I am in the Ukraine at the moment on my 13th flight overseas, just next door to Russia. It has been several degrees below zero, and over 120 people have died over the past few days due to the cold. However, that is not what this story is about.
This story is about why tens of thousands took to the streets of Moscow in these below freezing temperatures to protest to Putin`s quest to return to the Russian Presidency.
I think much of the motivation behind the massive street protest is the lack of Freedoms. A simple comparison and contrast of the American Constitution Bill of Rights of that gives Americans the freedom of speech, religion, press, to assemble peacefully, the right to bear arms, the right to fair and speedy trial by Jury, freedom from unfair searches of your homes, the right of all states to make laws that have not been made by Congress we find that most are neglected in Russia and many other former Soviet States.
Granted we have our problems and they have theirs, but do people really have to give up their Freedoms? Some of these differences led America to have a Cold War relationship with Russia and the Iron Curtin kept the East and West Divided. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, things have been tough and it was America and the West that were first to come to the former Soviet States to help.
Under Communism, no one was supposed to have anything more than the next, so the way of doing business was simply to deal in kickbacks and bribes. The way of doing business consisted of the typical bribes, even if that business benefited the community, cities or nation in a constructive way. This was the former Soviet States and there are still such barriers and lack for Rule of Laws even today.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was very severe, and millions died because of the economic conditions. For nearly a decade even with Western assistance, the former Soviet States lived in near Great Depression economic conditions and a Black Market Economy.
I remember offering many suggestions to previous American Administrations. Such as buying out more than 800 Nuclear Weapons once pointed at the United State for one and secondly to keep them out of terrorist hands. I also suggested and do Joint Ventures buyouts of the Mir Space Station and convert it to the International Space Station. This kept a small group of scientist on payroll, but humanity lost a decade of scientist that may have progressed the space age. I have wondered if NASA will face the same as economic cuts affect their future space endeavors.
Over the past ten years, I saw great progress from my first visit of people everywhere begging, little old ladies typical posture was that open hand hoping for a handout. I saw many people often homeless and/or too weak to get up lying near the Metro stops. I even remember seeing one young man coughing up blood from the cold... Roads were in disrepair, and the list could go on and on. I used to take a daily walk by myself and go buy bread and kielbasa (sort of like Polish Sausage), separate it out in small bags and take it to the beautiful church and give it to the mothers with children. Sad, and rarely did I tell anyone that I was doing this.
During these time until now, (as I have all over the World via comprehensive planning tools and spreadsheets); I often shared economic development plans and some very detailed economic enhancement plans with cities, and with development groups that tried to educate and improve growth and development in the Eastern European region and more specifically within the Ukraine. Yet, the lack for the rule of law, the red-tape, the bribery system over that of sound economic and finance principles made most of my efforts useless. Yet, I was learning and anticipating more Global problems and the lessons learned here helped in the United States and in the EU. But, that is also another story.
Things have greatly improved and the economies are getting closer to that of the United States now; however, there is still a very, very poor people and pensioners that live on less than $100 a month while food cost are the same as in America due to poor policy making. Yet, during my ten years of hands on involvement behind the Iron Curtin of the Big Emerging Markets of Eastern Europe I saw vast struggles to develop their Market Economy.
Obviously, it has been tough to have a profound and constructive affect due to the old ways of doing things. Bribes for land to build new shopping centers and grocery stores cost more than the land cost in many Triple A locations. Then investors had to deal with a ridiculous cost of capital loans that were near 20%. A high Value Added Tax on Imports as Government sought to squeeze every penny possible.
The per capita income was nearly 50 times less than that of the United States; therefore, any import VAT`s, along with high rents for a freezing-cold tin sided Flea Market booth cost $40 to $80 per square meter. Yet, the bribery and quest to do business in Eastern Europe hampered improving the Market Economy Conditions. Few shopping center chains have expanded into the East, and the Bazaar or Flea Market economy is still the norm in 99.9% of the former Soviet States. So, for tens of thousands to brave the cold to protest Putin was a normal every day event and daily struggle to survive as people earn their daily bread and not much more braving the freezing cold and squalor conditions in the market place.
Over these 10 years there was a vast shift towards Westernization and changes were good for the people as their standards of living increased. That lasted up till Russia invaded Georgia, and much of the Western funds were pulled out; thereby, dropping the Russian Stock Market by nearly 70%... This vast pull out of funds created a vast downturn in the Eastern European economy that was already expecting a Global Crises.
People rarely smiled over the past decade that I have been visiting the East. Nor, did they have much to smile about considering the market conditions, breaking from the East, dealing with corruption, the high taxes, and all the other hardships that they had to endure. People always wondered why people from America were so friendly and smiling and those that got to visit understood. It was because we were optimistic and because we were free and had great freedoms that those people had never felts.
Freedoms that the former Soviet State never understood, nor shared with their people. It appeared that the Russian State under Putin took what it wanted to affect strong-arm policies on its neighbors. Ukraine has been pressured by the Putin "OIligarchy` as he jailing the former Russian Oil Giants director without a speedy trial by Jury, and took control of the company. Gas and Oil was used in the Geopolitical lifeblood by Putin and the Russian State.
Putin tried to restrict VKontakt (Russian version of facebook), and the right to Peaceful Assembly was recently suppressed and the International Community condemned such actions and Putin slacked and made statements that Russia had the right to peacefully assemble and assemble they did on January the 2th, 2012 when tens of thousands went into the freezing cold streets.
Granted I cautioned my Western facebook friend that work for the State Department that condemned Russia`s actions for Russia has a long history of violent coups and a peaceful assembly usually does not stay peaceful. I do not think it would be wise for a rebellion to start in Russia and a nuclear briefcase gets thrown up against the Kremlin wall. We saw that in 1991 when Boris Yeltzen bombarded his own Parliament Rada. So much for the separation of Powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branch. Just bombard them. Other freedoms have been trampled on such as freedoms of press and danger to the press and ranked 140 out of 178 in the Press Freedom Index.
I could go on, but it is getting late, and there isn`t much that I can do about it other than to hope things will get better for the people of Eastern Europe. Perhaps we can all hope that the people`s voices will be heard and that they will continue to want to Westernize. We can all hope that they will demand improvements in their Rule of Law, their basic Bill of Rights and freedoms that America enjoys.
Thank you and we can only hope that in the future we will see more and more smiles on the faces of those from behind the old Iron Curtin.
Harvey Carroll, Jr.
PS: After visiting the former Soviet States so many times and literally spending years integrating myself within the various Eastern European Cultures I can understand why Russia has been so reluctant in supporting the Syrian Peoples calls for Al-Assad the Syrian Dictator to step down. Russia has a kinship with the Al-Assad regime in that of stripping away the basic freedoms of their citizens.
Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons