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Thursday, June 30, 2016

I'm Back From Russia-- With A Couple of Observations

I spent most of June in Russia and Azerbaijan, mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was my first trip to either country. St. Petersburg, was a city founded in 1703 to be Russia's window to the West, and Moscow, founded in around 1150, is less European. Over 12 million people live in Moscow; only 4.8 million live in St Pete. (By contrast, NYC has 8.5 million people and L.A. has around 4 million.) People don't smile much in Moscow and they all seem to have poker faces. St. Petersburg seems more like a European city in every way. But even in St. Pete there's an underlying anti-Western attitude. I met a 20 year old soccer player and spent some time with him. Although he aspires to live in Miami and speaks English well, he seemed offended when he asked me if I like Petersburg better than L.A. and I said no, I like L.A. better. And when I asked him if he likes American music, he immediately dismissed the very idea as absurd-- and then told me he likes rap music.

Simon Shuster offered some hints at Time Magazine about where that antipathy towards America (and the West) comes from. Russia has been encouraging, perhaps subtly, extreme violence, heavily trained and weaponized violence, around football matches in Europe. Putin denies any involvement but a member Parliament, Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian soccer foundation "urged the hooligans on Twitter to "keep it up."
The phrase they chanted during the violence-- Russkie Vperyod! (Forward, Russians!)-- happens to be emblematic of the brand of throwback patriotism that emerged from Putin's most recent run for re-election, in 2012.

Khrushchev's grave
Ahead of that vote, the Kremlin decided that the only way to galvanize a weary electorate was to play on the old fears and prejudices of the Cold War. It worked: Putin's popularity rose along with animosity toward the West. Ever since, a series of crises in Russia's relations with the West have helped the state's powerful propaganda channels [including high school curricula, I discovered] nurture a national siege mentality, portraying Russia as the victim of a bullying and treacherous West whose primary aim is to bring the country to its knees.
I'd be remiss if I didn't pass along a warning. I traveled with 2 friends, Roland and David. All 3 off us had all of our electronics hacked. David got home and found someone had withdrawn a considerable amount of money from his bank account. My e-mail list was bombarded with nonsense from the hackers and I had to change my passwords. Roland has to buy a new phone because his was so badly screwed up. So... yes Russia is wonderful to visit but, think about unplugging while you're there.

St. Petersburg is a gorgeous city, with one incredible public building after another, architecturally far more spectacular than anything in America. You can compare it to Paris, not to any American city. But just below the surface this was a different kind of dynamic-- low wages. Helsinki, capital of Finland, is very close to St Petersburg, just 242 miles-- 3.5 hours by train, 50 minutes by air. But the two cities are very different. In Finland, wages and labor standards are very high. Stuff is expensive but the standard of living is very high. Both cities have airports very close to town. It costs $15 to take a taxi to the airport in St. Pete. It's $55 in Helsinki.

Income inequality is very big in Russia and much less so in Finland. We use something called a Gini coefficient to measure income inequality. The Gini coefficient is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds with perfect equality (where everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds with perfect inequality (where one person has all the income-- and everyone else has zero income). These are the wealth Gini coefficients comparing not just Finland and Russia, but several countries to offer some context:
Finland- 0.615
Canada- 0.688
U.K.- 0.697
Russia- 0.699
U.S.- 0.801
Zimbabwe- 0.845
So... the U.S. isn't the worst.

I went to visit the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg. My grandfather left Russia in 1905 after a series of pograms had killed thousands of Jews across Russia including small villages like the one his family lived in. When he got to St Petersburg to board a ship for America, the Grand Choral Synagogue was 12 years old and the second largest synagogue in Europe. My grandfather wasn't any more religious than I am but he had never been in a grand building of any kind before. He prayed at the synagogue before leaving for America.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Guest Post From Sally Fensome: Drugs Tourism-- Is It Worth It?

Amsterdam-- not as unique as it once was in one way

Vacations are times of hedonism, when we aim to expand our minds and to enjoy ourselves. If we’re heading to somewhere where drugs are more readily available and/or legal than here, then we may decide to push our boundaries a bit by experimenting with some of the local substances. Some people even travel expressly for this purpose. But is it a good idea? Is drugs tourism just harmless fun, or can it take a nasty, dark turn? As with everything, it all depends on what you do, what you do it for, and how deep you go.

