Books on Russia
Update No: 390 (26/10/13)
Summary: Russia is baring its teeth over the Greenpeace demonstration against
Arctic oil exploration, putting the squeeze on Lithuania ahead of trade talks
between the EU and six former soviet states and losing its supremacy in oil
production. At home, anti-immigration riots threaten to further fracture
Russia's multi-ethnic society.
The Kremlin is attempting to show the international community that it won't
tolerate criticism and breaches of its territory by detaining members of
Greenpeace who were protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic. On 19
September, Russia arrested, at gunpoint, 28 activists and two freelance
journalists who were aboard the Dutch-registered Greenpeace vessel “Arctic
Sunrise” during a protest at Prirazlomnaya oil rig, and has charged all of them
with piracy, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Then, on 9 October, Russian investigators said they had found drugs aboard the
ship and would press new charges against those being held. Greenpeace Russia
finds the accusations absurd. "The Investigative Committee 'found' narcotics. We
are waiting for it to find an atomic bomb and a striped elephant," it said on
Twitter. "This is possible in Russia these days and can hardly surprise
Russia's Investigative Committee said morphine and poppy straw, a ingredient for
heroin and opiates, were found on the ship and that there was also equipment
that could potentially be used for military purposes on board. Greenpeace lawyer
Alexander Mukhortov said that the ship's American captain legally kept morphine
in his safe for medical purposes and that equipment that could have “military
purposes” was merely a marine sonar used for navigation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin conceded that the activists were clearly not
pirates but said that their protest did violate the law. The seriousness of the
incident and subsequent detention of the activists has upset Moscow's
international ties, and the Netherlands has launched legal proceedings against
the Kremlin, saying that the detention of those on the Arctic Sunrise is
Last year, Greenpeace International Director Kumi Naidoo climbed onto the same
oil rig platform at Prirazlomnaya (owned by Gazprom) without repercussions. The
harsher treatment by this time around is widely seen as an attempt to scare off
any future protests and give a clear signal that Russia will not stand for
breaches of its security or criticism of its policies.
But perhaps of greater concern for the Kremlin is Europe's threat to sue Gazprom
over its pricing. On October 3, the European Union's antitrust chief, Joaquin
Almunia, said the EU is preparing to charge the company with abusing its
dominant position in central and eastern Europe, potentially landing Moscow with
a fine of up to $15 billion.
Gazprom supplies a quarter of Europe's gas and the comments by Almunia come
after a year-long investigation, part of which included raids of several Gazprom
offices and those of its partners in central and eastern Europe. Almunia asserts
that Gazprom may have prevented the free flow of gas across the EU and imposed
unfair prices on its customers by linking the price of its gas to that of oil.
Speaking at a conference in Lithuania, Almunia didn't provide details of the
EU's next move. "It would be premature to anticipate when the next steps would
be taken in this investigation, but we have now moved to the phase of preparing
a statement of objections," he said.
However, a source told Reuters that the Commission planned to take action by the
end of the year. The European Commission's bid to sue Gazprom is likely to fuel
tensions between Europe and Russia – relations are already strained over the
former's plans to build closer trade ties with six former Soviet republics,
including Ukraine. A crucial meeting on proposed free-trade agreements between
the EU and those countries will be held in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, this
month, and Moscow has been putting the squeeze on since the summer: the Kremlin
has threatened to raise the price that Ukraine pays for its gas if it signs the
EU trade agreement and launched a trade war with most of the other post-Soviet
nations involved (see New Nations, Russia, September). Having banned the import
of Moldovan wine, Georgian mineral water and Ukrainian chocolate, Russia has now
moved to suspend imports of dairy products from Lithuania.
Moscow has long been attempting to build up its own trade alliance with former
Soviet republics, starting with a Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and
Belarus, and working towards a “Eurasian Economic Union”. It doesn't want its
neighbours – particularly Ukraine, which is viewed by some Russians as part of
Russia – to fall out of its orbit by signing free-trade and political
association agreements with the EU. Lithuania, which joined the EU in 2004, of
which it currently holds the presidency and is hosting FSU-EU trade talks this
month, exported dairy products worth $193 million to Russia last year and the
import ban is hitting the economy hard.
However, Russia may be losing its muscle, especially where energy dominance is
concerned. On October 11, the International Energy Agency said that the United
States will become the world's largest oil producer next year - overtaking
Russia - thanks to its shale oil boom. The announcement came hot on the heels of
an estimate by the US government that China will likely overtake it as the
world's largest oil importer now that the shale gas revolution has reduced the
need for the US to obtain energy from elsewhere.
The US resurgence as an oil producer is already reshuffling the cards in the
game of world energy diplomacy. Major producers such as Russia are now forced to
invest billions of dollars into new pipelines towards Asia as they can no longer
rely on demand from the West (see New Nations, Russia, October 2013).
At home, Russia is failing to project a vision of harmony. On October 13,
anti-immigration demonstrators, some chanting racist slogans, vandalised shops
and other businesses known for employing migrant workers, in the southern
Biryulyovo area. The incident was sparked by the killing of a young ethnic
Russian, Twenty-five-year-old Yegor Shcherbakov was stabbed while walking home
with his girlfriend. The murder has been widely blamed on a man from the
Caucasus and locals say that the police haven't done enough to bring the
perpetrator to justice. It's widely felt that the law isn't protecting “white”
Russians and some of those who demonstrated chanted “white power”.
The rioting last month over a racially charged incident was the worst seen in
Moscow since December 2010, when several thousand young people rioted right
outside the Kremlin. Yet there are frequent outbreaks of violence in Russian
cities between members of the Slavic majority and those from, or descended from,
the Muslim Caucasus and Central Asia.
Russia has a demographic problem and needs migrant workers to keep its economy
afloat. Putin has frequently warned of the dangers of ethnic and religious
violence and he reminded the nation in September that it particularly needed
migrant labourers in industries such as construction. But with the ongoing
conflict in the Caucasus, and a steady stream of migrants who have no choice but
to work in Russia because the opportunities don't exist at home, the problem is
likely to get worse –continuing to fracture society – unless the police can be
seen to be operating in a fair, professional manner.