September 28th, 2016

From The Cherry Orchard to the Khimki Forest

 

 “You have no mercy on the woods, or the birds, or on women, or on one another…”

Uncle Vanya, А.P. Chekhov, 1896

photo by etosibir.ru

Photo by etosibir.ru

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard were written more than a century ago, but they remain a brilliant portrait of Russian society and its attitude toward the world around, woods included.

Forests cover around 45 percent of Russia’s territory, and the country accounts for 24 percent of the world’s timber resources. The Siberian taiga and its cedar trees are as much a symbol of Russia as the Kremlin and Sputnik. It would seem that Russian forests should be valued and protected as a national treasure. However, just like the people of Russia, Russian forests have their own peculiar fate full of suffering and tragic mistakes.

Back in 2013, an international team of scientists calculated that from 2000 to 2012, Russia had lost more forest area than any other country in the world. Such forest cover loss was caused by different reasons including forest fires, storms and insect pests. However, this was also due in no small part to human activity. According to World Wildlife Fund’s estimates, Russia annually loses around $1 billion due to illegal logging.

According to First Deputy Prosecutor General Aleksander Buksman, illegal logging is responsible for more than 800,000 hectares of Russia’s forest loss annually, which is more than half of the total wood harvest in the country. The volume of Russian illegal logging has been increasing year after year. Furthermore, legal wood harvesting that is approved by the authorities is not always reasonable and justified. Suffice to recall the case of the Khimki forest, when a forested area located within the Moscow city limits was ruthlessly destroyed to make way for a new toll road to Sheremetyevo airport which, by the way, remains practically deserted since drivers are not willing to pay to use this highway.

After the 2010 wildfires in Central European Russia, that covered Moscow and St. Petersburg with thick smoke for almost a week, the problem of preventing forest fires reached the highest echelons of power. Putin, who was now personally fighting fires, was also the one who had personally abolished the state Forest Service and reduced allocations for fire prevention measures a few years before that.

Today, it can be said with confidence that no conclusions have been drawn from the 2010 events. In 2016, forests wildfires continue their rampage across Russia with the only difference being that while smoke from these fires can still sometimes be felt in Moscow, it hardly ever reaches Putin’s hometown St. Petersburg. It appears that this is the reason why the problem of wildfires is not being discussed at the top government level and figures reflecting the actual state of things do not make it into statutory reports. But even if one trusts official figures, one has to acknowledge that forest regeneration in Russia has dropped to its lowest level in the last decade, Considering the speed at which the country’s forest cover has been decreasing and which, according to Greenpeace Russia, reaches 2.9 million hectares per year, Russia is rapidly turning from a forest country into a prairie one.

Smoke in Moscow / Photo by operativ.am

Smoke in Moscow, 2010 / Photo by operativ.am

Meanwhile, according to a report prepared by the Lesprom Network Analytic Agency, in 2015 the Russian forest sector showed a 300-percent profit growth. Although the ruble devaluation has obviously played a part, a sudden expansion of exports of forest products is the main reason behind this three-fold increase in lumberjacks’ income. Thus, although Russian forest industrialists have good prospects for self-enrichment, the taiga and its cedar trees seem to be doomed like Chekhov’s cherry orchard which, as is well known, was simply cut down.

21 Sep 2016

Sincerely yours at your expense

Dmitry Medvedev / Photo by nnm.me

Dmitry Medvedev / Photo by nnm.me

Russian officials’ increasingly frequent statements about the lack of funds in the country’s budget to cover even the bare necessities of life make one almost believe their sincerity. It is not that officials themselves experience money problems. The most recent examples with Medvedev’s 35-billion-ruble country house or 8 billion rubles in cash discovered in the possession of the temporary acting head of Russia’s anti-corruption agency, colonel Zakharchenko, do not leave any doubts regarding  Russian officials’ success in siphoning off the national wealth. However, besides a few million of ministers, lawmakers, policemen and prison officers who are comfortably settled in life, there are some 140 million citizens in Russia, whose living standards directly depend on budget funds left over after officials’ rent-seeking activities.

