Who to Follow on Twitter For REE News

It’s called Twitter.

People first really took notice of the value of Twitter as a tool aiding social unrest during the Arab Spring, when the situation on the ground was chaotic. It’s a simple, effective way of communicating a message with a lot of people. I’m visiting the US at the moment, and I was appalled by the sheer ridiculousness of what passes for primetime news. Seriously, it’s like a roll of cute youtube videos that a 10-year-old would enjoy and other “human interest” stories. Granted, some of the networks are trying harder than others. But when your “breaking news” comes nearly 48 hours after the fact, how hard are you really trying? (Looking at you, CNN)

So here’s who I’ve been following on twitter. I made a list. It, like the Crimea Crisis, is in flux, but it should give you a good English-language overview of events has they happen. Some of them are journalists, some are acamdemics, some are funny, some are not – it’s a cross-section. Also, I would like to note that I am not endorsing any of the viewpoints expressed by these people. https://twitter.com/JillianKozyra/lists/ree

Where Have All the Russia Experts Gone?

When the protests in Ukraine began to turn into a “crisis” with Russian involvement and started receiving primetime US news coverage, one of the things that struck me the most was how out of touch many of the “experts” on Russia seemed. I’m not really sure what qualifications one needs to be considered an area expert or a policy expert, but I have a BA in Russian and an MA in Central and Eastern European Studies (and I wrote my thesis on modern coalition politics in the Ukrainian parliament), plus Ukraine has always been a bit of a pet project for me, so I’d at least classify myself as a “knowledgeable person” when it comes to Central and Eastern Europe. So while to me, references to the “active KGB presence in the Ukraine” seem like glaring errors*, I’m pretty sure that 95% of the other viewers either glossed over them or, worse, potentially even accepted them as fact.

But why is there such a dearth of current experts on this region? Is this motivated by policy makers, who aren’t looking for analysis in this area, or is it an academic problem, with a lack of interest or exposure for incoming university students? In my undergraduate experience, I found that classmates did not casually study Russian the same way that they took Spanish or Italian to fulfil a language requirement, or how many studied Arabic or Chinese because they were trendy. Rather, Russian students tended to be there because they had a genuine interest in some combination of literature, culture, and politics that existed regardless of expected ease of language acquisition or impact on potential future earnings. And it was precisely a result of the classroom dynamic that developed due to this genuine interest which cause these classes to leave deeper impressions on the students.

A Google Ngram search of several areas of potential strategic importance to the United States shows a general decline in the frequency of terms like “Russia” and “Eastern Europe” while terms such as “Afghanistan” and “Iraq” increase. These reflect the policy shift of the United States that occurred after the hubbub immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union died down and America’s interest in the Middle East and the War on Terror in particular picked up. Unfortunately for many of the aspiring Central and Eastern European experts coming of age in the 21st century, this policy shift also reflects a shift in hiring of government agencies, NGOs, think tanks, and other bodies that perform area analysis. Gone are the days when Russian and German speakers were in demand. Instead, the de rigueur languages are things like Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto, languages spoken in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Although the US might wish to move on to different issues for a different century, Russia refuses to go away. As the largest country in the world, with the 6th largest economy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and in possession of a third-term president who is very vocal and extremely defensive of Russia’s “near abroad” (ближнее зарубежье), its post-Soviet sphere of influence, in some fairly aggressive ways, the international community can’t help but notice Russia. While Putin’s leadership style might not win any awards in the West, recent independent polls of Russians show that a majority still approve their president’s actions**. Rather than accept Putin’s administration of Russia, the US has continuously vilified him in the media as a “KGB thug”***, pigeon-holing him in this role. This, unfortunately, leaves little room for positive relations to develop between Russia and the US in the foreseeable future, despite Russia’s contributions in persuading Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons or creating openings for the US in Iran.

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 represented a shift for modern Russia, as its neighbour began to pull away and look towards the West for the 21st century. Russia perceived the US support of the protestors and new government and subsequent attempts to draw Ukraine into NATO (coupled with EU offers of association agreements in competition with Russia’s offers to join its Eurasian Customs Union) as efforts to impinge upon Russia’s sphere of influence. US proposals to build radar/anti-missile installations in Central Europe, nominally targeted at Iran but much closer to Russia, further inflamed relations between the two countries. Despite the proposed “reset” under the Obama administration, the anti-Putin rhetoric amongst US media and policymakers has continued. There are many demands on American foreign policy today, and one would not expect Russia to be its sole focus. Yet given Russia’s continued global relevance, especially in relation to US national security (given its proximity to countries like North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iran), the US cannot afford ignore it, particularly if it is interested in avoiding 19th century solutions to 21st century problems (as John Kerry described Putin’s belligerence in Crimea). It is therefore all the more important that US government agencies, NGOs, and media outlets continue to hire and cultivate Russia/Eurasia analysts, because failure to understand Russia in context will at best continue to lead to crises like the one occurring now in Crimea and at worst result in a hot war beneficial to no one.

