Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Russia Belarus- Half your sovereignty for half price gas

This is the deal reportedly being done between Belarus and Russia as President Alexander Lukashenko visits Moscow.

Belarus gives complete control of its state gas transit monopoly Beltranzgaz to Russian Gas monopoly Gazprom for $2.5 billion. Gazprom already owns half of Beltranzgaz.

In return Russia halves its gas price for Belarus. It pegs it close to its own domestic Russian tariff. That’s probably going to be a drop from $300 per thousand cubic metres down to around $150. Customers in Europe have to pay the market rate of well over $400 per thousand cubic metres.

So how much political influence can energy buy you over another supposedly sovereign state? There a lot more than just gas flowing around here.

Belarus is in big trouble. It’s been poor and alienated for some time. Alexander Lukashenko was ‘elected’ for a fourth term last December amid riots which he brutally put down. He’s been in power since 1994. His only international friend with any clout is Russia. But friendship might be rather a generous word. Belarus’ economic situation has gone from bad to worse. It mostly exports agricultural products and tractors, mostly to Russia. Its economy is in dire straits, facing its own economic crisis and rampant inflation.

Russia wants political influence over Belarus and for there not to be an anti-Russian revolution there. Lukashenko is pro-Russian, so for the time Moscow is content to subsidize him. But many think they want more. Russia has Belarus over a gas barrel so to speak.

Belarus has joined a Customs Union along with Kazakhstan and Russia. As part of membership both Astana and Minsk have agreed to give up many government powers to the control of the customs union. Most will be administered in Russia. It could even see Belarus abandoning its own rouble in favour of the Russian rouble.

All of this might make sense when Belarus is desperate to stabilise its currency and increase trade. But giving away the entire gas monopoly, government controls and potentially even the currency? These may become deals the Belarusian people come to seriously regret, with the additional cruel irony that they have no say in the matter while they’re being struck.

Friday, 4 November 2011

500 days to Mars and back, all without leaving earth

The six 'crew' enter isolation in their mock space ship on June 3rd 2010.

The Russian hypesters say we've virtually already travelled to Mars. Russia's most famous cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov and others say it's a waste of time. It's certainly achieved little more than as an isolation experiment, but Mars 500 has been quite a feat.

The six 'crew' of the mock spacecraft have managed to stay locked in for 520 days, over 17 months. I suspect submarine crews may have managed longer, but it's still a very long time to be stuck with five other men with only routine to keep you company.

Of course that is just what a Mars mission would entail, just with varying amounts of gravity and possible death in the icy vacuum of space also thrown in. NASA is vaguely aiming for such a mission in the 2030's. Russia and it's agency ROSCOSMOS will likely be a major partner as long as the two don't do something silly and fall out. They work very closely together at the moment and both will be watching the results of this experiment with some interest.

For one of the questions the Mars 500 experiement is trying to answer is, how will us homo sapiens cope in such isolation for such a long time?

The fear is of 'social narrowing'. A human stuck in the same narrow company with nothing much to do for such a long time is thought to experience a deadening of social interaction. Scientists at antartic research stations withdrew into themselves, stopped eating together, and wore a vacant expression.

Back in orbit there have even been reports of 'space madness', with crew freaking out when they dwelled too much on the fact they were in a metal box floating in the void.

Luckily, none of that happened in this experiment. Despite many bookies predicting one or other of the participants would leave, that fights would break out and that some of them would even go insane, they've got along relatively well and no one has quit.

All six were carefully psychologically selected. They were all from scientific and engineering backgrounds, happy to bury their head in a problem or work together on one. None of them were given to childish attempts to gain power or attention. They were also well attended to from the outside world.

There were some notable moments such as when they made a cardboard christmas tree or all clubbed together to perform a guitar hero rendition of blur's song 2. But the scientists were amazed to see how much the six men came to believe in their world. When halfway through the trip a mock mars landing took place the crew took it deadly seriously. One observer noted how their heartbeats were 160 a minute. Yury Gagarin's when he became the first man in space was only 152!

Controversially the organisers at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems did decide to withhold potentially depressing news from the outside world. But the six men were allowed free communication with their families (albeit with a realistic 20 minute time delay) and had regular communication with the control room.

They'll have a full debrief and the researchers will make sure they're all sound now it's over. But they can be proud of themselves for enduring and undoubtedly contributing to the day when a real mars mission takes humanity that bit further into the exploration of space.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Russia's town in the Arctic- Cold Logic?

Valery Rzhevsky- Very confident his model will become a northen
Russian outpost.

He calls it Umka. A town in Russia's frozen northern arctic coast. Or at least it will be according to architect Valery Rzhevsky who designed it. He says it will be a base for engineers working to extract oil and gas from under the arctic sea bed.

"It will also be a port on the northern sea route," he enthuses. Russia has long dreamt of opening a route along it's northern coast for ships from the Atlantic and North Sea to the Pacific. "This would put a port on that route for ships and their attendant ice breakers to stop at." Valery goes on to describe how the town of 5000 people would be enclosed from the elements by giant insulated metal walls. Inside would be a gym, a park, a swimming centre and even an orthodox church.

But Valery also freely admits it's part of an unashamed grab for territory in the arctic. While the UN convention on the law of the sea tries to assess various claims to the arctic seabed, Russia especially has not been waiting for the process to finish. In 2007 the famous Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov used a special mini submarine to plant the Russian flag on the arctic seabed. He and other Russians claim a huge area of seabed including the north pole is a geological extension of the Russian continental shelf under Russian territorial waters. That would give Russia control over potentially vast natural reserves of gas and oil. The arctic is estimated to hold up to 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas.

Many fear an arms race gearing up in the region with Russian, Canada, Denmark and Norway and the U.S. among those building and training new arctic military and naval forces. But as for the $6.4 billion arctic town, Chilingarov is sceptical, telling Rzhevsky when he saw the plans, "it's not yet forbidden to dream in Russia." It will take a long time to see if this project really does materialize, or is just a Russian white dream.

A model of 'Umka', the arctic town. The church is in the foreground,
the port in the distance.