X Close

SLOVO Journal

Home

The blog of the postgraduate journal at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Menu

Archive for the 'Analysis' Category

A Potted History of International Women’s Day

hughollard8 March 2021

International Women’s Day is now recognised by the UN and celebrated in countries across the globe. But where did this distinctly twentieth century holiday come from? And what do modern celebrations of it say about the fight for gender equality and recognition in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia? Managing Editor Claudia Griffiths and Online Editor Hugh Ollard chart the history and prospects of the day. 

 

International Women’s Day is now an accepted date in the international calendar. However, its history and how it is marked today is not without conflict. The ultimate origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) may well come down to how you feel about the wave of socialism that overtook the industrialised world at the start of the twentieth century. 

 

In broad strokes, the day developed from protests in the USA before being taken up in socialist circles across Europe. The International Women’s Day website describes ‘great unrest and critical debate was occurring amongst women’ in New York City in 1908. This culminated in a march, calling for better pay and working conditions. To grow visibility of this movement, in 1909, a Women’s Day was celebrated on 28th February. In 1911, women’s rights groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland recognised 19th March as International Women’s Day, a date which remained in a limited number of progressives’ calendars until 1913 when the date was moved to 8th March.

 

The event continued to grow with Russian women observing the day in 1913 – though of course on 23rd February due to the Gregorian calendar – and British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested on her way to the event in London in 1914. However, the event that entrenched the socialist and eastern European roots of the day was the 1917 Women’s Strike in Moscow. Protesting the war and the lack of food, this strike, starting with a march on 23rd February, culminated in Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication.

 

Alexandra Kollontai, the founder of Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in the Bolshevik government, convinced Lenin to commemorate this day as a national holiday. The linkage of the date to such outwardly revolutionary and socialist history limited the day’s spread in the West. It was only recognised by the UN in 1975, and only grew in stature following the creation of the official internationalwomensday.com domain in 2001. In 1994, Maxine Waters, a Democrat in the US House of Representatives, put forward a bill to make IWD a holiday in the USA but it never passed committee

 

IWD’s centenary was marked in 2011 with Barack Obama hailing a Women’s History Month in the USA. The choice of year encapsulates the debate over IWD’s origins, choosing to commemorate the first IWD of 19th March 1911, on the date set by the USSR. The day’s history is by no means straightforward. 

 

Against the backdrop of this 100-year history, steps taken towards gender parity are still painstakingly forged. 2020 alone saw outrage sparked by a near-total abortion ban in Poland and arrests of IWD marchers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The IWD website claims that we will face yet another century fighting for equality, since ‘none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children’. 

 

That being said, IWD is now celebrated in a plethora of eastern European countries, and that it is on the agenda, can undoubtedly be seen as a positive. Countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan all recognise the holiday in one way or another. It could be argued that some celebrations, however, lose sight of the day’s progressive history. 

 

As a British student in Russia, I was at first surprised at how widespread the celebrations were for the day which unlike in the UK, was designated a public holiday. The celebrations were undoubtedly cheerful, with women gifted flowers, free meals at restaurants and the day off work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways these festivities were reinforcing the gender norms that IWD aims to dismantle. Some have gone as far as branding it ‘a concoction of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once’. There is no doubt that the celebrations in Russia seek to glorify women, but as one author puts it, ‘the irony is they go home and cook – not the most progressive reward’. 

 

In recent years, IWD has been seen as an opportunity for Polish activists to tackle this disparity head-on. It is a country where the theme of women’s rights recently made international headlines with its introduction of a near-total abortion ban. Under the name Manifa, Polish women’s activists have taken to the streets on 8th March to confront ‘issues that are too toxic for political parties to touch: abortion, unpaid labour, and the rights of disabled people and sex workers.’ In 2017, they campaigned under the slogan ‘we are the revolution. No more being nice to violent guys’. 