*Aside from the obvious factual error – that the Russian KGB ceased to exist in 1991, Ukraine is referred to simply as “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine”. I find it super-irritating when people bombastically proclaim “THE Ukraine”.
**http://www.levada.ru/30-01-2014/yanvarskie-reitingi-odobreniya-i-doveriya
***http://thehill.com/video/house/308721-rep-king-obama-being-outmaneuvered-by-kgb-thug-putin

Why America Will Have To Go It Alone With Sanctions Against Russia

Tensions in Ukraine continue to rise as the international community struggles to find an effective response to defuse them. US Secretary of State John Kerry has offered aid to Ukraine in the form of a $1 billion loan guarantee, and State Department officials have predicted movement on sanctions later in the week if the situation is not resolved.

If the United States chooses to pursue economic sanctions or military action against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, it is unlikely to find an ally in the EU. While the EU wishes to develop its relationship with Ukraine as is obvious from its Eastern Partnership initiative and push for an association agreement, its existing relationship with Russia limits the extent to which it can do so.

The EU, which has never quite been the powerful foreign policy actor that it would like the world to think it is, remains in an economically weakened state going into 2014, and for its continued economic growth, it requires sources of affordable energy, particularly for its largest economy, Germany. In 2011, following the Japan earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germany, which obtained nearly a quarter of its electricity from nuclear power plants, underwent a period of anti-nuclear protests. In reaction, Angela Merkel’s government committed to shutting down Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022 and proceeded to permanently close nearly half of them that year (this, in my opinon, was a short-sighted and reactionary decision). However, Germany still needed a source of energy to fuel its growth – with increasingly limited options meeting its cost and “green” requirements.

Meanwhile, under Putin, Russia has seen itself transformed from an industrial economy to an exporter of raw materials – particularly natural gas, which energy-hungry Europe eagerly eats. In addition to the existing gas pipelines, most of which ran through transit countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, 2011-2012 saw the completion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which runs through the Baltic Sea, bypassing Eastern Europe and providing a direct link between Russia and Germany. While Nord Stream does not completely alleviate Germany’s dependence on the overland pipelines running through Eastern Europe, it does reduce it by about half.

Russia’s ability and willingness to manipulate natural gas prices to bring about its policy goals in countries that it views as belonging under its sphere of influence have been amply demonstrated in 2005/2006 and 2009. Although Russia’s gas trade is a significant part of its economy and it would be extremely detrimental to disrupt supplies to Europe, historically, Putin has proven that he is unafraid to escalate the means used to “protect” the interests of “Russian speakers” in Russia’s periphery, even if that means hurting Russian citizens domestically (as in the case of the economic costs of propping up breakaway states such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia – Russia funnelled nearly $1 billion into South Ossetia over two years). In this case, Western European energy interests are more secure than they were in the past due to the existence of the Nord Stream pipeline, meaning that a Russian shut off to Ukraine would affect Western Europe far less than in the previous cases, which both occurred in early January at the peak of winter. Western Europe has some natural gas stores, helped along by a mild winter and reduced usage overall but any disruption to supply could still potentially cause prices to skyrocket, a situation that Germany would like to avoid.

Also relevant to Germany’s unwillingness to impose economic sanctions on Russia is the very nature of the German economy, which is hugely export-dependent. Although Russia is not the number one importer of German goods, Germany does have a nearly $3 billion trade surplus with Russia which it would be hesitant to sacrifice. Additionally, over 6,000 German companies operate in Russia. Interruptions to Germany’s exports, which are a significant part of the Eurozone’s continued recovery, would be undesirable due to their potential impact on the entirety of the European economy.

The final nail in the coffin will most likely come from the UK. The home of “Moscow on the Thames”, a large community of wealthy Russians in London, has already expressed reluctance to impose any sort of sanctions on Russia that limit Russian access to British financial centres. While not a member of the Eurozone, the UK is an influential member of both the EU and G8.

