing days of the Soviet Union. The girl, a Russian university student named Ekaterina, falls in love with the American student but quickly identifies, and tells him in blunt terms, that he possesses a very weak character.

But she loves him anyway. For those unfamiliar with Slavic names, Ekaterina is a formal Russian name, a “saint name” as commonly assigned the vast majority of Russian babies, on the basis of her day of birth which cooresponds to the Orthodox saint who died (their “heavenly birthday”) on that same day or the day closest to it. Ekaterina is in English terms, “Katherine” and often shortened to “Kate” or “Katya” (but never “Kathy” as we would do in the West).

Katya was not religious, nor was her family. Daniel was Jewish but neither he or his family was religious so those types of considerations never entered into the courtship phase their relationship.

The book is a good read for those who would like to understand some of the challenges of life when married to a woman from the former Soviet Union. Given the changes from Soviet governance to baby steps in democracy, Daniel decides to return home to New York and takes various jobs in finance before finding more steady employment in TV media production. Not longer thereafter Katya arrives in New York and soon they become married.

The problems which they faced while simply living together mounted rapidly after a simple civil wedding ceremony. For starters, Daniel agreed to marry Katya on a spur of the moment decision (remember the weak character) and after paying for the filing fees had to borrow money from his brother for her wedding ring and wedding documents.

Their marriage is a recipe for disaster from the start. Soon separated, Katya decides to leave (unannounced) to go west to Utah and join the Mormons. The passive-aggressive Daniel at first slides into depression, then on a whim takes a job back in Russia, buying financially strapped ex-Soviet television stations for American media investors.

Daniel reunites with his in-laws who attempt to lovingly include him in their family. Katya’s parents know their daughter very well and counseled Daniel that she still loves him (she did) and that she would someday return. But both Papa and Mama also understood his weak and indecisive character and warned Daniel that he needed to mature in order to handle her strong character.

They were right. Katya returned and the two enjoyed a brief reunion in New York. She loved him very much and confided that she had loved him pretty much after their very first meetings on the University campus back in St Petersburg. The weak character in Daniel found that to be a profound revelation. But not quite profound enough to save him from himself.

Understanding more of his own character, he undertook a short but unsuccessful attempt to reform and mature. The story ends with Daniel handing Katya a return ticket to Russia after asking her to sign papers for an uncontested divorce.

She loved him and wished him no harm, so she signed.

Perhaps the saddest moment in the book comes in the next to last chapter. At this point readers undoubtedly are shouting at him to “grow up man! You have a beautiful and loving wife and you don’t deserve her! She wants to stay and has given you every opportunity to keep her, even at the airport, so “man up!”

With airline attendants urging her to heed the final boarding call for the Aeroflot flight from New York, Katya lingers until the very last moment, hoping that Daniel would have a change of heart. Her final words before turning to quietly slip down the jetway were “Well, some people aren’t supposed to have families.”

I found myself so angry at Daniel that I had to put the book down and glanced around the plane to see if my state of agitation had been noticed by other passengers. Greenberg is a master at telling his story.

It is at times enjoyable, often situationally funny, but conclusively a sad story. This is the kind of book that forces one to think and evaluate your own character.

The Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Katya-Paul-Greenberg/dp/0399148353

Good news for the “31” groups!

“31” is the term for groups which hold protests for freedom of speech across Russia each month which ends in 31 days. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had pushed through the Russian Duma (parliment) a bill which introduced amendments to the Federal Law On Rallies, Meetings, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets. The bill was passed by the State Duma on 22 October  and approved by the Federation Council on 27 October.

Many expected a supposedly “obedient” President Medvedev to sign the bill into law. An increasingly independent minded Mr. Medvedev however had other ideas and voted the bill.

President Medvedev while at the Caspian Sea Summit.

In his veto he sent sent a letter to Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov and State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov saying, the Federal Law regulates the organisation and holding of public protests involving the transport infrastructure, including vehicles. In my opinion, the bill contains provisions that hamper the constitutional rights of citizens to hold rallies, meetings, demonstrations, marches and pickets.

The President expressed his disagreement with the amendment toughening penalties for violations of the law on protests. However, he agreed with the need to introduce amendments clarifying the Federal Law.

The G20 Summit in Seoul

Normally placed near the centre, it seems as if the Europeans are anticipating a move to the "right" for a certain US President.

Perhaps most curious in Seoul was the absence of rapport between Presidents Obama and Medvedev. On the heels of a crushing Congressional defeat, Obama may not believe that his time to govern is perhaps limited.

European leaders however understood the election message.

So much for the idea that Europeans don’t understand American style governance. Therefore it seems pointless to plan or cooperate with a lame duck. Better to wait for his replacement and gauge the mood of American voters at that time.

Russian President Medvedev enters the hall where the G20 nations will meet.

Because of time constraints, Russian President Medvedev limited his working meetings on the summit’s sidelines to discussing issues of mutual interest with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Farewell to Viktor Chernomyrdin

Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin (Виктор Степанович Черномырдин) the longest serving Prime Minister of Russia (1992–1998) and Acting President of Russia for a day in 1996 died on 3 November 2010. Mr. Chernomyrdin was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery beside his wife Valentina, who died in March this year.

The funeral of Viktor Chernomyrdin was broadcast on all national Russian TV channels.

A funeral service was performed at the Novodevichy Convent’s Assumption Cathedral by Metropolitan Juvenaly of Krutitsy and Kolomna. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia said in his words at the service that Viktor Chernomyrdin lived for the people’s good and always acted in accordance with his conscience.

Chernomyrdin (9 April 1938 – 3 November 2010) was the founder and first chairman of Russian energy giant, Gazprom and was a key figure in Russian politics in the 1990s as Russia transitioned to a free market economy. In the year 2001 to 2009 he was Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine

The former prime minister was well known for some of his offbeat expressions. Perhaps the most famous being Хотели как лучше, а получилось как всегда” (We wanted the best, but it turned out as always) in reference to Russian economic reforms.

Chernomyrdin was appointed as Russia’s special representative during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. He was able to persuade Slobodan Milosevich to agree to an armistice and allow Kosovo to be placed under control of the UN.

Russians on the US elections…

 “The train goes from socialism to communism” was a popular phrase in the former Eastern bloc as illustrated by this photo. You can see the phrase, Поезд идет от социализм к коммунизм (the train goes from socialism to communism) on the illustrated chart with a little train climbing upward. If I had a dollar from each Russian who has expressed relief about the recent US election results, I’d be nearly wealthy by now.

But of course there is that other expression (Russians are such diehard capitalists these days!) that says, много денег не бывает (“one can never have enough money.”)