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The magazine in 2015 compiled a list of Russia’s most subsidized regions.

It went exactly as you’d expect.

# Russian Region %dep. Majority Group
1 Ingushetia 85.0% Caucasian
2 Chechnya 81.4% Caucasian
3 Crimea 80.0% Russian
4 Tyva 77.1% Other Minority
5 Sevastopol 75.0% Russian
6 Altay 73.5% Russian
7 Dagestan 70.0% Caucasian
8 Karachaevo-Cherkessia 68.5% Caucasian
9 Kamchatka 64.7% Russian
10 Jewish Autonomous oblast 60.3% Russian
11 North Ossetia 56.3% Caucasian
12 Kabardino-Balkaria 56.2% Caucasian
13 Kalmykia 54.0% Other Minority
14 Amur 52.9% Russian
15 Buryatia 51.8% Russian

Of the top 15 regions, where federal subsidies make up more than 50% of the local budget, six were ethnic minority republics of the Caucasus. The top two were Ingushetia and Chechnya, which also have Russia’s highest unemployment rates by far.

Only seven of the most subsidized regions were majority Russian. However, Crimea and Sevastopol have a high level of subsidies for the very understandable reason that they are under Ukrainian blockade and international sanctions, and currently undergoing economic integration with Russia; while the Altay Republic and Buryatia both have sizable non-Russian minorities. Kamchatka krai, the Jewish Autonomous oblast, and Amur oblast are the only strong majority Russian regions that source a majority of their incomes from federal subsidies.

So statistically, Russian nationalists are not wrong when they say that Russians are “feeding the Caucasus.”

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Caucasus, Finance, Russia 

After a long break, a new contribution to the Experts Panel:

Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way

Western journalists have been in the business of dismissing Russian achievements and magnifying Russian failures ever since Putin drove them into a collective derangement syndrome – he even haunts their dreams, as recently revealed by the Guardian’s Shaun Walker – so the preemptive besmirching of the Sochi Olympics can’t have surprised anyone.

What is startling, though, is the unusually low competence of the effort, even by the standards of these people that are sarcastically referred to as “democratic journalists” in Russia.

The first and foremost attack revolved around the supposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In 2010, the Russian magazine Esquire estimated that 48km of roads around Sochi consumed a cool $8 billion of taxpayer money, a sum that implied the asphalt might as well have been made of elite beluga caviar. Julia Ioffe cheerily transmitted these sophomoric calculations to the Anglosphere. The only problem with these actuarial wisecracks? Said road also included a railway, 50 bridges, and 27km worth of tunnels over mountainous terrain… which presumably made it something more than just a road. What was intended as a metaphor for Sochi corruption turned out to be, ironically, a metaphor for unfounded attacks against it.

There are incessant comparisons to the $8 billion spent during the 2010 Olympics in Canada. But this sidesteps the fact that Whistler was already a world-class ski resort, whereas Sochi’s infrastructure had to be built from scratch and at relatively short notice. The actual event-related costs of the Sochi Olympics are $7 billion, of which only half was directly drawn from the state budget. This is not to say that there was no stealing – of course there was, as corruption is a real problem in Russia, and is especially endemic in the construction industry. Navalny has created an entire website about it, and coordinated a campaign against Sochi with Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what’s striking is that far from the pharaonic levels of misappropriation we might expected from the tone of the coverage, in most cases the markup was in the order of 50%-100% relative to “comparable” Western projects (and that’s after selecting the most egregious cases). This isn’t “good,” needless to say, but it’s hardly unprecedented in Western experience. In any case, a number of criminal cases have been opened up, so impunity is not guaranteed. (The most prominent “victim,” Akhmed Bilalov, has fled the country and claimed he was poisoned – all true to the form of emigre oligarch thieves from the ex-Sovie Union).

The lion’s share of the $50 billion investment in Sochi – some 80% of it or so – consists of infrastructure projects to make Sochi into a world-class ski resort that will provide employment in the restive North Caucasus, kickstart the development of a Russian snowsports culture, and draw at least some of the more patriotic elites away from Courcheval.

The second major angle of attack is Russia’s “persecution” of gays. This, presumably, refers to Russia’s new laws against the propaganda of homosexuality to children – no matter that very similar laws, in the form of Section 28, existed in the UK until 2003, and that sodomy remained illegal in some American states up until the same year. I bring these up not so much to engage in “whataboutism” as to point out that the moral standards that the West proselytizes so zealously have only been adopted (or dropped?) within the past decade. Furthermore, much of the rest of the world rejects those standards to a significantly greater extent than does Russia itself. As such, this campaign strikes such an absurd and nauseatingly self-righteous note that one cannot but suspect a cynical motive behind it. Snowden and Syria, in particular, come to mind.

The third, and by far the most repulsive, category of Western concern trolling about Sochi revolves around terrorism. After every successful terrorist attack in Russia, “experts” rush in to proclaim that it is an example of “Putin’s autocracy not working for ordinary Russians” (Kathryn Stoner-Weiss), that they “cannot rely on the protection of their government” (David Satter), etc. By extension, the IOC is wildly irresponsible for “jeopardizing the safety of fans and athletes” by awarding the games to Russia (Sally Jenkins). In reality, according to the world’s most comprehensive database on terrorism, the number of casualties in terrorist attacks in Russia has plummeted in the past decade, even as the jihadist movement has been reduced to a shadow of its former self; suffice to say that suicide bombing a bus in a second-tier city like Volgograd is now considered a great success among their ranks. I do not wish to tempt fate by ruling it out entirely, but with the “ring of steel,” pervasive telecommunications monitoring, and cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies that characterize Sochi security, the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack is surely low.

Consequent criticisms become increasingly deranged and unhinged from reality, much like the murderous HAL supercomputer fading away into childish gibberishness after it gets turned off. Thousands of people got evicted, their land stolen from them… except that the average compensation per person was $100,000. Sochi is apparently built on the bones of Circassians… well, if it’s a graveyard, I wonder what that makes the North American continent – a death world? The assertion that Sochi is an “unsuitable subtropical resort” with no snow… an assessment that would surely surprise the denizens of California’s Bay Area, who go skiing in Tahoe up until late April, and where average February temperatures are significantly higher than around Sochi. If anything, conditions are looking downright steezy. The metaphorical rock-bottom was attained by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who made a photograph of a pair of side-by-side toilets that were then splashed around the media – up to and including The New York Times – as evidence of the graft and imbecility that characterized the Sochi preparations. The only problem being that the photograph was taken in the middle of a renovation. But, hey, we wouldn’t want to deny the Brits their toilet humor, now would we…

All this is not to say that the Sochi Olympics are some kind of pure monument to virtuous sportsmanship and international friendship. Of course not. From their origins in ancient Greece, they were always about money, competition, and prestige. Putin himself openly states that one of its goals is to showcase a new Russia. There are no rules preventing Western states from waging a media campaign against Sochi, and refusing to send their top leaders to the opening ceremonies – petty and unseemly, such actions only reflect badly on their authors. So be it… gapers won’t be missed.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)

Hard as it is to believe, but in the wake of the Boston Bombings, many Western commentators actively trying to find the roots of the Tsarnaev brothers’ rage in Russia’s “aggression” or even “genocide” of Chechnya.

This is not to deny that Chechens did not have an exceptionally hard time of it in the 1990s. That said, what strikes one is the pathological one-sidedness of some of the commentary, such as this vomit-inducing screed by Thor Halvorssen, a self-imagined human rights promoter from Norway. In their world, it is a simple morality tale of small, plucky Chechnya being repeatedly ravaged by the big, bad Russian imperialist – and it is one that many people, conditioned in appropriate ways for two decades by the Western media, swallow hook, line, and sinker.

It’s not that simple. But rather than (re)dredging up many words and sources, let’s just suffice with one of the most telling graphs on the matter: The population graph of Chechnya since 1989.


Some people are certainly getting ethnically cleansed there alright, but it’s not who you might think it is. So this, essentially, is what the Russian “genocide” of Chechens boils down to: 715,306 Chechens & 269,130 Russians in 1989; 1,206,551 Chechens & 24,382 Russians in 2010. Russians almost entirely gone from there, even though the lands north of the Terek River – that is, about a third of Chechnya – were first settled by Cossacks during the 16th century and had never been Chechen until the 20th century. Those Russians (and other minority ethnicities) were terrorized out of Chechnya during the rule of “moderate nationalists” Maskhadov and Zakayev, whom the likes of Halvorssen describe as the “legitimate government of Chechnya,” with several thousand of them murdered outright. This ethnic cleansing continued unimpeded into the 2000s with the complicit silence of the “nationalist” Putin regime.

I really wish all the (non-Chechen) “Free Chechnya!” people could be reborn as minorities in 1990′s Chechnya in their next lives so that the likes of Halvorssen can experience firsthand the extent to which Chechens “share the democratic values of a Western civilization.”

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)

Is discussed at the other blog.

To add a couple of things that are Russia specific:

(1) We now learn that the FBI had interviewed the older brother at the bequest of an unspecific foreign government – almost certainly Russia. Tamerlan had visited it for 6 months in 2011. I wonder if he established links with some of the Caucasus Emirate Wahhabi types while there – and if so, whether US suspicions about Russia’s “assaults” on human rights in Chechnya made them drop their guard on a man who, it is now clear, was by then fast becoming an Islamist radical. The one silver lining to this horrible event is that it will become even more obvious that the Chechen rebellion has now been completely subsumed into the global Islamist struggle – and by extension, it will encourage the West to take a closer look at its “friends” in Syria.

(2) The reactions of Russian liberals has as always been as hilarious as it is nauseating. They seriously believe that the FSB is behind this.

Vasily Gatov, state news agency RIA employee: “I am watching three TV channels and listening to the radio, and reading the Boston Globe, and I gather that the main task of the FBI is to take the suspect alive. There is a drama brewing between Watertown, Washington, Moscow, and Grozny… And who knows which other cities. But I’m sure that the greatest fear is felt in Grozny. Which is why he will be taken alive.

Self-hating random Echo of Moscow commentator: “I will not be surprised if it turns out that the Tsarnaev brothers where recruited by Russian special forces for the execution of this terrorist act, because Russia will benefit from it. Why? Because this terrorist act will change American and Western public opinion – and hence, that of their politicians – towards Chechnya. If before the Western public supported the Chechens’ independence struggle, it is now more likely that they will support the Russian government’s policy on the Caucasus. And this means that the Kremlin KGBists will be able to use still crueler and more barbaric methods to fight separatism on the part of the Caucasus peoples. In other words, this terrorist act will untie the hands of the Kremlin in its war against the peoples of the Caucasus.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)

Russia’s life expectancy is said to have decreased to 69.70 years, from 69.83 years in 2011 (via Mark Adomanis via Alexei Kovalev via Paul Goble via Izvestia). The figure for 2011 had in its turn been previously lowered from 70.3 years. So what gives? Does this herald a “disturbing trend”? Is Russia entering a period of demographic stagnation, just as it is (allegedly) in economic and political stagnation?

Maybe, but let me clear up the reasons for these revisions. It fell from 70.3 years to 69.83 for 2011 because of new data about the population structure from the results of the 2010 Census. Not a decline per se, just an observation that the LE should have been lower than previously estimated. There’s nothing special about this except insomuch as it is now incorrect to talk about Russian life expectancy finally breaking the symbolic 70 year mark (at least for now).

Now the decline from 2011 to 2012 is extremely unlikely to be due to an actual worsening in the demographic situation. Mortality has fallen, not by a lot but it has fallen (-1.5%), and it has fallen most in the category “deaths from external causes” (-5%) which primarily affect younger people and thus have a disproportionate (negative) effect on life expectancy. So logically LE should have increased, especially if we also take into account that Russia’s population is also steadily aging. What explains the discrepancy? As pointed out by Murray Feshback, Mark Schrad, and the commentator Alexander Matuzkov on Adomanis’ blog, the method of calculating infant mortality had changed in 2012 – the effect of which was to increase it by 25%, by bringing it into line with international norms. (I had already blogged about it here so it’s a bit embarrassing I hadn’t thought of it myself).

Now there’s also some concern that January 2013 saw a big rise in mortality (+9% y/y). Does it presage something catastrophic? Pretty much no, because month to month mortality and fertility is extremely variable in Russia, due to seasonal factors. Below is a graph from Sergey Zhuravlev’s blog that eloquently demonstrates the point.


Now this is why you should ignore wild demographic swings month to month (just as you shouldn’t extrapolate as to the future trend of global warming from the weather last night). Otherwise you may be making unduly pollyannaish or apocalyptic projections that will more likely than not end up making you look foolish.


Some people like to say that Russia has only returned to natural population stability because of high fertility among Caucasus Muslims (who will overrun it and establish a Moskvabad Caliphate, at least in the febrile imaginations of Russian nationalists and Mark Steyn). Well, that is correct in a narrow sense, but in a way that clouds the actual picture.

As we can see from the graphic above, whereas the biggest chunk of positive growth does come from the South and the North Caucasus (in practice, all of it would be from the North Caucasus, as the South still has a marginally negative natural growth), the Urals and Siberian regions – all of them predominantly ethnic Russian – have already returned to positive natural population growth, while the natural population decrease in the older, more settled parts of European Russia are now but a tiny fraction of what it was just a few years ago. On current trends, the non-Slavic Caucasian peoples will add about a million or so in the next decade, but so what? That’s equivalent to less than 1% of the total ethnic Russian population, which itself will remain roughly stagnant during that same period.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)

It’s no real secret that many Russians have a positive impression of Stalin; it was 49% in February 2013, insignificantly down from 53% in 2003. (This is not a view that I share). There are probably a few big reasons for this: (1) The mistaken notion that without him Russia would have remained in the age of plows, not rockets; (2) The relatively low corruption and perceived social justice in that time; (3) His role in securing victory in WW2, the latter of which carried away far, far more Russian lives than Stalinist repressions; (4) Last but not least, the liberal-promoted defamation of Stalin and associated efforts to equalize the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany; this is deeply repugnant to the majority of Russians – especially as while the majority did have someone die or go MIA in their families during 1941-45, many fewer had relatives sent to the Gulag for political crimes let alone shot – and as such there was a regrettable but entirely understandable angry reaction to such slanders in the 2000s.

What it is almost certainly not, however, is part and parcel of some “neo-Soviet revanchism” that seeks to forcibly reincorporate former territories into Russia (Russian nationalism today is primarily of the contemporary European kind that seeks to limit immigration in its moderate form, and expel ethnic minorities in its radical form). It’s certainly not because of some Putin imposed blackout on discussions of Stalin’s crimes; only retards who read neocon media would believe that. Nor is it something that is specific to Russians and the long-abused meme of their “yearning for a strong hand“. Because according to Levada polls, pro-Stalin sentiment in “democratic Georgia” is actually substantially higher than in Russia.

Russia Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia
Positive emotions 28 21 30 49
Negative emotions 23 37 35 19
+/- Ratio 1.2 0.57 0.86 2.6
Indifferent emotions 50 43 36 33

The table above shows the sum of positive emotions (adulation, respect, sympathy), negative emotions (dislike, fear, repugnance, hatred), and indifferent emotions (don’t know who was Stalin – 1% in Russia, 4% in Georgia, a remarkable 20% in Azerbaijan, refuse to answer) towards Stalin. Georgians have by far the most positive opinions towards him in net terms, and are also the least indifferent to him; while pro-Stalinists slightly outnumber anti-Stalinists in Russia, it also has the highest percentage of people who are indifferent to him.


“Stalin was a wise leader, who brought the USSR to greatness and prosperity” – 47% of Russians agree, 38% disagree; 69% of Georgians agree, 16% disagree.


“Stalin was a cruel and inhumane tyrant, guilty of the annihilation of millions of innocent people” – 66% of Russians agree, 20% disagree; 51% of Georgians agree, 26% disagree.


The strong hand theory: “Our people could never cope without a leader of Stalin’s calibre, who would come and restore order” – 30% of Russians agree, 52% disagree; 29% of Georgians agree, 47% disagree.


“Would you personally like to live and work under a national leader like Stalin?” – 18% of Russians want to, 67% don’t; 27% of Georgians want to, 60% don’t.


“Are the losses sustained by the Soviet peoples under Stalin justified by the great aims and results that were achieved in a short time period?” – 25% of Russians agree, 60% disagree; 28% of Georgians agree, 45% disagree.


Finally, a poll on how Ukrainians view Stalin: “Stalin was a great leader.” Not directly comparable with the polls in Russia and the Caucasus countries, but still, if you believe that Stalin was unequivocal ruin and evil, you are unlikely to say that he was a “great leader”; at the least, a positive answer implies some level of ambiguity. And as we can see a majority of Ukrainians in the east and south view him positively. Even from those from the center, who suffered most from the collectivization famines, more say he was a great leader than not. The only part of the country which definitely says he was not a “great leader” is the far west but of course it too has its own historical cockroaches.

Of course I have to stress that I don’t condemn Georgians for loving Stalin; the aim of this post is just to clear up some misconceptions that idiot Westerners have about how Russian Stalinophilia is somehow “exceptional” in the post-Soviet context and worthy of endless harping in the media. If I was a Georgian I too would probably love a countryman who administratively expanded the borders of Sakartvelo and subjugated those one hundred million Russkies up north under his heel. But it does also show the hilarious hypocrisy of Saakashvili who used to rant on about how Georgians are inherently more democratic-minded and historically responsible than Russians.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)

Once again, a picture that’s worth a thousand words, courtesy of Alex Kireev: A map of how Russians abroad voted in the 2012 elections (see below).

Quantitatively, they split into three main groupings, each accounting for about a third of the votes from abroad: (1) Residents of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Pridnestrovie; (2) Other republics of the former USSR, or the “Near Abroad”; (3) the “Far Abroad”, which is basically the rest of the world. Each of these have specific electoral patterns.

1) Here support for Putin is overwhelming: 91.1% in Abkhazia, 90.4% in South Ossetia, and 87.2% in Moldova. Though very high, practically North Caucasus-like, I do not consider these figures suspicious. All of these states – most of the Moldova voters are from Pridnestrovie – owe their de facto independence to the Russian Army, and to the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Russian military, security, and diplomatic officials stationed in these areas would also be largely pro-Putin.

2) In the former USSR, Putin too has dominant support among Russians (more so than in Russia itself): 92.6% in Tajikistan, 90.7% in Kyrgyzstan, 88.5% in Armenia, 80.9% in Uzbekistan, 76.1% in Ukraine, 77.5% in Kazakhstan, and 66.4% in Belarus. It is ironic that his lowest score would be in Belarus, ostensibly the post-Soviet country with which Russia is closest integrated: Could it be an indirect protest vote against Lukashenko, or is that Belorussian TV’s propaganda campaign in 2010 against Putin as a thief has taken root? The Baltics follow the same pattern: 89.1% in Latvia, 85.4% in Estonia, and 75.7% in Lithuania. It is perhaps indicative that the more Russians are oppressed in a Baltic country, the greater their support for Putin.

Blue: Putin wins; Darker blue: Putin wins in first round; Darkest blue: Putin wins with more than 75%; Green: Prokhorov wins. [click to enlarge]

3) In the Far Abroad, there is a real contest, but not between Putin and Zyuganov – who is unpopular practically everywhere – but between Putin and Prokhorov. There are a few further subdivisions here.

(A) In countries where the Russian presence is dominated (in relative terms) by diplomatic and/or security staff, Putin is dominant. This describes much of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

In the BIC’s countries, where there are also many business-types, there is more of a contest with Prokhorov but Putin still wins: China (VVP 40.7%, MDP 34.3%); Brazil (VVP 45.1%, MDP 28.4%); India (VVP 46.2%, MDP 24.5%). (India is also curious in that Mironov performs very well there, by his standards, getting 16.6%; I wonder if @FarEasterner was one of his voters there?).

In the South-East Asian emerging markets, where the non-official presence is probably dominated by businesspeople, it is a close race between Putin and Prokhorov: Indonesia (VVP 41.3%, MDP 39.4%); Malaysia (VVP 35.2%, MDP 32.6%); Thailand (VVP 38.3%, MDP 39.7%). However, Russians in Singapore almost give Prokhorov a first round victory with 48.8%. In most other emerging markets, however, Putin wins comfortable: 63.6% in Turkey, 55.8% in Argentina, 54.3% in Mexico, 53.5% in Egypt, 51.1% in Venezuela and Colombia, 43.8% in South Korea, 43.1% in South Africa.

Putin is dominant in Orthodox and Russia-friendly Greece (84.1%), Macedonia (81.6%), and Serbia (68.0%), but one of the most popular locations for Russian relocating abroad, Cyprus, gives a lower score, 56.8%.

(C) In the Western countries, Putin is either level-pegging with Prokhorov, as in much of post-socialist East Central Europe, the Med, Scandinavia, and the Germanic lands; or decisively behind him as in the Anglosphere.

In the following Western countries, Putin would have to fight a second round with Prokhorov: Hungary (VVP 49.9%, MDP 27.9%); Poland (VVP 48.5%, MDP 30.2%); Italy (VVP 48.3%, MDP 32.1%), Israel (VVP 48.1%, MDP 38.8%), Finland (VVP 44.0%, MDP 36.2%); Spain (VVP 40.8%, MDP 37.0%); Sweden (VVP 37.0%, MDP 36.5%).

In the Anglosphere, and a few other Western countries, Prokhorov leads Putin: Japan (VVP 38.2%, MDP 36.2%), France (MDP 41.2%, VVP 31.3%), Czech Republic (MDP 43.4%, VVP 36.0%), Australia (MDP 43.5%, VVP 33.1%), Canada (MDP 43.8%, VVP 36.2%), Switzerland (MDP 44.8%, VVP 32.0%), and the Netherlands (MDP 46.4%, VVP 27.8%).

In the two major Anglo-Saxon countries, Prokhorov would win the first round outright: The US (MDP 52.4%, VVP 30.0%), and Great Britain (MDP 58.0%, VVP 28.1%).

Looking at the map, there is a striking correlation – especially for the Far Abroad nations – between the level of Russophobia (especially in the media) and Putin’s result.

In a place like Germany, though the media is highly critical of Putin, coverage is however on the whole far more balanced and sophisticated than elsewhere in the West; that might be why Putin won. The French media is highly anti-Russian – on Runet discussions, the “глюк” is used as a unit of measurement for Russophobia, inspired by André Glucksmann – however, from the comments, my impression is that the French aren’t quite as taken in by the propaganda as the British or Americans. Broadly similar things may be said of Italy.

As for the UK, it hosts people like Zakayev, Berezovsky, and Chichvarkin (him on Putin voters: “Zombies, who wake up after drinking beer and vodka and switch on the first (state-controlled) TV channel. They don’t want to think, they don’t want to work, they don’t want to learn”). It is also the global center of the radical anti-Putin opposition, represented by people like Andrei Sidelnikov, who was along with Berezovsky’s PR man Alex Goldfarb the driving force behind the establishment of the anti-Putin campaign Strategy-31 Abroad. Practically all of its major newspapers without exception take a hysterically anti-Putin tone, and in the case of the Guardian actively censor people who argue otherwise (or who question their censorship for that matter). So no wonder that the UK Russians love the robber baron Prokhorov so much, the one who got a mere 6% in Norilsk, the Russian town where he is the major employer, and whose people presumably know him well – too well, perhaps. One can only hope that Prokhorov will leave for Britain to join his oligarch buddies there, to answer his true calling in life which is to be President of Londongrad.

Needless to say, the US media is also highly Russophobic, though perhaps not quite as vitriolic as the British press (for instance, the New York Times is certainly a lot better in that regard than any major British paper). No surprise then that Putin got the second least amount of votes in the US.

The results at the polling station of the San Francisco consulate (where I happened to vote) were 57.1% for Prokhorov and 26.7% for Putin, the biggest discrepancy in all the Russian polling stations in the US. My experience is that of the people from Berkeley, votes were split evenly between Prokhorov and Zyuganov (what do you expect? It’s a leftist place), with Putin taking up third place. However, in the wider Bay Area, the electorate is dominated by Silicon Valley types, who tend to be people who emigrated from Russia during the Soviet era and who associate it with backwardness, anti-Semitism, etc., and coupled with the libertarian / bourgeois nature of their views, Prokhorov is a perfect fit for them.

In the BIC’s nations, and most of the emerging markets, where the media environment is fairly neutral as far as Russia goes – as opposed to its highly Russophobic nature in the West – Putin ends up winning comfortably, including in countries that everyone accepts to be liberal democracies like India, Brazil, Turkey, etc. In fact they are very close to the results in Russia itself, especially when one adjusts for the types of people who are likely to be abroad (richer, well-educated) to their equivalents in Russia. This is evidence that whatever supposed pro-Putin bias the media may have in Russia (and I would say that on average it is now more negative than positive) it is far, far outweighed by the anti-Putin and Russophobic bias of the Western, and especially Anglo-Saxon, media, as testified to by the fact that Russian voters in the US and the UK would rather vote for a confirmed Yeltsin-era thief and oligarch than Putin.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

Analysis of the election data is now trickling in, so I feel I can now make some real preliminary estimates of the degree of fraud (eventually, I will compile a list of estimates as I did for the 2011 elections). My assessment is that in these elections it was on the order of 3%-4%, which is lower than my estimated range of the 5%-7% fraud in the Duma elections, but still far too high by developed country standards. The geographical distribution of fraud has changed significantly: Moscow actually appears to be very clean this time wrong (in stark contrast to 2011, and 2009). However, there were little to no changes for the better in the ethnic minority republics, which is where the great bulk of the falsifications are now concentrated.

The most reliable evidence, in my opinion, is the FOM exit poll which gave Putin a vote of 59.3% in contrast to the 63.6% official tally – a difference of slightly more than 4%. (VCIOM gave him 58.3%, but I consider it slightly less reliable: It polled 63 regions, to FOM’s 81, and the missing regions included places like Ossetia and Daghestan where support for Putin is higher than average – even if so is the level of falsifications). Below is a table of regional falsifications, courtesy of Kireev. As you can see, the highest discrepancies between official and exit poll results – and the only ones exceeds the margin of error – are now in Federal Districts with many national ethnic minority republics: North Caucasus (Daghestan, Chechnya, etc), the Urals (Tatarstan, Bashkortostan), and the South (Kalmykia, Adygea). Across Russia as a whole, the discrepancy was 4.3%, relative to 6.3% in 2011.

FOM exit poll Official Difference
Central FD 53.8 56.6 2.8
Northwestern FD 56.3 59.1 2.8
Southern FD 59.0 63.8 4.8
North Caucasian FD 68.4 82.7 14.3
Volga FD 61.3 68.1 6.8
Urals FD 64.4 67.0 2.6
Siberian FD 61.0 62.1 1.1
Far East FD 60.3 59.9 -0.4
Russia 59.3 63.6 4.3

Moscow May Not Trust Tears But It Does Trust Gauss

Readers of the blog will know that my assessment is that Moscow was marred by extensive fraud in 2011, with United Russia getting 30%-35% as opposed to its claimed result of 46.6%. Now Putin is always 10%-15% more popular than United Russia, so the very fact that he got virtually the same score – 47.0%, to be precise – in Moscow as did United Russia three months later is damning of the capital’s 2011 elections by itself. But there is also stunning graphical evidence of this, courtesy of Maxim Pshenichnikov. The graphs below show the votes for turnout (horizontal) vs. the votes for UR/Putin (vertical), in the 2011 election (left) and the 2012 election (right). Observe the vast change from two clusters in 2011, with the bigger one around 55% representing stations where there was fraud, and the very tight, elegant cluster around 45% representing the vote for Putin in 2012.

Question to everyone who expressed skepticism that there was mass fraud in Moscow in 2011: How would you explain this difference?

The ironic thing, of course, is that the cleanness of the 2012 elections implicitly condemn the results of the 2011 elections in Moscow. Nonetheless, its still a huge boost for Putin’s legitimacy, first and foremost because Moscow is the focal point of the protests against his rule. The protesters, at least at their local level, will no longer have a leg to stand on; nor will they be able to be able to parade about with signs like the one below.

Moscow trusts in Gauss, so they will now have to trust Churov too as the two now agree with each other.

Fraud in St.-Petersburg

The picture was far worse in St.-Petersburg, with it seeing significant falsifications to the tune of perhaps 5%-6%.

There appears to be little difference between 2011 and 2012; if anything, this year there were quite a few stations with close to 100% turnout and 100% pro-Putin votes, as shown by the cluster to the top right. There is also a second cluster at a turnout of 60% and pro-Putin vote of 80%; there, too, are falsifications beyond doubt, as they are all concentrated in just two Territorial Electoral Commissions and 32 identifiable polling stations. Beyond those two patently false clusters, the spread too is very suspicious, contrasting as it does with Moscow’s elegant oval.

Graphs For All The Russias

Again from the same source, the 2011 and 2012 elections visually compared.

As I argued in my epic post on statistical methods for detecting fraud, a positive correlation between turnout and votes for Putin, or United Russia, is not necessarily indicative of fraud (First, different socio-economic subgroups are known to have different electoral patterns in Russia under fair elections, e.g. rural areas have higher turnouts, higher votes for incumbents, and bigger spreads; Second, if this correlation were proof of fraud, one must then also conclude elections in Israel, Germany, and the UK are falsified too).

Nonetheless, they are useful in the sense that they can be compared from one year to the next. And as we can see above, overall 2011 seems to have been substantially more fraudulent; in particular, the unnatural cluster near the 100%/100% mark is both bigger and darker (i.e. denser) in 2011 than in 2012.

Furthermore, the center of the huge circle in 2012 – largely representing results from the ethnic Russian urban areas – is unambiguously above the 50% mark, at about the 55% point, compared to the official result of 64.6% (difference: 10%), which means that Putin definitely got enough votes to avoid a second round. In contrast, the center of that big circle was at around 30% in 2011, compared to the official result of 49.3% (difference: 20%). Though one cannot glean direct figures from this – again, urban ethnic Russians vote more uniformly and less enthusiastically for the establishment candidates – one can get a sense of the relative scale of fraud, and this back of the envelope calculation implies that overall fraud perhaps nearly halved in 2012 compared to 2011. As fraud was 5%-7% in 2011, with an absolute reasonable upper limit of 10%, this constitutes further support for my estimate that it was close to 3%-4% this time round.

More graphs for Russia as a whole:

Number of votes vertically, result for each candidate horizontally. Putin is dark red, Zyuganov is red, Prokhorov is green.

Prokhorov has an interesting bimodal distribution, because of the influence of subgroups: The bulk of the Russian electorate (first peak), then the urban metropolises of Moscow and St.-Petersburg (second bump).

Part of the “long tail” of Putin’s and United Russia’s results are because of fraud, however part of them are also the innocent result of, again, subgroup voting patterns, namely that of rural voters among whom turnout and support for Putin are both higher than in the urban areas.

Number of votes vertically, level of turnout at which they got those votes horizontally. Putin is dark red, Zyuganov is red, Prokhorov is green.

The above shows the turnout (horizontal) vs. the median vote for each party or candidate at that level of turnout.

Anyway you look at it, all graphs would suggest aggregate falsification was less in 2012 than in 2011.

The North Caucasus: Is It Fraud, Or A Communal Voting Culture?

The most egregious discrepancies come from the Caucasus. Whereas the exit polling evidence does indicate that Putin has very high “true” support at 68.4% in the North Caucasus Federal District – when one discounts the ethnic Russian region of Krasnodar (where he got 65%) then perhaps as high as 75% for the Muslim republics, the official results – 90%+ in all the Muslim republics, including 99%+ in Chechnya – are nonetheless incredible.

Kireev has a very interesting post on the mechanics of voting in Daghestan, where officially there was 91% turnout and a 93% share of votes for Putin. An observer watched one polling station via the website, and as the station was equipped with a voting machine, it allowed him to calculate both the correct turnout and share of votes for Putin (i.e. by excluding the people throwing in more than one ballot). The results of those who voted fairly, with turnout at just 36.3% with Putin getting 60.3% and Zyuganov getting 28.1%, differed substantially from the official tally of 94.3% turnout with 84.7% votes for Putin and 10.8% for Zyuganov.

Of the non-standard voters, there were many people who turned up there with 2 or 3 bulletins, i.e. they were not “mass” ballot stuffers. The possibility exists that they were simply voting for absent family members, and as such that not all the “stuffed” votes in this category were for Putin. Then there were a few people who came in with big packs of bulletins, who really did fit the characteristic of ballot stuffers.

In their case however, my pet theory is that it may not be quite so much a case of nefarious fraud as a reflection of Daghestan’s and the North Caucasus ethnic republics’ voting cultures; namely, the practice of voting not by individuals but by teips, i.e. the clans that form the heart of Chechen, Ingush, and Daghestani society. The teip decides on a single candidate for the teip to support; Putin would get the nomination in almost every case (after all, the exit poll shows ordinary Daghestanis giving him twice as much support as the next nearest candidate, Zyuganov); and the headman would send a representative to vote for Putin on behalf of everyone in the teip.

The “non-stuffed” result in that station, with 36% turnout with 60% voting for Putin, may then represent the true “representative” feeling of urban Daghestani society, as expressed by its urban residents that are not closely affiliated to a teip. The other part of Daghestani society works on communal principles, that if you think about it actually – de facto if not de jure (because the practice is formally illegal under Russian law) – resemble the winner takes all “first past the post” system in the UK.

That said, I stress that this is a theory, an alternate way of looking at the voting in places like Daghestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea that shines a slightly more positive light than the standard interpretation that their elections are marred by huge fraud; it is not fact. The possibility that communal voting is an accepted electoral practice in those regions is further supported by the presence of a similar phenomenon in local elections in Arab villages in Israel. The topic needs further research.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

In the aftermath of the 2011 Duma elections, the Russian blogosphere was abuzz with allegations of electoral fraud. Many of these were anecdotal or purely rhetorical in nature; some were more concrete, but variegated or ambiguous. A prime example of these were opinion polls and exit polls, which variably supported and contradicted the Kremlin’s claims that fraud was minimal. But there was also a third set of evidence. Whatever problems Russia may have, a lack of highly skilled mathematicians, statisticians and programmers certainly isn’t one of them. In the hours and days after the results were announced, these wonks drew on the Central Electoral Commission’s own figures to argue the statistical impossibility of the election results. The highest of these fraud estimates were adopted as fact by the opposition. Overnight, every politologist in the country – or at least, every liberal politologist – became a leading expert on Gaussian distributions and number theory.

While I don’t want to decry Churov, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, for making subjects many people gave up back in 8th grade fun and interesting again, I would like to insert a word of caution: lots of math and numbers do not necessarily prove anything, and in fact – generally speaking – the more math and numbers you have the less reliable your conclusions (not making this up: the research backs me up on this). Complicated calculations can be rendered null and void by simple but mistaken assumptions; the sheer weight of figures and fancy graphs cannot be allowed to crowd out common sense and strong diverging evidence. Since the most (in)famous of these models asserts that United Russia stole 15% or more of the votes, it is high time to compile a list of alternate models and fraud estimates that challenge that extremely unlikely conclusion – unlikely, because if it were true, it would essentially discredit the entirety of Russian opinion polling for the last decade.

In this post, I will compile a list of models built by Russian analysts of the scale of electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections. I will summarize them, including their estimates of aggregate fraud in favor of United Russia, and list their possible weak points. The exercise will show that, first, the proper methodology is very, very far from settled and as such all these estimates are subject to (Knightian) uncertainty; but second, many of them converge to around 5%-7%, which is about the same figure as indicated by the most comprehensive exit poll. This is obviously very bad but still a far cry from the most pessimistic and damning estimates of 15%+ fraud, which would if they were true unequivocally delegitimize the Russian elections.

The Magical Beard (16% fraud)

The long-time elections watcher and phycist Sergey Shpilkin (podmoskovnik) has probably written the most popular article on the use of statistical analysis to detect electoral fraud. The first piece of evidence of fraud is that as turnout increases, so does United Russia’s share of the vote; the effect is not observed for the other parties, whose share remains constant or even declines. Below is the graph for Moscow.

And below, courtesy of Maxim Pshenichnikov (oude_rus), is the same graph as a “heat map” for all Russia.

But that’s not all. A second problem is that turnout in Russia does not follow a normal, or Gaussian distribution. The laws of probability dictate that if you throw a coin 100 times, it is fairly unlikely that the “heads” will turn up exactly 50% of the time; however, as you repeat this experiment a dozen, a hundred, and then a thousand times, the average should converge to 50%. A graph of all these experiments should be in the form of a bell curve, with a peak at the midway point and falling away rapidly on either side. Theoretically, this should also hold for turnout, and this is in fact what we see in for elections in countries such as Mexico, Bulgaria, Sweden, Canada, Poland, and Ukraine. As we can see, there are suspicious peaks at 100% turnout in some of the less developed democracies like Ukraine, Bulgaria, and even Poland; and Ukraine’s Gaussian distribution breaks down beyond about 90% turnout altogether. Nonetheless, the overwhelming indications are that all these countries conduct almost fully free and fair elections.

But these laws do not seem to apply to Russia, including for the most recent Duma elections. Not only does the normal distribution break down on the right hand side of the graph, from about the 60% turnout point, but there begin to appear consistent peaks at “convenient” intervals of 5%, as if the polling stations with 70%, 75%, 80%, 90%, and 100% turnout were working to targets! Though the most recent election seems marginally better than the 2007 Duma election and the 2008 Presidential election, the overall indication is one of rampant shenanigans and fraud.

Graphing the number of polling stations, as done by Pshenichnikov, at which every party got a certain percentage of the votes, exposes United Russia as the black sheep of the political family. Regular spikes at 5% intervals begin from 50% onwards, at which point the Gaussian distribution breaks down and is stretched away into oblivion – producing what is now jocularly referred to as “Churov’s beard.”

And in Moscow, United Russia’s curve looks even more ridiculous. The twin peaks that Yabloko has are either because their vote was stolen at some places and not at others, or they did not have a proper Gaussian to begin with. (Note how practically all the Moscow polling stations with machines cluster at around 30% for United Russia, strongly indicating that the second, bigger peak at around 50% is falsified; see these two clusters in more graphic form here).

Then there’s the matter of abnormal turnout patterns. Cui bono? Quite clearly, United Russia. Returning to Shpilnikov’s work, as you can see below, the higher the turnout, the greater the relative discrepancy between votes for United Russia and the opposition parties.

The author then proceeds to “normalize” United Russia’s results, making the blanket assumption that the correlation between high turnout and higher votes is entirely due to fraud and that it is valid to extend the correlation between votes for United Russia relative to the other parties observed for stations will turnout lower than 50% to every other polling station. Its adjusted results vastly differ from its official results, with the numbers of falsified votes soaring once turnout at any individual polling station exceeds 50% and rapidly converging to near total falsification once turnout rises to 70% and above.

At this point, it is possible to “integrate” the adjusted results curve, to calculate United Russia’s real result. The conclusions are devastating. According to Shpilkin’s final calculations, cited by GOLOS, out of 32 million votes for United Russia, only half of them – some 16.2 million – are “normal”, whereas the other 15.8 million are “anomolous.” This means that in reality it only got 33.7% of the vote, as opposed to the official 49.3%, implying a 15.6% degree of fraud.

Party Official vote Duma seats Real result Real Duma seats
United Russia 49.3% 238 33.7% 166
Communists 19.2% 92 25.1% 124
Fair Russia 13.2% 64 17.3% 85
Liberal Democrats 11.7% 56 15.3% 75
Yabloko 3.4% 4.5%
Patriots of Russia 1.0% 1.3%
Right Cause 0.6% 0.8%
spoiled ballots 1.6% 2.1%

This would clearly make the Duma elections illegitimate, as the will of the Russian electorate – a truly multi-party parliament – is not reflected. If the elections were fair, United Russia would lose its majority and have to rely on coalitions with other parties to pursue its legislative agenda. It would appear that the non-systemic opposition has a clear mandate to demand a rerun.

Not so fast. This claim of 15% fraud is contrary to the entirety of Russian opinion polling, which generally predicted United Russia would get 50%, and to the results of the most comprehensive exit poll, which gave it 43%. Furthermore, as other bloggers rushed to point out, Shpilkin makes many highly questionable assumptions that challenge the credibility of his estimates, for instance, he doesn’t back up his claim that the correlation of higher turnout with more votes for United Russia (and is in fact contradicted by electoral patterns in advanced democracies like Germany and the UK).

PS. You can read an alternate explanation of this method in English by Anton, a Russian blogger living in Finland.

What About Limey?

The mathematician Sergey Kuznetsov wrote a long piece at attempting to rebut Shpilkin’s conclusions. He starts off by pointing out that the Gaussian distribution achieved by conducting multiple coin tossing experiments is artificial because conditions remain identical. The same cannot be said if some of the experimenters continue tossing coins, while others of their kind begin to favor using dice with “heads” on five of their faces. Likewise, in a country with many socio-economically and culturally idiosyncratic regions such as Russia, Gaussian distributions are not inevitable.

As for the peaks at 5% intervals, they are products of elementary number theory. There must be a jump at 50% because the fraction 1/2, among other fractions n/m, appears more frequently than any other. The same can be said for other “nice” fractions: 2/3, 3/4, 4/5, and so on. Not only fraudsters like these “beautiful” fractions; its an intrinsic property of number theory itself. This is demonstrated below by Ruslan Enikeev (singpost), who built a frequency distribution of the natural outcome of multiple elections with 600 participants; as you can see below, there are very prominent spikes at all the “nice” fractions.

And guess what? If we are to build Pshenichnikov’s graph in “The Magical Beard” but at much finer resolutions, like Kuznetsov did, we get the following. Note how the other parties also get their spikes at “nice” fractions!

So you say that a correlation between higher turnout and more votes for United Russia means mass electoral fraud? If that’s the case, Britain must be a banana republic. Below is the relation between turnout and votes for the Conservatives and New Labour in the 2010 general elections (and this pattern is common to every British region).

Nor are British voters big fans of the Gaussian distribution either.

PS. At this point, I should also note that I observed lots of small peaks for the 2007 Ukraine elections (i.e. after its Orange Revolution) in this blog post.

That said, it should be noted that Kuznetsov acknowledges that the fat tail, and some of the 5% intervals that cannot be explained by number theory – e.g., 65%, 70%, 85%, 90%, 95% – means that a lot of fraud probably did happen.

PS. This has been pretty much confirmed by bloggers such as gegmopo4 (“Happy Pictures“) and Dmitry Kobak (“Party of Scoundrels and Thieves and 10 Sigma“).

The Reichstag Is Burning Since 2002!

The programmer Sergey Slyusarev (jemmybutton) also gave his two kopeiki on election fraud. He pointed out that as in the UK, the turnout for the 2002 Bundestag elections did not follow a perfect Gaussian either; in particular, a lower turnout in East Germany contributed to a second, smaller peak to the left of the main one. He also notes that higher turnouts correlated with more votes for the conservative alliance and fewer votes for the social democrat / green alliance.

Just as Kuznetsov above, he also discussed how pure number theory can explain most of the peaks along 5% intervals. However, even after making adjustments for it, there remained peaks at 75%, 85%, and the fat tail in general that he could not explain as being natural.

I would add that that is understandably so, if we consider this graph of North Ossetia’s results from Pshenichnikov. The biggest irony is that they didn’t even HAVE TO do it to ensure a big United Russia win. The “natural” Gaussian for UR (from the few free and fair stations) seems to be only a few percentage points short of the artificial peak. There’s idiots and then there’s bureaucrats.

He goes into further really wonky elections stuff later on in his post. There are no firm insights or conclusions arising from it, so I’ll refrain from summarizing it.

Trust Me On Arabs In Israel

The blogger, and aspiring Sinologist Vitaly Shishakov (svshift) doesn’t have original models, but does have a lot of useful links. He gives further examples of countries where higher turnouts result in more votes for certain parties and of where turnout does not follow Gaussian distributions. One example is Israel, where Arab turnout in local elections is consistently, stunningly higher than in Jewish ones. As both are still in significant part traditionalist societies, one wonders if the same applies to the Caucasus states (a possibility I raised in my Al Jazeera article). Read him here and here.

Revealing The Real Israel

The blogger levrrr does not believe that there is significant electoral fraud in Israel; and he agrees with Dmitry Kobak that this is patently not the case in Russia. Nonetheless, the curious patterns observed in the 2009 elections in that socio-culturally diverse society are a good reminder that just because it looks strange doesn’t necessarily mean surreptitious activities are afoot.

Unlike in many other countries, the distribution of voting stations by the percentage of votes each party obtained in them is most definitely not standard. Yisrael Beiteinu is log-normal; Likud is a Gaussian with two peaks (like Yabloko in Moscow); Kadima is kind of Gaussian but with a huge plateau; and the two fundamentalist parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) have a weirdly long and fat tail. So no wonder Avigdor Lieberman is virtually the only foreign statesman to approve of Russia’s elections!

Comparing it to Pshenichnikov’s graph of Russia, there are striking comparative resemblances: Yabloko resembles Shas; the LDPR and Fair Russia resemble Yisrael Beiteinu; the KPRF resembles Likud; and apart from the spiked tail, United Russia looks like Kadima.

Like United Russia, the higher the turnout, the more votes Kadima gets, as in the graph below. The effect is neutral for Likud (as for the Russian opposition parties), and it is negative for Yisrael Beiteinu.

Nonetheless, Israel’s turnout is an indisputable Gaussian; there is no separate peak for the Arabs. (I would note that they have ultra-high turnouts only for local elections, not national ones). Less than 0.1% of polling stations saw a turnout of more than 95%, whereas this figure is more than 5% for the recent Russian elections. I assume that’s almost all fraud, as there are only so many barracks in Russia where everyone goes to vote en masse.

Dangerous Curves (5%-6% fraud)

The economist Sergey Zhuravlev (zhu_s) argues that the correlation between higher turnout and higher votes for United Russia is meaningless because of the “silent majority” effect. Voters for the opposition can be expected to turn out in full force, whereas people without any specific grievances against the “party of power” – who expect it to win with or without their participation – can turn out at varying rates in different regions, depending on their satisfaction with its performance and its success at mobilizing its supporters. As for United Russia’s unusually long tail, that can be explained by the very fact of its getting many votes. A party like Yabloko whose support base hovers in the lower single digits can be expected to have a very narrow peak at the beginning; a party like United Russia, which enjoys a great deal of supports with large geographic variation, will naturally have a far wider spread.

He outlines an alternative method that involves plotting the growth of each party’s share of the vote against the numbers of polling stations giving them a certain level of support. In a society where there are no regional differences in voting preferences and no falsifications, the graphs for each party can be expected to converge to a vertical center. In real life, regional differences flatten out this “ideal” vertical form, especially at the top and bottom. This is because both many stations with little support for a particular party, and the few stations with high support for a particular party, contribute only a small share of the votes to that party; most of its votes accrue to the many stations where support for that party is not far from the national average. This method eliminates the “flattening effect” observed in Shpilkin’s work where the mere fact of high popularity makes United Russia’s spread look unnaturally wide. As we can see below, all parties have substantial spreads in regional support; they are just on different scales.

From the graph above, United Russia is seen to enjoy an “S-effect”, in which stations where they got more than 70% – concentrated in the ethnic minority republics – contributed one fifth of its total vote; the kinks observed in that region are especially suspicious and indicative of mass fraud. This “S-effect” took away votes from the Communists and LDPR, creating an analogous “J-effect” at the bottom of their graphs. Yabloko too has an “S-effect”, if much lower in overall scale relative to United Russia, due to its relatively good performance in the two capitals; elsewhere, it is now just a forgotten relic of the 1990′s.

Whereas there is much evidence of fraud in Moscow, Zhuravlev has some of the strongest evidence against it as shown in the graph below. United Russia has a very natural curve, with no kinks observed at the at the top-right; instead, it has a “J-curve” at the bottom, presumably in the hipster Moscow districts with high support levels for Yabloko (a thesis corroborated by Yabloko’s prominent S-curve).

To resolve the possible falsifications arising from the S-effects and J-effects (with the caveat that they are not always indicative of fraud – e.g., Moscow with its Yabloko-friendly hipster districts), Zhuravlev suggests taking the median: i.e., the party voting shares such that half the polling stations have lower numbers and the other half have higher numbers. This effectively cuts out the S-effects and J-effects. The result is that United Russia loses 6% points relative to its official results, leaving it marginally below a Duma majority with 220 seats.

Of course, this approach too has its problems. It seems to me that kinks are only going to be observed where results are “drawn to plan” (as in some of the ethnic minority republics); where fraud is decentralized, the degree of fraud will itself be a wide spread, and as such not reflected in kinks or S-curves. His conclusion that fraud in Moscow was minimal contrasts with a whole heap of contrary evidence.

Zhuravlev expands on his thoughts on falsifications and the economics of political choice in a follow-up blog post.

Churov’s Defense (minimal fraud)

The Election Results: An Analysis of Electoral Preferences by Vladimir Churov. This isn’t the first time the head of the Central Elections Commission, a physicist with some Petersburg connections to Putin, has had to dodge incoming bullets from the election nerds and LJ malcontents. In response to criticisms of the last round of elections, in 2008 he co-authored an article in an attempt to rebut the critics.

His basic approach is to explain the idiosyncrasies of Russia election patterns in terms of voter behavior. At the beginning, he brings forth the standard criticism against the view that voter behavior must necessarily conform to normal distributions, i.e. it’s not a uniform series of experiments but the choices of a heterogeneous population we are talking about. The authors then proceed to build a model of electoral preferences for Russia’s different population groups in a quest to see how well it conforms with reality. Unlike everyone else on this list, he is analyzing the Presidential election of 2008, but that’s fine because according to Shpilkin it was one of the most falsified.

As shown in the graph above, rural polling stations and urban polling stations reveal starkly different voting patterns. I can see that the latter is described by an (almost internationally standard) log-normal curve; rural voters are the ones who create the fat tail. The other polling stations are various special ones, e.g. in closed institutions or the military, but only account for 1% of the total voters so their overall effect is small. The difference between turnout in the cities and the country is explained “deeper and stronger mutual relations” existing in the latter, whereas urban dwellers are a more amorphous mass. And I would remind the reader at this point that United Russia is more popular in the countryside.

At some level this does make sense – anybody who has lived in a Russian village (or even a small town) can confirm that people there know each other far better than in a big city or a metropolis like Moscow. I can easily imagine a social activity like voting will logically draw a higher participation. He makes a further interesting argument regarding the relation between turnout and the size of the voter list at polling stations (see “Size Matters, Baby” below for a nice graph by Pshenichnikov illustrating this). Basically, turnout at urban polling stations with smaller voter lists begins to converge to converge with results from rural polling stations with bigger voter lists; but unlike in towns, the vast bulk of votes in rural areas accrue to polling stations with small voter lists, where turnout is very high.

And though there are fewer rural voters than urban voters, the number of polling stations is about evenly split between the two – because the average rural polling station has a smaller voter list than the average urban polling station. Adding the results from city stations and rural stations together produces the fat tail on the turnout graphs.

In summary, the overall turnout distribution by polling station is merely the sum of how different Russian population groups vote: urban voters, rural voters, institutional voters (e.g. soldiers).

Worried about the “cragginess” of the graph? Just the result of ordinary fluctuations. It increases when you analyze it at higher resolutions and fades away to nothing at the lowest resolutions.

Plotting the voter turnout distribution not against the number of polling stations but against the number of voters voting in places at any particular turnout will naturally diminish the fatness of the tail (because as pointed out above the polling stations with small voter lists will have the highest turnouts).

As before, the same general turnout pattern is observed in terms of rural and urban voting patterns when plotted against voter numbers.

Churov further argues that the proportional votes for each candidate are NOT huge affected by the turnout. What tendency Medvedev has to win more votes relatively at higher turnouts is down to the increasing influence of the rural vote. A close up of the voting figures for the 75%-100% is presented.

As far as I can see, Churov makes an important point (and in large part convincing) point about the different voting patterns that describe rural and urban voters, and especially the effect of the size of the polling station’s voter list on the turnout. However, he patently fails to address the main concerns of his critics for one simple reason.

He only analyzed the results from 25 regions of European Russia. Which ones? They are not even identified (apart from Kaliningrad, Murmansk and Arghangelsk oblasts, and the Nenets autonomous region, which are mentioned in passing as included). If there is a link telling us what the other 21 are, I cannot find it. And the biggest problem is that, of course, fraud is highly variant by Russian regions. For instance, see Aleksandr Kireev‘s (kireev) map of his estimates of election fraud. Note that three of the four regions actually cited by Churov are green, i.e. indicating that they had little or no fraud in the 2011 elections. As Russian political culture hasn’t changed much in the past three years, they presumably looked similar in 2008.

I strongly suspect that for his analysis Churov merely handpicked the most electorally honest regions he could find and worked from there. Why else include only the 25 regions, with 21% of Russia’s voters and 23% of its voting stations, when he obviously has access to the Central Election Commission’s entire database just like any other blogger? These suspicions are further reinforced by the lack of spikes at regular 5% intervals that everyone else who compiled turnout distributions at the federal level found. He makes some good arguments but the overall conclusions that there is no or minimal fraud is not credible.

Separate The Wheat From The Chaff (5%-7%; 6.6% fraud)

The computer programmer hist_kai takes a relatively simple approach. He plots the number of people voting for United Russia under every 0.1% point interval to get the graph below.

Then he removed all voices for United Russia at 5% intervals, in a 0.5% swathe left and right. This gives a level of fraud of 0.7%.

Then he removes all polling stations where United Russia got more than 75%. This gives a total fraud level of 7.3%.

This is highly unscientific, of course. Some polling stations where United Russia got less than 75% would have been dirty, and some where it got more than 75% would have been clean. Still, it’s a useful way to demonstrate that even removing all the places where it got huge amounts of the vote would have only modestly impacted United Russia’s total tally and would have still clearly left it as the biggest winner.

A group from Samarcand Analytics (Alex Mellnik, John Mellnik and Nikolay Zhelev) issued a study using the a similar method to hist_kai, though they cut off the top quintile of turnout as opposed to all stations registering more than 75% support for United Russia. They justified this on the basis that it was only the quintile with the highest turnout that voted for United Russia in a spectacularly non-Gaussian distribution.

Because of the aforementioned observations that higher turnout correlates with more votes for United Russia, its score after this adjustment is reduced to 42.7%. This implies a possible fraud of 6.6%. The adjusted results for all parties are as follows:


Percent of the vote

Percent without high-turnout polling stations

United Russia



Communist Party



A Just Russia









Patriots of Russia



Right Cause



Despite the methodological problems with this relatively crude method, it’s worth noting that the adjusted results by party are highly congruent with the results of the FOM exit poll, the most comprehensive one.

Rise of the Machines (6%-7%; 17% fraud)

There are very significant and suspicious discrepancies between polling stations with machine voting and polling stations were counted by hand. The former, on average, are a lot lower.

According to graphs compiled by Sergey Shpilkin, the turnout looks a lot more Gaussian in polling stations equipped with machines; those without feature very fat tails, rising to a much sharper spike at 100%. Compare the turnout graph below for polling stations with machines with the average turnout graph in the section “The Magical Beard.”

Across the same territorial electoral commissions, United Russia got an average of only 36.6% at polling stations equipped with voting machines; this is compared to its 54.2% result elsewhere. This would seem to indicate huge fraud, as machines are harder to tamper with. But this is only assuming that there is no consistent difference between polling stations with and without voting machines.

But this may not be merited as urban, more accessible areas can generally be expected to have a higher likelihood of hosting voting machines, and they are also precisely the places where United Russia has done less well in these elections. On the other hand, if both machines and hand ballots are falsified – e.g. as seems to be the case in Karachay-Cherkessia – this indicator would be a false negative.

In a joint project, Maxim Pshenichnikov and Dmitry Kobak (kobak) compiled a list of disparities between machine and hand ballot results in each of Russia’s cities. They return substantially smaller estimates of overall fraud, albeit there are huge differences between regions. The average calculated by Pshenichnikov is 6.3%. This figure he termed “коибатость”, i.e. which we may translate as “machination.” As you can see in the graph below, the city with the highest measure of fraud – as measured by the machine / hand ballot discrepancy, which has its methodological problems – is Astrakhan, with more than 30% fraud in favor of United Russia. In third or fourth position follows Moscow, with slightly less than 20% fraud in favor of United Russia.

The average calculated by Kobak is 6%-7%. His method is slightly different from – and more rigorous than – Pshenichnikov’s, because whereas the latter calculated “global” machination he confined himself to “local” machination, i.e. he only used the statistics from those polling stations which had at least one voting machine for his comparison with the results from voting machines. Apart a histogram similar to the one above also produces this stunning map of machine and hand ballot voting in Russia’s urban regions: The “green meteors” are results from hand voting, the “red meteors” (which aren’t usually near as trail-blazing) are the results from machine voting.

Kobak is unsure as to why the big discrepancy with Shpilkin’s figures. He emphasizes that Shpilkin’s 37% figure for United Russia cannot be taken at face value because machines tend to be present in larger cities where United Russia does less well; but does consider the 17% figure (the federal average) an important estimate, despite its being much different from his own 6%-7% estimate (the average by region).

One theory he suggests is that in even in those regions where United Russia has a high results, there are few machines and many individuals sites are without them; there, the difference between hand voting and machine voting results is modest at 7%. But when counting up these results on the federal level, these high-United Russia support regions only contribute a little to the aggregate total at well below their true weight (because few of them have machines and can be counted); while contributing a lot to the hand voting totals. Hence the possible source of the huge (and “misleading”) 17% discrepancy.

Meteors of Mendacity (11% fraud)

Dmitry Kobak (kobak) is another big skeptic of the official results. Like Shpilkin, he considers the turnout / voting correlation in favor of United Russia damning, and has some nice graphs to illustrate it. For an election to be fair, the meteors have to be flying to the left and their trails have to be horizontal – a condition that United Russia fails to fulfill. See above for extensive criticism of this assertion.

He calculates the real result by cutting away all the data from polling stations with “suspiciously high turnout”, which he puts at anything bigger than 60% or 50%. Due to United Russia getting far fewer votes in places where turnout is low, that has the effect of reducing its result from 49.3% to 36% and 34%, respectively.

Needless to say his graphs look nice, but they hide a very crude method. Cutting off at 60% essentially dismisses half the entire electorate. He addresses this concern by taking the minimum of United Russia’s voting curve in relation to the turnout, then sums the results up to get a real score of 38%. This implies 11% fraud.

This seems more realistic than the 15%+ obtained by Shpilkin, which clashes so badly with the results of exit polls and opinion polls, if still towards their absolutely lowest margins of error. And needless to say the fairness of taking United Russia’s minimum – and assigning anything above it to fraud – is highly questionable. Using the regional turnout and voting data for the 2010 UK general election provided by _ab_, would the same method not “prove” massive fraud in favor of the Tories?

He also reproduces Shpilkin’s normalization method, producing a real result of 34% for United Russia and hence fraud of 15%. However, even he rejects the method as too harsh and simplistic, ignoring local specifics.

His analysis of the applicability of Benford’s Law to the Russian elections saw no interesting results.

Size Matters, Baby

Maxim Pshenichnikov points out that the larger the amount of voters at any polling station the lower a result United Russia tends to get there. Is it because fraud is harder when there are more people? Or is because smaller stations would probably tend to be in rural and more remote areas, which are usually more pro-United Russia? He doesn’t comment. You decide.

Questioning Russian Behavior

That the correlation between higher turnout and more votes for United Russia is indicative of fraud has two main arguments against it, as we saw above: First, the logic of the “silent majority”, and second, comparisons with other countries like the UK, Germany, and Israel. The blogger vmenshov attempts to prove that this “silent majority” thesis does not apply to Russia, and that the effect really is down to vote stealing on United Russia’s behalf.

So Is It Time To Get The Barber?

Back in 2007, Churov promised to shave off his beard if the elections were unfair. Should we send him the barber then?

It’s a hard question. That there is statistical evidence indicating some degree of fraud is beyond dispute. What’s at stake is the scale. Much like United Russia’s results in Moscow, there are two big clusters: I will simplify them to the 5% Thesis and the 15% Thesis. (There is also a 0% Thesis, as argued by Churov and Kremlin spokespersons; not as if they have much of a choice on the matter. But I think most of us can agree that just the results from Chechnya alone discredit this group).

The 5% Thesis is maintained by Sergey Zhuravlev and the aggregate regional discrepancies between districts with and without machine voting; it is also the figure suggested by practically every opinion poll and exit poll.

The 15% Thesis, most prominently advanced by Sergey Shpilkin and Dmitry Kobak, has become the banner figure of the opposition. If they are right the current composition of the Duma does not reflect the will of the Russian electorate and as such the elections have to be honestly rerun for the system to win back its legitimacy.

The problem with it is that it relies on three fundamental assumptions about Russian elections which. Kirill Kalinin, writing for, identifies these three assumptions thus:

  1. The lack of a “normal” Gaussian turnout and voting distribution.
  2. Suspicious spikes at regular intervals in the turnout and voting distribution.
  3. A positive correlation between turnout and votes for United Russia.

The problem is that all of these assumptions have been argued to be invalid in the Russian context. That said, there are powerful counter-arguments too. By the numbers:

  1. A heterogeneous population and examples of similar phenomenon from advanced democracies throw doubt on this argument, BUT none have tails quite as fat or spikes quite as sharp as does United Russia.
  2. The spikes may, in part, be a product of number theory. But as turnout rises above 60%, they become too sharp to be attributed to number theory alone; and besides, number theory can only explain spikes at common fractions, not at places like 85% or 95%.
  3. The thesis of the “silent majority” and myriad examples from other countries severely weaken this assumption.

It’s good that this election has inspired bloggers, activists and scientists to delve into the interesting and undeveloped world of electoral fraud analysis. They may well be truly groundbreaking original research on the subject lurking somewhere on Runet.

Nonetheless, there remain huge uncertainties; one must guard against the deceptive simplicity and aesthetic richness of most of these arguments. A further peril is that, understandably, this discussion is extremely politicized. As a rule, proponents of the 15% Thesis are liberals to whom United Russia really is a party of scoundrels and thieves and Putin is a cancer on the nation. Likewise, all proponents of the 0% Thesis and some of the proponents of the 5% Thesis are more politically conservative and sympathetic to the Kremlin’s viewpoint that things are basically alright.

My own view on the matter is that the 15% Thesis is extremely unlikely to be true because if it were valid, it would essentially invalidate the entirety of Russian opinion polling – and the work of hundreds of experienced professionals – for at least the last decade; prior to the 2011 Duma elections, only a single poll gave United Russia less than 49%. And we are expected to believe their actual result was 35% or even less? A claim this extraordinary needs truly extraordinary evidence to be credible, but the evidence that has actually been presented is full of questionable assumptions. Which is, in fact, quite ordinary in the world of social science.

Which is not a bad thing. Let the debate go on. Churov can keep his beard, but a web camera or three to let people know he ain’t hiding anything in it wouldn’t go amiss.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

Truly, if Willian Burns were to issue an anthology of his Moscow cables during his 2005-2008 ambassadorship, I’d seriously consider buying it. Just consider this cable from May 2006, on Chechnya’s “Once and Future War”, a nuanced US view of that conflict and the cynicism and corruption it engendered amongst all its parties.

What struck me first was its reminder of the awesome magnitude of corruption and state dissolution during the 1990′s. Though Transparency International might claim that nothing much has changed in the past two decades (or even regressed), it is belied by Burns’ vision of a “military-entrepreneurial” officer corps that proclaimed President Yeltsin’s “business” was to “sit in Moscow, drink vodka, and chase women” while they did “[their] work” in the Caucasus region. And profitable work it was too. Due to post-Soviet Russia’s low domestic energy prices, it was highly lucrative to launder oil it through Chechnya, sell it on foreign markets, and make big dollar on the difference. Army officers profited from the racket; their Chechen partners spent their cut of the gravy to arm themselves for war. One of the primary causes of the First Chechen War, apart from the state’s usual hatred of separatism, was a specific desire to reassert control over Chechnya’s oil and arms bazaar.

The other interesting theme of this account – if one well-known to Chechnya watchers – is that even today, neither the regional Russian Army (“bunkered and corrupt”, and considering relocating to Daghestan) nor the federal authorities (“["Plenipotentiary Representative Dmitriy Kozak] was not even invited when Putin addressed the new Parliament in Groznyy [in December 2005]” have much influence. It is former separatists turned Putin vassals that run Chechnya, in exchange for their loyalty and suppression of what is now a fully Islamised insurgency. The Kremlin ensures this loyalty by continuing to support different clans, so that none feels itself strong enough to challenge it outright; the main example of this that Burns cites is the struggle between the (FSB-backed) Kadyrov clan and the (GRU-backed) Yamadaev brothers. Observing the current situation from Burns’ perspective, it could hardly be a good sign that the Yamadaevs have been exterminated, Kadyrov’s own regime is promoting fundamentalist strains of Sufi Islam, and that Muslims in nearby regions are growing restless and radicalized because of the heavy-handedness of Russia’s “war on terror”.

Burns says a lot about what the US could do to help to promote human rights and combat Islamism, but implicitly recognizes that it isn’t much. He also suggested a reform of the Army and the MVD to root out their corruption and clunkiness. Reform of these power structures was made a priority under the Medvedev administration.

Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
06MOSCOW5645 2006-05-30 09:09 2010-12-01 23:11 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Moscow
DE RUEHMO #5645/01 1500927
P 300927Z MAY 06

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 10 MOSCOW 005645
EO 12958 DECL: 05/25/2016
Classified By: Ambassador William J. Burns. Reason 1.4 (b, d)

1. (C) Introduction: Chechnya has been less in the glare of constant international attention in recent years. However, the Chechnya conflict remains unresolved, and the suffering of the Chechen people and the threat of instability throughout the region remain. This message reinterprets the history of the Chechen wars as a means of better understanding the current dynamics, the challenges facing Russia, the way in which the Kremlin perceives those challenges, and the factors limiting the Kremlin’s ability to respond. It draws on close observation on the ground and conversations with many participants in and observers of the conflict from the moment of Chechnya’s declaration of independence in 1991. We intend this message to spur thinking on new approaches to a tragedy that persists as an issue within Russia and between Russia and the U.S., Europe and the Islamic world.


2. (C) President Putin has pursued a two-pronged strategy to extricate Russia from the war in Chechnya and establish a viable long-term modus vivendi preserving Moscow’s role as the ultimate arbiter of Chechen affairs.The first prong was to gain control of the Russian military deployed there, which had long operated without real central control and was intent on staying as long as its officers could profit from the war. The second prong was “Chechenization,” which in effect means turning Chechnya over to former nationalist separatists willing to profess loyalty to Russia. There are two difficulties with Putin’s strategy. First, while Chechenization has been successful in suppressing nationalist separatists within Chechnya, it has not been as effective against the Jihadist militants, who have broadened their focus and are gaining strength throughout the North Caucasus. Second, as long as former separatist warlords run Chechnya, Russian forces will have to stay in numbers sufficient to ensure that the ex-separatists remain “ex.” More broadly, the suffering of an abused and victimized population will continue, and with it the alienation that feeds the insurgency.

3. (C) To deal effectively with Chechnya in the long term, Putin needs to increase his control over the Russian Power Ministries and reduce opportunities for them to profit from war corruption. He needs to strengthen Russian civilian engagement, reinforcing the role of his Plenipotentiary Representative. He needs to take a broad approach to combat the spread of Jihadism, and not rely primarily on suppression by force. In this context there is only a limited role for the U.S., but we and our allies can help by expressing our concerns to Putin, directing assistance to areas where our programs can slow the spread of Jihadism, and working with Russia’s southern neighbors to minimize the effects of instability. End Summary.

The Starting Point: Problems of the “Russianized” Conflict

4. (C) Chechnya was only one of the conflicts that broke out in the former Soviet Union at the time of the country’s collapse. Territorial conflicts, most of them separatist, erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, South Ossetia, North Ossetia/Ingushetia, Abkhazia and Tajikistan. Russian troops were involved in combat in all of those conflicts, sometimes clandestinely. In all except Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian troops remain today as peacekeepers. Russia doggedly insists on this presence and resists pulling its forces out. Its diplomatic efforts have served to keep the conflicts frozen, with Russian troops remaining in place.

5. (C) Why is this? The charge is often made that Russia’s motive for keeping the conflicts frozen is geostrategic, or “neo-imperialism,” or fear of NATO, or revenge against Georgia and Moldova, or a quest to preserve leverage. Indeed, the continued deployments may satisfy those Russians who think in such terms, and expand the domestic consensus for sending troops throughout the CIS. However, while one or another of those factors may have been the original impulse, each of the conflicts has gone through phases in which the conflict’s perceived uses for the Russian state have changed. No one of these factors has been continuous over the life of any of the conflicts.

6. (C) We would propose an additional factor: the determination of Russia’s senior officer corps to remain deployed in those countries to engage in lucrative activity outside their official military tasks. Sometimes that activity has been as mercenaries — for instance, Russian active-duty soldiers fought on both sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from 1991-92. Sometimes it has involved narcotics smuggling, as in Tajikistan. Selling arms to all sides has been a long-standing tradition. And sometimes it has meant collaborating with the mafias of both sides in conflict to facilitate contraband trade across the lines, as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The officers and their generals formed a powerful bloc in favor of all the deployments, especially under Yeltsin.

7. (C) This “military-entrepreneurial” bloc soon formed an autonomous institution, in some respects outside the government’s control. There are many illustrations of its autonomy. For instance, in 1993 Yeltsin reached an agreement with Georgia on peacekeeping in Abkhazia. When the Georgian delegation arrived in Sochi in September of that year to hammer out the details with Russia’s generals, they found the deal had changed. When they protested that Yeltsin had agreed to other terms, a Russian general replied, “Let the President sit in Moscow, drink vodka, and chase women. That’s his business. We are here, and we have our work to do.”

The Secret History of the Chechen War

8. (C) The lack of central control over the military, as well as officers’ cupidity, may have been a prime cause of the first Chechnya War. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, energy prices in the “ruble zone” were 3 percent of world market prices. Government officials and their partners bought oil at ruble prices, diverted it abroad, and sold it on the world market. The military joined in this arbitrage. Pavel Grachev, then Defense Minister, reportedly diverted oil to Western Group of Forces commander Burlakov, who sold it in Germany.

9. (C) Chechnya was a major entrepot for laundering oil for this arbitrage. It appears to have been used both by the military (including Grachev) and the Khasbulatov-Rutskoy axis in the Duma. Dudayev had declared independence, but remained part of the Russian elite. Chechnya’s independence, oilfields, refineries and pipelines made Chechnya perfect for laundering oil. Planes, trains, buses and roads and pipelines to Chechnya were functioning, allowing anyone and anything to transit — except auditors. In the early 1990′s millions of tons of “Russian” oil entered Chechnya and were magically transformed into “Chechen” oil to be sold on the world market at world prices. Some of the proceeds went to buy the Chechens weaponry, most of it from the Russian military, and another lucrative trade developed. Dudayev took much of his cut of the proceeds in weapons. The Groznyy Bazaar was notorious in the early 1990s for the quantity and variety of arms for sale, including heavy weaponry.

10. (C) Chechnya was the home of Ruslan Khasbulatov and served various purposes for his faction of the Russian elite. He took advantage of the army’s independence from Yeltsin’s control. An informed source believes that it was Khasbulatov, not the “official” Russian government, who facilitated the transfer of Shamil Basayev and his heavily-armed fighters from Chechnya into Abkhazia in 1992, and who ordered the Russian air force to bomb Sukhumi when Shevardnadze went there to take personal command of the Georgians’ last stand in July 1993. The Yeltsin government always denied that it bombed Sukhumi, despite Western eyewitness accounts confirming the bombing and the insignia on the planes. Given the confusion of those years, it could well be that the order originated in the Duma, not the Kremlin.

11. (C) After Khasbulatov and Rutskoy were written out of the Russian equation in October 1993, so was Dudayev. Clandestine Russian support for the Chechen political and military opposition to Dudayev began in the spring of 1994, according to participants. When that proved ineffective, Russian bombing was deployed. (One Dudayev opponent recounted that in 1994 a Russian pilot was given a mission to fire a missile into one of the top-floor corners of Groznyy’s Presidency building at a time when Dudayev was scheduled to hold a cabinet meeting there. Not knowing Groznyy, the pilot asked which building to bomb, and was told “the tallest one.” He bombed a residential apartment building.) When air power, too, proved ineffective, Russian troops were secretly sent in to reinforce the armed opposition. Dudayev’s forces captured about a dozen and put them on television — and the Russian invasion began shortly thereafter.

12. (C) Given the gangsterish background of the war, it is no surprise that the military conducted the war itself as a profit-making enterprise, especially after the capture of Groznyy. By May 1995 an anti-Dudayev Chechen could lament, “When we invited the Russian army in we expected an army — not this band of marauders.” Contraband trade in oil, weapons (including direct sales from Russian military stores to the insurgents), drugs, and liquor, plus “protection” for legitimate trade made military service in Chechnya lucrative for those not on the front lines. This profitability ended only with the August 1996 defeat of Russian forces in Groznyy at the hands of the insurgents and the subsequent Russian withdrawal — a defeat made possible because the Russian forces were hollowed out by their officers’ corruption and pursuit of economic profit.

13. (C) Before they lost this “cash-cow” to their enemies, Russian officers went to great lengths to keep their friends from interfering with their profits. On July 30, 1995, the Russians and the Chechen insurgents signed a cease-fire agreement mediated by the OSCE. It would have meant the gradual withdrawal of Russian forces. Enforcing the cease-fire was a Joint Observation Commission (“SNK”). The head of the SNK was General Anatoliy Romanov, a competent and upright officer — very much a rarity in Chechnya. After two months at this assignment he was severely injured by a mine inside Groznyy, and has been hospitalized ever since. Informed observers believe Romanov’s own colleagues in the Russian forces carried out this murder attempt. The cease-fire, never enforced, broke down.

14. (C) When the second war began in September 1999, Russian forces again started profiteering from a trade in contraband oil. Western eyewitnesses reported convoys of Russian army trucks carrying oil leaving Groznyy under cover of night. Eventually the Russian forces reached an understanding with the insurgent fighters. Seeing one such convoy, a Western reporter asked his guerrilla hosts whether the fighters ever attacked such convoys. “No,” the leader replied. “They leave us alone and we leave them alone.”

No Exit for Putin

15. (C) Sometime between one and two years after Russian forces were unleashed for a second time on Chechnya, Putin appears to have realized that they were not going to deliver a neat victory. That failure would make Putin look weak at home, the human rights violations would estrange the West, and the drain on the Russian treasury would be punishing (this was before the dramatic rise in energy prices). Putin could not negotiate a peace with Maskhadov: he had already rejected that course and could not back down without appearing weak. The Khasavyurt accords that ended the first war were the result of defeat; a new set of accords would be seen as a new defeat. In any case, the history of the war (and the fate of General Romanov) made clear that negotiations without the subordination of the military were a physical impossibility.

16. (C) Putin thus found himself without a winning strategy and had to develop one. He has taken a two-pronged approach. One prong was subordinating the military. The appointment of Sergey Ivanov as Defense Minister appears to have been aimed at subjecting the military to the control of the security services. A series of reassignments and firings is the surface evidence of the struggle to subordinate the military in Chechnya. Southern Military District commander Troshev, who led the 1999 invasion, refused outright the first orders transferring him to Siberia in November 2002, and went on television to publicize his mutiny. He was finally removed in February 2003. Chief of the Defense Staff Kvashnin, who had held the Southern District command during the first Chechen war, hung on in a combative relationship with Ivanov for three years until he, too, was replaced in 2004 (and also sent to Siberia as the Presidential Representative in Novosibirsk). The spring 2005 dismissal of General Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s Plenipotentiary Representative in the Southern Federal District, was reportedly the final link in the chain. Military corruption, and feeding at the trough of Chechnya, has not ended, but the corruption has reportedly been “institutionalized” and more closely regulated in Kremlin-controlled channels.

Chechenization, Ahmad-Haji Kadyrov, and the Salafists

17. (C) The second prong of Putin’s strategy was to hand the fighting over to Chechens. “Chechenization” differs from Vietnamization or Iraqification. In those strategies, a loyalist force is strengthened to the point at which it can carry on the fight itself.Chechenization, in contrast, has meant handing Chechnya over to the guerrillas in exchange for their professions of loyalty, the formal retention of Chechnya within the Russian Federation, and an uneasy cooperation with Federal authorities that in practice is constantly re-negotiated.

18. (C) Chechenization is associated with Ahmad-Haji Kadyrov, the insurgent commander and chief Mufti of separatist Chechnya. After he defected to the Russians, Putin put him in charge of the new Russian-installed Chechen administration. Chechenization was reportedly agreed between Kadyrov and Putin personally. But the seeds of the policy were sown by a split in the insurgent ranks dating to the first war. That split that took the form of a religious dispute, though it masked a power struggle among warlords. The split is the direct result of the introduction of a new element: Arab forces espousing a pan-Islamic Jihadist religious ideology.

19. (C) The traditional Islam of Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia is based on Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. Though nominally the Sufi orders were the same as those predominant in Central Asia and Kurdistan — Naqshbandi and Qadiri — Sufism in the Northeast Caucasus took on a unique form in the 18th-19th century struggle against Russian encroachment. It is usually called “muridism.” Murids were armed acolytes of a hieratic commander, the murshid. Shaykh Shamil, the Naqshbandi murshid who led the mountaineers’ resistance to the Russians until his capture in 1859, was both a spiritual guide and a military commander. He also exercised government powers. The largest Sufi branch (“vird”) in Chechnya is the Kunta-Haji “vird” of the Qadiris, founded and led by the charismatic Chechen missionary Kunta-Haji Kishiyev until his exile by the Russians in 1864. Although the historical Kunta-Haji died two years later, his followers believe that Kunta-Haji lives on in occultation, like the Shi’a Twelfth Imam.

20. (C) When Arab fighters joined the Chechen conflict in 1995, they brought with them a “Salafist” doctrine that attempts to emulate the fundamental, “pure” Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, especially ‘Umar, the second Caliph. It holds that mysticism is one of the “impurities” that crept into Islam after the first four Caliphs, and considers Sufis to be heretics and idolaters. The idea that Kunta-Haji adepts could believe their founder is still alive — and that they worship the grave of his mother — is an abomination to Salafis, who believe that marked graves are a form of pagan ancestor worship (Muhammad’s grave in Arabia is not marked).

21. (C) Wahhabism-based forms of Islam started appearing in Chechnya by 1991, as Chechens were able to travel and some went to Saudi Arabia for religious study. But the true influx of Salafis (usually lumped together with Wahhabis in Russia) came during the first Chechen war. In February 1995 Fathi ‘Ali al-Shishani, a Jordanian of Chechen descent, arrived in Chechnya. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was now too old to be a combatant, but was a missionary for Salafism. He recruited another Afghan veteran, the Saudi al-Khattab, to come to Chechnya and lead a group of Arab fighters.

22. (C) Al-Khattab’s fighters were never a major military factor during the war, but they were the key to Gulf money, which financed power struggles in the inter-war years. Al-Khattab forged close links with Shamil Basayev, the most famous Chechen field commander. Basayev himself was from a Qadiri family, but he was too Sovietized to view Islam as anything more than part of the Chechen and Caucasus identity. In his early interviews, Basayev showed himself to be motivated by Chechen nationalism, not religion, though he paid lip-service — e.g., proclaiming Sharia law in Vedeno in early 1995 — to attract Gulf donors. Basayev’s initial interest in al-Khattab, as indeed with other jihadists starting even before the first war, was purely financial.

23. (C) After the first war, al-Khattab set up a camp in Serzhen-Yurt (“Baza Kavkaz”) for military and religious indoctrination. It provided one of the few employment opportunities for demobilized Chechen fighters between the wars. Young Chechens had traditionally engaged in seasonal migrant construction work throughout the Soviet Union, but after the first war that was no longer open to them. The closed international borders also precluded smuggling — another pre-war source of employment and income. The fighters had no money, no jobs, no education, no skills save with their guns, and no prospects. Al-Khattab’s offer of food, shelter and work was inviting. As a result, between the wars Salafism spread quickly in Chechnya. (Al-Khattab also invited missionaries and facilitators who set up shop in Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, whose Kist residents are close relatives of the Chechens.)

Battle Lines in Peacetime

24. (C) Chechen society is distinguished by its propensity to unite in war and fragment in peace. It is based on opposing dichotomies: the Vaynakh peoples are divided into Chechens and Ingush; the Chechens are divided into highlanders (“Lameroi”) and lowlanders (“Nokhchi”); and these are further divided into tribal confederations and exogamous tribes (“teyp”) and their subdivisions. Each unit will unite with its opposite to combat a threat from outside. Two lowland teyps, for example, will drop quarrels and unite against an intruding highland teyp. But left to themselves, they will quarrel and split. After the Khasavyurt accords, when Russia left the Chechens alone, the wartime alliance between Maskhadov and Basayev split and the two became enemies. Other warlords lined up on one side or the other — the Yamadayev brothers of Gudermes, for example, fighting a pitched battle against Basayev in 1999. But the rise of Basayev and al-Khattab undermined Maskhadov’s authority and prevented him from exercising any real power.

25. (C) This power struggle took on a religious expression. Since Basayev was associated with al-Khattab and Salafism, Maskhadov positioned himself as champion of traditional Sufism. He surrounded himself with Sufi shaykhs and appointed Ahmad-Haji Kadyrov, a strong adherent of Kunta-Haji Sufism, as Chechnya’s Mufti. Kadyrov had spent six years in Uzbekistan, allegedly at religious seminaries in Tashkent and Bukhara, and seems to have developed links to other enemies of Basayev, including the Yamadayevs.

26. (C) The religious division dictated certain policies to each side. The Sufi tradition of Maskhadov and Kadyrov had been associated for over two centuries with nationalist resistance. Basayev, with his new-found commitment to al-Khattab’s Salafism, adopted the Salafi stress on a pan-Islamic community (“umma”) fighting a worldwide jihad, notionally without regard for ethnic or national boundaries. Al-Khattab and Basayev invaded Dagestan in August 1999, avowedly in pursuit of a Caucasus-wide revolt against the Russians. They brought on a Russian invasion that threw Maskhadov out of Groznyy.

Chechenization Begins

27. (C) The second Russian invasion did not unite the Chechens, as previous pressure had. Perhaps the influence of al-Khattab and his Salafists, as well as the devastation of the first war, had rent the fabric of Chechen society too much to restore traditional unity in the face of the outside threat. (We should also remember that unity is relative. Only a small percentage of the Chechens actually fought in the first war, and many supported the Russians out of disgust with Dudayev.) Kadyrov and the Yamadayevs separately broke with Maskhadov and defected to the Russians. Kadyrov began to recruit from the insurgency non-Salafist nationalist fighters who were highly demoralized and disoriented by the disastrous retreat from Groznyy in late 1999. Kadyrov began to preach what Kunta-Haji had preached after the Russian victory over Imam Shamil in 1859: to survive, the Chechens needed tactically to accept Russian rule. His message struck a chord, and fighters began to defect to his side.

28. (C) Putin appears to have stumbled upon Kadyrov, and their alliance seems to have grown out of chance as much as design. But they were able to forge a deal along the following lines: Kadyrov would declare loyalty to Russia and deliver loyalty to Putin; he would take over Maskhadov’s place at the head of the Russian-blessed government of Chechnya; he would try to win over Maskhadov’s fighters, to whom he could promise immunity; he would govern Chechnya with full autonomy, without interference from Russian officials below Putin’s level; and he would try to exterminate Basayev and Al-Khattab.

29. (C) If the objective of Chechenization was to win over fighters who would carry on the fight against Basayev and the Arab successors to Khattab (who was poisoned in April 2002), it has to be judged a success. The real fighting has for several years been carried out by Chechen forces who fight the war they want to fight — not the one the Russian military wants them to — and who appear happy to kill Russians when they get in the way. The Russian military is “just trying to survive,” as one officer put it. Not all the pro-Moscow Chechen units are composed of former guerrillas. Said-Magomed Kakiyev, commander of the GRU-controlled “West” battalion, has been fighting Dudayev and his successors since 1993. But at the heart of the pro-Moscow effort are fighters who defected from the anti-Moscow insurgency.

The Military Overstays Its Welcome

30. (C) The development of Kadyrov’s fighting force, along with that of the Yamadayev brothers, left the stage clear for a drawdown of Russian troops, certainly by early 2004 (leaving aside a permanent garrison presence). But those troops, still not fully responsive to FSB control, did not want to leave. Especially now that Chechens had taken over increasing parts of the security portfolio, the Russian officers were free to concentrate on their economic activities, and in particular oil smuggling.

31. (C) Kadyrov could not be fully autonomous until he — not the Russians — controlled Chechnya’s oil. He therefore demanded the creation of a Chechen oil company under his jurisdiction. That would have severely limited the ability of federal forces to divert and smuggle oil. On May 9, 2004, Kadyrov was assassinated by an enormous bomb planted under his seat at the annual VE Day celebration. The killing was officially ascribed to Chechen rebels, but many believe it was the Russian Army’s way of rejecting Kadyrov’s demand. Under the circumstances, one cannot exclude that both versions are true.

In the Reign of Ramzan

32. (C) Kadyrov’s passing left power in the hands of his son Ramzan, who was officially made Deputy Prime Minister. The President, Alu Alkhanov, was a figurehead put in place because Ramzan was underage. The Prime Minister, Sergey Abramov, was tasked with interfacing between Kadyrov and Moscow below the level of Putin.

33. (C) Ramzan Kadyrov has none of the religious or personal prestige that his father had. He is a warlord pure and simple — one of several, like the Yamadayev family of warlords. He is lucky, however, in that his father left him a sufficient fighting force of ex-rebels. Though they may have been lured away from the insurgency for a variety of reasons, it is money that keeps them. Kadyrov feels little need for ideological or religious prestige, though he makes an occasional statement designed to appeal to Muslims, and makes a point of supporting the pilgrimage to the tomb of Kunta-Haji’s mother in Gunoy, near Vedeno (though that is in part to show he is stronger than Basayev, whose home and power base are in the Vedeno region). Kadyrov must only satisfy his troops, who on occasion have shown that, if offended or not given enough, they are willing to desert along with their kinsmen and return to the mountains to fight against him. He must also guard against the possibility, as some charge, that some of the fighters who went over to Federal forces did so under orders from guerrilla commanders for whom they are still working.

34. (C) Kadyrov is also fortunate in that the FSB, with whom he has close ties, has by this time emasculated the military as “prong one” of Putin’s strategy. Kadyrov has slowly but surely also taken over most of the spigots of money that once fed the army, and like his father he has started agitating for overt control over Chechnya’s oil (while prudently ensuring that others take the lead on that in public). Kadyrov is at least as corrupt as the military, but the money he expropriates for himself from Moscow’s subsidies is accepted as his pay-off for keeping things quiet. And indeed Kadyrov and the other warlords are capable of maintaining a certain degree of security in Chechnya. The showy “reconstruction” developments they have built in Groznyy and their home towns demonstrate that the guerrillas cannot or at least do not halt construction and economic activity. Moreover, there is enough security to end Putin’s worries about a secessionist victory. That has allowed Putin to demonstrate a new willingness to be increasingly overt in support of separatism in other conflicts (e.g., Abkhazia, Transnistria) when that advances Russian interests.

35. (C) Despite its successes to date, however, Putin’s strategy is far from completed. He still needs to keep forces in the region as a constant reminder to Kadyrov not to backtrack on his professed loyalty to the Kremlin. Ideally, that force would be small but capable of intervening effectively in Chechen internal affairs. That is unrealistic at present. The current forces, reportedly over 25,000, are bunkered and corrupt. When they venture on patrol they are routinely attacked. One attempt to redress this is to position Russian forces close but “over the horizon” in Dagestan, where a major military base is under construction at Botlikh. However, that may only add to the instability of Dagestan. A Duma Deputy from the region told us that locals are vehemently opposed to the new military base, despite the economic opportunities it represents, on grounds that the soldiers will “corrupt the morals of their children.”

36. (C) Another approach is the Chechenization of the Federal forces themselves. Recently “North” and “South” battalions of ethnically Chechen special forces — drawn from Kadyrov’s militia — were created to supplement the “East” and “West” battalions of Sulim Yamadayev and Said-Magomed Kakiyev. Those formations are officially part of the Russian army. The Kremlin strategy appears to be to check Kadyrov by promoting warlords he cannot control, and to check the FSB from becoming too clientized by allowing the MOD to retain a sphere of influence. In Chechnya, that is a recipe for open fighting. We saw one small instance of that on April 25, when bodyguards of Kadyrov and Chechen President Alkhanov got into a firefight. According to one insider, the clash originated in Kadyrov’s desire to get rid of Alkhanov, who now has close ties with Yamadayev.

What Can We Expect in the Future?

37. (C) The Chechen population is the great loser in this game. It bears an ever heavier burden in shake-downs, opportunity costs from misappropriation of reconstruction funds, and the constant trauma of victimization and abuse — including abduction, torture, and murder — by the armed thugs who run Chechnya (reftels). Security under those circumstances is a fragile veneer, and stability an illusion. The insurgency can continue indefinitely, at a low level and without prospects of success, but significant enough to serve as a pretext for the continued rule of thuggery.

38. (C) The insurgency will remain split between those who want to carry on Maskhadov’s non-Salafist struggle for national independence and those who follow the Salafi-influenced Basayev in his pursuit of a Caucasus-wide Caliphate. But the nationalists have been undercut by Kadyrov. Despite Sadullayev’s efforts, the insurgency inside Chechnya is not likely to meet with success and will continue to become more Salafist in tone.

39. (C) Prospects would be poor for the nationalists even if Kadyrov and/or Yamadayev were assassinated (and there is much speculation that one will succeed in killing the other, goaded on by the FSB which supports Kadyrov and the GRU which supports Yamadayev). The thousands of guerrillas who have joined those two militias have by now lost all ideological incentive. Since they already run the country, they feel themselves, not the Russians, to be the masters, and are not responsive to Sadullayev’s nationalist calls; Basayev’s Salafist message has even less appeal to them. Even if their current leaders are eliminated, all they will need is a new warlord, easily generated from within their organizations, and they can continue on their current paths.

40. (C) We expect that Salafism will continue to grow. The insurgents even inside Chechnya are reportedly becoming predominantly Salafist, as opposition on a narrowly nationalist basis offers less hope of success. Salafis will come both from inside Chechnya, where militia excesses outrage the population, and from elsewhere in the Caucasus, where radicalization is proceeding rapidly as a result of the repressive policies of Russia’s regional satraps. There are numerous eyewitness accounts from both Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria that elite young adults and university students are joining Salafist groups. In one case, a terrorist killed in Dagestan was found recently to have defended his doctoral dissertation at Moscow State University — on Wahhabism in the North Caucasus. These young adults, denied economic opportunities, turn to religion as an outlet. They find, however, that representatives of the traditional religious establishments in these republics, long isolated under the thumb of Soviet restrictions, are ill-educated and ill-prepared to deal with the sophisticated theological arguments developed by generations of Salafists in the Middle East. Most of those who join fundamentalist jamaats do not, of course, become terrorists. But a percentage do, and with that steady source of recruits the major battlefield could shift to outside Chechnya, with armed clashes in other parts of the North Caucasus and a continuation of sporadic but spectacular terrorist acts in Moscow and other parts of Russia.

41. (C) Outside Chechnya, the most likely venue for clashes with authorities is Dagestan. Putin’s imposition of a “power vertical” there has upset the delicate clan and ethnic balance that offered a shaky stability since the collapse of Soviet power. He installed a president (the weak Mukhu Aliyev) in place of a 14-member multi-ethnic presidential council. Aliyev will be unable to prevent a ruthless struggle among the elite — the local way of elaborating a new balance of power. This is already happening, with assassinations of provincial chiefs since Aliyev took over.

In one province in the south of the republic, an uprising against the chief appointed by Aliyev’s predecessor was suppressed by gunfire. Four demonstrators were shot dead, initiating a cycle of blood revenge. In May, in two Dagestani cities security force operations against “terrorists” resulted in major shootouts, with victims among the bystanders and whole apartment houses rendered uninhabitable after hits from the security forces’ heavy weaponry. It is not clear whether the “terrorists” were really religious activists (“Whenever they want to eliminate someone, they call him a Wahhabi,” the MP from Makhachkala told us). But the populace, seeing the deadly over-reaction of the security forces, is feeling sympathy for their victims — so much so that Aliyev has had to make public condemnations of the actions of the security forces. If this chaos deepens, as appears likely, the Jihadist groups (“jamaats”) may grow, drift further in Basayev’s direction, and feel the need to respond to attacks from the local government.

42. (C) Local forces are unreliable in such cases, for clan and blood-feud reasons. Wahhabist jamaats flourished in the strategic ethnically Dargin districts of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi in the mid-1990s, but Dagestan’s rulers left them alone because moving against them meant altering the delicate ethnic balance between Dargins and Avars. Only when the jamaats themselves became expansive during the Basayev/Khattab invasion from Chechnya in the summer of 1999 did the Makhachkala authorities take action, and then only with the assistance of Federal forces. Ultimately, if clashes break out on a wide scale in Dagestan, Moscow would have to send in the Federal army. Deploying the army to combat destabilization in Dagestan, however, could jeopardize Putin’s hard-won control over it. Unleashing the army against a “terrorist” threat is just that: allowing the army off its new leash. Large-scale army deployments to Dagestan would be especially attractive to the officers, since the border with Azerbaijan offers lucrative opportunities for contraband trade. The army’s presence, in turn, would further destabilize Dagestan and all but guarantee chaos.

43. (C) Indeed, destabilization is the most likely prospect we see when we look further down the road to the next decade. Chechenization allows bellicose Chechen leaders to throw their weight around in the North Caucasus even more than an independent Chechnya would. A case in point is the call on April 24 by Chechen Parliament Speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov for unification of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, implicitly under Chechen domination (the one million Chechens would constitute a plurality in the new republic of 4.5 million). The call soured slowly normalizing relations between Chechnya and Ingushetia, according to a Chechen official in Moscow, though the Dagestanis treated the proposal as a joke.

What Should Putin Be Doing?

44. (C) Right now Putin’s policy towards Chechnya is channeled through Kadyrov and Yamadayev. Putin’s Plenipotentiary Representative (PolPred) for the Southern Federal District, Dmitriy Kozak, appears to have little influence. He was not even invited when Putin addressed the new Parliament in Groznyy last December. Putin needs to stop taking Kadyrov’s phone calls and start working more through his PolPred and the government’s special services. He also needs to increase Moscow’s civilian engagement with Chechnya.

45. (C) Putin should continue to reform the military and the other Power Ministries. Having asserted control through Sergey Ivanov, Putin has denied the military certain limited areas in which it had pursued criminal activity — but left most of its criminal enterprises untouched. He has done little if anything to form the discipline of a modern army deployable to impose order in unstable regions such as the North Caucasus. Recent hazing incidents show that discipline is still equated with sadism and brutality. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) has undergone even less reform. The Chechenization of the security services, despite its obvious drawbacks, has shown that locals can carry out security tasks more effectively than Russian troops.

46. (C) Lastly, Putin should realize that his current policy course is not preventing the growth of militant, armed Jihadism. Rather, every time his subordinates try to douse the flames, the fire grows hotter and spreads farther. Putin needs to check the firehose; he may find they are spraying the fire with gasoline. He needs to work out a credible strategy, employing economic and cultural levers, to deal with the issue of armed Jihadism. Some Russians do “get it.” An advisor to Kozak gave a lecture recently that showed he understands in great detail the issues surrounding the growth of militant jihadism. Kozak himself made clear in a recent conversation with the Ambassador that he appreciates clearly the deep social and economic roots of Russia’s problems in the North Caucasus — and the need to employ more than just security measures to solve them. We have not, however, seen evidence that consciousness of the true problem has yet made its way to Moscow from Kozak’s office in Rostov-on-Don.

47. (C) We need also to be aware that Putin’s strategy is generating a backlash in Moscow. Ramzan Kadyrov’s excesses, his Putin-given immunity from federal influence, and the special laws that apply to Chechnya alone (such as the exemption of Chechens from military service elsewhere in Russia) are leading to charges by some Moscow observers that Putin has allowed Chechnya de facto to secede. Putin is strong enough to weather such criticism, but the ability of a successor to do so is less clear.

Is There a Role for the U.S.?

48. (C) Russia does not consider the U.S. a friend in the Caucasus, and our capacity to influence Russia, whether by pressure, persuasion or assistance, is small. What we can do is continue to try to push the senior tier of Russian officials towards the realization that current policies are conducive to Jihadism, which threatens broader stability as well; and that shifting the responsibility for victimizing and looting the people from a corrupt, brutal military to corrupt, brutal locals is not a long-term solution.

49. (C) Making headway with Putin or his successor will require close cooperation with our European allies. They, like the Russians, tend to view the issue through a strictly counter-terrorism lens. The British, for example, link their “dialogue with Islam” closely with their counter-terrorist effort (on which they liaise with the Russians), reinforcing the conception of a monolithic Muslim identity predisposed to terrorism. That reinforces the Russian view that the problem of the North Caucasus can be consigned to the terrorism basket, and that finding a solution means in the first instance finding a better way to kill terrorists.

50. (C) We and the Europeans need to put our proposals of assistance to the North Caucasus in a different context: one that recognizes the role of religion in North Caucasus cultures, but also emphasizes our interest in and support for the non-religious aspects of North Caucasus society, including civil society. This last will need exceptional delicacy, as the Russians and the local authorities are convinced that the U.S. uses civil society to foment “color revolutions” and anti-Russian regimes. There is a danger that our civil society partners could become what Churchill called “the inopportune missionary” who, despite impeccable intentions, sets back the larger effort. That need not be the case.

51. (C) Our interests call for an understanding of the context and a positive emphasis. We cannot expect the Russians to react well if we limit our statements to condemnations of Kadyrov, butcher though he may be. We need to find targeted areas in which we can work with the Russians to get effective aid into Chechnya. At the same time, we need to be on our guard that our efforts do not appear to constitute U.S. support for Kremlin or local policies that abuse human rights. We must also avoid a shift that endorses the Kremlin assertion that there is no longer a humanitarian crisis in Chechnya, which goes hand-in-hand with the Russian request that the UN and its donors end humanitarian assistance to the region and increase technical and “recovery” assistance. We and other donors need to maintain a balance between humanitarian and recovery assistance.

52. (C) Aside from the political optic, a rush to cut humanitarian assistance before recovery programs are fully up and running would leave a vacuum into which jihadist influences would leap. The European Commission Humanitarian Organization, the largest provider of aid, shows signs of rushing to stress recovery over humanitarian assistance; we should not follow suit. Humanitarian assistance has been effective in relieving the plight of Chechen IDPs in Ingushetia. It has been less effective inside Chechnya, where the GOR and Kadyrov regime built temporary accommodation centers for returning IDPs, but have not passed on enough resources to secure a reasonable standard of living. International organizations are hampered by limited access to Chechnya out of security concerns, but where they are able to operate freely they have made a great difference, e.g., WHO’s immunization program.

53. (C) Resources aimed at Chechnya often wind up in private pockets. Though international assistance has a better record than Russian assistance and is more closely monitored, we must also be wary of assistance that lends itself to massive corruption and state-sponsored banditry in Chechnya: too much of the money loaned in a microfinance program there, for example, would be expropriated by militias. Presidential Advisor Aslakhanov told us last December that Kadyrov expropriates for himself one third off the top of all assistance. Therefore, while we continue well-monitored humanitarian assistance inside Chechnya, we should broaden our efforts for “recovery” to other parts of the region that are threatened by jihadism: Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and possibly Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Among these, we need to try to steer our assistance ($11.5 million for FY 2006) to regional officials, such as President Kanokov of Kabardino-Balkaria, who have shown that they are willing to introduce local reforms and get rid of the brutal security officials whose repressive acts feed the Jihadist movement.

54. (C) We also need to coordinate closely with Kozak (or his successor), both to strengthen his position vis–vis the warlords and to ensure that everything we do is perceived by the Russians as transparent and not aimed at challenging the GOR’s hold on a troubled region. The present opposite perception by the GOR may be behind its reluctance to cooperate with donors, the UN and IFIs on long-term strategic engagement in the region. For example, the GOR has delayed for months a 20-million-Euro TACIS program designed with GOR input.

55. (C) The interagency paper “U.S. Policy in the North Caucasus — The Way Forward” provides a number of important principles for positive engagement. We need to emphasize programs in accordance with those principles which are most practical under current and likely future conditions, and which can be most effective in targeting the most vulnerable, where federal and local governments lack the will and capacity to assist, and in combating the spread of jihadism both inside Chechnya and throughout the North Caucasus region. There are areas — for example, health care and child welfare — in which assistance fits neatly with Russian priorities, containing both humanitarian and recovery components.

56. (C) We can also emphasize programs that help create jobs and job opportunities: microfinance (where feasible), credit cooperatives and small business development, and educational exchanges. U.S. sponsored training programs for credit cooperatives and government budgeting functions have been very popular. Exchanges, through the IVP program and Community Connections, are an especially effective way of exposing future leaders to the world beyond the narrow propaganda they have received, and to generate a multiplier effect in enterprise. In addition to the effects the programs themselves can have in providing alternatives to religious extremism, such assistance can also have a demonstration effect: showing the Russians that improved governance and delivery of services can be more effective in stabilizing the region than attempts to impose order by force.

57. (C) Lastly, we need to look ahead in our relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia to ensure that they become more active and effective players in helping to contain instability in the North Caucasus. That will serve their own security interests as well. Salafis need connections to their worldwide network. Strengthening border forces is more important than ever. Azerbaijan, especially, is well placed to trade with Dagestan and Chechnya. The ethnic Azeris, Lezghis and Avars living on both sides of the Azerbaijan-Dagestan border and friendly relations between Russia and Azerbaijan are tools for promoting stability.


58. (C) The situation in the North Caucasus is trending towards destabilization, despite the increase in security inside Chechnya. The steps we believe Putin must take are those needed to reverse that trend, and the efforts we have outlined for ourselves are premised on a desire to promote a lasting stabilization built on improved governance, a more active civil society, and steps towards democratization. But we must be realistic about Russia’s willingness and ability to take the necessary steps, with or without our assistance. Real stabilization remains a low probability. Sound policy on Chechnya is likely to continue to founder in the swamp of corruption, Kremlin infighting and succession politics. Much more probable is a new phase of instability that will be felt throughout the North Caucasus and have effects beyond.


(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

One of the most endearing and surprising cables came from William Burns, US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008: a beautifully written account of a Daghestani wedding scene that might as well have come from a latter-day Prisoner of the Caucasus. The US diplomatic corps has hardly distinguished itself with the acuity of its ethnographic insights; there is even the distinct impression that much of its work consisted of producing Cliff’s Notes on the views of the Russian opposition, Western experts, and official Tbilisi. The unsurprising results are the reproduction of tiresome tropes and political character assessments that are of literally comic book sophistication.

This work is an estimable exception, providing an insight into the social dynamics of a clan-based society with guns, cars and dollars, a glimpse into the history and character of some of its leading notables, and a few plain awesome anecdotes (e.g. “First Gadzhi joined them and then Ramzan [Kadyrov], who danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down in the back of his jeans… Both Gadzhi and Ramzan showered the dancing children with hundred dollar bills; the dancers probably picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones”). Copies of the cable here, here & here.

Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
06MOSCOW9533 2006-08-31 06:06 2010-12-01 23:11 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Moscow
DE RUEHMO #9533/01 2430639
P 310639Z AUG 06
Thursday, 31 August 2006, 06:39
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 MOSCOW 009533
EO 12958 DECL: 08/30/2016
Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission Daniel A. Russell. Reason 1.4 ( b, d)


1. (C) Weddings are elaborate in Dagestan, the largest autonomy in the North Caucasus. On August 22 we attended a wedding in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital: Duma member and Dagestan Oil Company chief Gadzhi Makhachev’s son married a classmate. The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land, ethnicity, clan, and alliance. The guest list spanned the Caucasus power structure — guest starring Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov — and underlined just how personal the region’s politics can be. End Summary.

2. (C) Dagestani weddings are serious business: a forum for showing respect, fealty and alliance among families; the bride and groom themselves are little more than showpieces. Weddings take place in discrete parts over three days. On the first day the groom’s family and the bride’s family simultaneously hold separate receptions. During the receptions the groom leads a delegation to the bride’s reception and escorts her back to his own reception, at which point she formally becomes a member of the groom’s family, forsaking her old family and clan. The next day, the groom’s parents hold another reception, this time for the bride’s family and friends, who can “inspect” the family they have given their daughter to. On the third day, the bride’s family holds a reception for the groom’s parents and family.

Father of the Groom

3. (C) On August 22, Gadzhi Makhachev married off his 19 year-old son Dalgat to Aida Sharipova. The wedding in Makhachkala, which we attended, was a microcosm of the social and political relations of the North Caucasus, beginning with Gadzhi’s own biography. Gadzhi started off as an Avar clan leader. Enver Kisriyev, the leading scholar of Dagestani society, told us that as Soviet power receded from Dagestan in the late 1980s, the complex society fell back to its pre-Russian structure. The basic structural unit is the monoethnic “jamaat,” in this usage best translated as ”canton” or “commune.” The ethnic groups themselves are a Russian construct: faced with hundreds of jamaats, the 19th century Russian conquerors lumped cantons speaking related dialects together and called them “Avar,” “Dargin,” etc. to reduce the number of “nationalities” in Dagestan to 38. Ever since then, jamaats within each ethnic group have been competing with one another to lead the ethnic group. This competition is especially marked among the Avars, the largest nationality in Dagestan.

4. (C) As Russian power faded, each canton fielded a militia to defend its people both in the mountains and the capital Makhachkala. Gadzhi became the leader from his home canton of Burtunay, in Kazbek Rayon. He later asserted pan-Avar ambitions, founding the Imam Shamil Popular Front — named after the great Avar leader of mountaineer resistance to the Russians — to promote the interests of the Avars and of Burtunay’s role within the ethnic group. Among his exploits was a role in the military defense of Dagestan against the 1999 invasion from Chechnya by Shamil Basayev and al-Khattab, and his political defense of Avar villages under pressure in Chechnya, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

5. (C) Gadzhi has cashed in the social capital he made from nationalism, translating it into financial and political capital — as head of Dagestan’s state oil company and as the single-mandate representative for Makhachkala in Russia’s State Duma. His dealings in the oil business — including close cooperation with U.S. firms — have left him well off enough to afford luxurious houses in Makhachkala, Kaspiysk, Moscow, Paris and San Diego; and a large collection of luxury automobiles, including the Rolls Royce Silver Phantom in which Dalgat fetched Aida from her parents’ reception. (Gadzhi gave us a lift in the Rolls once in Moscow, but the legroom was somewhat constricted by the presence of a Kalashnikov carbine at our feet. Gadzhi has survived numerous assassination attempts, as have most of the still-living leaders of Dagestan. In Dagestan he always travels in an armored BMW with one, sometimes two follow cars full of uniformed armed guards.)

6. (C) Gadzhi has gone beyond his Avar base, pursuing a multi-ethnic cadre policy to develop a network of loyalists. He has sent Dagestani youths, including his sons, to a military type high school near San Diego (we met one graduate, a Jewish boy from Derbent now studying at San Diego state. He has no plans to enter the Russian military). Gadzhi’s multi-ethnic reach illustrates what the editor of the Dagestani paper “Chernovik” told us: that in the last few years the development of inter-ethnic business clans has eroded traditional jamaat loyalties.

7. (C) But the Avar symbolism is still strong. Gadzhi’s brother, an artist from St. Petersburg, ordered as a wedding gift a life-sized statue of Imam Shamil. Shamil is the iconic national symbol, despite his stern and inflexible character (portrayed in Tolstoy’s “Hadji-Murat” as the mountaineers’ tyrannical counterpart to the absolutist Tsar). Connection with Shamil makes for nobility among Avars today. Gadzhi often mentions that he is a descendant on his mother’s side of Gair-Bek, one of Shamil’s deputies.

The Day Before

8. (C) Gadzhi’s Kaspiysk summer house is an enormous structure on the shore of the Caspian, essentially a huge circular reception room — much like a large restaurant — attached to a 40-meter high green airport tower on columns, accessible only by elevator, with a couple of bedrooms, a reception room, and a grotto whose glass floor was the roof of a huge fish tank. The heavily guarded compound also boasts a second house, outbuildings, a tennis court, and two piers out into the Caspian, one rigged with block and tackle for launching jet skis. The house filled up with visitors from all over the Caucasus during the afternoon of August 21. The Chair of Ingushetia’s parliament drove in with two colleagues; visitors from Moscow included politicians, businessmen and an Avar football coach. Many of the visitors grew up with Gadzhi in Khasavyurt, including an Ingush Olympic wrestler named Vakha who seemed to be perpetually tipsy. Another group of Gadzhi’s boyhood friends from Khasavyurt was led by a man who looked like Shamil Basayev on his day off — flip-flops, t-shirt, baseball cap, beard — but turned out to be the chief rabbi of Stavropol Kray. He told us he has 12,000 co-religionists in the province, 8,000 of them in its capital, Pyatigorsk. 70 percent are, like him, Persian-speaking Mountain Jews; the rest are a mixture of Europeans, Georgians and Bukharans.

9. (C) Also present was XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. He was reserved at the time, but in a follow-up conversation in Moscow on August 29 (please protect) he complained that Chechnya, lacking experts to develop programs for economic recovery, is simply demanding and disposing of cash from the central government. When we pressed him on disappearances, he admitted some took place, but claimed that often parents alleged their children had been abducted when in fact their sons had run off to join the fighters or — in a case the week before — they had murdered their daughter in an honor killing. We mentioned the abduction of a widow of Basayev, allegedly to gain access to his money. XXXXXX said he had not heard of the case, but knew that Basayev had had no interest in wealth; he may have been a religious fanatic, but he was a “normal” person. The fighters who remain are not a serious military force, in XXXXX view, and many would surrender under the proper terms and immunities. He himself is arranging the immunity of a senior official of the Maskhadov era, whose name he would not reveal.

10. (C) During lunch, Gadzhi took a congratulatory call from Dagestan’s president, Mukhu Aliyev. Gadzhi told Aliyev how honored he would be if Aliyev could drop in at the wedding reception. There was a degree of tension in the conversation, which was between two figures each implicitly claiming the mantle of leadership of the Avars. In the event, Aliyev snubbed Gadzhi and did not show up for the wedding, though the rest of Dagestan’s political leadership did.

11. (C) Though Gadzhi’s house was not the venue for the main wedding reception, he ensured that all his guests were constantly plied with food and drink. The cooks seemed to keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron somewhere day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the carcass on the tables whenever someone entered the room. Gadzhi’s two chefs kept a wide variety of unusual dishes in circulation (in addition to the omnipresent boiled meat and fatty bouillon). The alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous. Amidst an alcohol shortage, Gadzhi had flown in from the Urals thousands of bottles of Beluga Export vodka (“Best consumed with caviar”). There was also entertainment, beginning even that day, with the big-name performers appearing both at the wedding hall and at Gadzhi’s summer house. Gadzhi’s main act, a Syrian-born singer named Avraam Russo, could not make it because he was shot a few days before the wedding, but there was a “gypsy” troupe from St. Petersburg, a couple of Azeri pop stars, and from Moscow, Benya the Accordion King with his family of singers. A host of local bands, singing in Avar and Dargin, rounded out the entertainment, which was constant and extremely amplified.

10. (C) The main activity of the day was eating and drinking — starting from 4 p.m., about eight hours worth, all told — punctuated, when all were laden with food and sodden with drink, with a bout of jet skiing in the Caspian. After dinner, though, the first band started an informal performance — drums, accordion and clarinet playing the lezginka, the universal dance of the Caucasus. To the uninitiated Westerner, the music sounds like an undifferentiated wall of sound. This was a signal for dancing: one by one, each of the dramatically paunchy men (there were no women present) would enter the arena and exhibit his personal lezginka for the limit of his duration, usually 30 seconds to a minute. Each ethnic group’s lezginka was different — the Dagestani lezginka the most energetic, the Chechen the most aggressive and belligerent, and the Ingush smoother.

Wedding Day 1

11. (C) An hour before the wedding reception was set to begin the “Marrakech” reception hall was full of guests — men taking the air outside and women already filling a number of the tables inside, older ones with headscarves chaperoning dozens of teenaged girls. A Dagestani parliamentarian explained that weddings are a principal venue for teenagers — and more importantly their parents — to get a look at one another with a view to future matches. Security was tight — police presence on the ground plus police snipers positioned on the roof of an overlooking apartment block. Gadzhi even assigned one of his guards as our personal bodyguard inside the reception. The manager told Gadzhi there were seats for over a thousand guests at a time. At the height of the reception, it was standing room only.

12. (C) At precisely two p.m. the male guests started filing in. They varied from pols and oligarchs of all sorts — the slick to the Jurassic; wizened brown peasants from Burtunay; and Dagestan’s sports and cultural celebrities XXXXXXX presided over a political table in the smaller of the two halls (the music was in the other) along with Vakha the drunken wrestler, the Ingush parliamentarians, a member of the Federation Council who is also a nanophysicist and has lectured in Silicon Valley, and Gadzhi’s cousin Ismail Alibekov, a submariner first rank naval captain now serving at the General Staff in Moscow. The Dagestani milieu appears to be one in which the highly educated and the gun-toting can mix easily — often in the same person.

13. (C) After a couple of hours Dalgat’s convoy returned with Aida, horns honking. Dalgat and Aida got out of the Rolls and were serenaded into the hall, and into the Makhachev family, by a boys’ chorus lining both sides of the red carpet, dressed in costumes aping medieval Dagestani armor with little shields and swords. The couple’s entry was the signal for the emcee to roll into high gear, and after a few toasts the Piter “gypsies” began their performance. (The next day one of Gadzhi’s houseguests sneered, “Some gypsies! The bandleader was certainly Jewish, and the rest of them were blonde.” There was some truth to this, but at least the two dancing girls appeared to be Roma.)

14. (C) As the bands played, the marriageable girls came out to dance the lezginka in what looked like a slowly revolving conga line while the boys sat together at tables staring intently. The boys were all in white shirts and black slacks, while the girls wore a wide variety of multicolored but fashionable cocktail dresses. Every so often someone would shower the dancers with money — there were some thousand ruble notes but the currency of choice was the U.S. hundred dollar bill. The floor was covered with them; young children would scoop the money up to distribute among the dancers.

15. (C) Gadzhi was locked into his role as host. He greeted every guest personally as they entered the hall — failure to do so would cause great insult — and later moved constantly from table to table drinking toasts with everyone. The 120 toasts he estimated he drank would have killed anyone, hardened drinker or not, but Gadzhi had his Afghan waiter Khan following him around to pour his drinks from a special vodka bottle containing water. Still, he was much the worse for wear by evening’s end. At one point we caught up with him dancing with two scantily clad Russian women who looked far from home. One, it turned out was a Moscow poet (later she recited an incomprehensible poem in Gadzhi’s honor) who was in town with a film director to write the screenplay for a film immortalizing Gadzhi’s defense of Dagestan against Shamil Basayev. By 6 p.m. most of the houseguests had returned to Gadzhi’s seaside home for more swimming and more jet-skiing-under-the-influence. But by 8 the summer house’s restaurant was full once more, the food and drink were flowing, the name performers were giving acoustic renditions of the songs they had sung at the reception, and some stupendously fat guests were displaying their lezginkas for the benefit of the two visiting Russian women, who had wandered over from the reception.

The Wedding — Day 2: Enter The Man

16. (C) The next day’s reception at the Marrakech was Gadzhi’s tribute to Aida’s family, after which we all returned to a dinner at Gadzhi’s summer home. Most of the tables were set with the usual dishes plus whole roast sturgeons and sheep. But at 8:00 p.m. the compound was invaded by dozens of heavily armed mujahedin for the grand entrance of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, looking shorter and less muscular than in his photos, and with a somewhat cock-eyed expression on his face. After greetings from Gadzhi, Ramzan and about 20 of his retinue sat around the tables eating and listening to Benya the Accordion King. Gadzhi then announced a fireworks display in honor of the birthday of Ramzan’s late father, Ahmat-Hadji Kadyrov. The fireworks started with a bang that made both Gadzhi and Ramzan flinch. Gadzhi had from the beginning requested that none of his guests, most of whom carried sidearms, fire their weapons in celebration. Throughout the wedding they complied, not even joining in the magnificent fireworks display.

17. (C) After the fireworks, the musicians struck up the lezginka in the courtyard and a group of two girls and three boys — one no more than six years old — performed gymnastic versions of the dance. First Gadzhi joined them and then Ramzan, who danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down in the back of his jeans (a houseguest later pointed out that the gold housing eliminated any practical use of the gun, but smirked that Ramzan probably couldn’t fire it anyway). Both Gadzhi and Ramzan showered the dancing children with hundred dollar bills; the dancers probably picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones. Gadzhi told us later that Ramzan had brought the happy couple “a five kilo lump of gold” as his wedding present. After the dancing and a quick tour of the premises, Ramzan and his army drove off back to Chechnya. We asked why Ramzan did not spend the night in Makhachkala, and were told, “Ramzan never spends the night anywhere.”

18. (C) After Ramzan sped off, the dinner and drinking — especially the latter — continued. An Avar FSB colonel sitting next to us, dead drunk, was highly insulted that we would not allow him to add “cognac” to our wine. “It’s practically the same thing,” he insisted, until a Russian FSB general sitting opposite told him to drop it. We were inclined to cut the Colonel some slack, though: he is head of the unit to combat terrorism in Dagestan, and Gadzhi told us that extremists have sooner or later assassinated everyone who has joined that unit. We were more worried when an Afghan war buddy of the Colonel’s, Rector of the Dagestan University Law School and too drunk to sit, let alone stand, pulled out his automatic and asked if we needed any protection. At this point Gadzhi and his people came over, propped the rector between their shoulders, and let us get out of range.

Postscript: The Practical Uses of a Caucasus Wedding

19. (C) Kadyrov’s attendance was a mark of respect and alliance, the result of Gadzhi’s careful cultivation — dating back to personal friendship with Ramzan’s father. This is a necessary political tool in a region where difficulties can only be resolved by using personal relationships to reach ad hoc informal agreements. An example was readily to hand: on August 22 Chechnya’s parliamentary speaker, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, gave an interview in which he made specific territorial claims to the Kizlyar, Khasavyurt and Novolak regions of Dagestan. The first two have significant Chechen-Akkin populations, and the last was part of Chechnya until the 1944 deportation, when Stalin forcibly resettled ethnic Laks (a Dagestani nationality) there. Gadzhi said he would have to answer Abdurakhmanov and work closely with Ramzan to reduce the tensions “that fool” had caused. Asked why he took such statements seriously, he told us that in the Caucasus all disputes revolve around land, and such claims can never be dismissed. Unresolved land claims are the “threads” the Russian center always kept in play to pull when needed. We asked why these claims are coming out now, and were told it was euphoria, pure and simple. After all they had received, the Chechen leadership’s feet are miles off the ground. (A well-connected Chechen contact later told us he thought that raising nationalistic irredentism was part of Abdurakhmanov’s effort to gain a political base independent from Kadyrov.)

20. (C) The “horizontal of power” represented by Gadzhi’s relationship with Ramzan is the antithesis of the Moscow-imposed “vertical of power.” Gadzhi’s business partner Khalik Gindiyev, head of Rosneft-Kaspoil, complained that Moscow should let local Caucasians rather than Russians — “Magomadovs and Aliyevs, not Ivanovs and Petrovs” — resolve the region’s conflicts. The vertical of power, he said, is inapplicable to the Caucasus, a region that Moscow bureaucrats such as PolPred Kozak would never understand. The Caucasus needs to be given the scope to resolve its own problems. But this was not a plug for democracy. Gadzhi told us democracy would always fail in the Caucasus, where the conception of the state is as an extension of the Caucasus family, in which the father’s word is law. “Where is the room for democracy in that?” he asked. We paraphrased Hayek: if you run a family as you do a state, you destroy the family. Running a state as you do a family destroys the state: ties of kinship and friendship will always trump the rule of law. Gadzhi’s partner agreed, shaking his head sadly. “That’s a matter for generations to come,” he said.


(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

In a recent post, Mark Adomanis pointed out that the Russian economy has done significantly better than many other East European nations during the recent crisis and is now mounting a strong recovery. He also speculated on the effects of the crisis on the demography of badly-affected countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltics, on the basis that “Russia’s experience during the 1998 debt default amply demonstrates that cutting healthcare budgets and pensions in the midst of an economic catastrophe causes a lot of excess deaths among vulnerable sectors of the population”.

Now I’ve never really worried about the consequences on mortality of an economic recession, because I don’t buy into The Lancet‘s arguments that it was the reduction in Russian social spending in 1998 that contributed to the mortality wave of 1999-2002, since the increasing affordability of, and consumption of, alcohol was by far the more convincing factor. (Also, in industrialized states, recessions tend to correlate with falls in mortality rates). On the other hand, hard recessions – especially ones which result in reduced public spending on social welfare – usually are associated with substantial reductions in fertility. In this post I’m going to take a look at how valid these observations and theories are in light of the recent economic crisis in Eastern Europe.

Russia. At the start of the crisis in late 2008, I expected Russia’s fertility rate to fall slightly – though nowhere near the magnitudes predicted by Russia’s “demographic doomers”, of course. (Though even for that I got a lot of flak). Yet ironically even my predictions turned out to be too pessimistic, probably because increased government spending meant that Russians’ social welfare hardly suffered at all during the crisis. Even Russia’s fertility rate continued to climb, reaching 1.56 in 2009 (2008 – 1.49, 2007 – 1.41, 2006 – 1.30), a level last seen in 1992. And like I said, Russia’s trends towards falling mortality actually accelerated, with life expectancy for both genders hitting 69.0 years in 2009 (2008 – 67.9, 2007 – 67.5, 2006 – 66.6, 2005 – 65.3) – a level that was only ever previously observed in 1963-1974 and 1986-1991. Most encouragingly, Russians’ mortality from “vices” – homicide, alcohol poisoning, and suicide – have fallen back to their late Soviet levels. The decline in alcohol poisonings is particularly good because much of Russia’s “hyper-mortality” (including the high rate of heart disease) is tied to excessive alcohol consumption.

[Source: Rosstat].

Demographic improvements relative to the same period last year continued in Q1 2010, with the birth rate up another 1.3% and mortality rates falling by 2.0% (inc. by about 10% for external causes). (The figures on fertility are particularly significant when you recall that Russia reached the nadir of its economic crisis in H1 2009). According to Sergey Slobodyan’s demographic model, the data indicates that a projection of 1.9-2.0mn deaths and 1.8-1.9mn births in 2010 is feasible, meaning that natural population decrease will almost cease (the total population should grow, as last year, due to immigrants).

Conclusion – contrary to hysterical predictions of economic and demographic apocalypse propagated about Russia in late 2008, the real impact on social welfare was very marginal and the demographic situation actually continued to improve. This year, Russia’s life expectancy will probably approach 70 years (still very low for an industrialized country) and its total fertility rate will hit around 1.6 children per woman (as in Canada). Although the mortality rate remains very substandard relative to the industrialized world, current healthcare and anti-alcohol initiatives are helping usher in rapid improvements.

PS. There has been a small update to Rosstat‘s demographic projections. Its middle projection now indicates a population of 140.9mn and its high projection a population of 146.7mn in 2025, relative to 141.9mn in 2009; in the last few years, Russia’s demography has tracked between the High and Medium projections. (This is in line with my own forecasts).

Ukraine. Mark Adomanis claims that Ukraine has a “much more serious demographic crisis than Russia”. But much as one can condemn Orange mismanagement of the economy and social relations, it can’t really be said in good faith that its demography is a lot worse. Whereas its birth rates are lower and its death rates are higher than Russia’s, this is in large part because Ukraine has a marginally older median age than Russia.

Let’s instead use measures that cancel out the effects of specific population age structure. Ukraine’s life expectancy (68.3) was marginally better than Russia’s (67.8) in 2008 (World Bank), and its big mortality reductions in 2008-09 indicate that it kept the lead. Similarly, Russia’s fertility rate (1.49) is not awesomely bigger than Ukraine’s (1.39) in 2008, and may be partly or wholly explained by the fact that Russia’s demographic collapse in the 1990’s was both quicker and sharper than Ukraine’s. Finally, both countries have been displaying very similar demographic dynamics in recent years, despite their political differences – a moderate recovery in fertility rates (from a low base), and plummeting death rates (from a very high base).

[Source: World Bank Development Indicators. Note that for all the vast differences in the political economy and post-transition success of Russia, Latvia, Belarus, and Ukraine, their fertility (and overall demographic) dynamics are remarkably alike].

Now what about the crisis, which hit Ukraine much harder than Russia? (Ukraine’s GDP declined by 15% in 2009, compared to Russia’s 9%, and it wasn’t cushioned by increased government spending on social welfare). Ukraine’s birth rate increased ever so slightly from 11.0/1000 in 2008 to 11.1/1000 in 2009 (but fell from 11.2/1000 in Jan-Feb 2009 to 10.7/1000 in Jan-Feb 2010). Meanwhile, its death rate decreased from 16.3/1000 in 2008 to 15.2/1000 in 2009 (and from 17.2/1000 in Jan-Feb 2009 to 16.4/1000 in Jan-Feb 2010). In crude terms, Ukraine had a higher rate of natural population decrease than Russia (-4.2/1000 versus -1.7/1000 in 2009), and its overall population is still falling fast because unlike Russia it does not have many immigrants.

Nonetheless, the Ukrainian crisis is now easing and the new government seems to be moving from concentrating on historical grievances to modernization and stability. Given the inherent similarities between and increasing integration of Russia and Ukraine, their demographic dynamics will probably be likewise similar – a recovery of fertility rates to 1.7-1.8 within a few years, a rise in life expectancy to 75 years within a decade, substantial net migration to Russia and zero net migration to Ukraine. The result would be a slowly rising or stagnating population in Russia, and a stagnating or slowly falling population in Ukraine.

Conclusion – Ukraine is experiencing a demographic recovery, with particularly impressive gains in life expectancy during the crisis. Though its fertility rate remained more or less stagnant, it now again shows signs of improvement – a good sign, since nine months ago Ukraine was still at its economic nadir.

Belarus. Thanks to its isolation from the global financial system, Belarus did not experience much of an economic crisis at all. It’s GDP even grew by 1.5% in 2009, and has since expanded by 6.1% in Jan-Apr 2010 relative to the same period last year. But ironically, its demographic improvements have been modest.

The birth rate rose from 11.1/1000 to 11.6/1000 and the death rate rose from 13.8/1000 to 14.2/1000 from 2008 to 2009*. (In Q1 2010 relative to the same period last year, the birth rate fell from 11.3/1000 to 11.2/1000 and the death rate fell from 15.3/1000 to 15.1/1000). The rate of natural increase eased slightly to -2.5/1000 in 2009, from -2.6/1000 in 2008.

This means that Belarus retained a fertility rate of about 1.45-1.5 children per woman in 2009, compared to Russia’s 1.56 and Ukraine’s 1.4-1.45, and its life expectancy was somewhat higher than both at 70.5 years in 2008 (very slightly lower in 2009), compared with Russia’s 69.0 years in 2009 and Ukraine’s 68.3 years in 2008 (maybe a year higher in 2009).

Conclusion – despite emerging from the crisis largely unscathed, the demography of Belarus showed no significant improvement (or deterioration).

Latvia. Latvia saw a catastrophic decline of GDP of 18% in 2010 and its welfare state has been decimated to a degree unparalleled anywhere else in Europe (at least so far). From 2008 to 2009, births fell by 9.5% and marriages, a very rough indicator of future fertility, fell by a truly stunning 23.3%. The decline continued into 2010, with births in Jan-Mar falling by 11.6% and marriages declining by 22.4% on the same period in 2009. Since Latvia’s total fertility rate was a not too healthy 1.45 back in 2008, this means that it is now in one of the deepest demographic chasms in Europe.

[Source: Latvijas Statistika].

On the positive side, Latvia did see modest improvements in its mortality rates, which fell by 3.6% from 2008 to 2009 (though they’ve remained almost stagnant so far in 2010). Unsurprisingly, after a period of demographic recovery in the 2000′s, Latvia’s rate of natural population decrease has started opening up again, rising from a loss of 7058 people in 2008 to 8220 people in 2009, and almost certain to increase further this year.

Small consolation. Going by the experiences of other countries in the region, the falling marriage rate in Latvia should have been accompanied by a simultaneously falling divorce rate, so the post-2008 annual decline in net couple formation should have been less than 20%.

Estonia. Estonia’s had a milder recession than Latvia with a GDP fall of 14% (it’s all comparative!) and it did not decimate its welfare state to quite the same extent. It also started from a position of significantly greater affluence and its fertility rate was at 1.66 children per woman in 2008. The number of births fell by 2.6% from 2008 to 2009, and by a mere 0.9% in the first four months of 2010 relative to the same period last year. This decline was outpaced by improvements in longevity, with mortality rates falling by 3.7% in 2009 relative to 2008, and a further 3.5% in the first four months of 2010 relative to the same period in 2009. Since it now shows signs of mounting an early recovery, the crisis should not make a big dent in Estonia’s long-term demographic prospects.

Lithuania. Their situation seems to have become somewhat worse, based on the monthly estimates of the population size for 2009. But their national statistics site is bad and doesn’t have detailed recent data so I can’t really say much more than that it is worse than in Estonia but far better than in Latvia.

Conclusion – the crisis has been a demographic disaster for Latvia, with its total fertility probably falling to a “lowest-low” rate of around 1.2 children per woman by 2010. Since its economic crisis seems to be deep and long-lasting, with deleterious effects on social welfare, we can expect a resumption of demographic free fall and perhaps a rise in ethnic Russian emigration to (fast recovering) Russia. In contrast, Estonia’s stronger foundations weathered the crisis well and its total fertility rate, now at perhaps 1.6 children per woman, is still relatively healthy by East and Central European standards.

Caucasus. In Armenia, the crude death rate remained unchanged at 8.5/1000 from 2008 and 2009, while the birth rate rose from 12.7/1000 to 13.7/1000, despite its big decline in GDP during the crisis. Given that its total fertility rate was at 1.74 in 2008, it is doing fine. Georgia is probably doing OK, since their population actually rose in 2009 – the only other post-Soviet year in which Georgia experienced population growth was in 2006, which happened to coincide with Russia’s deportation of illegal Georgian immigrants.

Moldova. Doesn’t have vital stats for 2009. Its overall population fell by five thousand people in 2009 relative to 2008, which is lower than usual, since on most years it falls by around ten thousand. I don’t think this was due to demographic improvements – don’t forget that many Moldovans were returning from their work in Russia during its recession in 2009.

Rest of post-Soviet space. Azerbaijan and Central Asia don’t need to be considered since they have healthy demographics anyway.

The Balkans. Birth rates and death rates seemed to have remained essentially stable from 2008 to 2009 in Bulgaria and Romania, with a slight improvement overall. Crisis hasn’t affected them much – at least, not yet.

Final conclusion – overall, the crisis did not greatly affect the demography of the Eurasian region. There continued to be modest improvements in the two most populous nations, Russia and Ukraine. The death rate has fallen rapidly during the crisis almost everywhere, the sole exceptions being Belarus and Romania where it increased by a tiny amount. On the other hand, birth rates have either risen slowly (e.g. Russia), stagnated (e.g. Ukraine), or fallen slowly (e.g. Estonia). The major exception is Latvia, where birth rates have collapsed at an amazing rate from regional average to “lowest-low”. This reflects the particular severity of the economic crash in Latvia.

* The real rise in the birth rate and the death rate from 2008 to 2009 are actually slightly exaggerated. That is because from 2009, Belarus lowered its total population (on the basis of which birth and death rates / 1000 people are calculated) to correlate with the preliminary results of the 2009 Census. The actual number of births rose from 107.9 thousand to 109.8 thousand and the number of deaths rose from 133.9 thousand to 135.0 thousand.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

I have long noted Russia’s resurgence back into the ranks of the leading Great Powers; I predicted that the global economic crisis will not have a long-term retarding impact on the Russian economy; and within the past year I have bought into Stratfor‘s idea that the defining narrative now in play in Eurasia is Russia’s intention to reconstruct its empire / sphere of influence / call-it-what-you-will in the post-Soviet space. This “resurgence” is advancing along several major fronts: geopolitical, economic, demographic, military, and ideological. In this post I will cover recent major news on the first four.

Ukraine Returns to the Empire?

The most consequential big event is the electoral victory of Viktor Yanukovych (35%) in the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko (25%), Serhiy Tihipko (13%), Arseniy Yatsenyuk (7%), and Viktor Yushchenko (5%) – a result that I called 100% accurately. Disillusioned with the incompetence, economic decline, and “anarchic stasis” of five years of Orange rule, polls indicate three times as many Ukrainians now favor a “strong leader” over a “democratic government”, so no wonder that the liberal ideologue Yushenko, though the only major Ukrainian politician who is consistent and sincere in his views, suffered a crushing defeat as the last true representative of the Westernizing “Orange” movement. This marks a threshold in the accelerating “regathering of the Russian lands”*.

Below is an electoral map of the first-round Ukrainian presidential elections. As is always the case, the urban, Russophone / Surzhyk-speaking, Russian Orthodox Church-affiliated south and east voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych, head of the Party of Regions, while the more bucolic, Ukrainian-speaking, Kyiv Patriarchate-affiliated / Uniate center and west favored Tymoshenko.

[Click on map to enlarge].

This reflects the civilizational fault-line riveting Ukraine in half – commonly assumed to be along the Dnieper River, but more accurately, dividing the country into a pro-Russian south and south-east, the independence-minded Ukrainian center, and the pro-Western south-west.

Back in 2004, there was a clearly defined pro-Russian (Yanukovych) and pro-Western (Yushscenko) force. Yushscenko prevailed thanks to incompetent vote rigging on the part of the Party of Regions and a Western-supported popular uprising known as the Orange Revolution. The oranges are now regarded as rotten and nothing of the same sort can happen in 2010, since both Presidential contenders are now, for most purposes, beholden to Russia.

Yanukovych supports closer political and economic ties with Russia, would renounce NATO and EU accession plans, and enjoys the support of the Donbass oligarchs (including Ukraine’s richest man and king-maker, Rinat Akhmetov) and the senior managers of the Ukrainian military-industrial complex. There has been talk of a possible political union between United Russia (Russia’s “party of power”) and the Party of Regions, which will lay the institutional foundations for closer union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, involving joint membership in Eurasec, a customs union, and even the CSTO. Finally, there have been rumors that Yanukovych will retain Yushenko in some minor political position, as a placebo for the west Ukrainians in order to nip secession movements in the bud and to undercut Tymoshenko’s support in a crucial region.

Tymoshenko is the unprincipled, chameleon-like politico par excellence, repeatedly reinventing herself from hard-hitting gas oligarch / robber baroness, to Lesya Ukrainka-inspired Orange liberal nationalist, to Putin-friendly aspiring Czarina. She has negotiated a well-publicized gas deal with Russia, took part in the sale of the major Ukrainian steelmaker, the Industrial Union of Donbass, to a Kremlin-friendly Russian industrial group, and publicly backed away from NATO membership. In doing this, she has tried to ride the geopolitical and emotional wave of the Russian resurgence, and succeeded in gaining the firm support of the central regions. However, although singularly charismatic in the gray world of Ukrainian politics, she has been unable to significantly penetrate into the Party of Regions electoral base. Coupled with low voter turnout in Ukraine’s western regions, due to their disillusionment with her newly-discovered Russophilia, this means that she will almost certainly lose out to Yanukovych in the second round of elections scheduled for February 7th** (assuming no extralegal interference from the 3000 strongarm Georgian “election observers” who are in Ukraine just for the girls, supposedly).

Geopolitically, this Ukrainian reversal marks declining US influence in the region and the imminent resurgence of Russia as a Eurasian hegemon. This is producing reverberations, with independence-minded countries throughout the region – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, even Georgia – now accepting their eventual reintegration into Eurasia, or attempting to reach a new accommodation with the new reality of Russian power. Here is Peter Zeihan (Stratfor) on Ukraine’s Election and the Russian Resurgence:

These are all important factors for Moscow, but ultimately they pale before the only rationale that really matters: Ukraine is the only former Russian imperial territory that is both useful and has a natural barrier protecting it…. Without Ukraine, Russia is a desperately defensive power, lacking any natural defenses aside from sheer distance… The (quite realistic) Russian fear is that without Ukraine, the Europeans will pressure Russia along its entire western periphery, the Islamic world will pressure Russia along its entire southern periphery, the Chinese will pressure Russia along its southeastern periphery, and the Americans will pressure Russia wherever opportunity presents itself…

Ukraine by contrast has the Carpathians to its west, a handy little barrier that has deflected invaders of all stripes for millennia. These mountains defend Ukraine against tanks coming from the west as effectively as they protected the Balkans against Mongols attacking from the east. Having the Carpathians as a western border reduces Russia’s massive defensive burden. Most important, if Russia can redirect the resources it would have used for defensive purposes on the Ukrainian frontier — whether those resources be economic, intelligence, industrial, diplomatic or military — then Russia retains at least a modicum of offensive capability. And that modicum of offensive ability is more than enough to overmatch any of Russia’s neighbors (with the exception of China).

Incidentally, this episode brings to mind what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote about the future of the “Orthodox civilization” in his well-known work The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. He predicted that Western attempts to orchestrate an artificial divide between these two members of the same civilization would have only deleterious results, perhaps resulting in a “Great Split” – quoting a Russian general, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” Yet the more stable and likeliest arrangement would be the following:

The third and most likely scenario is that Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally cooperate closely with Russia… Just as the [Franco-German relationship] provides the core of the European Union, the [Russian-Ukrainian relationship] is the core essential to unity in the Orthodox world.

With all major Ukrainian political blocs re-orientating themselves to Russia and the two countries increasing their cooperation in spheres ranging from politics to the military-industrial complex, Huntington’s prediction could be said to have been fulfilled.

PS. The (relative) silence about the total collapse of the Orange party in Ukraine on the part of normally Russophobic outlets has been deafening. Since everyone loves the West and liberal ideologues, how on Earth could this have happened? It’s like a bad dream. ;)

The Eurasian Energy Map Redrawn

Russia, China, Iran redraw energy map by the always-insightful Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar.

The inauguration of the Dauletabad-Sarakhs-Khangiran pipeline on Wednesday connecting Iran’s northern Caspian region with Turkmenistan’s vast gas field may go unnoticed amid the Western media cacophony that it is “apocalypse now” for the Islamic regime in Tehran. The event sends strong messages for regional security. Within the space of three weeks, Turkmenistan has committed its entire gas exports to China, Russia and Iran. It has no urgent need of the pipelines that the United States and the European Union have been advancing. Are we hearing the faint notes of a Russia-China-Iran symphony? …

Second, Russia does not seem perturbed by China tapping into Central Asian energy. Europe’s need for Russian energy imports has dropped and Central Asian energy-producing countries are tapping China’s market. From the Russian point of view, China’s imports should not deprive it of energy (for its domestic consumption or exports). Russia has established deep enough presence in the Central Asian and Caspian energy sector to ensure it faces no energy shortage. What matters most to Russia is that its dominant role as Europe’s No 1 energy provider is not eroded. So long as the Central Asian countries have no pressing need for new US-backed trans-Caspian pipelines, Russia is satisfied.

During his recent visit to Ashgabat, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev normalized Russian-Turkmen energy ties. The restoration of ties with Turkmenistan is a major breakthrough for both countries. One, a frozen relationship is being resumed substantially, whereby Turkmenistan will maintain an annual supply of 30bcm to Russia. Two, to quote Medvedev, “For the first time in the history of Russian-Turkmen relations, gas supplies will be carried out based on a price formula that is absolutely in line with European gas market conditions.” Russian commentators say Gazprom will find it unprofitable to buy Turkmen gas and if Moscow has chosen to pay a high price, that is primarily because of its resolve not to leave gas that could be used in alternative pipelines, above all in the US-backed Nabucco project.

[Click on map to enlarge].

Third, contrary to Western propaganda, Ashgabat does not see the Chinese pipeline as a substitute for Gazprom. Russia’s pricing policy ensures that Ashgabat views Gazprom as an irreplaceable customer. The export price of the Turkmen gas to be sold to China is still under negotiation and the agreed price simply cannot match the Russian offer. Fourth, Russia and Turkmenistan reiterated their commitment to the Caspian Coastal Pipeline (which will run along the Caspian’s east coast toward Russia) with a capacity of 30bcm. Evidently, Russia hopes to cluster additional Central Asian gas from Turkmenistan (and Kazakhstan). Fifth, Moscow and Ashgabat agreed to build jointly an east-west pipeline connecting all Turkmen gas fields to a single network so that the pipelines leading toward Russia, Iran and China can draw from any of the fields.

Indeed, against the backdrop of the intensification of the US push toward Central Asia, Medvedev’s visit to Ashgabat impacted on regional security. At the joint press conference with Medvedev, Berdymukhammedov said the views of Turkmenistan and Russia on the regional processes, particularly in Central Asia and the Caspian region, were generally the same. He underlined that the two countries were of the view that the security of one cannot be achieved at the expense of the other. Medvedev agreed that there was similarity or unanimity between the two countries on issues related to security and confirmed their readiness to work together.

The United States’ pipeline diplomacy in the Caspian, which strove to bypass Russia, elbow out China and isolate Iran, has foundered. Russia is now planning to double its intake of Azerbaijani gas, which further cuts into the Western efforts to engage Baku as a supplier for Nabucco. In tandem with Russia, Iran is also emerging as a consumer of Azerbaijani gas. In December, Azerbaijan inked an agreement to deliver gas to Iran through the 1,400km Kazi-Magomed-Astara pipeline.

The “big picture” is that Russia’s South Stream and North Stream, which will supply gas to northern and southern Europe, have gained irreversible momentum. The stumbling blocks for North Stream have been cleared as Denmark (in October), Finland and Sweden (in November) and Germany (in December) approved the project from the environmental angle. The pipeline’s construction will commence in the spring.The $12-billion pipeline built jointly by Gazprom, Germany’s E.ON Ruhrgas and BASF-Wintershall, and the Dutch gas transportation firm Gasunie bypasses the Soviet-era transit routes via Ukraine, Poland and Belarus and runs from the northwestern Russian port of Vyborg to the German port of Greifswald along a 1,220km route under the Baltic Sea. The first leg of the project with a carrying capacity of 27.5bcm annually will be completed next year and the capacity will double by 2012. North Stream will profoundly affect the geopolitics of Eurasia, trans-Atlantic equations and Russia’s ties with Europe.

To be sure, 2009 proved to be a momentous year for the “energy war”. The Chinese pipeline inaugurated by President Hu Jintao on December 14; the oil terminal near the port city of Nakhodka in Russia’s far east inaugurated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on December 27 (which will be served by the mammoth $22-billion oil pipeline from the new fields in eastern Siberia leading to China and the Asia-Pacific markets); and the Iranian pipeline inaugurated by Ahmadinejad on January 6 – the energy map of Eurasia and the Caspian has been virtually redrawn.

And from Pipe dreams come true (bne):

Putin ordered construction to start on Nord Stream at the end of last year after the pipeline got the last environmental permits from Germany. And in January, Gazprom started building the first pumping station at the mouth of the first of two parallel pipes, which is supposed to be operational by 2011 with a capacity of 27.5bn cm/y. Thanks to Nord Stream, 2009 should be the last episode of the Russo-Ukraine “Gas for Cash” soap opera, which usually ends with Europe freezing. [AK: see also What difference would Nord Stream mean to European energy supply?].

South stream, the other pipeline project, will close the circle, but this pipeline has had a harder time getting off the drawing board and is competing with the EU-sponsored Nabucco pipeline, which is supposed to source Caspian region and Middle East gas and send it to Europe without crossing Russian soil. The problem is that there’s probably only enough demand to support one pipeline.

The R of the BRIC’s Remains Solid

Many of the economic predictions I made in Decoupling from the unwinding and Russia Economic Crisis are coming to fruition. See RUSSIA 2010: Slow build over first half to boom in 2011 (bne):

Russia was undoubtedly far more affected by the international crisis that started in September 2008 than anyone had expected – especially the Kremlin. It also stands out as the only one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) to show negative growth, leading to calls from the likes of analyst Anders Aslund to remove the “R” from BRIC.

This is rubbish, so Jim O’Neill, the man that coined the term in the first place, told bne at the 2009 International Monetary Fund (IMF) conference. “The only reason that Russia was hurt so badly was unlike the others, it borrowed heavily on the international capital markets and, of course, it is dependent on the price of oil.”

This was one of my major themes. When the Western financial system ground to a standstill in late 2008, the first countries to be cut off were the emerging markets. Having access to deep indigenous credit systems, the likes of Brazil and China were understandable far less affected than Russia, whose corporations had come to rely on Western intermediation of their credit inflows.

And in the longer term, excluding Russia from the BRIC’s makes little sense given its major growth potential (educated workforce, resource windfall, modernization policy, economic gains from global warming).

The Russian economy contracted by a bit less than 9% in 2009, but as the year came to a close it was already starting to recover – six months later than analysts were predicting at the start of the year. However, despite the pain of the crisis, the prospects for 2010 are looking much better than many had dared hope.

One should also note that this “pain” was insubstantial compared to the 1998 crisis, which is what many analysts were (unfavorably) comparing it to. While the percentage of the population barely making ends meet went up from 29% in July 1998 to 40% in December 1998, this figure remained stable at around 10% throughout the recent crisis. The main shift occurred amongst Russia’s “consumer class” (the ones who buy cars, PC’s, etc), whose percentage of the population tumbled by a quarter from 19% to 14%, and perhaps explains the reason for its large drop in GDP for 2009, i.e. the drop in large purchases. The silver lining is that this implies inequality has decreased during the crisis.

bne’s annual survey of investment bank outlooks suggests that growth will return to at least 4% and possibly go as high as 6% by the end of 2010. Inflation will remain low at about 5% while overnight rates at the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) will become real for the first time, finally giving the central bank a second tool to manage the economy and so be able to tackle Russia’s twin perennial headaches of inflation and ruble appreciation more effectively. …

The much discussed problems of the reappearance of a budget deficit will be much milder than appears now, coming in at something under 5% of GDP. This means the Kremlin will drastically reduce its international borrowing and has already cut the amount it needs to raise from $18bn to $10bn, but this could fall to $5bn or even nothing at all if oil prices rise to around $80 per barrel, which most of the banks bne surveyed believe will be the average price for 2010. Indeed the state will be able to raise all the money it needs to plug the deficit at home and pave the way for a return of private issuers to the international capital markets.

I predicted an oil price of around 90$ for 2010 (“oil prices in H1 will remain at 70-90$, and will rise to 90-110$ in H2″), so this is completely realistic considering my stellar record on oil price forecasting.

Finally, the RTS had a spectacular performance, rising over 120% in 2009 from its spring lows to end the year at about 1400. Unlike last year, the investment banks all agree that the index will end 2010 at around 1900-1950 and some say that it will reach and pass its all-time high of 2600 by 2011.

The themes for 2010 include: a turning inwards to growth driven by domestic demand, a push to introduce some real bottom-up economic reforms, a new focus on improving Russia’s productivity, increased inter-regional crediting, a shift towards closer ties with China, consolidation within many sectors and most important a gradual reassessment of Russia’s risk.

Again, much of this will not be new to S/O readers. I’ve already called the consolidation of Russia’s financial system, the shifting emphasis on domestic manufacturing, its decoupling from the insolvent Anglo-Saxon system, the imminent purge of corrupt siloviki, etc…

The collapse of the Russian economy in 2009 was dramatic, but emerging market crises are intrinsically less “sticky” than those in the West, largely because of the shallow penetration of debt in all its forms into the economy. As Liam Halligan, chief economist at Prosperity Capital Management, points out Russia’s fundamentals remain extremely strong and stand out from the rest of emerging Europe. And despite spending $200bn on rescue packages, the Kremlin still have $400bn in the bank, which was increasing again towards the end of the year, and remains the third richest country in the world after China and Japan, against the US and UK, which are 18th and 19th with a bit more than $80bn each. As the story going forward for the next several years will be all about the credit worthiness of countries, Russia finds itself, along with its newest buddy, China, in an enviable position.

Feel free to read the whole article.

Russia’s Population Grows in 2009

Russia registers its first year of population growth in 2009 since 1994.

Russia has registered the first population increase since the chaotic years which followed the fall of the Soviet Union, bucking a long-term decline that has dampened economic growth projections, officials said on Tuesday. Russia’s population increased by between 15,000 and 25,000 to more than 141.9 million in 2009, the first annual increase since 1995, Health Minister Tatyana Golikova told a meeting in the Kremlin with President Dmitry Medvedev. …

Russia’s dire population forecasts — some of which predict sharp declines over the next few decades — are a key function of economic predictions which see Russia growing much slower over the next 20 years than the other BRIC countries; China, Brazil and India.

a) None of this should be too surprising to my readers, given that back in mid-2008 I predicted:

I will make some concrete, falsifiable demographic predictions (something Russophobes going on about Russia’s impending demographic doom wisely avoid doing).

  1. Russia will see positive population growth starting from 2010 at the latest.

I was totally correct, and even better, a year early! (well, just about). Meanwhile, the Russophobe commentariat continues their happy life in la la land.

b) Russia’s approaching demographic doom is a major staple of pessimist and Russophobe assessments of its future prospects in areas like economic modernization and geopolitical power. To the contrary, far from the steep fall produced by most demographic models, a more realistic scenario is for Russia’s population to stagnate or grow very slowly in the next two decades, as a fall in the numbers of women in child-bearing age is balanced out by rising fertility rates and falling mortality rates. See 10 Myths about Russia’s Demography for my detailed exposition of Russia’s demographic prospects.

The Volatile Caucasus

Saakashvili’s megalomania probes new depths, so no wonder the opposition – who are no Russophiles, it should be said – are holding their noses and reaching out to their erstwhile enemy. Taking a cue from the Party of Regions:

The leader of Georgian opposition party the Movement for a Fair Georgia, former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, said Jan. 26 that his party would like to form a partnership with United Russia, the ruling party in Russia led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

See also this Russian-language report, Танки августа (“Tanks of August”) analyzing the buildup to, chronology, and course of the 2008 South Ossetian War, which is called “The Five Day War” in this publication. This is no pro-Kremlin propaganda, the Russian Army receives acerbic criticism for its performance.

However, most interesting, at least for me, was the chapter “Настоящее и будущее грузино-российского конфликта. Военный аспект” (pp. 85-109), a serious analysis of post-war dynamics in the balance of power between the two countries, is worth checking out. I’ll summarize it here.

a) Though Georgian military spending has fallen somewhat from its 2007-08 high of 8% of GDP, its military potential has continued growing at a fast rate and now exceeds its level in August 2008. Anti-partisan training has been deemphasized in favor of preparation for a hot conventional war against Russia, especially emphasizing the anti-tank and air defense aspects; battle-hardened troops have been returned from Iraq, the reserves system is being reformed, and military contracts concluded in 2007-08 are now bringing in masses of new Soviet and Israeli military equipment from abroad. The authors believe it is not unrealistic that Georgia will make another attempt at a military resolution of the Ossetian issue after 2011.

b) Counter-intuitively, the authors believe that though the revolutionary reforms now being implemented by the Russian Army will enhance its long-term potential, in the short-term there will be a certain loss of effectiveness due to the ouster of experienced officers, a shortfall which will not be immediately made up by the extensive NCO-training program which is only now getting started. The effective number of Motor Rifle and Tank battalions in the Caucasus military region has fallen from 65 in August 2008 to just 40 at end-2009, albeit their quality has been somewhat improved thanks to the rapid acquisition of modernized tanks and helicopters. Furthermore, their forward-positioning in Abkhazian and S. Ossetian bases will give them an advantage missing in 2008.

c) Finally, the authors also note the growing military superiority of Azerbaijan over Armenia. The two countries hold a long grudge over Armenia’s occupation of the ethnically-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Revenues from the BTC pipeline have enabled Azerbaijan to massively increase its military potential, acquiring a panoply of modernized late-Soviet and Israeli weapons systems. Azerbaijan’s military budget now exceeds the entire Armenian state budget. However, Armenia is allied with Russia through the CSTO, hosts a big Russian base, and receives subsidized weapons systems from Russia, as well as some old Soviet stocks for free. The authors note that due to ethnic majority-Armenian unrest in the southern Georgian province of Samtskhe-Javakheti (which I noted in my post on the possibility of a new Russia-Georgia war), Russia would be wise to increase its military presence in Armenia and accelerate the modernization of the Armenian armed forces in order to be able to exploit Georgia’s soft southern underbelly in a new war***.

Power Projection & Military Modernization

Two more military things. Frustrated with the sorry state of Russian military shipbuilding, the Kremlin is considering the French Mistral, a helicopter carrier & amphibious ship. Such an acquisition will enhance two important Russian capabilities.

First, if deployed in the Barents Sea, it will reinforce its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, which are growing in importance with its increasing strategic interests in the Arctic linked to the region’s oil-and-gas deposits and potential trade opportunities as the sea-ice melt accelerates. Second, these vessels would enable Russia to insert crack military forces behind enemy lines much quicker than had previously been possible. In the event of a potential conflict with Georgia or the Baltics, this capability will be incredibly valuable.

EDIT to add PAK-FA news: Second, Russia unveiled the PAK-FA prototype fighter, the first 5th-generation fighter to be produced outside the US. Below are some informative articles on the subject.


Despite delays and questions over its effectiveness, Russia being the 2nd nation in the world to test a 5th generation fighter after the US does prove that elements of the Russian MIC, especially military aviation, remain robust and capable of innovation. (Besides, one shouldn’t neglect to mention that the American MIC also has its own problems: cost overruns, questions over the JSF’s real utility, etc). As pointed out in earlier posts, Russia’s main challenge is now rooting out corruption and modernizing the MIC’s machine tools and management culture to enable high-volume production of state-of-the-art military equipment such as the PAK-FA, so as to modernize its armed forces by 2020 without returning to a Soviet-style militarized economy.

* To forestall criticism, this is not, of course, an expression of “Great Russian chauvinism”, but a historical reference to the state centralization and “gathering of the Russian lands” undertaken by Muscovy from the time of Ivan III (1462-1505). This formed the palimpsest for all future restorations of Russia’s empire, including the current one.

** Why Yanukovych will almost certainly win the Ukrainian Presidency – just a matter of beans-counting. In the first round, he got 35%, Tymoshenko got 25%. Yanukovych will net many of the Tihipko voters (13%), while Tymoshenko will get support from some of the Yatsenyuk (7%) and Yushenko (5%) voters. The rest of the electorate will split roughly in half, most likely. But even if Tymoshenko gets very lucky, it is hard to see her closing the awning 10% gap separating her from Yanukovych in the first round.

*** I would also add that though unlikely, it is not impossible that Armenia and Azerbaijan will fight a new war in the near future, as the Azeris despair of their long-term chances of ever reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and the hard reality of rising Russian power over the Caucasus. They could yet make a desperate gamble, perhaps in the context of the chaos unleashed by a US-Israeli war with Iran and its proxies. That said, the far likelier possibility is that the realistic-minded President Aliyev will reconcile himself to Russia’s growing power over the Caucasus.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

Whispers of war are heard in the Caucasus, as the anniversary of last year’s South Ossetian War approaches. Will the guns of August be fired in anger to mark the occasion?

Here are some things we need to keep in mind when analyzing this:

    • It was Georgia that attacked South Ossetia last year, mere hours after Saakashvili promised them peace and eternal friendship and candy. The Georgians proceeded to indiscriminately bombard Tskhinvali, a densely populated town full of civilians, with Grad missiles. They also attacked UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, which constitutes a clear casus belli. Russia’s response was just and proportionate.
    • The Western media at the time presented this as a struggle between aggressive Russian tyranny and democratic Georgia, spewing the most propagandistic bilge imaginable (e.g. headlines about Russia attacking poor little Georgia, while showing Georgian Grad rockets being fired at Tskhinvali!). Putin’s well-argued justifications of Russian intervention were censored and manipulated by CNN and Western journalists with enough personal integrity to refrain from unconditionally siding with Saakashvili were blacklisted.
    • In reality there is much evidence, including the testimonies of former Georgian cabinet members, to the effect that Saakashvili was planning to retake the “lost territories” months beforehand.
    • Since then the media retracted their most sensationalist claims in a bid to reinforce their (questionable) reputations for objectivity. Many media outlets now acknowledge the reality of Georgian aggression and war crimes. Amongst those who looked at the issue in detail, only the most diehard neocons and Russophobes still deny that it was Georgia that was primarily responsible for the war. In their circles, the idea of Russian war guilt is almost an article of faith. Applying Occam’s Razor would suggest they are wrong.
    • Nonetheless, the US continues to unconditionally support Saakashvili, even under the Obama administration (whether this is because of American geopolitical interests, or because they really are hoodwinked by Georgian PR, is an exercise I leave to the reader). In doing so they turn a blind eye to Saakashvili’s repression of the opposition. This only serves to further reinforce the Russian conviction that the West cares about democracy only in so far as it advances its geopolitical interests. Far from pressuring the Russians to cease and desist, the West’s hostile rhetoric, encroachment on Russia’s security space and dismissal of Russian protestations will only reinforce Russia’s disillusionment with the West and make it ever more unwilling to consider Western interests.
    • This disillusionment is especially prevalent amongst the Russian elites and younger people with Internet access. Thanks to the West, they are coming to the conclusion that no matter what their country does – right or wrong – it will be condemned by the champions of Western chauvinism regardless. The only way to make them the West happy would be to lie down and lick its boots, but few peoples anywhere think this way, let alone in a nation as proud as Russia. Though Georgia struck first, this war marked the most significant Russian retaliation to years of humiliations yet; it sent a message that it would no longer passively resign itself to Western imperialism.
    • Look at the detailed Legal Case for Russian Intervention in Georgia by Nicolai Petro which looks at these issues in scholarly depth.
    • All this may lead to a growing preference for Realpolitik over “liberal internationalist” solutions to Russia’s geopolitical problems, which will go in tandem with an internal power shift towards the hardliners. They are interested in more than just responding to external aggression against the Russian Federation; they want to redefine Russia itself.
    • As I pointed out in my previous post Reconsidering Parshev, the weight of history is forcing Russia back to its future, the desires of its leadership regardless (let alone the desires of Westerners). This past-and-future is a Eurasian empire based on economic autarky, political sovereignty and spiritual sobornost. Amongst many other things, this implies control over the Caucasus.
    • Georgia is the linchpin of the Caucasus. Securing a Russian-friendly government there will reinforce Russian control of gas flows from Central Asia to Europe, extend its influence over the Black Sea region and allow it to link up with its ally Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base. Nabucco will turn into a pipedream, at least as long as relations between Iran and the West remain strained.
    • As Stratfor points out in Georgia: Left to Russia’s Mercy?, Georgia is not a strong nation. It is riven by divisions that could be exploited, e.g. separatist-minded Adjara and Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti. Its economy is dependent on agriculture and the government budget relies on pipeline rents. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s brand of market fundamentalism may have provided a temporary boost from efficiency gains, but the attendant deindustrialization now limits its longer-term prospects.
    • “Soft” measures failed to topple Saakashvili in the past year. He retains the approval of perhaps half the population, crushed an attempted military coup (or set it up himself) and now appears to be more secure in his position than he was in months.
    • Another important point is that many elements of the Russian military were disappointed at being ordered to stop before overthrowing Saakashvili. They would love to finish the job (and furnish the excuse).
    • That said, Saakashvili is hardly a peacenik either. According to Kirill Troitsky’s “War taught them nothing” in Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier, the Georgians have been rapidly rearming since 2008. Regaining control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains a strategic goal of the Georgian regime.
    • Russia is upgrading and expanding its forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is renovating Soviet-era air and naval bases in Abkhazia, deploying its own border guards to the region (which increases the chances of an incident), kicking out foreign observers, and equipping the 131st Motor Rifle Brigade in Abkhazia with the latest T-90 tanks. Below is a photo of a Russian soldier in Abkhazia posing in front of his new kit, first posted to the social networking site Odnoklassniki (the Russian Facebook).

  • The focus on Abkhazia suggests that any Russian offensive would be focused on the west of the country, bypassing urban quagmires in Tbilisi. This would cut Georgia’s links to the Black Sea and sever the gas pipelines running across its territory. The Armenians may be persuaded to join in the dismembering of Georgia through the “liberation” of their compatriots in Samtskhe-Javakheti, through which Georgia would be cut clean in half. Azerbaijan would be cornered into quiescence. The main uncertainty is how Turkey would respond to such developments; it is not as pro-NATO and pro-West as it was a decade ago.
  • Several commentators believe the risks of a new war are high. Stratfor believes Georgia will return into Russia’s fold by the early 2010′s, though it does not believe there will be a Russian military offensive this year. Vaha Gelaev, a former member of the now-disbanded “Vostok” Chechen battalion, is certain there will be war this summer. Pavel Felgenhauer has been raising the prospect of a new war since March in Wartime Approaching in the Caucasus and Risk Increasing of Russian Intervention in Georgia. Now he’s saying there’s an 80% chance of war breaking out this August. The Chechen terrorist site Kavkazcenter claims a 300-strong convoy of Russian tanks, BMPs, BTRs and multiple launch rocket systems are moving towards Georgia. If Russia were to attack Georgia, the optimal time would be August, before the autumn rains set in.
  • That said, Felgenhauer is not a reliable military analyst. He predicted the Georgians would humiliate the Russian Army in a war.

In conclusion, though innocent of starting last year’s Ossetia War, Russia made significant geopolitical gains and its elites became more disillusioned with the West. Control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia now make an invasion much easier to carry out than in 2009. The troops in the region conducted military exercises in July, they are being equipped with modern armaments and Russia’s naval forces in the region are recently very active. The main question is, are these forces meant to deter Georgia from another military attempt to reintegrate its “lost territories”, or are they to be the spearheads of a pre-meditated Russian aggression?

I think somewhere in between, as is usually the case. Russia still respects its foreign relations enough, if not with the West then with the rest, to pay lip service to international law; however, it won’t hesitate to exploit any serious Georgian provocation. I don’t think Saakashvili is a complete idiot, so barring independent lower-rank Georgian military adventurism (or very skilled Russian feigning of said adventurism), the chances of war breaking out this August must be rather small. Perhaps 10-20%. We’ll see. In any case this August is going to be a tense and potentially very fun time in the Caucasus. And that’s not going to change any time soon, because based on current trends the reassertion of Russian power over the Caucasus is almost inevitable this decade.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.

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