Was Vladimir Putin Born in Georgia?

The answer, according to a recent article in Germany’s highly respected Die Zeit, is maybe. “It seems,” writes correspondent Steffen Dobbert, that “there is an unspoken, and unproven, secret that is part of [Vladimir Putin’s] biography”:

There are those who are convinced that the Russian president spent the first nine years of his life with a family whose existence he continues to dispute to this day. They also believe he spent the first half of his childhood in Georgia, and not in Russia. They believe that later, as the head of the domestic intelligence agency, Putin changed his life story and denied the existence of his biological mother in order to speed his path to power—and to avoid being seen, during his first Russian election campaign, as an illegitimate child who had grown up in Georgia.

Putin’s possible biological mother is the 89-year-old Vera Putina, “a small, delicate woman, who always wears a headscarf when she leaves the house” in the Georgian village of Metekhi.

Egypt's Former President Sentenced to Death

Former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has been sentenced to death.

His political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not half as “moderate” as its apologists claim. One of his last acts as president was appointing a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a terrorist organization responsible for murdering dozens of tourists in 1997, as the governor of Luxor—the very place where those tourists were massacred.

Few in the West liked or trusted him, and plenty of Egyptians who voted for him suffered spasms of buyer's remorse, but he was nevertheless the first and only freely elected president in the entire history of Egypt.

And now he has been sentenced to death by a court controlled by the nation's military strongman, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi has declared total war on the Brotherhood. The man is not content to simply keep his opponents out of power. He won't tolerate them as a non-violent dissident force. He can't even tolerate the former president drawing breath in a dungeon.

This is Middle Eastern “strong horse” politics at its finest (or worst), but you know what? This sort of thing works until it doesn't. Nothing's stopping Sisi from going full Assad and creating a North African version of Syria's Baath Party regime, but not even a total surveillance police state is enough to put down the armed Sunni Islamist insurrection in Syria, not even with Iran and Hezbollah on side.

It's not hard to see where this is heading. Whatever's left of the Muslim Brotherhood will almost certainly abandon its mostly non-violent strategy to transform Egypt into an Islamic utopia and take up rifles and car bombs.

If you're planning a Nile River cruise or a trip to the pyramids, wait.

UPDATE: Right on schedule, two judges and a prosecutor were just shot and killed.

The Middle East's Nuclear Arms Race is On

President Barack Obama hoped a nuclear deal with Iran would prevent an arms race in the Persian Gulf region, but the Saudis don't trust what's coming any more than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, and they're no longer shy about saying so. And they promise to match the levels of enrichment capacity the Iranians get to keep.

“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal, the New York Times reports.

Prince Turki argued that the United States was making a “pivot to Iran” that was ill advised, and that the United States failed to learn from North Korea’s violations of its nuclear deals. “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years,” he said, using the past tense.

The Saudis were never America's best friends in the Arab world. That designation goes to Morocco, which has been a genuine ally for more than 200 years. The American-Saudi alliance was always strictly transactional, and it makes large majorities of people in both countries uncomfortable.

Aside from the fact that the House of Saud can play well with others to a certain extent, at home the regime is only fractionally less draconian than ISIS. Beheadings in Riyadh's “Chop Chop Square” are as ho-hum and routine as speeding tickets on  American freeways.

But whatever. The Saudis no longer feel, or no longer wish to at least say, that they're our best friends. It's common knowledge even in Washington that they oppose the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons program as stridently as the Israelis do. The fallout in relations was as predictable as it was inevitable.

A democratic Iran would be a natural ally of the United States while the Saudis, with their popularly backed medieval system, are natural enemies. At some point the US will pivot, and the pivot will likely be permanent, but until the clerical regime in Tehran reforms itself out of all recognition or is overthrown from below, we're stuck with the awkward and ailing alliance we have. Let's try not to squander it further.

North Korea's Black Market: Big Enough to Force Reforms?

There is a property boom in Pyongyang, the capital of the destitute Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The boom, in turn, has created an impetus for economic reform.

Apartment prices have skyrocketed 30-fold since the turn of century. The most expensive unit now goes for about a quarter of a million dollars, a large sum in a country where official wages are not even $2 a month.

That, at first glance, is amazing, especially because all property—including every single housing unit in the country—is owned by the state.

As Richard Lloyd Parry of the Australian explains, owners—if they can be called that—do not actually have title. They occupy their apartment after “swapping” residences with “sellers,” who receive compensation for taking less-desirable units in exchange. All transactions are approved by state bureaucrats, who attend to necessary paperwork for under-the-table payments.

At Estonian Air Base, the Roar of Freedom

One might be forgiven for not being familiar with a location called Amari. In fact, until recently there wasn’t much there to be familiar with. After the Soviet armed forces left their air base there, Amari was deserted. But after the local government put some serious money into rebuilding the run-down base, the United States government decided to pitch in with $25 million. Today Amari couldn’t look less like a former Soviet air base.

