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01.10.2009

Ought Nine

Real winter has descended on a Poland still trying to recover from its Christmas binge. The main Polish celebration falls on Christmas Eve, but both the 25th and 26th are holidays spent trying to make up for the brief interval of meatlessness on the 24th. Three years out of seven, the Christmas holidays fall between two weekends, creating a nearly uninterrupted streak of days off from somewhere around December 20th into the New Year, when a bloated and hung over nation finds itself back in the streets, shivering and waiting in the dark for a morning tram.

The New Year has brought with it two midwinter traditions. The first is a pitiless Scandinavian air mass that descends from the north, drops a few flurries of snow and then clears at night to allow any faint bits of remaining heat to radiate out into space. In the mornings the sun drags itself over the horizon, takes one look at what it sees and heads right back down again. No one blames it.

The second tradition is the ritual swordfight over natural gas between Russia and Ukraine. The countries fight over just how much money Ukraine should be paying Russia for its gas (which it gets at a discount rate), and they like to do it in January, when actions like turning off all the natural gas flowing through Ukraine to Europe have a way of capturing everyone's attention.

Greybeards around the world are arguing over the purpose of the dispute: whether the Russians are desperate for money, or playing power politics against Ukraine, or trying to lean on Europe to built a Baltic undersea pipeline directly to Russian territory, or all of those things. Constellations of envoys are in the air, and soon the ritual will come to its annual conclusion, with an uneasy truce and no clear idea who the bad guy was.

Whatever you think of the merits of the case (laid out in heroic detail by Wikipedia), you have to pity the Russians a little bit. For centuries the biggest country in the world, Russia could never conquer its way to a single economically useful land border or seaport. What used to be a comfortable ring of client states (the 'near abroad', in Russian terms) went away with the fall of Communism, and now the former heartland of the Soviet Union is getting all up in Russia's business and demanding to be treated like a sovereign state, instead of remaining a complacent little throw pillow like Belarus. The Russians react to this a bit like the Americans might if the Midwest were to secede, begin speaking French, and demand boxcars full of quality merchandise at low, low prices. It really burns them up.

Ukraine, for its part, is not in its happy place. In August they got to watch the Russian Army crush Georgia, an unpleasant reminder of one thing the Russians are actually good at. In November, the Ukrainian economy gave a soft cough, rolled over, and died. Industrial production fell by 9% that month, an unheard-of thing in the former Eastern Bloc, where there is so much latent productive capacity left from forty years of the victorious march towards socialism that growth rates are usually double those in the West. Since the end of the year, Ukraine has been in the position of Wile E. Coyote after running off a cliff, hoping to defer an extremely long and distressing plunge by not looking down. The Russians have now tossed them an anvil. It is going to be a grim few months for our poor neighbors to the east.

While we Poles stand and peer over the cliff it would be a good idea to notice the rope tied around our ankle, and perhaps ask what might happen next. As the gas crisis demonstrates, no one in Europe can pretend to be unaffected by the post-Soviet dinosaurs. In a normal country, this might mean a time of focus, concern and creative diplomacy across factional lines. In Poland, of course, our political traditions point towards heroic defiance, principled intransigence, and nobly going down in flames. It is going to be an interesting year!

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