 

According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia falls behind the rest of Europe in the sphere of gender equality and will require another 107 years to close its gender gap. That is not to say that there have not been advances – as of 2020, the region has already closed 71.3% of their gap and Albania was listed as one of the top 5 most improved countries in the world for reducing gender disparity in health, education, economy, and politics. But if we have learnt anything from the recent events in Poland or indeed the shocking figures relating to domestic violence against women and girls during the pandemic, it is that we still have a long way to go, and it is not the time to be complacent. So this year, the IWD campaign asks us to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality by ‘choosing to challenge’, for ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’

 

#ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021

 

By Claudia Griffiths (Masters Student in Russian and East European Literature and Culture) and Hugh Ollard (Masters Student in Russian Studies) at UCL SSEES.

 

Are you interested in finding out more about the history of IWD in Eastern Europe or in participating in events to celebrate the day? We encourage you to attend the Ukrainian Institute London’s Event: “30 Years of Women’s Activism in Ukraine”. 

Link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/30-years-of-womens-activism-in-ukraine-tickets-142137291465?fbclid=IwAR0Y-SFYeW0sHnP2vlrMXj1pwWYy3VJxWmRJFAyU7r2CsMZIW4VGv1aT3mc

Behind Putin’s Self-imposed Food Ban

Borimir S Totev7 April 2015

11104049_10204044939548413_1422435781_n

By Enrico Cattabiani

On August 4 last year, Vladimir Putin responded to the latest round of sanctions levied against his regime by imposing a ban on the import of food products from the EU, the US, and their supporters. The disruption of commerce was worth approximately $12 billion to the Russian economy, with secondary effects in the targeted countries, particularly the EU, causing unemployment within the agricultural sector, a slump in the price of the banned foods in domestic markets, and great losses for producers.

At the same time, Russia saw a dramatic rise in food prices, empty shelves in shops, restaurants obliged to change their menus and a revival of the old-fashioned black market, all as a consequence of the ban. Western media has been harshly critical of Putin’s policy, calling it a desperate and useless retaliation done simply for the hell of it. The ban, they argue, is a boomerang that will come back to hit Russia hardest.

There are two very good reasons why this might be true. First, sanctions are a political tool used to force a rival to alter its behavior. In this case, although affected parties in the West are pressing their governments to lift sanctions, damage to the wider European economies has been limited, and the voices of agricultural producers are not strong enough to force a change in policy.

Second, restrictions on trade are usually harmful for any economy, and Russia is no exception. Although it could eventually be beneficial for some sectors, scarcity of products and rising inflation have predictable and undesirable effects on a large segment of the population. Therefore, the ban on food appears to be ineffective in the first instance and counterproductive in the second one.

EC5

Why, then, has Putin opted for such an irrational policy? Didn’t he have any alternatives to imposing sanctions – and why food, rather than something else? Before asserting that the ban has been a total failure, however, we must analyze the situation from the Russian president’s perspective.

Why Putin needed to act

Two main political calculations pushed Putin to adopt sanctions. First, to be considered a superpower a country must act like a superpower, and that is certainly the status that Putin seeks for Russia. When the sanctions hit, Russia had to show its muscles and hit back. This is even more the case considering sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s undeniable involvement in Crimea – which Putin has always denied.

The second reason is purely domestic and concerns the fact that many Russians, thanks to state-led propaganda, perceive the escalation of the Ukraine conflict as the result of Western interference in support of a fascist, anti-Russian coup. Putin’s approval rating rocketed up at the beginning of the turmoil in Crimea, and he has had to keep playing the part of the strongman to maintain credibility at home.

EC4

The logic of sanctions: trade-offs, elites, and money

The decision of whether to adopt a particular programme of sanctions is generally made with an eye on the damage, both economic and political, and consequent backlash that they are likely to provoke. In other words, political leaders choose sanctions regimes that maximize damage to its targets and minimize repercussions for their own state or power base.

If we accept that the most important goal of every leader is to remain in power, it follows that, in democratic countries, reducing the impact of sanctions on one’s own economy is essential. Indeed, popular support is necessary to be re-elected, and damaging consumers and businesses for political reasons would likely lead to electoral defeat. This logic has been called the ‘enforcement dilemma’ and expresses the trade-off for the political elite of imposing sanctions.

