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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Moldova: A mouse, roaring a truth

Pic of recent massive demonstration outside Moldovan Parliament.

This story might appear obscure but it reflects a bigger issue - about how Russian revanchism is reported back through democratic Europe's free media.  The issues it describes have also often been the story in Ukraine. How solid, liberal ideas like 'balance' and reporting 'both sides' can become a failure to tell the truth. How inserted reporters don't pay attention to the locals. How the messy 'European ideal' needs much closer reporting if we're to truly live up to any democratic ideal.

In the 1959 British comedy The Mouse That Roared a tiny, obscure European country ends up through comedic slight-of-hand being feted by both sides in the Cold War. In comedy, it showed how much of Europe is to the British 'Ruritania', an inexplicable country whose peoples and cultures all mess into one. As the article explains this approach lives on with today's lens of geo-politics and ideas of 'colour revolution' (via Russian infowar) muddying the coverage yet more.

Reblogged with permission from Open Democracy Russia.


By Mihai Popșoi  
There’s more to Moldova's protests than “pro-European” versus “pro-Russian”.

Moldova’s image as the poorest country in Europe is rivaled only by its obscurity. In rare outbursts of international media coverage — often related to human trafficking, arms smuggling or mass protests — Moldova is depicted as a pawn on the regional chessboard, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the west. There is no denying that, in a world of realpolitik, Moldova is indeed a playground.

Yet there is more to this intellectual inertia than meets the eye. The sheer lack of nuance and insight displayed by the international media with regards to the latest developments in Moldova is as disappointing as it is predictable. 
Much in the way of confirmation bias is at work here — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. People are usually unwilling and, at times, admittedly unable to comprehend complex phenomena, especially when simple mental shortcuts are readily available.

Professional journalists and political analysts pride themselves on preventing or minimising the influence of such biases on their work. This is easier said than done, particularly in today’s world of ubiquitous geopolitical expediency. Moldova is a case in point.

Perils of European integration

Since the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation — or so everyone thought. The post-revolutionary government took on a rather inspirational name, the Alliance for European Integration, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Generous western financial assistance and political support locked the United States and European Union into the costly self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘success story’. But the success failed to materialise, despite promising beginnings. Five pro-European governments succeeded each other faster than the public could keep up with, and they spared no effort in building an elaborate discourse of European integration both at home and abroad. One could not help but be mesmerised by the audacity of Moldova’s leadership that promised to bring the country into the EU by 2020.

Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Moldova's capital in September 2015 to protest the ‘stolen billion’. Photo courtesy of Maria Levcenco.

Naturally, high hopes developed among more gullible Moldovans and international development partners alike. But the signs of trouble appeared early on.

As early as 2011, there have been hostile takeovers of privately held shares in several leading banks, known as the raider attacks. Then came the infamous ‘Huntigate’ scandal of 2013 — a cover-up of a fatal accident during a lavish hunting spree attended by the top brass of the country’s judiciary, including the Prosecutor General. Finally, ‘the billion dollar bank heist’ left the country perplexed as to how one could steal the equivalent of 15 percent of GDP from three banks with impunity.

Once a poster child of Moldova’s European Integration, Vlad Filat, former prime minister and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, ended up a scapegoat for the missing billion. Meanwhile, Filat’s archenemy the oligarch and senior vice president of the Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, became the sole decision maker in the country.

By hook or by crook, Plahotniuc was able to create a majority coalition (which oddly bears no name). It was rushed to a vote in parliament as protesters gathered outside and soon started demanding early elections. This clearly begs the question: how can international media refer to the current reincarnation of previous governments as pro-European?

Monstrous coalition

Reports from Euronews, BBC, New York Times as well as Russia Today all described the new government as ‘pro-European’ — much to the bewilderment of Moldovan civil society. In a very heartfelt piece on his personal page, Dumitru Alaiba, a former economic and financial advisor to two prime ministers, urged international media and western politicians: “Do what you must, just don’t call this government ‘pro-European’. It is not Europe that they represent. And don’t call us, the people, pro-Russian either.”

Well-respected media institutions used a default template for covering Moldova, relying mainly on the fact that the new government presented itself as pro-European. A more astute analysis would indicate that the new government is ‘pro-European’ in name only.

After numerous Moldovan activists wrote public letters calling upon western media to take a more mindful view of the ongoing protests, a change of tone occurred. There is now a broad acknowledgement that protesters were, and are, a distinctly heterogeneous group.

Admittedly, many of them are pro-Russian, yet a lot are as pro-European as they come. What unites them all is a genuine frustration with an ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” government and a desire for a more democratic and prosperous future.

This is largely missing from the international media discourse, caught in the cross fire between Russia and the west. Russia has capitalised on the growing anti-European sentiment in Moldova, and by supporting these ruling elites, western media and western politicians have only vindicated Kremlin’s propaganda.

Another piece of the puzzle

Russia’s postimperial syndrome is built on the belief that the west is containing its resurgence by creating a belt of instability in south-east Europe — a mantra that rarely departs from Russian TV screens. Moldova is seen as just another piece of the puzzle.

Moscow has a clear agenda of trying to bring Moldova back into its orbit and does not shy away from making its intentions known either.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to broker a coalition deal between the Communists and the Democrats. In the 2014 campaign, Russia openly supported the Socialist Party.

Russian media, which still holds a lot of sway over Moldovan public opinion, has been an indispensable tool in this process. Interestingly though, the rebroadcasting rights in Moldova for the most popular Russian federal TV channels are owned by so called ‘pro-European’ politicians, primarily Vlad Plahotniuc. He owns, among a few others, the Moldovan license for Russia’s flagship Channel One. Russian media coverage of protests in Moldova paints the EU in a negative tone, while reinforcing the message of Eurasian Economic Union as a better alternative. The aim of these reports may be as much to appeal Russia's domestic audience as it is to influence public perceptions in Moldova.
This sort of nuance is helpful in understanding the complexity of the Moldovan political landscape, which cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy.

The same is true for the protest movement. Many things that politicians had kept to themselves, such as allegations of blackmail and corruption, came to light only after mass protests erupted. However, for a long time, protesters could not set their differences aside in order to pursue a common goal: early elections.

Even when they finally did, the much heralded unity of protesters across ethnic, linguistic, ideological and party lines proved too good to be true. The nascent movement is constantly being undermined by infighting.

Besides, there have always been doubts about the independence of such political players as the socialist leader Igor Dodon, Our Party head Renato Usatii, and front man of the civic platform turned political party, Andrei Năstase. Hence, the real tragedy is that genuine popular protests are led by less than candid individuals.

Bridging the divide

Instead of helping to bridge this divide, both media and politicians have contributed to the increased polarisation of public opinion by presenting just one side of the debate, reinforcing the ever-present confirmation bias.

This development is particularly visible when it comes to Romanian or Russian news reports, as well as political commentary on developments in Moldova. Self-proclaimed leader of the Moldovan diaspora in Russia, Aleksandr Kalinin, posted a Facebook video calling upon Vladimir Putin to come and rescue the Moldovans from what he saw as an imminent takeover by Romanian and Ukrainian special forces.

The response came in a leading Romanian newspaper from none other than a prominent Romanian analyst and former adviser to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, Iulian Chifu, who called the video an “official request” to Putin. To his credit, Chifu went on to debunk Kalinin’s bogus allegations, but the latter was afforded much more attention than he deserved even in the aftermath of Crimea and Donbas.

The EU's former enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle is perfectly right when he says that: “We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova.”

Undeniably, Russian media will continue to produce characteristically biased reports about Moldova, but if western media want to have any claim to a higher moral ground they have to give up using simple shortcuts and produce accurate accounts no matter how tedious or inconvenient that may be.

