Richard Foltz – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 28 Feb 2022 02:41:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Chekhov’s Pistol: or, Putin’s All-Encompassing Security State Mon, 28 Feb 2022 05:06:27 +0000 Montreal (Special to Informed Comment) – Anton Chekhov famously advised young playwrights that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” For the past twenty years Vladimir Putin—a deeply paranoid megalomaniac who has by now completely isolated himself from his own people, to say nothing of the world as a whole—has been progressively diverting Russia’s considerable wealth towards the construction of an all-encompassing security state. Ever since the 2004 Beslan school massacre which provided the initial pretext for this redirection, the Russian President has been hanging pistols on the walls to the exclusion of any other national project.

This narrow channeling of the country’s resources has brought about a steady decline in living standards for ordinary citizens who are not fortunate enough to be employed in government ministries such as the MVD (Internal Affairs, which includes FBI-like functions), the security forces (the infamously unaccountable siloviki, including the FSB, the GRU, the FSO, and other organizations), the military, the police, or connected to oligarch-run business networks with ties to himself.

An FSB agent can expect to earn the ruble equivalent of $1,100 US per month and a police officer about $600-700, in addition to benefits such as housing assistance, free university education for family members, free or heavily discounted vacations, etc. A surgeon, meanwhile, might make $200-300 by working multiple jobs, while a teacher will have to struggle by on a measly $100 or less. Salaries for office workers fall somewhere in between. Generally speaking, any position worth having can only be obtained through nepotism, patronage networks, or bribery.

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A male with the requisite skills can sometimes find employment as a car mechanic or construction worker. Low-paying unskilled jobs include food service, private security, and retail sales. Those who own a car often work as unofficial taxi drivers. Some men, unable to find employment, try to survive by betting on sports events, while many others rely on the financial support of their wives or girlfriends who bring in money by working in beauty salons or engaging in informal business such as buying and selling clothes, cosmetics or household products. But without the necessary connections and a willingness to participate in corrupt, often criminal activities, it is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible for the average Russian to lead anything resembling a normal life. The cost of living in Russia—outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg which are world class cities and priced accordingly—is slightly less than in the West, but not by much. And given the much higher salaries in the aforementioned cities, the nationwide average of $660 US per month should be adjusted considerably downward for most regions.

As the ruble plummets, the cost of living goes up but salaries do not. Pensions barely cover the cost of monthly utilities. Social assistance, including bonuses for health workers exhausted by the COVID pandemic, gets diverted along the way into mysterious pockets without ever reaching those in need. Healthcare services are being steadily reduced and hospitals closed in the interest of “maximizing efficiency”. Putin constantly claims to be “operating within the framework of the law”, but the legal system in Russia is manipulated for the sole purpose of supporting and protecting the powerful.

Russia is a rich nation, yet its leadership has chosen not to invest that wealth in the development of the country but rather in the building up of a massive security apparatus which serves only the interests of the President and those close to him. The Russian state is a kleptocracy in the purest sense of the term, and for years its kleptocrats and their billions looted from the Russian people have been received with open arms by Western countries such as the UK, the US and Canada, all too willing to turn a blind eye and hand out residence permits and passports without having performed due diligence. Many of these same privileged Russians with their Western safety nets show nothing but contempt for their host countries in their Russian-language social media posts, praising Putin and insisting that life is Russia is as good or better than in Western countries, even—as our “oppressive” and “totalitarian” pandemic restrictions are claimed to demonstrate—that Russia is “more free”.

Ordinary Russians had no voice in the decision to launch an invasion of Ukraine, which was the longstanding personal obsession of a President most Russians do not support but are not free to oppose. Teenage conscripts, told they were being sent to participate in “exercises”, have been shocked to find themselves on a war front facing people they never considered their enemy. As our leaders wring their hands and bemoan the Ukrainians’ fate, they should also take a good look at their own roles in enabling Putin and his circle to build up the war machine that has only too naturally unleashed itself on the nearest and most convenient victim. The pistols could not hang indefinitely, and now they have been taken down and are being fired at thousands of innocent victims.

