Camel greeting

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Sochi Winter Olympics – What’s going on behind the curtain?

I’ve never been a big follower of the Winter Olympic Games. Ski-jumping, bob-sledding and the icy arts of curling were not much in vogue in the semi-rural beach suburbs of Auckland’s North Shore where I grew up. I can list the venues of the Summer Olympics in unbroken succession back to Helsinki, 1952 – but I would struggle to tell you one for the Winter Games . . . until this year.

This year, the Year of Our Lord 2014, I can confidently tell you the XXII Winter Olympic Games and the XI Paralympic Games (what is it with those Roman numerals?) will be held in Sochi. And I can further inform you that Sochi is a small city on Russia’s Black Sea coast near the Georgian border, with, somewhat surprisingly for Russia and a Winter Olympics venue, a sub-tropical climate. Two million tourists, mostly from the frozen wastes of more northerly regions, flock to the beaches of Sochi in summer – a fact that may explain some of what follows.

A little slice of Caucasian paradise
click for more
Needless to say, few of the winter sporting events will be held in the city itself. Sochi’s other major geographical appeal is its location on the fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, a lofty range with several peaks rising over 5,000 metres. Here is located the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana, and as an interesting aside, Sochi is also, they tell me, where tennis heart-throb Maria Sharapova picked up a racquet at the age of four and took her first lessons in the sport.

Sad to say, this small piece of heaven on Earth seems to be attracting a good deal of unwelcome attention which is why, for the first time, the Winter Olympic Games have attracted mine. On 29 and 30 December, two bomb attacks killed at least 31 people in the city of Volgograd some 600 km northeast of Sochi. An earlier attack in October took seven lives, raising some fears for the safety of spectators and athletes at the Games. There seems to be some confusion about the reason for the violence in the collective mind of news media in the West. Say ‘Muslim’ and, as with the psychiatrist’s technique of word association, the inevitable responses are ‘terrorists’, ‘Arabs’, ‘Al Qaeda’, and ‘Axis of Evil’

An article in Time on 6 January was entitledGhosts of Munich Haunt Sochi Olympics in Wake of Russia Bombings’. The writer had interviewed the Vice President of Israel’s Olympic committee in an attempt to draw a parallel with the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, when a group of Palestinians invaded the Israeli athletes’ quarters killing eleven athletes before five of their own number were killed. Only towards the end of the piece did the writer (prompted by the Israeli VP) concede that the Russian events have nothing to do with Israel, Palestine or any other Arabs. So what, you may ask, was the purpose of that Time headline?

Reuters, as we might expect, provided slightly more informative article. They identified the suicide bomber as a woman (or a man) from Dagestan, ‘a hub of Islamist militancy on the Caspian’. They referred to Chechen insurgents who ‘want to carve an Islamic state out of the swathe of mainly Muslim provinces south of Volgograd’ and to ‘North Caucasus militants [who] have also staged attacks in Moscow and other cities, the most recent in the capital being an airport suicide bombing three years ago that killed 37 people.’  Reference was made to the fact that Volgograd was previously known as Stalingrad, with positive memories for Russians but hated by Chechens for its association with the wartime dictator who deported masses of them to inhuman conditions in Siberia. In the end however, the article seemed to accept President Putin’s attempt to relate the bombings to Afghanistan, Syria and 9/11. A White House spokesperson and British PM David Cameron expressed sympathy and solidarity with Russia, the latter offering unconditional support.

Well, we need not be surprised that the average citizens of the United States or Kingdom have no idea about the whereabouts of Sochi, or its turbulent history. The pressure-cooker weapons of mass destruction that created havoc at last year’s Boston Marathon were allegedly detonated by two brothers of Chechen extraction – and apparently generated a good deal of hate mail on social media directed at the innocent citizens of the Czech Republic. On the other hand, there is no excuse for ignorance among leaders of the ‘Free World’. For a stone-cold certainty, the Russian Government knows exactly what the problem is, even if they would prefer the rest of us to join in the festivities and/or mind our own business. They will be quite happy, I expect, if feminists in the Ukraine continue baring their breasts to the winter chills, and Western concerns focus mainly on the treatment of gays and lesbians in Mother Russia.