Different Rules

If you want to experiment with substances, the USA is not the best place to do so. Our notorious ‘war on drugs’ means that you could face hefty sentences for even minor misdemeanors. The legalization of cannabis in certain states does, in all fairness, mean that you can take a road trip or an internal flight to get stoned without having to get a visa, but in general we’re still pretty strict. Far easier to head somewhere where certain drugs laws are not as tight, or where substance use is less policed. In many European nations, the use of recreational marijuana is either completely legal or barely policed, and attitudes towards it are far different to those we might find here. The same applies to many other ‘soft’ drugs in many parts of the world. If you spend a lot of time in these places, and make friends with the locals, you will almost inevitably find yourself adopting their way of thinking about what back home would be considered deviant drugs. It can be surprising when you head home and speak of your experiences to find your American friends bringing all of their homegrown prejudices to bear upon your drug use while abroad. However, in some cases, they may be justified. While there’s probably little risk from the free and easy use of things like marijuana, experimenting too deeply with harder drugs could leave you with some serious problems. Just because it’s legal (or easy to get away with) doesn’t mean that it’s safe.

Benefits Of Drug Tourism

We know what we’re meant to say-- ‘DRUGS ARE BAD, KIDS!’ And they are. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t some silver linings to the (blue) cloud. Heading out on a vacation and doing some relatively harmless drugs can be a great way for kids to learn that drugs aren’t really that great. It’s a good way to get experimental urges out of one’s system without landing oneself with a criminal record. It’s also a great way to make those crucial mistakes you need to make in order to learn. When you’re on a vacation, you’re typically in a reasonably safe social environment, surrounded by friends and family who’ll look after you. What’s more, if you’re somewhere where the drugs you want to try are legal, you’re likely to be sold them in a controlled location which will have absolutely no desire to see you in danger (or they could lose their licence). So it’s a safe way in which to learn by experience the joys and the downfalls of recreational drug use. However, this assumes that you’re sensible about it, don’t purchase from dodgy vendors, and don’t go near the really hard stuff. There are other reasons why people may benefit from drugs tourism. People with medical conditions may travel to experience the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana, and those with mental health problems are increasingly travelling to South America for the purportedly curative (but controversial) powers of ayahuasca.

Dangers Of Drug Tourism

Let’s start with the obvious: travelling abroad to do drugs could get you killed. Anything which messes with your mind and body as much as some of the substances out there is really, really dangerous. Particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing, and don’t understand enough of the local language to listen to instructions. If you’re not killed, you could end up with a nasty habit. So stay away from anything which is known to have addictive or life-threatening qualities! No matter how ‘normal’ it seems to use these substances in the area you’re travelling to! Oh, and speaking of ‘life threatening’, it’s worth noting that you can be executed in many nations for drugs offences. Moving down the scale, drugs tourism could see you arrested, and subjected to some pretty nasty penal regimes. While illegal drugs may be relatively easy to come by in certain parts of the world, their usage is deeply frowned upon. Some governments try to discourage drugs tourism by imposing harsh penalties upon foreigners caught using or smuggling drugs on their shores. We already mentioned execution. If you’re found ‘trafficking’ (which can mean anything from ‘smuggling through the airport’ to ‘holding in your hand’) drugs in Malaysia, the authorities will have no hesitation in sentencing you to death. And, yes, they really can do that to a foreign citizen. It’s not just Malaysia that you need to watch out for, either. Plenty of nations will drop on you like a ton of bricks for drugs tourism. If you’re lucky, you might just end up in prison for 30 odd years.

Think Of The Locals

If you’re considering a spot of drugs tourism, it pays to be considerate of the locals. Places like Amsterdam have been forced to consider putting restrictions on foreigners consuming marijuana there, as drugs tourists often a) can’t really handle it properly, and b) don’t have any respect for the locals. Drugs tourists all too often make the mistake of treating the nation they’re in as their own personal playground, and forgetting that real humans live, work, and belong to this place. The idea that any location is a ‘party town’ for you to go wild in risks you putting some local backs up in a serious manner. Not to mention the fact that drugs tourism can be exploitative and damaging to fragile local cultures. So, if you’re going to go off an experiment with substances in a foreign land, be as respectful as you can possibly manage!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Trump Name Is Too Toxic For Azerbaijan, One Of The World's Most Corrupt Countries

I just got back from my first visit to Azerbaijan. I never expected to find such a wonderful place but it reminded me of a wealthier and more modern/Western Turkey. It's a little smaller than Maine and a little bigger than South Carolina with just over ten million inhabitants, more than New Jersey or Michigan and just about the same number as North Carolina. The rap on the country is that it's very wealthy but that all the wealth is concentrated in a few families' hands, cronies of the forever president, Ilham Aliyev, who first came to power in 2003 when his pop, Heydar Aliyev died. The elder Aliyev had been a former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, a member of the Soviet Politburo and of the KGB before deposing Azerbaijan's first Democratically-elected president Abulfaz Elchibey.

Before that unpleasantness, Azerbaijan was the world's first Muslim-majority secular state and parliamentary democracy before being overrun by the Soviets in 1920, Lenin saying he was sorry but the Soviets needed the oil. Azerbaijan lived under the Soviet yoke until it declared independence in 1991. Now it's a rich little country and Baku, the modern, bustling capital, looks-- architecturally-- like a cross between Paris and Dubai. And into this mix waddled Donald Trump a couple years ago.

One of the mainstays of the kleptocratic regime, Transportation Minister, Ziya Mammadov, who went from a lowly railway worker to a billionaire/Mafioso owns a lot of Azerbaijan. His son, Anar, is a shady character and a perfect fit for The Donald. It was only a matter of time before they found each other, which they did when Anar decided to rent Trump's name for his glitzy new hotel. He paid Trump between $2.5 and $2.8 million for the right to slap "Trump Tower" on his building and to get some consultations from Ivanka. In November, 2014, the Trump Organization announced that Trump Tower Baku was part of it's hotel empire and The Donald himself boasted that "Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku represents the unwavering standard of excellence of The Trump Organization and our involvement in only the best global development projects. When we open in 2015, visitors and residents will experience a luxurious property unlike anything else in Baku-- it will be among the finest in the world." Ivanka added that "This incredible building reflects the highest level of luxury and refinement, with extraordinary architecture inspired by the Caspian Sea and sophisticated interiors that seamlessly blend contemporary style with timeless appeal. We are looking forward to bringing our unparalleled Trump services and amenities to Azerbaijan.”

It sort of opened. Trump's partner, Anar, has been described by U.S. diplomats as "notoriously corrupt" and as working to launder money for the Iranian military. They hired a full staff and started renting rooms but never had a promised grand opening.
Trump often talks of hiring the best people and surrounding himself with people he can trust. In practice, however, he and his executives have at times appeared to overlook details about the background of people he has chosen as business partners, such as whether they had dubious associations, had been convicted of crimes, faced extradition or inflated their resumes.

...In the Azerbaijani case, Garten said the Trump Organization had performed meticulous due diligence on the company's partners, but hadn't researched the allegations against the Baku partner's father because he wasn't a party to the deal.

"I've never heard that before," Garten said, when first asked about allegations of Iranian money laundering by the partner's father, which appeared in U.S. diplomatic cables widely available since they were leaked in 2010.

Garten subsequently said he was confident the minister alleged to be laundering Iranian funds, Ziya Mammadov, had no involvement in his son's holding company, even though some of the son's major businesses regularly partnered with the transportation ministry and were founded while the son was in college overseas. Ziya Mammadov did not respond to a telephone message the AP left with his ministry in Baku or to emails to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington.

Garten told the AP that Trump's company uses a third-party investigative firm, which he did not identify, that specializes in background intelligence gathering and searches global watch lists, warrant lists and sanctions lists maintained by the United Nations, Interpol and others.

...Any American contemplating a business venture in Azerbaijan faces a risk: "endemic public corruption," as the State Department puts it. Much of that money flows from the oil and gas industries, but the State Department also considers the country to be a waypoint for terrorist financiers, Iranian sanctions-busters and Afghan drug lords.

The environment is a risky one for any business venture seeking to avoid violating U.S. penalties imposed against Iran or anti-bribery laws under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

...Garten said the Trump Organization had performed background screening on all those involved in the deal and was confident Mammadov's father played no role in the project.

Experts on Azerbaijan were mystified that Trump or anyone else could reach that conclusion.

Anar Mammadov is widely viewed by diplomats and nongovernmental organizations as a transparent stand-in for the business interests of his father. Anar's business has boomed with regular help from his father's ministry, receiving exclusive government contracts, a near monopoly on Baku's taxi business and even a free fleet of autobuses.

"These are not business people acting on their own — you're dealing with daddy," said Richard Kauzlarich, a U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s who went on to work under the Director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration.

"Whatever the Trump people thought they were doing, that wasn't reality," Kauzlarich said.

Anar Mammadov, who is believed to be 35, has said in a series of interviews that he founded Garant Holdings' predecessor-- which has arms in transportation, construction, banking, telecommunications and manufacturing-- in 2000, when he would have been 19. Anar received his bachelor's degree in 2003 and a master's in business administration in 2005-- both from a university in London.

Mammadov's statement that he founded the business in 2000 appeared in a magazine produced by a research firm in partnership with the Azerbaijani government. In other forums, he has said he started the business in 2005, though several of its key subsidiaries predate that period.
Now all the employees have been laid off and everyone around Baku says they want to wait a little while for people to forget the Trump taint before they re-brand the building and re-open it as something else-- anything else. even a Motel 6 would be a better bet than something related to Trump at this moment.