Raúl Castro’s Papal Publicity Stunt

Cuban dictator Raúl Castro flew to the Vatican, met privately with Pope Francis, and says he’s returning to church.

“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” he said after the meeting on television. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”

Fat chance.

The man is 83 years old and has been an atheist and a communist since the Season One premiere of Leave it to Beaver. His regime once outlawed religion entirely and to this day has its boot on the neck of the island’s priests.

There’s always a chance, I suppose, that, unlike Christopher Hitchens, he’s changing his heart and mind about God near the end of his life. It’s far more likely, however, that he’s trying to burnish his image abroad now that the United States is normalizing relations.

Even if he goes back to church every Sunday and starts praying in front of the cameras, few will believe he’s sincere. Politicians do this sort of thing all the time. Does anyone seriously believe that America’s Congress critters are even half as churchy in real life as they appear? Raúl is a lower form of life even than they are. He’s only a “politician” when he leaves the island and hobnobs with his betters. At home he helms a police state.

At least he got to see Europe with his own eyes when he flew to the Vatican. Italy is hardly the most high-functioning and prosperous nation in Europe—it looks and feels like Greece or even Egypt compared with Switzerland and Germany—but compared with Cuba it’s Canada.

Cuba’s natural beauty is undeniable, and it’s easy to see Havana’s former grandeur through the rot and decay, but even the refurbished part of the capital in the tourist quarter looks and feels surreal and blank. It’s like a Disneyfied version of Cuba. Clean and well-maintained, to be sure, and pleasant enough on the surface, but there’s no real economy there aside from some token high-end restaurants for tourists that locals can’t afford to eat in on their 20-dollars a month Maximum Wage. 

Some of your friends have been to Cuba, I know, and some of them say it’s great. It can be great if you stay inside the tourist bubble, but leaving that bubble and interacting with the rest of Havana is like getting thumped in the stomach by a cop wielding a truncheon. More than half the capital’s population lives on a ration card and a salary smaller than a child’s allowance in an urban disaster area that looks like it was bombed during a war. 

Rome had to have made an impression on Raúl Castro. He knows what a nation with a market economy looks like, and that’s good. He can’t possibly go home and believe his own propaganda about “socialism,” which in Cuba is actually communism, but he hasn’t believed that nonsense for years anyway. Now that his more-hardline brother Fidel is out of the picture—is he still even alive, or is it Weekend at Bernie’s down there?—Raúl has implemented microcapitalist reforms and will likely continue moving, though perhaps at glacial speed, toward a Latin American version of the Chinese and Vietnamese model.

He should aim for the Chilean model, but he won’t, not even after visiting Europe. Seeing what a properly functioning country looks like and feels like isn’t enough for the power mad. North Korea’s Jim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland. He knows damn well what a civilized country looks like and can’t possibly believe that the prison state he inherited is doing the best it possibly can. He hasn’t been to Seoul, but surely he’s seen pictures on the Internet and can contrast his vibrant neighbor with the soul-crushing totalitarian anthill of Pyongyang. Absolute power, though, corrupts absolutely, and the tyranny of the Kim family probably even creeps out the Castros at this point.

It’s not entirely meaningless that Raúl is telling Westerners what they want to hear. It’s cynical, sure, and it won’t amount to much in the end, but unlike the boy king of the underworld over in Pyongyang, he seems to be tiring of his isolation.

Democracy in Retreat

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and China’s maritime ambitions are just a few of the issues that will make foreign policy a larger issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. As candidates assemble their advisers and get briefed, they should devote some time to considering whether these challenges to US allies and interests are related to a larger phenomenon.

In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy, Robert Kagan traced democracy’s advance and retreat over time, asking whether the triumph or failure of democratic ideals over ideological rivals has to do with “the victory of an idea or the victory of arms?”

Since President Obama took office in 2009, Kagan writes, the US, and Europe, have failed to counteract a worldwide decline in democracy. “Insofar as there is energy in the international system,” Kagan writes, “it comes from the great power autocrats.”

British Elections Postscript

Widely expected to give a muffled and incoherent answer, the British electorate opted instead for a decisive one. When the votes were counted in the 2015 general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had the necessary numbers to govern on his own with a small, but workable majority. As one re-elected Tory member told the BBC Friday morning, “We’re going to have none of the muddle that was predicted.” In an astonishing result that gave fresh meaning to the word unpredictable, there was no hung Parliament, no battle for power.

It’s a result calculated to cause trepidation in Brussels and relief in Washington. Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the outcome could depend on prior negotiations to change the ground rules of Britain’s relationship with Europe. In the European Commission this is widely seen as the British wanting to remain EU members, but on their own terms: In Cameron’s Conservative Party, the widespread feeling is that Britain needs to regain some of what is perceived as lost British sovereignty to EU community rules.