However, such logic works in a different way in non-democratic countries. Here, to remain in power an authoritarian leader must guarantee a constant flow of money to his inner circle, upon whom he relies for support. In this case, the trade-off is dictated by the need to avoid losses for the elites, disregarding the fallout for the population at large, unless widespread unrest or civil disobedience makes them impossible to ignore.

Such considerations partially explain why Western sanctions have targeted individuals and sectors related to Russian’s elites while Russia has targeted ground-level economic activities in the West.

As such, the repercussions on Western governments of their own sanctions have been manageable, since only a very small fraction of their economies, mostly oil and gas multinationals, have been prevented from trading with Russia. Likewise, Russia’s sanctions haven’t damaged crucial sectors related to the elites’ businesses, nor have they triggered protests or revolts. This may indicate that Putin opted for the solution that caused the least suffering from his own perspective, implying that he acted with absolute (authoritarian) pragmatism.

Behind the choice of banning food

Food is a replaceable good. Russia imports most of it from Western countries. Food is not linked to Putin’s friends’ interests. By bearing in mind these three considerations and by understanding the starting conditions of Russian’s economy, we can put ourselves in Putin’s shoes and understand why he chose to target food imports.

The fall in value of the ruble has led to more expensive imports for Russian firms and to a consequent worsening of the balance of payments. Cutting $12 billion of imports of a replaceable good could help curb Russian dependence on Western countries and slightly alleviate the ruble’s decline. This is not properly orthodox from an economic point of view, for the obvious reasons of rising inflation and widespread shortages, but in Putin’s logic, that $12 billion could also be reinvested and spent elsewhere, which is his declared goal. Where?

The first candidate is obviously the internal market, which can provide goods on the cheap. Second, and more important, are the other BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) and the countries of Central Asia, with whom a great number of new supply contracts have been signed in recent months. This has contributed to a diversification of Russia’s international trade patterns, which will have further consequences in the long run.

Yet, both the slow pace of transitioning to new suppliers and the inadequacy of local industry in meeting internal demand, as evidenced by the current shortages, demonstrates that not all that money has been spent. Part has been invested in industry, while some may simply have been diverted to other goods.

EC7

Losers and winners

Looking at the ban from a broader perspective, consumers, obviously, have been the main losers. Not only do they have access to a much lower quality of food, but they also face the daily uncertainty of sudden price increases. More dramatically, it could also be argued that Putin, conscious of his approval rating and of ordinary Russians’ paranoia about inflation, has played on their fears to trigger a ‘run on food’, letting consumption accelerate in a problematic macroeconomic environment.

This is plainly unsustainable in the long run, but a crucial point, which many critics seem to have forgotten, is that the food ban will – or at least, should – end in August this year. Food prices may gradually return to normal once trade patterns with Western economies are reestablished.

Yet, nothing will be as it was before. Russia’s internal market will have developed, maybe not enough to compete with the EU and the US, but certainly considerably. Many new supply relationships will have been established with countries in the rest of the world. Restaurants may not necessarily revert to their pre-ban menus: people’s tastes are impossible to predict, but who is to say that Russian consumers might not have acquired a taste for cheaper foreign cuisine (Chinese?). All these factors might keep the demand for Western products low.

EC6

From a broader geopolitical perspective, Russia’s dependency on Western countries will be further reduced, which is line with Putin’s goals. Moreover, the events in Crimea have accelerated a process that has seen emerging powers try to carve out a bigger role on the international stage by banding together, both in political and economic terms. The disruption of the food trade undoubtedly represents another front in this battle.

August is coming. Conclusions may then be drawn. We will see whether one year of the food ban will have been enough to signal a further step away from Western dependence. More importantly, we will be able to determine whether the suffering of Russia’s population in the short term will result in long-term gains for President Putin. If not, we will be free to criticize his decision to ban Parmesan cheese and other delicacies from Russians’ tables and to reflect on the consequences of a failed policy of economic brinkmanship.

Enrico Cattabiani is on the first year of the IMESS double-degree Masters programme at SSEES, studying Economics and International Relations. From next September, he will study at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he is planning to write a thesis addressing some of the questions left unanswered in this article.