‘Before 1864’, Wikipedia tells me, ‘Sochi was a Muslim town’. Now it seems, of a total population of 420,589, a mere 20,000 (less than five percent) profess that faith, and the city has no mosque where they can worship. How did this situation come about? What happened in and around that town in 1864 is crucial to an understanding of the controversy surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In fact, that year saw the culmination of a process that had been going on for 300 years. The Muslim Ottoman Empire had reached the zenith of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) in the mid-16th century. As its glory days and influence receded, one of the chief beneficiaries was the expanding Empire of Russia. These two neighbours fought fourteen wars during those three centuries, resulting increasingly in Russian victories and loss of Ottoman territory. Collateral casualties, as the Russians pushed their borders towards the warm waters of the Black Sea, were the Muslim inhabitants of the Crimea and Caucasus regions who were either killed or expelled from their homes.

There's more to this business
than meets the eye
The end stages of this southern expansion began in 1834 when Russia moved to complete its conquest of the Caucasus region. Impeding the push were various groups in Chechnya, and Dagestan, the Circassians and several other Caucasian tribes. The conflict went on for thirty years with some release of pressure when Russia was briefly diverted by the Crimean War. It eventually ended, predictably, with Russian victory in that fateful year whose 150th anniversary the losers and their descendants will commemorate as the world’s winter sports athletes gather to compete in the city which witnessed the final expulsion of Circassian Muslims from their ancestral home.

Clearly we must admire the courage and determination of the Circassians and their neighbours in holding off the Russian advance for those thirty years. Interestingly, they did receive some outside support. It seems that the British Government, while fighting the Muslim Ottomans in the Aegean to establish the independence of a Christian Greek Kingdom, were hedging their bets in the Caucasus by supplying the Muslim locals with arms and ammunition in their struggle against Christian Russia. There was actually an incident in 1836 where a British schooner, the Vixen, laden with military supplies, was detained by the Russian navy, creating an international incident that almost led to war between the two great powers.

At that stage, however, the Brits were not ready to engage in war with Russia, at least not for the sake of the Muslim inhabitants of a region few of their citizens had heard of.  The Wikipedia entry on Sochi includes a table showing population growth over a period of 123 years until 2010 when it exceed 400,000. In 1887 the total population of the city was 98!

Exactly how many civilians lost their lives is the subject of debate. The Circassian Cultural Institute claims that more than a million Circassian men, women and children were killed, and a similar number were expelled from their homeland. Bryan Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Massachusetts, suggests a figure of 600,000 deaths and ‘hundreds of thousands more’ forcibly expelled in what he calls ‘modern Europe’s first genocide’. Most of those were crowded on to ships at the port of Sochi and dispatched across the Black Sea to the Anatolian coast where Ottoman authorities attempted to cope with the vast influx of impoverished refugees.

It does not require a great stretch of imagination to make a comparison with the present-day situation in Syria, where rebels are undoubtedly receiving arms and other support from outside, and Turkey is having to deal with more than a million fugitives from the conflict. At least the Syrian refugees are able to walk across the border, and modern medical supplies are available to treat serious health problems. Back in 1864 some of the ships sank with great loss of life, and diseases were rife amongst the survivors on arrival in the unsanitary conditions of refugee camps. According to Professor Williams, 75 percent of the Circassian population was ‘annihilated’.

It is against this background that the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on 7 February. No doubt Russian security forces and the International Olympic Committee will do their best to ensure that the games go ahead – while supporters of the Circassian cause have pledged to do theirs to prevent them. David Satter, Russian analyst on CNN, accused the IOC of irresponsibility in ‘indulging [President] Putin's desire for a propaganda spectacular’. He claimed that Putin made a direct approach to the Committee and pledged $12 billon in preparations, ‘twice what was proposed by the other two candidates’. In fact, according to Businessweek, expenditure on the Sochi games has now exceeded $51 billion, making them the most expensive in Olympic history, far exceeding the $40 billion spent by China on the 2008 summer games.

Whether or not the cost will bring commensurate benefits to Russia, only time will tell. One thing, however, is certain – the Sochi Winter Olympics are providing a golden opportunity for Circassians to bring their historical grievances to the attention of the world.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Nepalese Don’t Understand Capitalism

Surfing through the TV channels on a laid-back New Year’s Day I chanced upon a tennis match involving my favourite Spanish left-handed World No 1. It seems one of the tournaments warming players up for the Australian Open Grand Slam in Melbourne this month is being held in Doha, capital city of that well-known tennis-playing nation, Qatar.