Max Seddon’s recent article in the Financial Times, for example, does just that. He reports that “In private, some European diplomats say they would welcome a pro-Russian government — if only so that the current coalition cannot further tarnish the EU. Says one: ‘Asking them to do reforms is like asking turkeys to prepare Christmas dinner.’” 

Who are the pro-Europeans now?

No matter how ironic it may sound, a pro-Russian government is likely to be the only thing that can rehabilitate the European Union’s image in Moldova. The risks of a new government changing Moldova’s foreign policy course are minimal: it would be economically irrational and politically suicidal, since most of the burden of adjusting to the new EU-Moldova Association Agreement has been incurred, while the benefits are only kicking in. 

The new government cannot be called pro-European and, to its credit, it does not use the term. The coalition that Plahotniuc has put together literally has no name nor a coalition agreement. It relies on the program of the previous government despite being a “coalition of the willing”. Namely, the will of the 57 lawmakers being to preclude early elections and stay in power for another three years despite the sheer collapse of public trust after the infamous bank heist and the utter refusal to accept any blame either by the government or the parliament.

Moldova is a case study for state capture, though perhaps had Moldova been an EU candidate country, things would have been different via conditionality. The West has sacrificed democracy for geopolitical interests, which is usually a recipe for disaster down the road.

The sole threat of an imminent pro-Russian government is likely to galvanise and reboot the political system, albeit incrementally, with a new breed of upstanding young professionals exiting their comfort zones and entering the public domain to the benefit of their communities and their country — the alternative being a drift away from the values of democracy and the rule of law, all under the watchful eye of the international media.

See also:

Saturday, 20 February 2016

When Soviet hipsters risked jail for Jazz

Cross post from Little Green Footballs.

Here's a fantastic little documentary on the time when Jazz, Rock'n'Roll, anything sung by an emigre, even 'gypsy' music was illicit in the USSR. How people managed to distribute music is extraordinary - they used x-rays.

Writes Kim Kelly:
X Ray Audio: The Documentary explores the curious, sometimes fantastical story behind Soviet Russia's strangest cultural exports, and is part of a larger project which has seen Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield publish a book and host muitple live events (the next of which will take place at Rough Trade East in London on March 9). As their website explains, "Giving blood every week to earn enough money to buy a recording lathe, one bootlegger Rudy Fuchs cuts banned music onto such discarded x-rays to be sold on street corners by shady dealers. It was ultimate act of punk resistance, a two-fingered salute to the repressive regime that gave a generation of young Soviets access to forbidden Western and Russian music, an act for which Rudy and his fellow bootleggers would pay a heavy price."
Take a trip back to a time and place it's nearly impossible to imagine with X Ray Audio: The Documentary.
Watch the documentary and four examples of groovy, Soviet-era music after the jump.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Russia: punishment psychiatry back in vogue

Reblogged with permission from People & Nature.


By Gabriel Levy

The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him.

On 9 November Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous federal security services (FSB) building at Lubyanka square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat [Ugroza]: friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no-one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.

The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.
Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred”, whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky district court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.

Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.

Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, “Freedom” (“Svoboda”). In February 2014, days after the removal  of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, he went with collaborators he went to Malyi Koniushennyi bridge in St Petersburg, setting light to car tyres and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.

Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo from the Calvert journal site
Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo from the Calvert journal site

Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (27 January) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.

Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.

On 3 February, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky court extended his detention to 5 March. His wife expressed fears for his health in a facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”

Meanwhile artists are protesting about a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s “Innovation” prize.

His action at the Lubyanka was included after an on-line vote by critics. But on 15 February, the organisers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organisers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”

Clearly, the organisers have taken a step back. In 2010 the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near the security services headquarters in St Petersburg.
Punishment psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.
In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky centre declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.

Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry: in October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. Then, he wrote:
“Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”
But punishment psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky Centre that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia”, which was widely applied to political dissidents.

Not only were internationally-known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organiser Vladimir Klebanov and the second world war general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg”. It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants”: “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control”. Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)

An early – and typical – case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s youth league, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league!