Free at Last! How my Electric Car let me Escape the clutches of Big Carbon and Mideast Oil Dictatorships Wed, 07 Oct 2020 04:03:11 +0000 Montreal (Special to Informed Comment) – As someone who regularly teaches courses on both Middle Eastern and environmental subjects, I have long been keenly aware of the double implications of participating in an economy that simultaneously destroys the planet while supporting human rights-abusing dictatorships. From the moment the first electric vehicles hit the market I felt the obligation to switch to that mode of transportation.

However, being privileged to live in a city with good public transport (Montreal) and typically using a car only for long journeys, I had to wait for the appearance of an EV with adequate range to meet my needs. The new Hyundai Kona seemed to fit the bill, and a week ago I finally took the plunge and got a Hyundai Kona.

As the previous owner of a Toyota Prius and a Honda Civic hybrid, I can say without hesitation that the Hyundai Kona is the most comfortable car I have ever owned, both in terms of its interior and its drivability.

It accelerates like a rocket, and the safety features are truly impressive. It steers you back into your lane if you wander, and slows down automatically if you approach the rear of another vehicle. It even suggests you take a coffee break if you have been on the road for a long time!

The EV model costs more than its gas-powered equivalent, but the data show that the cost is very much front-loaded, the high initial investment being offset over time by power and maintenance costs that are quite nominal. Even so, for me the decisive consideration was that since EVs are still priced beyond the means of many car-buyers, the fact that only increased demand will bring down the price means that those of us who can afford to buy an EV have a strong moral duty to do so.

Given that I now had the option to go electric, there was simply no way I was going to commit to continue paying into the criminal petroleum economy for the next ten years by buying a new gas-powered vehicle. Over 90% of Quebec’s power is produced by hydro-electricity, and it is a leader in wind energy, so that driving an electric car here really is a low-carbon enterprise.

Where I live, at least, range anxiety is wholly unjustified since there are currently over 2,000 charging stations all across Quebec, even in remote locations such as rural villages and national parks, and more are being installed every day. Still, I stop to recharge when the battery is still half full, since during the first week driving my new EV, mainly on highways, I noticed that my actual mileage is less than what was advertised. Still, on balance, and despite my initial sticker shock, I am now very comfortable with my decision.

I am proud to see that my province is leading North America in implementing the transition away from oil, with a firm commitment to EVs that includes not only a rapidly growing network of charging stations but also offers the most generous financial incentives anywhere on the continent: an $8,000 rebate on the purchase of any new EV, which is on top of the $5,000 offered by the Canadian federal government.

The car handles extremely well and feels quite solid on the road, unlike my Prius which always seemed ready to tip over on sharp curves. I have never been a fan of driving, but being behind the wheel of my new Kona is the closest it has ever felt to pleasurable. But when all is said and done, the true pleasure is the relief of knowing that I have, at long last and for the first time in my forty-three years of driving, forever broken the shackles that bound me to a destructive, exploitative system, stretching from dictatorial oil states to earth-wrecking Big Oil corporations, that I have always abhorred.


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2020 KONA electric | Explore the product | Hyundai Canada

The Fundamentalist Religion of the Market and COVID-19 Sat, 11 Apr 2020 04:01:06 +0000 Discussions on the role of religion in the contemporary world generally fail to take into consideration an argument advanced by David Loy more than twenty years ago: namely, that the dominant faith system practiced across the globe today is in fact that of so-called “free-market” capitalism, a self-serving ideology forcibly imposed by a worldwide plutocracy of psychopathic bullies and based upon a blind acceptance of premises and promises that are not only unproven but are in many cases–e.g., unlimited “growth” within a system of finite resources–demonstrably false. Will the current crisis, which has rapidly and devastatingly demonstrated the inability of our corporate greed-driven economy and its unprincipled political (and yes, religious) enablers to provide the kind of urgent response the world needs, lead to a reassessment of its unchallenged privilege to direct and determine the future of all humankind? Or will the spin doctors of power succeed in twisting our understanding of the crisis into an even deeper embracing of a system whose principle achievement has been to concentrate wealth upward–at the expense of any kind of social justice and the integrity of the biosphere that makes all life possible–to a degree never seen before?