Germany’s importance to the EU’s common foreign policy decisions cannot be underestimated. Within the frame of the EU, Germany has demonstrated its readiness to wield outsize influence (as in the case of the European Central Bank, where Germany’s central bank has largely kept the ECB acting in line with its interests, like austerity measures, despite all central banks having equal votes). Germany will probably behave in this manner with regards to Russia as well if it feels that its economic interests would be threatened by the imposition of sanctions, and it is for this reason that Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to push for a diplomatic solution as the US calls for economic sanctions. Unless Germany changes its mind, it is highly unlikely that the EU will support potentially disruptive economic or trade sanctions against Russia.

Donegal!

After being in the US for two months, I went back to Krakow for approximately 9 days before heading off on another journey, this time to Donegal (north-west Ireland) for a few days, and then England for a little over a week (it’s my great-aunt’s 91st birthday!). Getting to Donegal from Krakow was a bit of a schlep, since Ryanair has a monopoly on budget flights into Dublin and most of Ireland. Sadly, I was forced to break my “I will never, ever fly Ryanair!” vow – but it really wasn’t that bad (aside from the fact that they charge you for everything, like most budget airlines, and spent most of the 30 minute trip trying to sell you everything from cigarettes to food. No thanks.) So, I ended up flying Easy Jet from Krakow to Liverpool, Ryanair from Liverpool to Dublin, and then another airline called Flybe from Dublin to Carrickfinn (Donegal’s airport, and also where I was headed). On top of that, there was too much fog to land in Donegal the first day, so after circling for about 90 minutes, we went back to Dublin! I made some lovely “plane friends” – there were only about 10 passengers, most of them older people with +1s who had been in Dublin for doctors’ appointments, so they were entertained to find a lone American on a rarely-trafficked route.

Anyway, my friends live in Carrickfinn, which is right on the coast in the Donegal Gaeltacht, so nearly everyone speaks Irish. It’s a fairly rural area, but very beautiful, and I slept very soundly after the city+construction noise of Krakow. It’s also a hotbed of Irish music, which is great if you’re me. Donegal music is fairly distinctive, and it has a lot of Scottish influence, both in choice of tunes (like highlands and strathspeys), plus in the style in which tunes are played. I was lucky enough to get to go to an all-Irish cabaret, where one of the guest acts was an Irish-ska band (in addition to, you know, the regular guy from Zimbabwe doing his take on Irish step-dancing while singing in Irish, which was just great). But I digress. Without further ado -  picture time!

The view from the house

 

The bay with the tide out

 

Errigal, Donegal's highest mountain

 

Some water

Baking with Polish Supplies

One thing that I noticed when I first moved here was that baking supplies are totally different. Now, for most people, this might not be a big issue, but I’m a bit of a baking fanatic, and for me, this was very upsetting. Suddenly, many of my trusty recipes were turning out slightly wrong. This was most noticeable with my super reliable chocolate chip cookie recipe – the cookies kept turning out completely flat! I set out to find the culprit. Clearly, there were some factors that I could not control for (finding professional grade cookie sheets, getting the oven temperature to be exactly the same, etc.), and my mother had sent me baking powder and baking soda from the US, so those ingredients were eliminated as issues. Eventually, I figured that it had to be either the flour or the butter.

Peanut butter white chocolate chunk cookies

 

Polish flour is about the most confusing thing ever. For starters, I think that there are about 6 or 7 different kinds, and aside from the one called “tortowa” (cake), they all have cryptic names like “poznanska” and “krupczatka”, as well as little “typ” numbers from around 450 to 700. I’ve been here for about 18 months now, and I still have no idea which of these is the equivalent of all-purpose. I’m fairly sure that it’s not the cake one (which is not self-raising, by the way), or krupczatka, because it has as weird mealy texture. But as for the other ones…nope, no idea. I believe that there are two forum posts out there on the subject, but neither has been particularly helpful.

Anyway, since the flour remains a total mystery to me, I decided to address the issue of the butter. At first, I couldn’t figure out what the substantive difference between “European” butter and the butter that I buy in New York could possibly be. Then, I read that “American” butter averages around 81% fat, while “European” butter averages 85-86% fat. Armed with my new knowledge, I decided that I would attempt something new – if I were using European butter for an American recipe, then I would use 95% of the butter that the recipe instructed (this is easiest if you weigh your butter in grams). And, voila! It worked! So, now I can enjoy my lovely chewy, not flat chocolate chip cookies once again. If I ever figure out the flour to some adequate extent, I’ll let you all know.

Mid-week Trip to Dresden

One of my friends was returning to the US this week, and she wanted to see Dresden before she left. Also an Irish group (Altan) I know was playing a concert there, and I’ve been deprived of Irish music in Poland. Also Dresden is an awesome city. So we went.