His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J who drew that to my attention!)
Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo from the Chronicle of Current Events archive
Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo from the Chronicle of Current Events archive

Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?

In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest – but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.

If you are a western leftie thinking “well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression”, give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage – by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what … it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of the same process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.

For me, this is about the reality with which my friends – activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine – have to deal.

If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter-writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor … and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live?

See also:
Edited to add: On February 23 Pavlensky was transferred back to prison from the psychiatric facility. His wife said on Facebook that doctors tried to isolate him but other 'patients' backed him and "the blockade was broken".

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

If Labour Moderates Were Football Fans ...

[Click for larger version]

Reblogged with permission from my mate Jake Goretzki, who is a self-described 'September the Twelfther' (one of those who left the Labour Party on the day that Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader). 

Jake says that the idea behind his cartoon is that "while I get the idea of a party being its members, when the boss and staff and objectives go rogue (and the tokens of success and trophies are disdained), it becomes almost impossible to support. I increasingly compare Corbyn Labour to Wimbledon [football club] when it was franchised to Milton Keynes - the 'club' and heritage and place effectively hijacked, and the grinning horror of  Pete Winkleman an impossible prospect to 'carry on' with."

Friday, 12 February 2016

Russia in Crisis: the Agonies of the Oil Empire

Small business desperate to stop its demolition by Moscow City government display a Putin portrait

Reblogged with permission from LeftEast. Translated from the Russian by Emma Clair Foley.

Author Ilya Budraitskis is a historian, cultural and political activist. Since 2009 he is Ph.D. student at the Institute for World History, Russian Academy of Science, Moscow. In 2001-2004 he organized Russian activists in mobilizations against the G8, in European and World Social Forums. Since 2011 he has been an activist and spokesperson for Russian Socialist Movement. Member of Editorial board of “Moscow Art Magazine”. Regular contributor to the number of political and cultural websites.


Everyone understands that the coming year will see Russia immersed in an economic crisis, one which will almost inevitably entail a social and political crisis. It was already over a year ago that Vladimir Putin, while taking part in his favorite genre of television, “direct association with the people,” assured viewers that the crisis was a matter of temporary difficulties which would be successfully overcome within a year or two. These assertions are not simply a propagandist’s device, but a reflection of deeply-rooted elements of the consciousness of Russia’s ruling elite, accustomed as they are to switching out strategy for tactics and reacting to challenges as they arise. This consciousness is the result of an unbroken decade of increase in oil prices during which the entire domestic economy was tightly bound to the export of natural resources.

The windfall from oil sales both created the sense that Russia’s foreign policy muscle was strengthening and guaranteed a constant rise in state spending. The army, the bureaucratic apparatus and the murky system of government procurements received the bulk of this beneficence. Nevertheless, the growth in spending in the social sphere was seen as more of a residual effect, and education and medicine have always been regarded as the first things to sacrifice when money is short.

The years of oil prosperity fostered the growth of an ugly social model in which the inflation of energy resource prices on speculation compensated for the decline of production, a phenomenal level of social inequality, corruption, and increasingly systemic authoritarian political power protecting the interests of the elite. Vladimir Putin’s popularity rested (and, for now, still rests) on this uncertain foundation. Key to this popularity was the widespread notion that because of his ruthlessness, Putin is the one person who is capable of guaranteeing “stability,” an enduring trajectory of national growth protected from any risk of shake-ups.

Protesting lorry drivers hope for some words from the Tsar
The most valuable insight here for the majority of Russia’s residents is that “Putinist stability” is now most definitely a thing of the past, and that the Russian elite has no backup plan for redeeming the situation. By last year it had already become clear that the government’s anti-crisis politics boils down to a local variety of austerity outdoing even the current politics of EU governments in its ruthlessness. It consists of sharply reduced social spending, forced pension reform (a proposed increase in the retirement age to 65), the refusal on principle to index salaries to the rate of inflation (12.9% last year) and more taxes and fees collected from the population. The weakening of the ruble, restrained with the help of currency reserves introduced onto the market and increased interests rates at the Central Bank, made loans inaccessible to small- and medium-sized business and contributed further to the economy’s collapse.

