Thursday, August 21, 2014

Podcast: The Khrushchev Legacy

Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader (left) and in retirement with great-granddaughter Nina and granddaughter Julia.

It began with an offhanded -- and insensitive -- comment an old man made to a teenage girl at an elite Soviet retirement complex on a warm spring day back in 1981.

And it ended more than three decades later with an exploration into a famous family's hidden history -- and an examination of a nation's tortured soul.

The old man was Vyacheslav Molotov, Josef Stalin's ruthless and powerful foreign minister. And the teenaged girl was Nina Khruscheva, great-granddaughter of the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- Stalin's successor and Molotov's bitter rival.

The book that conversation ultimately inspired, "The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into The Gulag of the Russian Mind," was recently published in the United States. And on the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss it -- and the Khrushchev legacy's relevance to today's Russia -- with the author.

Joining me are Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at the New School, and Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Power Vertical Podcast -- June 13, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 13, 2014i
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Tags:Nikita Khrushchev

Audio Podcast: The Gangs Of Crimea And Donbas

Gangsters, fascists and separatists: Sergei Aksyonov (first image) and Pavel Gubarev (first from left in front row, second image) with his Russian National Unity comrades.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting other things to Ukraine.

With Crimea about to turn into the most lucrative business opportunity for organized crime groups since the Sochi Olympics, major Russian mafia groups are gearing up to get their cut -- setting the stage for a potential gang war.

And meanwhile, the conflict in Donbas is attracting Russian ultranationalsts, paramilitary groups, and neo-Nazis of various stripes.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss these phenomena and their implications.

Joining me, Brian Whitmore, are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on post-Soviet organized crime and Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows;" and guest Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Power Vertical Podcast -- June 6, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 6, 2014i
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Tags:Ukraine, crimea, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Russian organized crime, Russian nationalists

Gangsters And Fascists And Separatists -- Oh My!

The self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev (first row, third from left), as a Russian nationalist.

A multibillion-dollar project is announced to construct a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Police raid a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky downtown Moscow restaurant. And an emissary from the powerful Solntsevo crime syndicate is reportedly dispatched to Simferopol.

What do all these things have in common? They're all elements of a shadowy struggle among organized crime groups to get their claws into Crimea.

Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula has turned the international order on its ear. And as longtime Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti wrote this week, it also promises to upend the delicate balance in the post-Soviet underworld -- with possibly violent results.

"The underworld status quo is relatively brittle, full of hungry upstarts and deep feuds, as well as unbalanced by new money flowing into some gangs' coffers, thanks to the growing and massive trade in Afghan heroin," Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote this week in "The Moscow Times."

"Further competition in Crimea could shatter the already fragile underworld peace."

And it's not like Crimea was exactly gangster-free even before the Russian annexation. A combination of official neglect from Kyiv, hostility between local law enforcement and the central Ukrainian government, and the Black Sea Fleet's role in various smuggling operations combined to make the peninsula a magnet for post-Soviet organized crime.

"Crimea's political and economic structures were infamously interconnected with its underworld. Simferopol's Salem and Bashmaki crime gangs of the 1990s ran protection rackets, smuggled drugs, and assassinated each other, Galeotti wrote.

Indeed, Crimea's Moscow-installed de facto Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov is widely reported to be a mid-level gangster -- known as "the Goblin" -- with the Salem gang.

And now, major projects like the $5.5 billion Kerch Strait bridge project connecting Crimea to Russia's Krasnodar Krai and plans to build a new casino and resort complex promise to present the most lucrative opportunity for the criminal underworld since, well, since the Sochi Olympics.

And the Russian authorities seem determined to make sure "their" anointed gangsters -- like Moscow's powerful Solntsevo group -- get the largest piece of the action.

In a recent post on his blog, Galeotti noted how on May 24 police broke up a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky restaurant in downtown Moscow -- an apparent attempt to warn them to stay out of Crimea. "It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimize their role there," he wrote.

Given the fragile peace in the underworld in the wake of the Moscow assassination of the legendary crime boss Aslan Usoyan in January 2013, it looks like Crimea's new status provides all the conditions for a mob war.

And if Crimea looks like a playground for gangsters, in eastern Ukraine it's springtime for Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. 

Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "people's governor" of Donetsk, was a member of the ultranationalist group Russian National Unity, whose symbol bears a disturbing resemblance to a swastika.  

The far-right paramilitary organization was founded in 1990 by nationalist leader Aleksandr Barkashov, and its members have been implicated in violent crimes against ethnic minorities and in the 2009 killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. 

Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen who is the "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was an editor and remains a contributor to the far-right -- and often anti-Semitic -- newspaper "Zavtra," founded by ultranationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov in the 1990s. The newspaper's website now serves as a recruiting platform for mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

Prokhanov, a fringe figure in the 1990s, has enjoyed a resurgence with the Ukrainian crisis, with his articles appearing regularly in the mass-circulation pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia.' 

The Donetsk People's Republic's self-styled "defense minister," Igor Girkin, aka "Strelkov," is also a contributor to "Zavtra"  Girkin, who Ukrainian authorities claim is an agent with the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), also reportedly served as a mercenary in conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Transdniester, and Chechnya.

And Gubarev, Borodai, and Girkin are just the tip of the iceberg. Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service this week that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is serving as a magnet for Russian nationalists of various stripes.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting its mafia and neo-Nazis to its southern neighbor.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on June 6 when I will discuss the themes raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Merkhat Sharipzhan.

Tags:crimea, Russian organized crime, Power Vertical blog, Russian nationalists, eastern Ukraine

Podcast: The Restoration

Then and now.

Ninety-one years and five months ago, five men gathered in Moscow and approved a treaty forming a new union. Sixty-nine years later, that union -- the Soviet Union -- dissolved leaving in its wake 15 independent states. And they've stayed independent for more than two decades.

This week, three men gathered in Astana to form another union -- the Eurasian Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the new grouping is designed to foster the free flow of people, goods, capital, and services. But coming in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and against the backdrop of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine, suspicions abound that it is but another step in the restoration of the old empire.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss these issues with Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom; and Natalya Churikova, senior editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program "European Connect."

Power Vertical Podcast -- May 30, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 30, 2014i
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Podcast: The Ideologue

Cunning, calculating, ruthless -- and an ideologue to boot.

We've seen that he could be ruthless. We've always suspected he was cynical and calculating. And we've always known him to be cunning. But recent years have taught us something new about Vladimir Putin. He appears to be much more ideological than we had suspected.

This has been evident in the Kremlin leader's persistent gay bashing; in his full-throated defense of Russia's "traditional values" and derision of the West's "genderless and infertile" liberalism in his state-of-the-nation speech last year; and in his recent redrafting of history in public comments following the annexation of Crimea.

The new face of Putinism is coming into sharp focus. Is it just a cosmetic makeover to meet the needs of the moment? Or is it the shape of things to come?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the newly ideologial Putin. Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Also on the podcast, Mark, Sean, and I talk about how recent developments have led us to rethink our assumptions about Russia.

Power Vertical Podcast -- May 23, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 23, 2014i
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Podcast: That '70s (Spy) Show

Vladimir Putin and the fictional Soviet Spy Stierlitz.

The Ukrainian crisis has given Russia's vaunted siloviki, the security service veterans in Vladimir Putin's inner circle, a big political boost.

Simultaneously, there has been a wave of nostalgia for the 1970s and the era of Leonid Brezhnev is increasingly looked at like a Russian Victorian Age.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast we take a look at these two phemomena.

Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and security expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and special guest Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL.

Power Vertical Podcast -- May 16, 2014
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Russia's Patriotic Fix

Restoring the consensual hallucination?

We haven't heard much about the "party of swindlers and thieves" for some time now. There aren't so many exposes of officials' luxury villas in the south of France. And, by the way, when was the last time you read a snarky blog post about Vladimir Putin's Botox habit?

But we sure are hearing a lot about "national traitors" and "fascists" bent on undermining Russia's restored greatness. And the early 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera -- or at least a grotesque caricature of him -- has made a comeback as a national boogeyman.

In the space of a few months, Putin has managed to change the conversation.

The Kremlin no longer looks like it is out of ideas and running out of time. Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent. Even the ruling United Russia party -- you know, the one made up of all those swindlers and thieves -- is polling at 60 percent.

And the Kremlin's critics have been effectively silenced.

With the world's eyes on the Ukraine crisis, an ongoing crackdown on NGOs in Russia intensified this week with prosecutors conducting raids on organizations in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.

Independent media is being muzzled, bloggers are being stifled, and officials are dreaming up measures to squash dissent that make the crackdown of 2012-13 look almost quaint.

"The Ukrainian revolution is becoming the prelude to a Russian counterrevolution," political commentator and onetime Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently. 

And if you believe the polls, the public -- including that vaunted "creative class" that not long ago was clamoring for more pluralism and for a "Russia Without Putin" -- appears to be on board.

Writing this week in "The Moscow Times," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that Putin is in the process of forging a new "social contract" with the Russian people.

"His first social contract in the early and mid-2000s was based on the principle that most Russians would accept the government's restrictions on personal freedoms and democracy as long as they received higher standards of living," Ryzhkov wrote.

"Now, judging by the results of a recent Levada Center poll, most Russians have shifted their focus to another value: returning Russia to its great-power status. It seems that the ruling regime has found its political 'second wind' and if this wind continues to blow for the next couple of years, Putin's reelection in the 2018 presidential race is all but a given."

That is, assuming there is even an election in 2018.

Anybody remember Aleksei Navalny?  Not long ago, the anticorruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible. 

The man who coined, branded, and marketed the "swindlers and thieves" label is languishing under house arrest. And to add insult to injury, it is now forbidden for third parties to repost his blogs. 

"It is absolutely clear to me that it is just one more attempt to drive me into a corner," Navalny told reporters in April after a Moscow court found him guilty of slander.

Yes it is. And it appears to be working.

Navalny's blog remains active as ever -- but it isn't driving the conversation like it once did. Not even close.

And hand-in-hand with the euphoria of the Kremlin's counterrevolution come the delusions of grandeur.

Writing in "The New Yorker" magazine, Joshua Yaffa recently quoted an unidentified United Russia lawmaker as saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to describe Putin as living "in another world."  Putin, the deputy said, is "in a different league, he is in a dialogue with history."

The sea-change in the zeitgeist has indeed been dizzying. And it raises a crucial question. In resetting the national conversation, has Putin managed to alter the underlying dynamics of Russian politics?

Since late 2011, the tectonic plates beneath the political order seemed to be shifting decisively against the regime.

An emerging urban middle class that had grown wealthy, confident, and increasingly politically sophisticated was demanding change.

The elite was deeply divided between technocrats advocating political reform and economic modernization and hard-liners seeking to maintain the status quo.

And Putin himself seemed to be losing his aura of invincibility rapidly. His vital role as "The Decider" -- a trusted broker among elite factions -- appeared in jeopardy. There was even talk of a succession battle emerging among his most trusted lieutenants. 

Russia's economy, dangerously dependent on energy exports, appeared headed for a deep recession -- or worse.

It certainly looked like a perfect storm.

Now, with the patriotic fervor unleashed by the Crimea annexation and the Ukraine crisis, Putin seems to have his mojo back. He's The Decider again.

The elite remains divided, but those opposed to Putin's course have been largely cowed into silence.

And what longtime Kremlin-watcher (and "Power Vertical Podcast" co-host) Mark Galeotti calls the "consensual hallucination" that has sustained Putin's undisputed rule appears to be restored.

But, as Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent piece in "The American Interest," the patriotic wave Putin is riding is similar to a drug dependency. "He needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home, and foreign-policy victories are like cocaine when it comes to their impact on public opinion: the buzz of each hit soon wears off, leaving only the craving for another and larger dose," Mead wrote.

And cocaine is expensive.

Russia's economy is already taking a significant hit from the Ukraine crisis.

Capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 reached $63.7 billion, more than all of last year. The ruble has lost 6 percent against the dollar since January. GDP growth has been near zero throughout the year. Inflation is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in the second quarter. And the stock market remains vulnerable.

"If this process further develops, we can expect power struggles within the Russian elite that will be exacerbated once the scale and scope of the financial damage Putin has precipitated becomes clear," Avi Tiomkin, a hedge-fund adviser, wrote recently in "Forbes." 

"At that point, the ruling elite will conclude that Putin is not only no longer an asset, but has become a major liability. At the same time, Russian opposition parties and groups will be emboldened by the West's stance and expect support. This is when we may see a 'Russian Spring.'"

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian opposition, counterrevolution, patriotism

Podcast: Putin's Other War

Pavel Durov, Vladimir Putin, and Aleksei Navalny

New restrictions for online journalists. Stricter regulations for foreign Internet companies.

The demise of Russia's premier independent social network. And a rough week in court for Russia's most famous blogger.

All eyes may be focused on the unrest in Ukraine and the possibility of a Russian intervention there, but at home the Kremlin has been making life miserable for Russia's NetRoots. Is Vladimir Putin' Power Vertical striking a death blow against Russia's fledgling Power Horizontal?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Putin's war against the Internet in Russia.

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices, author of the blog "A Good Treaty."

Power Vertical Podcast -- April 25, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 25, 2014i
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny, Power Vertical podcast, VKontakte, Pavel Durov

Podcast: The Putin Show Goes Global

This year's Putin Show had global -- and ominous -- overtones.

Relaxed, confident, and full of pithy one-liners, Vladimir Putin was in his element in this week's call-in show with carefully screened ordinary citizens.

The event has been an annual ritual of his presidency. But this year, coming in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and amid Moscow-backed turmoil in eastern Ukraine, it had more ominous -- and global -- overtones as Kremlin-watchers tuned in for clues to Putin's intentions.

So what did we learn? In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin show and what it shows about the Kremlin leader's thinking. 

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia blog."

Power Vertical Podcast -- April 18, 2014
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Tags:Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast

Podcast: Putin Then And Now

Putin then and now: From the Ozero Cooperative to the Kremlin

Before he built the vertical, he built a team of like-minded cronies. Before he saved Russia from the chaos of the wild '90s, he manipulated that very chaos to advance his power and influence. And before he became the "gatherer of the Russian lands," he gathered a fortune for himself and his inner circle.

Before the Kremlin, before the oil boom, before Russia Inc., before the Georgia war and the Crimea annexation, there was the Ozero Dacha Cooperative -- a group of influential St. Petersburg politicians and businessmen centered around the city's deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin.

And if you were doing business in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, there was one iron-clad rule: Putin was the man to know. But what does the Putin of two decades ago tell us about the man today?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at Putin's St. Petersburg years. Joining me is Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the University of Miami, Ohio, and author of a forthcoming book on that subject. 

Also joining me are co-hosts Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Kirill Kobrin,  editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas."

Power Vertical Podcast -- April 11, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 11, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, St. Petersburg, Ozero Dacha Cooperative, Tambovskaya Mafia, Karen Dawisha

The Kremlin, Crimea, And 'The Good Hitler'

An activist in Kyiv holds a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin caricatured as Adolf Hitler.

We've been hearing a lot from Moscow about all the Nazis and fascists purportedly running around Kyiv lately. In fact, the only place you could probably hear more references to Nazis than on Russia's state-controlled media is on the History Channel.

But the fiercely pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" seems to have crossed into entirely new territory with a piece by Andranik Migranyan on April 3 (a big h/t to Vladimir Kara-Murza for flagging this first). 

Migranyan heads the New York office of the "Institute for Democracy and Cooperation," an NGO set up under President Vladimir Putin in 2007 to monitor human rights in Western countries. His piece in "Izvestia" is basically a hit job on historian Andrei Zubov, who lost his job at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations after writing an article comparing Putin's annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland in 1938.

Thing is, Migranyan doesn't really refute Zubov's claim. Instead he writes that we need to -- brace yourself -- distinguish between the "good Hitler" and the "bad Hitler."

And who exactly was this "good Hitler" of whom Migranyan speaks?

"We should distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939, and separate chaff from grain," he writes.  

"The fact is that while Hitler was gathering German lands and he united Germany, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Memel without a single drop of blood. If Hitler stopped at that, he would be remembered in his country’s history as a politician of the highest order."

Blogging on the article at "World Affairs Journal," Kara-Murza appeared nothing short of flabbergasted.

"Just when you think Vladimir Putin’s propaganda cannot sink any lower, it invariably does," he writes

"Perhaps someone could remind Andranik Migranyan and his Kremlin overseers of the track record of this 'politician of the highest order' and 'gatherer of German lands' prior to 1939 -- including the establishment of concentration camps and the public burning of books; the purges of 'non-Aryans' and the creation of the Gestapo; the closure of newspapers and political parties and the establishment of a one-man dictatorship; the Nuremberg racial laws and Kristallnacht. But of course they already know that."

Migranyan's article comes as the State Duma is debating legislation that would impose stiff fines and prison sentences for publicly justifying Nazism. The bill recently cleared its first reading and is expected to be passed into law in time for the May 9 Victory Day holiday.

The irony was not lost on, which asked, "What kind of fascists is the Duma afraid of?" in an April 4 editorial suggesting that, in the Kremlin's eyes, not all Nazis are created equally bad.

"The directed against the so-called national-traitors who disagree with the course of the president -- those that propagandists today lightly call fascists," the online publication opined. "But any stick -- even a police baton -- has two ends. And the law could also be useful for those anxiously reading in Izvestia about the 'good Hitler' who only turned bad after 1939."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:nazism, crimea, hitler, Power Vertical blog

Podcast: Russia's Looming Tatar Problem

Crimean Tatar demonstrations. Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Russia's largest ethnic minority just got larger.

With Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, hundreds of thousands of Tatars have suddenly become reluctant Russian citizens. They aren't happy and they're getting feisty -- rejecting Russia's overtures and pushing for their own referendum on autonomy.

And Russia's looming Crimean Tatar problem comes at a time when Moscow's relations with its existing 5 million-strong Tatar minority are becoming increasingly tense.

The Kremlin is celebrating its annexation of Crimea as a patriotic victory and evidence of Russia's revival. But will it come at the cost of yet another ethnic conflict?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Russia's new Crimean Tatar problem and what it may portend. Joining me are guests Rim Gilfanov, director of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, and Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Also on the podcast, Rim, Merkhat, and I take a closer look at Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Power Vertical Podcast -- April 4, 2014
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Tags:Crimean Tatars, Power Vertical podcast

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or