Spot the tennis-players. ExxonMobil tournament in Qatar
Excuse me if a little cynicism crept into that last sentence. You can’t really blame the players, I know, because after all, tennis is their job, and there’s $US 1,096,910 in prize money up for grabs in that Doha tournament. Still, I felt some admiration for Roger Federer, who is apparently doing his warm-up in Brisbane, Australia.

You are perhaps aware that the hereditary absolute monarchy of Qatar is also scheduled to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but has been attracting some unwelcome media attention for alleged mistreatment of labourers working on the associated huge construction projects. The tiny Arab state is, according to Wikipedia, ‘the world's richest country [by per capita GDP] and achieved the highest human development in the Arab World and 36th highest globally . . . and also the 19th most peaceful country in the world’.  Qatar has a population of 1,903,447 of which, sadly for male Qataris, only 498,283 (or 26 percent) are female. In fact, however, only 15 percent of those nearly two million residents are actually citizens – the vast majority being expatriate male labourers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh and other nations not ranked quite so high on lists of per capita wealth and/or peacefulness.

One assumes, then, given the high level of peace in Qatar, that Qatari males have better odds of finding a girl than the overall statistic might lead us to think. Similarly, since wages for migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch, ‘typically range from $8 to $11 for between nine and eleven hours of gruelling outdoor work each day’, one must further assume that per capita income stats and measurements of human development only reflect the situation of actual Qatari nationals.

The Guardian ran an article on 29 December pointing out the shocking fact that, in spite of ‘brutal working conditions and flagrant abuse of workers' rights’, thousands of impoverished Nepalese men queue up each day for the chance to work in Qatar and other Gulf states. Their hope is that they will earn $200 a month for a couple of years, pay back the fee charged by employment agencies back home, and perhaps start a small business or send their children to school on their return.

Protest against treatment of
migrant workers in Gulf States
Living conditions in Nepal are so bad that stories of over-crowded accommodation, starvation rations and non-payment of wages are not sufficient to shorten those queues. The Wikipedia entry mentions Nepal in the same sentence as Rwanda and Bangladesh, stating that nearly 60 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, with unemployment and underemployment approaching half of the working-age population. More than one third of households do not have a toilet in their house, and less than half have running tap water. ‘Leading diseases and illnesses include diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, goiter, intestinal parasites, leprosy, visceral leishmaniasis and tuberculosis.’ Malnutrition is a serious problem: ‘about 47 percent of children under five are stunted, 15 percent wasted, and 36 percent underweight.’ Another Guardian article in June this year described the death of a 12-year-old girl in Kathmandu. The girl, working as a domestic slave for a higher-caste family to repay a debt incurred by her father, had apparently ‘doused herself in kerosene and then set herself alight.’ Such slavery, the article continues, is not at all uncommon.

It’s a sad story, but what can you do? Time ran an article in their Business and Money section last week entitled: ‘How a Starbucks Latté Shows China Doesn’t Understand Capitalism’. The gist was that Chinese are unreasonably complaining because Starbucks charges more for a coffee in Taiyuan than it does in downtown Manhattan – with similar charges made against Nestlé and Danone. The writer says, in essence, that the Chinese should shut up. The answer, as usual, comes down to ‘the bottom line’, which is: Companies will price their products based on what the consumer is willing to pay’ – and if you don’t like the price, don’t buy the product. Big talk, but in this case I suspect capitalism may find its bottom line rationale clashing with its need to tap into the one-and-a-half billion Chinese consumer market.

Nevertheless, that headline did raise another question in my mind: Who actually does understand capitalism? Getting back to that tennis tournament in Doha, the major sponsor is the American multinational oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil – not surprising, I guess, since little old Qatar has the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, as well as a good supply of petroleum. According to Wikipedia, ExxonMobil’s largest shareholder is that paragon of international philanthrocapitalism, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Two members of the current board are a professor of economics at Stanford University and another of management practice at Harvard Business School. Well, that trio at least should have a pretty good grasp of how capitalism works. Certainly their baby looks in rude financial health. As of July 1, 2010, ExxonMobil occupied eight out of 10 slots for Largest Corporate Quarterly Earnings of All Time. Furthermore, it occupies 5 out of 10 slots on Largest Corporate Annual Earnings’.