The Brazilian Shipwreck

Like the captain of a ship that has hit a jagged reef, President Dilma Rousseff is attempting a salvage operation to prevent the breakup and sinking of her political vessel, the populist Workers Party that has been the champion of the left since electoral democracy was restored in Brazil in 1985. The name of the ship in this metaphor is the SS PT, the Brazilian acronym of the Workers Party. The name of the reef is corruption, which has battered Rousseff’s administration. The chief salvage engineer is Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, an advocate of free markets and fiscal stability named in January 2015, whose desperate efforts to save the Brazilian economy have been met by a rebellion of the PT crew against austerity measures. This led to a breakup of the multiparty coalition that has provided PT governments a safe majority in congress since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva first led the PT to power in 2003. These political storms have buffeted Rousseff since her election to a second term in 2014 extended 13 years of PT populist dominance, financed by colossal corruption diverting billions of dollars in public money to finance political payoffs.

The State of Ukraine

The following is an interview with Taras Kuzio, a leading expert on Ukraine and post-communist politics.


MOTYL: You’ve just completed a tour of the Ukrainian territories adjoining the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies. What are some of your key conclusions?

KUZIO: Since the Euromaidan Revolution I’ve made six visits to southeastern Ukraine for research on a book on the Donbas (supported by the US-based Ukrainian Studies Fund). My just-completed visit was to Mariupol and Volnovakha, which is on the road to Donetsk and 20 kilometers from the front line. I have also visited Donetsk (during the Euromaidan) as well as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both of which have been controlled by Ukrainian forces since summer 2014. The visit to Mariupol was with four journalists (two from Kharkiv, one from Kyiv, and one from Lutsk). It was funded by the EU through the Association of Polish Journalists and the TeleKrytyka Ukrainian media monitor and coordinated by Yuri Lukanov, president of the Trade Union of Independent Journalists of Ukraine.

China Creates Adversaries With South China Sea Reclamations

Beijing’s exchange of allegations with Manila over the South China Sea became increasingly nasty this week when the Chinese Foreign Ministry, on May 5th, accused the Philippines of “malicious hyping and provocation.” China accused its island neighbor of illegally seizing its possessions in that body of water. China claims almost all the islands, shoals, rocks, and reefs there as sovereign territory.

Beijing’s undiplomatic language accompanies its contention that the Philippines and other nations had, by building facilities, violated the nonbinding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed November 2002 by ASEAN states and China.

Blasphemy and Double Standards

Since the shooting in Texas targeting artists portraying the Prophet Muhammad, it is worth examining the US treatment of and reaction to blasphemy.

In June 2011, the Broadway show The Book of Mormon received 14 nominations at the annual Tony awards (more than any other production) and won nine of them, including the coveted “Best Musical.” The script and lyrics are dirty and unfiltered. One song says “F*** you, God.” Throughout the play, the Mormon Church is mocked. Its founder, Joseph Smith, is ridiculed for his beliefs. His followers are insulted. Yet the play becomes a huge hit. Broadway critics and the general public instantly embrace it. Journalists deliver upbeat reviews. Ripples of liberal laughter can be heard across a country where religion is generally taken seriously.

Prospects for the Northeast Passage

It was going to be the advent of a new and cost-effective route for global trade, one that would cut through the Arctic ice, bypass the longer Suez Canal route, and conveniently sail from China to Finland and onwards from there. And considering that the vast majority of goods are transported by sea, and that many of them are made in China for consumption in Europe, the Northeast Passage—which stretches along Russia’s northern coast, linking China with Europe and the Atlantic Ocean—is indeed very conveniently located.

The Iranian Leader's Bizarre Twitter Feed

Want a trip into bizarroland? Take a look at the Twitter feed for Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei.

It's ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes agnst US blacks continue to occur. #BlackLivesMatter #FreddieGray

No, his Twitter feed hasn't been hacked by Al Sharpton. Nor is this a spoof site. It's the real online megaphone for the Iranian dictator.

This pasty old man doesn't give a flying fork about black people, especially those who live in the United States. When he and his underlings chant “Death to America,” they don't mean death to white America. They're talking about the whole country, from our black president at the top to undocumented immigrants on the bottom and everyone in between.

Here are a few of his tweets for May Day.

It's not just a complement that the #Prophet kissed the hands of #workers, it's a lesson to all of us. #WorkersDay

Govt must not buy from outside #Iran its consuming goods which can be produced domestically. This is an example of honoring Iranian workers.

