Russia Shaping up to Revisit its Political Past

From Prince Rurik, who ruled from 862 to 879, to the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, forced to abdicate in March 1917 after a series of military defeats and pogroms that left Russia torn, transforming the country from a great world power to a bankrupt and broken nation. And later that year after the second revolution Nicholas II along with his entire family were put to death at the hands of the Lenin-led Bolsheviks.  So it began. The Great Empire of Russia has charmed and bedeviled the west as ally and foe.  From Churchill’s ‘Sinews of Peace’ address on March 5 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, when he coined the phrase ‘iron curtain’ to describe Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, to that of former US President Ronald Reagan’s turn of phrase ‘evil empire’, the west has gone toe to toe with successive Russian leaders in the great struggle of east versus west.  Finally, in Mikhail Gorbachev the west found a leader they could work with and it culminated with the Berlin Wall coming down in the fall of 1989.  The rhetoric worked.  We watched and hoped as it appeared that the long dreaded nuclear threat of mutual annihilation had met its end and we would enter a new period of peace and prosperity.  No more duck and cover. But how long does it take for a newly open country to embrace its economic sovereignty, make billions, convince the rest of the world it is working in solidarity with them while slowly creeping back to the old ways?  About 20 years it seems. In the first week of May 2012 Russians took to the streets to oppose the swearing in of Vladimir Putin for his third term as President following his four year stint as Prime Minister.  Protests were reported to be relatively peaceful, however event watchers made a point to say this was possibly not a good thing.  Observers assumed that the relative quiet suggested there had been a crack down on protesters. Not that long ago, June 1991, the Soviet Union with its command economy and military uniformed parades only a few days dead had Boris Yeltsin at the helm as his new Russia was dramatically shifted to a free-market.  While Russian citizens and former communist block countries were busy exploring the new ‘free’ world – now able to handle banned books and music, immigrating without persecution, opening new businesses or struggling to keep their old ones afloat, the newly-deemed democratic Russia gave birth to a handful of oligarchs or business magnates who dutifully bought up as much as possible amassing grotesque wealth and, they thought, power. Privatization spread with the help of Western-guided Yeltsin, possibly a modern day Peter the Great, who in years that followed manipulated inflation and currency exchange rates, ordered the floodgates of foreign trade to be opened and thrust the country in to what some say was a worse economic depression than that of the American and German depression of the late 1920s and 30s.  Not so great. The year before Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin, and it must be noted a former KGB officer, came to power Russia defaulted on loans that it received from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); reportedly $5 billion was stolen the night before the meltdown, ironically around the same time coal miners went on strike demanding a reported $12 billion in unpaid wages. With this as the back drop when power was handed over to Putin it was the perfect breading ground for deals to be made without much notice or concern.  From that point on Putin has been consolidating; quietly taking back all that was once in private hands, and of course the power.

This past February then Prime Minster Putin, “instructed the country’s No.2 bank VTB to compensate small investors who lost money in its stock market flotation,” as reported by Reuters news agency.  Putin was quick to make it seem that he was doing this for the benefit of small investors so they would not lose out.  Reuters continued, “Minority shareholders who bought into the ‘people’s IPO’, many of them first-time investors, lost out when VTB’s share price was hit by the 2008 crash and again in the ill-fated takeover of Bank of Moscow, which led to a $14 billion bailout.”  The buy back would reportedly cost the bank $500 to $600 million, however in the end most of those shares would then be back in the hands of the bank and the government.  We cannot know what the true plan is, but I believe it is worth speculating and simply being curious as to the happenings. Putin’s consolidation of power seems to follow the same ‘chilling’ effect that all supreme rulers and dictators employ: exile and imprisonment of ones rivals, new rules that suit your needs, strong influence over the media and control of the military.  The government agency Gulag has long been disbanded but there are Correctional Colonies.  Consider these two cases in point: the currently imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one time head of the now defunct oil and gas company Yukos one of Russia’s largest companies to come out of 90s privatization.  Before being convicted of fraud and having his company go bankrupt in 2003 Khodorkovsky was known to oppose Putin while possibly having political ambitions.  Khodorkovsky is currently living out a new jail term that is expected to last until 2016 in the Correctional Colony No. 7 in the north western town of Segezha, along the Finnish border.

Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev is a man somewhat similar to pre-2003 Mikhail Khodorkovsky (abundant wealth, political connections and position of power).  In an interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur on the program Hard Talk he spoke with incredible delicacy when it came to commenting on Vladimir Putin and his politics.  He frequently and with great control managed to sidestep most questions that would in any way make it seem that he was reprimanding Putin, a close acquaintance of his.  Lebedev, who owns a third of the shares in the Russian airline Aeroflot (the Russian government owns 51 percent), is the owner of Russian and UK newspapers and reportedly has an estimated wealth more than $3 billion, and Khodorkovsky are a perfect example of where you can be and where you can end up if you dare make a wrong move in Putin’s Russia. But it would be too harsh at this point to use Stalin as a comparative. My bet is that once 2017 comes around Putin will either change the rules again, granting himself the right to another six year term or he will choose who will succeed him, just as he did with Dmitry Medvedev who replaced him as President while he stood back in the role of Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012 and ran the country.  Or he may even do what Napoleon Bonaparte did on December 30, 1804; crown himself Emperor. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Russia is finding its way back to its old ways, over 1000 years of rule by Tsars, despots, tyrants and dictators creates a certain mindset in its citizens, which can’t be expected to be erased in 20 years. | Raymond Matt, CFP, CLU, TEP, CHS | The Ontarian, Writer, Editor

Change the Focus – Change the Outcome

I am fond of the notion that what we choose to focus on tends to get bigger.  I also try not to categorize news as good or bad, it’s just news.  There is certainly news I would prefer not to receive but to call it good or bad generates a whole bunch of emotions I would prefer not to stimulate.  Just deal with the news. A story I read a few years back illustrated this concept.  A fellow won the lottery, one of those big ones for tens of millions of dollars.  His many friends offered their best wishes and reminded him of how truly lucky he was.  His reply was, “maybe so”. The man enjoyed himself and was a good friend to many.  He purchased an expensive sports car, custom made and very fast.  His friends were in awe and again reminded him of his good luck and fortune.  His reply, once again was “maybe so”. Life continued and our wealthy friend amassed many fine possessions including a beautiful home high in the mountains that overlooked the Pacific.  One fine sunny day while driving his sports car he was involved in a horrible crash which resulted in severe and disfiguring injuries.  As he lay in the hospital recovering, his family and friends nearby to provide their love and encouragement, they reminded him of his bad luck and misfortune.  How could this be, they said?  His weak reply, “maybe so”. As it happens while he was in the hospital a violent storm occurred and the resulting mud slide consumed his beautiful Pacific coast home and washed it into the sea.  His friends and family, as you may guess, were very quick to point out how lucky he was.  Had he been home he too would have been washed out to sea and perished.  His reply, “maybe so”.  He was a man who simply took news and events as they came and dealt with the consequences – neither good nor bad. Our perceptions of events, real or imaginary, create great conflict within us and those around us.  The challenge is to focus on the now; not the past or the future.  Our instincts seldom lead us astray and we need to be willing to rely upon them.  I often remind myself that by the mere fact that I am here on earth I have survived millions of years of evolutionary change that has resulted in my presence.  That’s power. World events, both economic and political, cause great strife but I hold firm on my belief that if I change the focus I will change the outcome.  Why do I believe this?  I can point to countless examples where individuals have endured the most horrible of conditions and not only survived but thrived and served their fellow man. I would challenge you as you look to the news each day try not to categorize it as good or bad try instead to change the focus. Raymond Matt, CFP, CLU, TEP, CHS