On the other hand, you yourself may not be as well versed in the philosophy that drives the world economy as the Gates couple and those disinterested academics, so let me give you a couple of pointers. The ExxonMobil bottom line, not surprisingly, does not attach great importance to the environmental health of Planet Earth. That Wikipedia entry lists six major oil spills within continental United States for which the corporation was responsible and whose seriousness they tried to downplay: apart from the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, more recently there have been oil spills in Brooklyn and the Yellowstone River in July 2007, a pipeline spill and benzene leak at Baton Rouge Refinery in April and June 2012 and another oil spill at Mayflower in March 2013. ExxonMobil have been accused of funding organisations disseminating misinformation about the part fossil fuels play in causing global warming. Even the people at Forbes, not generally known for caring about the downtrodden masses, have raised questions of company executives bribing and/or taking kickbacks from the dictatorial regimes of oil-rich nations such as Angola and Kazakhstan.

You might think that, if only out of cynical self-interest, the board of ExxonMobil might want to throw a few of those All Time Highest Quarterly Earnings in the direction of Nepal and its enslaved girl children. Even Rafael Nadal, if he knew what was going on, might be persuaded to donate a portion of his winner’s purse. But clearly the sponsors of tennis and the football World Cup are happy to have their company names and logos broadcast to television sets around the world and accept at face value the Qatari royal family’s hype about the wealth and standard of living of their people. Whatever spin its most ardent proponents try to put on it, capitalism is largely about short-term profit; and concern for future generations, or disadvantaged present-day ones is not a major factor in bottom line accounting.

Another example is the financial sector, in particular, the denizens of Wall St who were credited with causing the global crisis of 2008. In February 2009 President Barack Obama appointed Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to chair a board tasked with advising the administration on matters affecting economic recovery. In January 2010 the board came back with a set of proposals aimed at preventing banks from engaging in the kind of dodgy trading and investing that had led to the financial meltdown. Those proposals, popularly known as the Volcker Rule, and officially as the Dodd-Frank Wall St Reform and Consumer Protection Act (!!!), have been doing the rounds of various ‘agencies’ for the past four years, and are now scheduled to go into effect on 1 April 2014 (any significance in that date, I wonder?).

Clearly those ‘agencies’ have had plenty of time to play with the proposals. According to an article in Time’s Business pages, the original relatively simple recommendations have been tampered with and expanded to such an extent that ‘The Volcker rule . . . has been turned into Swiss cheese by bank lobbyists’ – on whom their employers spend nearly half a billion dollars a year. The article goes on to say that ‘the biggest banks are even bigger now than they were before the crisis: the eight largest financial institutions in the U.S. control nearly $15 trillion worth of assets, or about 90% of GDP’.

It seems to me one of the big differences between post-modern economies and those in the developing world is the sophistication level of their corruption; the capacity for burying their dirty activities in a legal labyrinth, or exporting them offshore. In between, of course, are the oil-rich newcomers, who just snow the soiled underwear with money and defy the world to criticise.

Take Dubai. I resent it intensely when my plane stops there on the way to Auckland or Sydney. If I want to go there, I’ll buy a ticket – which I will never willingly do. This year I’m going via Malaysia – not lily-white, for sure, but less objectionable than its Middle Eastern Muslim cousin.

The population of that desert oasis is similar to Qatar, with more or less the same ratio of males to females, for pretty much the same reason – more than 70 percent are poor migrant workers from Asia. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation says, ‘Most companies are forcing their workers to live in squalor. An unconscionable number of workers die due to unsafe conditions.’ Workers are ‘effectively living in 21st century slave states,’ she says. According to Al-Jazeera, unions and strikes are illegal. Annual per capita income of citizens in the United Arab Emirates is $48,158, but only 20 percent of the 7.9 million residents have citizenship – almost impossible to get if you can’t prove a paternal blood relationship to the original inhabitants. Women’s rights are reportedly beyond medieval. In Dubai, a woman who reports being raped can be sentenced to over a year of time in prison for ‘engaging in extramarital relations.’

On the other hand, thousands of Western ex-pats, including tennis and rugby players, choose to live, work and play in the UAE, lured by high salaries and a lifestyle they could not afford in their own countries. Apparently adjudicators from the Guinness Book of Records were on hand in Dubai on New Year’s Eve to officially witness the world’s largest ever fireworks extravaganza. The six-minute display is said to have exploded half a million fireworks spread over nearly 100 kilometres of coastline, provided employment for 200 technicians (from US firm Fireworks by Grucci) using 100 computers, and cost $6 million.

In the end, perhaps that’s the real secret of capitalism’s success: blind the ‘haves’ with lavish displays of pyrotechnics, and keep the self-immolating Nepalese slave-girls well out of sight.