Never have the perverse priorities of submission to the Market God (Harvey Cox’s term) been more glaringly apparent, as its acolytes call upon our senior citizens to willingly sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy.

Sadly, to a historian of religions none of the generally recognized faith systems in the world today seems to have entirely escaped the temptation to increase its own influence and wealth by manipulating its followers to ignore obvious truths (including those established by science) even when the result of this misdirection threatens our very existence as a species. How else to explain that while the overwhelming majority of people on this planet identify as religious, most of us continue to passively accept the many destructive and fundamentally unjust activities promoted by the priests of the Market and the missionaries of consumerism? Is it enough to recite “turn the other cheek”, “the world is a mosque”, or “all is one”, while making daily trips to the mall to buy products made by underpaid labour from raw materials that have been unsustainably extracted from an exhausted earth, products which–following their packaging–will soon wind up in landfills or incinerators that poison the soil, the water and the air upon which our lives depend?

Observe how nature has responded to the global pause in human activity: the air over Beijing and the canals of Venice miraculously self-cleaning within a matter of weeks! The fact that nature responds so positively to a diminution in our activities should be sobering. Should this not motivate us to reflect on the cavalier manner in which our way of life, under circumstances we consider “normal”, relentlessly degrades the natural elements most vital for our existence?

In my book Religions of the Silk Road (2nd edition, 2010), I identify patterns by which all of the so-called “world religions” spread and became institutionalized through their symbiosis with global economic networks. Recognizing this historical reality makes it easy to understand why they have all proven so accommodating to the Religion of the Market, even to the extent of assimilating themselves to it. Examples of this sad phenomenon are everywhere apparent.

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It is tragic that in recent weeks so many nodes of transmission for the coronavirus all over the world have been large religious gatherings (churches in South Korea and the US, “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish communities in Israel and Canada, massive multi-day assemblies of Muslim missionaries in Malaysia and Pakistan, the Holi festival and multifarious pilgrimages in India…), in some cases when the risk of infection was known to the organizers. Even more tragic is that so many religious leaders of all faiths have been slow and at times even actively resistant when it comes to acknowledging the severity of the situation and the need to alter our behaviours accordingly.

Crisis entails opportunity, as ancient Chinese wisdom has it. The coronavirus pandemic should be a wake-up call, challenging us to question why it is that the structures and principles of the dominant corporate model have left us so vulnerable and unprepared. In light of this unprecedented global catastrophe, can there be any doubt that nothing less is called for today than a radical re-analysis and re-assessment of some of the most basic assumptions underlying our modern way of living in the world? Established religions, which all too often find themselves behind the curve of events and, disadvantaged by the inertia-inducing weight of tradition, choose instead the path of retreat into atavism, cannot avoid this call to introspection if they are to remain relevant.

What does it Mean that South Ossetia is Celebrating Independence? Fri, 31 May 2019 04:02:15 +0000 By Richard Foltz | –

Tskhinval, Republic of South Ossetia (Informed Comment) – On May 29 South Ossetians celebrated the signing of their declaration of independence in 1992. Given that South Ossetia’s statehood has been recognized by only five UN member states, this event could hardly be expected to make international news. And yet, given the one-sidedness that has characterized discussions of five small post-Soviet breakaway states in the West over the years, it may be instructive to look more closely at why these conflicts continue to elude any kind of resolution.

Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Soviet Union the resulting geopolitical map remains unresolved. A number of so-called “frozen conflicts” endure where certain territories have withdrawn—usually on the basis of ethno-linguistic differences—from the republics to which they were assigned during the Soviet period. These include Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions which have declared independence from Georgia; the Armenian enclave of Artskh/Nagorno-Karabakh which is claimed by Azerbaijan; and two Russian-majority territories, Transnistria and Donbass, which have seceded from Moldova and Ukraine respectively.

Each of these cases has particularities of its own, with legitimate justifications on either side. They also have in common that the secessions in question were aided and abetted by Russia, and the breakaway states in question remain economically and militarily dependent on Russia for their survival. Western governments and media have therefore tended to see these cases as land grabs by Russia, and have for the most part dismissed the establishment of new states as violations of international law.

Here on this sunny spring day in the spectacularly beautiful central Caucasus things appear quite differently. The Ossetes—a largely Christian people who speak a northeast Iranian dialect and are the world’s only surviving descendants of the ancient Scythians—were divided after the Bolshevik Revolution into two political entities, the northern part being allocated to Russia and the south to Georgia. As nationalist sentiments began to arise across the Soviet Union by the late 1980s, southern Ossetians came to feel increasingly threatened by the emerging Georgian nationalist project. Tensions began to rise between the two communities, which grew severely worse after the Georgian parliament under the ultra-nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia voted to abolish the Ossete Autonomous Oblast in an attempt to deprive Ossetians of their own administrative unit. When Gamsakhurdia later told an Italian interviewer that “Ossetians are scum, and we will wipe them from our country,” any illusions of future peaceful cohabitation were forever dispelled.

The collapse of the USSR led to outbreaks of intercommunal violence between armed militias all across the Caucasus, as the region’s many diverse ethnic groups competed for their place within the newly-emerging states. In South Ossetia more than 2,000 people were killed as fighting escalated between Georgian and South Ossetian troops. On May 20, 1992 a group of 36 civilians trying to flee the fighting in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinval, were massacred by Georgian militiamen. For South Ossetians this was the last straw—nine days later the South Ossetian parliament declared its independence from Georgia.

The warring parties finally signed a ceasefire agreement on June 24, 1992, which provided for a peacekeeping force made up of South Ossetian, Georgian and Russian forces. A fragile peace endured, with South Ossetia functioning as a de facto independent state, until the election in 2004 of Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, who had campaigned on promises to restore South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control. The next four years saw occasional flare-ups among the Georgian, South Ossetian, and Russian militias. On August 7, 2008 Saakashvili read a statement on television in Ossetian promising peace and brotherhood; that same night Georgian forces invaded Tskhinval. Two days later the Russian army moved in, and on August 12 a ceasefire agreement was signed under the auspices of French president Nicholas Sarkozy. As a result of the Georgian aggression Russia formally recognized the Republic of South Ossetia as an independent state, and has remained its principle guarantor ever since.

After the 2008 war the border between South Ossetia and Georgia was definitively closed, leaving the fledgling republic’s sole link with the outside world a road tunnel beneath the Caucasus leading to the Russian republic of North Ossetia. South Ossetia is completely dependent on Russia economically and diplomatically. And yet, the differences with North Ossetia, which is a republic within the Russian Federation whose inhabitants are Russian citizens, are in some ways profound. In contrast to the heavily Russified North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, in South Ossetia the Ossetian language and culture are alive and well. While most South Ossetians dream of an eventual political union with their cultural cousins in the north, for now it appears that formal integration into Russia is a price they are unwilling to pay.

With a tiny population of only 53,000, South Ossetia may not appear to be a viable state, and as long as it is forced to depend on Russia there would seem to be little chance for it to develop on its own. An increased degree of international recognition, however, could change that, if South Ossetia were given the status to enter into economic, political and cultural relationships with other countries. That may be the only scenario by which South Ossetians can hope to preserve their unique and historically rich language and culture for the generations to come.


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Washington Post: “This Russian-backed separatist enclave still bears the scars of war”