But first we were stuck in Wrocław for a few hours, thanks to the [in]efficiency of the PKP (Polish trains). I have to say, this experience was definitely a vote in favour of taking the first train possible, in case it’s delayed, so that you have options for the connecting trains. Also, it seems that the PKP is checking student IDs these days, so if you’re travelling on a student ticket, make sure you have your legitymacja with you, and that the stickers are valid, otherwise, they’ll make you buy a full price ticket.

A Wrocław gnome

We think this is the old town hall

The rynek reminds me of Prague

I was surprised by how cosmopolitan Wrocław was. They had restaurants with real salads! (Yes, I judge cities based on their salad offerings.) Another note for travellers: the Wrocław train station is actually WORSE than the Krakow one in terms of being a construction mess.

But anyway, we finally made it to Dresden.

Pickle plate at Sophienkeller. I can never resist.

There's a really tiny nun feeding the birds in this one.

Dresden sunset!

Also, the concert was awesome. Here’s a brief clip of a piece called Is the Big Man Within that I recorded for my mother (it’s her favourite). It’s unique because the A part is a slip jig (9/8 time), while the B part is a regular jig (6/8 time). The sound quality is a bit meh – iPhones aren’t great for this sort of thing.

And finally, on the way back, we successfully managed to all PKP trains and take lovely, lovely, nice, new, Deutsche Bahn trains the WHOLE WAY. It was a wonderful treat.

My Polish Doctor Experience

(Right, so, I never finished writing about my summer travels…perhaps I’ll get to it eventually.)

During the time I’ve been in Poland, I’ve had a few colds, but I hadn’t been sick enough to actually need a doctor. This was fortunate, as from what I had heard about Polish medicine, it wasn’t something that I was particularly anxious to experience. Well, unfortunately for me, I managed to come down with a nasty case of the flu, which turned into a persistent cough. After being ill for over 2 weeks, I finally decided (after my parents ordered me to) that I would have to bite the bullet and see a doctor.

Step 1: I googled “English speaking doctors Krakow”. There were some posts in travel forums, but eventually, about five hits down, I noticed a document by the US Consulate in Krakow which listed what it said were English-speaking doctors in Krakow.

Step 2: I tried to do some background research on the few internists on the list. It appeared that one of them was an British expat living in Krakow, so I figured that he would speak the best English and resolved to try to phone him the next morning.

Step 3: Epic fail. First, I rang “Dr Cory”, the British expat, directly on his listed mobile, within the “8am to 3pm” range (it was shortly after 8am). He didn’t answer. I wait 5 minutes and tried again. Still no answer. So, I decided to change tactics and call his practice directly. On their website, which had a remarkably coherent English version, it said that “the majority of MEDICINA’s medical personnel is fluent in English , French , German , Italian or Russian”. I thought I was set. Well, I called directly and said, in Polish, to the woman who answered the phone, “Hello, do you speak English?” Her response: “No.” Click. She simply hung up on me. It was at this point that I flipped out a bit. I was ill, I hadn’t slept a significant amount for about 5 days because of the cough, and I was frustrated. So, for the first time, I cried for a bit. Not a particularly productive response, but it did sort of make me feel better. Once I’d slightly regained my composure, I called one of my friends, who is fluent in Polish, and got her to make an appointment for me. The doctor spoke minimal English, and I’m not actually sure what my diagnosis was because she didn’t know the English words for it. She also said that my lungs sounded clear (they weren’t) and put me on antibiotics that…did absolutely nothing. (I am now in England, where I went to the doctor yet again – this time, I’m actually getting better.)

This may seem like a bit of a rant, but I feel that I have the right to be angry. After all, the Medicina website does state: “  At Medicina you will meet many of the top specialists in Poland from all fields of medicine. Most speak good or at least reasonable English, but we believe that it is better to be treated by an excellent physician than by an excellent linguist, so if necessary you will be accompanied by an English-speaking nurse or doctor to ensure that nothing is lost in translation!” My friend had explained to them that I spoke only a little bit of Polish, but that was clearly not taken into account. Oh, and I did finally get through to the mysterious “Dr Cory” (I wanted to know if the doctor with whom I had my appointment actually spoke English). He was rather surly, told me that he had no idea, and made absolutely no enquiries about my health when I explained my situation.

In my opinion, this was a very disappointing experience, particularly because I was using information obtained through the US Consulate (and a friend told me that when she was ill, Dr Cory was recommended to her by the international students’ office at our university, although she never went). I would avoid going to a doctor in Poland unless absolutely necessary, and I would take their advice with a grain of salt.