In late 2015 and early 2016, the country’s budget was adopted with a deficit and later subject to sequestration. According to the most recent official figures, in the first half of 2016, Russia’s budget deficit has reached 1.52 trillion rubles. Over this period, Russian tax and customs services have collected around 5.24 trillion rubles, and, all other revenues included, the country’s gross national income reached the lower-than-expected 5.87 trillion rubles, since the 2016 draft budget envisaged 13.74 trillion rubles in revenues. It is obvious that at the end of the year, this figure will prove to be unattainable, as Medvedev sincerely admits.

The government traditionally rejects the option of increasing taxes and thus suggests balancing the budget for the next three years by cutting spending by 3.5 trillion rubles. >> Read more

8 Sep 2016

The Earth’s Edge is Harsh and Embraced by Silence

Фото: probeg.com

Photo by probeg.com

Russia’s Far East, a region that is farthest from Moscow with more than 6,000 kilometers between them, has been going through difficult times for quite a while now. Since 1990, when the last population influx was registered, the region’s population has decreased by more than 20 percent with 90 percent of it being due to the migration outflow – not to natural population decline. A considerable part of the population leaves the region to seek jobs and a better life.

Making a speech at the 2016 Eastern Economic Forum, Putin promised to turn Vladivostok, the country’s largest city on the Pacific Ocean coast, into a Russian San Francisco. Our dreamer in the Kremlin must be counting upon investments from Japan and China, including a joint development of the disputed Kuril Islands. One has a hard time believing that though.

This year, a Federal Law No 119-FZ from May 1, 2016 dubbed “On the Far Eastern Hectare” was adopted on the government’s initiative. However, the attractive idea of giving away land for free to anyone interested is confronted by the greed of corrupt officials. Right after the law had come into effect, opposition activist Aleksei Navalny exposed fraud schemes used by officials with regard to allocated land plots, when, for example, the most attractive ones turned out to be occupied within minutes of the entry into force of the aforementioned law. This story just gets funnier as it goes. According to the project’s official website, in three months only 379 people out of 6 million who still live in Russia’s Far East submitted requests for complimentary land plots.

A few years ago, when skyrocketing oil prices provoked an investment urge, there were plans to build automobile-manufacturing plants >> Read more

31 Aug 2016

Stadiums Versus Hospitals

Photo by tranzewatte.livejournal.com

Photo by tranzewatte.livejournal.com

Russian healthcare, just like state-funded Soviet healthcare before it, has never been characterized by either quality or accessibility.  Despite rather large investments in the medical industry that both the federal and local budgets could afford during the period of high energy prices, the quality of medical care received by the population remains appallingly poor. There is a deficit of doctors, and their level of knowledge does not meet modern-day standards. There is a continuous deficit of effective drugs. Today, when oil revenues have plunged and there is no prospect of foreign investment, the question arises:  At whose expense will the government be cutting back on spending? The authorities have quickly found a solution on the federal level by gradually reducing healthcare spending for over a year. Local authorities act in a similar way. Only, whereas in Putin’s opinion, the government cannot cut down on “national security” spending (or in other words, federal expenditures on the police and special forces used to suppress popular unrest), local authorities use budget funds that were supposed to be spent on health care and education, for example, to build sports facilities for the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup instead. Thus, in St. Petersburg, funds originally intended for the construction of schools, daycare centers and healthcare facilities are going to be used to complete the construction of the Zenit Arena stadium.

Georgi Poltavchenko, Putin’s colleague from the Leningrad KGB and current governor of St. Petersburg, called this redistribution of funds a “technical solution” instead of admitting that the country that is rapidly sliding into poverty simply cannot afford an expensive World Cup. It would seem that it should not be difficult for
>> Read more