New Generation of Africans Quashing Old Stereotypes

North America and Europe may be reeling under the pressure of budget cuts, austerity measures, debt reduction, bailouts and job losses but there is one continent that appears to be rising amid the turmoil – Africa. African countries have without a doubt experienced a considerable and prolonged share of strife, poverty and civil war.  However, the rich history, array of cultures and wealth of natural resources that are spread throughout the continent can’t be drowned out or suppressed. On the contrary, for the economies of the developing world in the wake of the global recession it is “business as usual” according to BBC correspondent Justin Rolatt.  This week in an online article Rolatt wrote about Mombasa and gave credit to the southern Kenyan costal city. “This great East African metropolis was a cosmopolitan trading hub even while London was a regional backwater.” As far back as the 12th century Mombasa has been a market centre for anyone who sailed the Indian Ocean, so it should come as no surprise that Kenya or any other African country could not thrive as the world’s wealth starts to be distributed more evenly. And it appears that new generations of Africans are quashing the long-seen stereotypes of their countries and are excited for new steps and ideas that are forming; hungry for success and opportunity. The rise in both Chinese manufacturing and tourism in Africa is a sign that a great deal of Africa’s future boom may lie in the continent’s relationship with its North-Eastern neighbour.  With organizations like China to Africa whose entire purpose is to increase the number of Chinese arrivals, both leisure and business, to African countries it is no wonder why the rising Chinese middle class who are traveling more are choosing Africa as their vacation destination.  It is obvious that a boom will occur in Africa the only question is when. Another interesting Africa-China connection to note is that for a number of years young Africans have been learning Mandarin in preparation for new job opportunities. Furthermore, entrepreneurial artists and fashion designers are taking advantage of changing attitudes and abundant resources at their disposal to jump-start fledgling fashion and textile businesses.  Last year the fourth Swahili fashion week was held in Tanzania to promote East African designers within the area and judging by this BBC video report the designers see great potential in their market. There is little doubt that the people of Africa have a rich and diverse culture.  The continent enjoys significant resources, this is evident by the past colonization and exploitation of its people and those resources.  And yes it is true that there are still a great many challenges facing the great continent but it would be refreshing to think that Africans will be able to enjoy for themselves all the fruits that their countries have to offer. | Raymond Matt, CFP, CLU, TEP, CHS | The Ontarian, Writer, Editor

Sleep; the good habit

This week I arrived home from a trip abroad that involved a six hour time change, a ten and a half hour flight, and over twenty-four hours of being awake.  The time away from work gave me good reason to reflect and keep my hands off the Blackberry (I left it at home).  But as the hours drew closer for our arrival home I started getting the all-to-familiar itch to know what was happening in the office and dive back into the exciting projects that were being shaped in my absence. So charged was I to get back into the groove of things that I neglected to do one truly fundamental thing, sleep. You would figure that after 30 hours of traveling it would make sense to hit the hay for a day, take it easy and recover from my jetlag.  Problem is – that’s just not in my DNA.  I mistakenly went to work that evening and the following day, telling myself I would just stay for a few hours, I would be home by lunch I said.  Unsurprisingly I did not leave until well after my usual quitting time; not an uncommon thing for me but in this instance it was even more evident that I was running low on energy.  I found myself wanting to work on everything because there was so much to do! I’m certainly not the only one that can fall into this trap.  According to the American National Sleep Foundation, “47 million adults may be putting themselves at risk for injury, health and behavior problems because they aren’t meeting their minimum sleep need in order to be fully alert the next day.” An extensive report developed by Michael H. Bonnet Ph.D. and Donna L. Arand Ph.D. of Wright State University and Kettering Medical Center, also found on the National Sleep Foundation website, called: How Much Sleep Do Adults Need? The article discusses the importance of our sleep function, the outcome of sleep restriction, differences in our sleeping patterns and the heath implications associated with too much or too little sleep. Donnet and Arand summarized that, “there are significant mood, performance, health, and mortality consequences associated with sleep restriction, and these consequences increase as sleep restriction becomes chronic.” Furthermore the report supports what we already know, “that deprivation of sleep makes us sleepy and results in poor performance while sufficient sleep improves our alertness, mood, and performance.” The question that I have for myself now, which may be more interesting, is why was I compelled to reenter the office environment when I knew I was running on empty?  It is worth noting that the aforementioned study also states that, “external environmental or social factors, such as the need to work more than one job of longer work shifts” for a prolonged time changes our sleeping habits.  It stands to reason that my ingrained work habits drove me to go against my instinctual need for sleep. It all comes down to habit. People often say that they simply require more discipline; I counter that with we are 100% disciplined to our existing set of habits.  Change the habit, change the result, get more sleep. | Raymond Matt, CFP, CLU, TEP, CHS | The Ontarian, Writer, Editor

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