This one, though, is my favorite:

US Police kill people over any excuse; this type of power doesn't ensure security but leads to insecurity. #Baltimore

When Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with a gigantic bomb in downtown Beirut, did that lead to security or insecurity? Did Iranian-backed death squads in Iraq lead to security or insecurity? How about the Iranian-sponsored Houthi takeover of Yemen? How's that going?

And what about Khamenei's Basij militia cracking heads during the Green Revolution and torturing activists in prison?

Ok, perhaps I'm being unfair. Wallowing in whataboutery is for college students, not serious analysts. Maybe Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders could come over here and teach American police officers about cultural sensitivity. The plainclothes Basijis could train our undercover police officers so incidents like this don't happen again. Iranian judges who sentence gay people to death by hanging from cranes could be guest lecturers at American law schools. Perhaps MSNBC could invite the warden of Evin Prison to host one of their shows in the next season's line-up.

Then again, maybe not. Washington Post journalist Jason Resaian—who is an American citizen, by the way—is languishing in Evin Prison right now. He was arrested last year and has been slapped with the ludicrous charges of “espionage” and “conducting propaganda against the establishment.”

I long ago lost track of how many times paranoid Middle Easterners thought I was a spy while I was working over there—many of them think every journalist in the world is a spy—but I can't remember the last time I took it seriously.

That second charge, though, “conducting propaganda against the establishment” is something every journalist who works in the Middle East has to be wary of. Almost every Middle Eastern country is a police state of one kind or another that can and will arrest anyone for any reason or no reason at all.

In 2005, a spokesman for Hezbollah—the Lebanese terrorist organization founded, funded, and controlled by the Iranian regime that is now tweeting “black lives matter”—called me at home and said, “we know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.” He accused me of “propagandizing against the party” because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. I even made it clear in that very same blog post that it was a joke, so there was no misunderstanding.

From Hezbollah's and Iran's point of view, anything that doesn't precisely conform to the party line is propagandizing against the establishment or the party. Making sure everyone knows it, and knows there may be terrible consequences for anyone foolish or brave enough to give them the finger, is part of their mission statement.

And we're supposed to believe that the man who's in charge of all this cares even a whit about police violence in the United States or worker's rights on May Day?


Khamenei has 120,000 Twitter followers but only follows five people himself. Wondering who are the lucky five, I clicked to find out and discovered that three of them are his other accounts, one of them is from the ghost of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the last is some random Islamic Twitter feed.

Twitter is a one-way conversation for this guy. Following other people? That's for teachable folks who might learn something from somebody else, or at least for those of us who are passively interested in what somebody else has to say.

Iran's ruler is doing what the Soviet Union used to do and what Hugo Chavez did more recently. Both used the West's language of human rights as weapons against the West while resisting everything Western human rights activists stand for. Partly they were just being cynical, and partly they were pointing out the West's supposed hypocrisy.

You could argue that I'm just doing what Khamenei is doing by saying the other guy has no clothes, but there's a difference, and it's crucial. I actually care about human rights, not just for Americans, but also for Iranians and everyone else. Plenty of Iranians care about human rights, too, but it's safe to say that pretty much none of them are fixtures in the Iranian government.

The most foolish among us might be convinced that tyrannical dictators on the other side of the planet care more about such things than we do. That's the theory, anyway. Hey, maybe the Iranian leader is one of us! Maybe everything our own government says is a lie!

Every village has its idiot. Moscow managed to sucker some of us during the Soviet era, at least for a while, with this sort of shtick. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez tricked a handful, as well. For years the Bolivarian Republic's embassy in Washington flooded my inbox with press releases that read like they were written by Elizabeth Warren.

The communist bloc was an unspeakable prison house spanning more than one continent, but its utopian ideals appeared lofty to a small percentage of Westerners who couldn't be bothered to look at the details. The utopian ideals of Iran's revolutionary regime, though, will never gain traction among those of us who aren't Shia Muslims.

Iran's tyrant will not pull this off, but it's fun watching him try.

Soviet-Nazi Collaboration and World War II

As May 9th, Victory Day in many post-Soviet states, approaches, decency demands that we celebrate the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and honor the millions of soldiers and civilians who gave their lives to rid the world of the scourge of Nazism.

At the same time, if we truly want to honor the dead, we must take heed of the historical lies that the Kremlin, both in its Soviet and post-Soviet hypostases, promotes about the USSR’s relationship with Nazi Germany.

For starters, the Moscow-controlled Communist International, and its sidekick, the Communist Party of Germany, made Hitler’s rise to power possible, if not indeed inevitable, by tarring the German Social Democrats as “social fascists” who threatened to split the proletariat and were, thus, a greater evil than the Nazis. Had the German left remained united against the real threat—Nazism—Hitler might not have come to power. (Many leftists make a similar mistake today, preferring Vladimir Putin’s fascism to American capitalism and thereby promoting war in Europe.)


Subscribe to RSS - blogs