The state budget for 2016, in accordance with this crisis, is based on calculation that set the median price of oil at $50 a barrel, but it has already fallen below $30. Although the government has not yet publicly considered revising it, the Minister of Finance has already recommended that all other departments reduce spending by 10%.

The situation is exacerbated by the current system of revenue distribution between Moscow and the regions, in which all revenue becomes part of the federal budget, only then to be recounted into local budgets. The result is a growing tension between the government and regional authorities, who must bear responsibility for these “austerity measures” before the people. At the same time, in an effort to maintain his popularity, the president publicly demands from them demonstrations of “social commitment,” putting them in an impossible situation.

The sharp decline in government revenues exposes the vulnerability of Putin’s “power verticals,” that is, the complete political dependence of local powers on the center combined with their economic “autonomy” (that is, responsibility for fulfilling budget responsibilities). The political losses incurred from austerity must be shouldered by the federal government headed by Dmitri Medvedev or local governors—anyone but the president, whose popularity should not under any circumstance suffer as a result of a reduction in the quality of life of the people who support him.

The figure of Putin as a “national leader” is the main basis of legitimacy for those in power in the eyes of the majority. The irony of the situation lies in the fact that people trust their president, but they don’t trust the state he represents. In these catastrophic conditions the Putin political machine is preparing for parliamentary elections, which are set to take place in September 2016. Like all previous elections, they will have to conform to the script written by the Kremlin. It currently appears to name “United Russia” as the majority in Parliament, while casting Medvedev as the victim of growing passive dissatisfaction. The “independent” candidates, as well as the kept opposition (including the communists and Zhirinovsky’s party) will attack the government for its antisocial austerity measures, but the president will remain beyond the reach of critics.

This guiding script may get out of control and provoke a wave of public disturbances (as happened in December 2011, after the previous parliamentary elections). The principal difference today may turn out to be the combination of political protests against an antidemocratic system and social protests against poverty and the government’s neoliberal policies. 2015 saw a serious uptick in local protests in connection with delays in the disbursement of salaries, job cuts and unnecessary new taxes. In December demonstrations by truck drivers indignant at new, extremely high road tolls took place in nearly half of all regions of the country. In some cities, there were protest actions against harsh limitations placed on state medical coverage. On the whole, experts estimate that there have been 409 protests in the past year linked to the violation of workers’ rights (168 of which took the form of work stoppages). That’s 76% more than the average for the period 2008-2013.

The economic crisis along with the regular political cycle (parliamentary elections in 2016 and presidential elections in 2018), will unavoidably provoke and strengthen divisions within the elite. The possible battle lines can already be faintly seen: between Moscow and regional powers; between government finance experts and army lobbyists, who will insist on an increase in the defense budget in the face of “external threat,” and among state corporations, demanding all new subsidies from the state budget to finance their huge debts.

In the attempt to maintain the existing balance of forces, the regime must revisit their foreign policy of the past two years, including the war that is still dragging on in Ukraine, conflict with the west and the developing military engagement in Syria. Moscow is already taking active steps toward the removal of US and EU sanctions. For the first time since the moment that Russia annexed Crimea, direct negotiations over the fate of Donbas began in Kiev in between Ukrainian president Poroshenko and Russian representative Boris Gryzlov (a member of Putin’s inner circle of “friends”). This meeting was followed by an hours-long consultation between the Kremlin’s main “facilitator” of Ukrainian affairs and Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. The repeal of the sanctions is necessary for the Russian government, among other reasons to enable large-scale foreign loans to augment depleted national financial resources. Dependence on oil prices could soon be completely replaced by another dependency—this time on international creditors.

All of this means that Russia is on the threshold of serious changes, which in the short term indicate an end to “Putinism” as a system—at least as we have known it during these “fat” years.

See also: