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Chechnya

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So the leader of Russia’s Communist Party (KPRF) Zyuganov and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have gotten into a bit of a spat over whether or not Lenin should be buried.

Zyuganov thinks calls to bury Lenin are “idle chatter,” and apparently believes that the Great Revolution “ended in a practically bloodless manner.”

Kadyrov begged to differ on his Telegram, citing opinion polls from Levada and Superjob that showed 60% and 80%, respectively, of Russians supporting such a step.

He also further pointed out: “So the murder of the Tsar’s family, the Civil War, repressions, hunger – this was all nothing according to the “historian” Zyuganov? The leader of the KPRF lives in hiw own imagined world. How many more generations must Lenin’s body lie on Red Square for Zyuganov to calm down?

At the end, he suggested Zyuganov apologize to the people whose opinions he had dismissed as “idle chatter,” as well as to the victims of the Revolution and of the ensuing Soviet period.

Normally, I’d consider a spat between commies and Kadyrov to be a viper vs. toad contest (i.e. would hope they swallow each other). Nor do I care much for this retarded culture war, which pops up with depressing regularity every year.

Still, in this particular case, most normal, non-Communist (but I repeat myself) people would sympathize with Kadyrov, who made his argument civilly, and cited statistics in support of it. This is coming from a man who otherwise spends his time running a parallel Islamist foreign policy and calling for a Homocaust (and implementing one, if rumors are to be believed).

There must be some kind of achievement trophy for this.

But things get even better.

Earlier today, the KPRF official account posted this message on Twitter, implicitly attacking Kadyrov (a no-no in Russian politics):

enemies-of-russia

In light of the many provocations, it worth noting: An attack on Lenin and Zyuganov is either a sign of mental retardation, or of diversionary work against Russia.

Impressive. Have the commies finally grown a spine?

Six hours later:

unpersoned-tweet

Guess not – they unpersonned their own Tweet. Though I suppose this is oddly appropriate for the 100th anniversary of Red October.

So, not just stupid, morally degraded liars… but cowards to boot. In other words – sovoks.

EDIT: Hard to imagine how this could get even better, but it just did.

kprf-cowards

There are more and more provocations against Lenin and Zyuganov. Many experts believe this to be either a sign of mental retardation, or of diversionary work against Russia.

I must have missed it when Kadyrov became a liberal in the past 24 hours.

Alternatively, being too cowardly to insult Kadyrov, commie “experts” blame it on teh liberals instead.

 
• Category: Humor • Tags: Chechnya, Communism, Russia 
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While I was writing an article about Russian IQ for Sputnik and Pogrom the past few days, I noticed this amazing statistic from the 2010 Census.

Percentage of the population with a postgrad degree:

1. Ingushetia: 1.59%
2. Moscow: 1.12%

90. Chechnya: 0.32%

Ingushetia is Chechnya’s quieter, lower T, slyer brother. They are part of the same Ichkerian nation. But instead of going head on against a nation that outnumbered them a hundredfold in the 1990s, they manipulated the situation to extract very generous monetary concessions from the federal center while their kinfolk withered under Russian bombs.

Today, they are the region with Russia’s highest rate of unemployment, the lowest Internet penetration, the lowest patents per capita. They are 85% subsidized by other Russian regions, more so than any other region. Back during the Soviet period, there were only 90 scientists for every 100,000 Ingush, versus 573 for the Russians.

Even so, this region somehow manages to have the the highest rate of people with postgrad degrees in Russia.

Say what you will about ol’ Ramzan, but at least he keeps his peeps in check. Based Chechen men need no diploma mill degrees.

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Academia, Chechnya, Corruption, Russia 
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The other day the Chechen social media page vk.com/karfagen was banned.

This is not surprising, considering that it was genuinely extremist from head to toe, though it is perhaps telling of the Russian state’s priorities that it took longer for Roskomnadzor to catch onto them than it did for it to illegally block the moderate Russian nationalist website Sputnik i Pogrom.

The ban came a few hours after a Meduza article by Daniil Turovsky on the webside, which was translated into English by Kevin Rothrock. The website, allegedly run by a 19 year old Chechen student, was devoted to harassing young women who shared “immoral” photos on social media, including posting their addresses and relatives’ contact details. If that resulted in honor killings, that’s just too bad, one of the Carthage activists shouted in all caps: “IF I FIND OUT THAT SOME VAINAKH FAMILY HAS KILLED THEIR OWN DAUGHTER FOR SOME SERIOUS OFFENSE, THEN I WILL STAND UP AND APPLAUD, BECAUSE IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO.” Women were forbidden from commenting.

Apart from doing their bit to make White Sharia real in Chechnya, the Carthage activists also embraced a sort of horseshoe theory Islamism (“You’re trying to distort our religion, publicly promoting the slogan ‘Islam is a religion of peace and good’”), as well as ultranationalist rhetoric. As with women, this extended to website administration; a tenth of the user base identified as Russians were kicked out in September. This is connected with Carthage billing itself as a “youth movement for the purification of the Vainakh people.” They did not mince words about their opinions of the Russian kuffar, who “pair off with anyone they want like animals” and “conceive children in the nightclub toilets.” Although they don’t promote Chechen independence, that is clearly driven by pragmatic reasons: “Chechnya is currently a subject of the Russian Federation, and it would be foolish of me to promote separatism among the masses.”

Now one might perhaps rejoinder that these are just some isolated nutjobs. One can mention the usual canard that there are Christian and non-Chechen extremists too.

But here’s the key difference: The 55,000 membership of Carthage on Vkontakte at the time of its closure represents 3.5% of all the Chechens in Russia.

For an online community where joining is entirely voluntary – i.e., the opposite of Kadyrov’s rallies – and not even entirely riskless, given the propensity of the most outspoken Islamists to be “disappeared” within Chechnya, these are astounding figures.

For comparison, the far right Ukrainian organization Right Sector on vk.com also has around 50,000 people while drawing from 30 times the population. Sputnik i Pogrom itself, perhaps the most popular Russian “extremist” resource, has around 110,000 supporters on that platform.

Even “normie” Ukrainian mass movements that dominated the headlines for months on end in 2013-2014 such as Euromaidan and Antimaidan still have 600,000 and 500,000 supporters, respectively, constituting about 1% of Ukraine’s population each, despite both movements also having a substantial international component.

Nor is this confined to Chechnya; earlier this year, Meduza had also reported on Chechen thot patrols harassing and threatening Chechen women who got too friendly with the kuffar, a story that got picked up in the Western alternate media. Carthage also had plans to expand to Ingushetia and Dagestan, at least before it was shut down. (There is also a Tatar “analogue” to Carthage called TTM, which remains accessible to date, though it only has 1,200 followers and my cursory examination of it suggests it’s more in the vein of /pol/-style trolling than hardcore Islamist nationalism).

All of this indicates that Carthage is the genuine voice of the Chechen people, as grassroots as the 1.8% interethnic marriage rates of Chechen women in Russia.

Once the Putin-Kadyrov “special relationship” breaks down due to political or actuarial factors, a new generation of skinny jeans wearing, organic food court-frequenting Russians will have to reenter political negotiations with a new generation of young, Internet-savvy Chechens who are more into stonings for adultery in the Caucasus Emirate.

 
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grozny-protest-myanmar

Anti-Myanmar protest in a nominally Russian region. Source: Елена Афонина / ТАСС / Scanpix / LETA

Photogenic female face of resistance to the junta and Nobel Peace Prize winner comes to power as de facto leader of Myanmar.

Some of Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments about a certain Muslim minority in her country up to that point had been disconcerting for NYT readers, but still, that wasn’t a big deal. It’s not like a Myanmar is a European country and the Rohingya are Chechens in the 1990s (though in that situation, it was the Chechens doing all the ethnic cleansing).

Anyhow, her government proceeds to step up statutory discrimination against said Muslim minority ramps up to what now appears to be large-scale ethnic cleansing.

Now China is friends with Myanmar, good location for a port and an outlet into the Indian Ocean not dependent on the Malacca Straits, and regularly vetoes all UN resolutions against Myanmar. Russia is friends with China, and supports it on these vetoes, just as China does likewise for Russia in Europe. Some bellicose Muslim minority isn’t going to bother them, especially considering that both of them have their own Rohingyas in the form of the Uyghurs and the Chechens.

There’s more WEIRD os who care about such sentimental stuff in the West, of course, but what with Trump’s latest adventures and Best Korea throwing about missiles every other day, there’s plenty of far more interesting stuff to occupy their attention. Besides, there’s no oil in Myanmar, and coming out too stridently against a female resistance leader they had patronized for decades would be a bit awkward.

Fortunately, there was someone to take up the slack, /ourguy/ Ramzan “White Sharia” Kadyrov.

He was very triggered and cried on Intagram all about it.

Soon after, a thousand strong crowd of Muslims gathered around the Myanmar Embassy in Moscow with their usual Allah Snackbars and the less usual “Buddhists are terrorists.” While someone more cynically disposed might sarcastically remark about how the mob must have collectively worked up a few hundreds years’ worth of jailtime under Article 282, Russia’s hate speech statue, we as civilized multicultural Europeans must take a more generous and enlightened view of our Muslim countrymen. Surely they were just discussing this 2013 TIME magazine cover.

time-buddhist-terror

Apart from inciting an unsanctioned extremist protest in the capital, Ramzan Kadyrov also herded in hundreds of thousands of Chechens to the center of Grozny in solidarity with the people of Rohingya. One idly wonders how many of them could point to Myanmar on a world map. A hundred? A dozen?

And here is based Chechen man Ramzan Kadyrov himself, governor of a region where more than 80% of the local budget is financed from Moscow:

Why is the Russian media silent? … You think, I am happy with this. Not at all!

And if even Russia was to support these shaitans, who are carrying out these crimes, I will oppose Russia’s position!

“Russia’s” position, along with China’s, is to block UN resolution after UN resolution against what it considers Myanmar’s Anti-Terrorist Operation.

I have my own vision, my own position.

The spread of Islamic identity politics beyond Kadyrov’s fiefdom to Russia at large and even the outside world, all courtesy of the Russian taxpayer.

And why shouldn’t Kadyrov play around? Judging by the muted reaction of the Kremlin, he has nothing to risk.

The cautious and elderly men who rule Russia are constitutionally incapable of fitting Muslims chanting “Buddhists are terrorists” into the Soviet-Putinist worldview of a “friendship of peoples” united against Wahhabis and fascists. The Moscow mayoralty saw nothing untowards in the unsanctioned protests against the Embassy of a sovereign power, there being no arrests, even though an analogous action by any other political group would have been unceremoniously dispersed by the OMON.

The reaction of the Russian MSM has been as schizophrenic as it has been demented, probably the result of no common position having come down from an equally confused Kremlin. Vladimir Solovyev, Russia’s most famous political talkshow host and fawning, has developed a rather strange interest in the welfare of the Rohingya in the past couple of days. State news agency RIA published “Muslim Non-Brothers” criticizing the Moscow protests, and was deleted almost immediately (cached version); on the other hand, the conservative-patriotic tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda article by Alexander Kots that was clearly substantially “inspired” by the former is still up: “Why, Ramzan, Mix Politics and Islam“? RT triangulated, making the case for why it was Soros’ fault.

Meanwhile, Putin has joined Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in condemning “all violence” in Myanmar.

The logical conclusion is that political Islam works in Russia. It gets results. Minority nationalist and sectarian activists have observed it to work, and will draw the required lessons.

The only silver lining is that is about Myanmar and as per above nobody really cares about Myanmar apart from Myanmar and Ramzan Kadyrov. And I suppose Bangladesh, who are having to take in the refugees. Poor Bangladesh, when not flooded by water, flooded by people, as if it still has any room to spare.

Still, there’s no reason this experiment couldn’t be repeated in the future. A whole vista of fascinating scenarios open up.

How wonderful would it be if “Putin’s political son” (according to The Saker) and “Putin’s soldier” (according to Kadyrov himself) were to one day discover the plight of the Uyghurs and force Putin to condemn violence on all sides there? Maybe even send some fighters to help out in the struggle against the Chicom shaitans. At least Kadyrov acknowledged that sending troops to Myanmar is “unrealistic” on account of “the geography,” though he added that if it was up to him, he’d “drop a nuclear bomb there to destroy those people killing women, children, and the elderly.” Happily, no such problems with Xinjiang, which borders Russia.

Or why even bother with Xinjiang. Lots of other potential Islamic states within Russia’s borders. Any one or all of them might conceivable come to be oppressed in Kadyrov’s “vision” and “position.”

Ridiculous to imagine today, of course. But stranger things have happened before. The one sure thing is that the West will still figure out how to blame Russians for everything.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Chechnya, Islamism, Myanmar, Russia 
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Ramzan “White Sharia” Kadyrov on gays:

We don’t have those kinds of people here… If there are there take them to Canada… Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home… To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.” …

We have a strong government and are a nuclear state. Even if our government was completely destroyed, our nuclear missiles would be automatically deployed. We will put the whole world on its knees and screw it from behind.

There’s a lot of problems with Chechnya and its position in Russia; problems which may well come to a head sooner or later.

That said, as my ROGPR podcast colleague pigdog remarked, it’s impossible to hate Kadyrov’s “export version.”

kadyrov-troll

Yes, of course he has a cult following on /pol/.

kadyrov-1488

 
• Tags: Chechnya, Homosexuality 
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The commentator Дарман, who appears to be from Dagestan, argues that Chechens are quite different from the other North Caucasian nationalities. Apparently, minorities in Russia don’t like Chechens much more than do ethnic Russians. (Brings to mind that War Nerd quote, “They seem like one of those tribes that are either going to rule the world or go extinct but nothing in between”). He also argues that the impunity their gangs enjoy isn’t so much because of money, as AP suggests, but because they are capable of physical retaliation/revenge, making the police loth to mess around with them. His comment is reprinted in full below:

This incident brought some bad memories: when I was 8 years old I remember witnessing how Chechens operate, that day they killed an older man outside the movie theater in Makhachkala. These guys were really noisy and the man asked them to calm down. As he was walking out with his wife, the four Chechens grabbed his arms and dragged him behind the theater, where they stabbed him. I did not see the murder, but I remember the man’s wife screaming and a police officer rushed to her, but when he heard that the Chechens were involved, he turned around and walked away as she was begging for help.

Lets not mix chechens and dagestanis. Many times when dagestanis are mentioned in relation to crimes in Russia, people do not realize that 99% of times the huligans or criminals are ethnic Chechens. Over 100K ethnic Chechens live in Northern Dagestan. Dagestan is not a nationality, it is a multi ethnic region, where people called Avars, Kumyks, Dargins, Azeri, Lezgins, Mountain Jews (Gorsky Juhuro) live. These small ethnic groups are all at odds with the Chechens. Which is the case also for most of other Caucasians, except maybe Ingushs.

Ruslan Marzhamov had a couple acquaintances from Dagestan who rushed to his help but too late, and they are the ones who actually took him to the hospital, as Ruslan’s mother mentioned in her interview to the press.

Yes, the people from Caucasus have a short fuse, but it is the Chechens who are giving all Caucasus a bad name. The Chechens have a serious case of megalomania because of their formidable clan system and mafia-like organization, which makes them very dangerous.

Lets not forget that the second Chechen war started when they invaded Dagesta: – these two regions are enemies.

I do not think that Russians are cowards; they are not. Simply they lack good community organization, and that is why 80 organized Chechens can act as if they own a city with 40,000 people. Which is an absurd situation, in my opinion. Chechens are also vengeful and too many small town Russian police chiefs are insecure and prefer not to mess with them for fear of individual retaliation.

From my personal experience: if you are physically strong, not afraid of them (and in arguments they always threaten you and look you in the eyes to see if you are afraid or not, just like dogs they can sense your fear) and have a backing from a strong group of people, they will avoid picking a fight with you. The Chechens are always in groups of three and four, but they only attack if they are sure they have you cornered and defenseless. If you ever get into argument with one of them, be aware that two more will be positioning themselves behind you.

Finally, why do you think Putin is so respected in Chechnya? Because he proved that he would not blink and would level the whole republic with heavy artillery and missiles, if he felt like it. This is the only argument they understand.

….

Except a few hundred mercenaries and fanatics from Caucasus, Russia and Ukraine, the Chechens fought alone. If there is another war (and I do not believe there will be one) they will fight alone, at least Dagestan and Cherkess will fight against them for sure.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Though I know I missed the train on this news, one point in particular is worth drawing attention to as regard the stabbing of (the half-Tatar) paratrooper Ruslan Morzhanov by a 16-year-old ethnic Chechen, which incited the small town of Pugachev to stage a peaceful mini-revolt against the feds.

The town has seen similar tragedies before. A brutal murder was committed in very similar circumstances in 2010. Twenty four-year-old Chechen Beslan Mudayev fatally stabbed twenty eight-year-old Nikolai Veshnyakov five times during a fight that broke out right in front of Zolotaya Bochka. Locals claim that the Chechen community, consisting of a dozen families in total, has been harassing the local population. According to official statistics, there are about 80 Chechens living in various parts of the Pugachev District.

So. Two murders, committed within the space of 3 years, from a group of 80 people belonging to a “repressed” minority. The town’s population is a mere 41,000 and in such places, a lot of people do know each other.

I would be angry as well. Moreover, I would feel unsafe. If 2.5% of a certain group are murderers, then complaints that many of the rest are thugs in general become all that more credible (at least for minds not dominated by political correctness). The popular demands made by Pugachev residents to expel those local Chechens that are not employed or registered in their city – that is, merely enforcing the law on residence, as opposed to the ethnic cleansing it has been portrayed as – though perhaps quite harsh, is not obviously unreasonable given the horrifying circumstances.

One can have some issues with Navalny, co-signing a petition condemning the federal government’s limp-wristedness on ethnic crime, its opposition to legalizing self-defense isn’t one of them, and its at times heavy-handed response to airings of legitimate ethnic Russian grievances isn’t one of them.

The Western media doesn’t see it that way of course. To left/liberals, the small-town Russian protesters are chauvinist troglodytes – with Putin at times even held responsible for this “xenophobia,” despite the government’s avowed opposition to all expressions of russki nationalism; while the conservatives/neocons salivate over the prospect that the Pugachev Affair is but the prelude to Russia’s disintegration.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Faced with the utter failure of their doom-laden projections for Russia’s population future to describe reality – it’s population is now not only growing in absolute terms, but even barring migration its number of births now virtually equals the number of deaths – the more guttural elements of the interwebs are now resorting to another strategy: “But it’s all due to Muslims anyway!”

A bizarre alliance of neocons, Western chauvinists, crazy Russian nationalists, Islamist fanatics, and plain Russophobes have been peddling the imminent prospect of a Muslim-majority Russian Army and a Russabia ruled from the Caucasus Emirates for almost a decade. But one does not have to be a proponent of mass Muslim immigration, or to deny that serious problems of radicalization exist in some Russian Muslim communities, to call out such projections for the fear-mongering BS they really are. Here is a graph that decisively refutes the “Russabia” thesis:

russia-will-become-majority-muslim-not

The percentage of births in Russia’s traditionally Muslim” republics in the North Caucasus (Agygea, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya) and the Volga (Bashkortostan, Tatarstan) is a mere 13%-14% of the total – and shows no signs of increasing at a sustained and rapid rate.

It should furthermore be noted that of the above only Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia have predominantly Muslim population – and their share of total Russian births, at just a little above 5%, are today virtually the same as they were in 2006. This is especially relevant because the vast bulk of Russia’s problems with Islamic fundamentalism and armed opposition to Russian state power are concentrated there.

Only about 50% (give or take) of the populations of the other five republics is Muslim, so if anything – despite the graph being partially balanced out by Muslim immigrants in Moscow and other non-Muslim regions – it substantially overstates the actual degree of Muslim demographic influence. Needless to say, the Orthodox Russians (and ethnic Tatars) who make up half of Tatarstan’s population aren’t going on jihad to restore the Qasim Khanate anytime soon.

It should be stressed that even the figures above will only start coming into effect two decades or so down the line. That is to say, only about 13% of 20-year olds in the 2030′s will have have been born in Muslim republics; the percentage of those belonging to Muslim-majority ethnicities will be even lower, at maybe 9% or 10%. How Muslims are supposed to constitute a majority in the Army with those kinds of figures must remain a mystery.

Finally, the Muslim demographic expansion is self-limiting. A lot of the people who push Russabia (and Eurabia) are apparently under the impression that their typical family has 6 children, which in turn will have 6 children, and so on until they squeeze out everyone else. This is completely and utterly wrong. In Russia, at least, the only Muslim region with a TFR higher than the replacement level rate is Chechnya; as of 2009, it was at 3.38 children per woman, compared to 1.97 in Ingushetia, 1.96 in Dagestan, and far less in all the others – in fact, both Kabardino-Balkaria’s and Tatarstan’s TFR of 1.51 was *less* than the Russian average of 1.54. As such, far from reflecting any innate demographic strength, the current high rates of natural increase seen in Russia’s Muslim republics – or even more specifically, in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya – are due in large part to the youthfulness of those regions’ populations. Young populations have, by definition, few old people (hence low mortality) and many young people (hence high natality). Considering that *all* of Russia’s Muslim regions with the partial exception of Chechnya – which, however, accounts for a mere 1% of its population and 2% of its newborn – are rapidly undergoing demographic transition, this is necessarily a temporary state of affairs.

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

chechnya-population-by-ethnicity-to-2010

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)
 
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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)
 
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Make of this what you will.

(1) The older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, never adjusted to life in the US. “I don’t have a single American friend,” he said. His younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had an understanding of US teen hood / SWPL culture. He was a 9/11 “truther.” That’s from the Twitter account. That said, he wasn’t too down with America either.

(2) I’m not sure if beta male rage had anything to do with this. On the one hand, he does not seem to have been a social recluse. He wrestled. He is darkly handsome, and he has the self-assured gaze of a confident man on his photos. And most tellingly, and to his credit, he went down with guns blazing. On the other hand:

(3) Dzhokhar was a Chechen patriot, but not a raving/rabid one.

Tamerlan’s Amazon wish list included a Chechen phrasebook, “The Lone Wolf And the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule,” and “Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya, New Edition.”

Obviously, they did not like Russian domination of Chechnya and wanted it to be truly independent, but their lives do not seem to have been dominated by it.

(4) Dzhokhar says he knows English, Russia, and Chechen on his Vkontakte page. In reality, considering that even his older brother had a Chechen dictionary on his to-buy list, it’s unlikely that he knew it to any significant extent. His Russian was fluent in speech, but not in writing (he makes basic spelling errors):

(5) He has a sense of humor (mixed with bitterness). From his Vkontakte page:

In school they give us a puzzle. There is a car. In the car there is a Dagestani, a Chechen, and an Ingush. Question – who’s driving the car? Maga answers: A policeman.

(6) He was into Islam (he listed it as his “worldview” on Vkontakte), supported Palestine, etc., but it seems to have a fairly liberal variety. His last entry on Twitter was an RT of a kumbaya-type mufti who now lives in Zimbabwe:

But he definitely was religious, and visited the mosque.

His brother seems to have been a much more hardcore Islamist. His YouTube account was divided between “Islam” and “Terrorism,” and Russian rap songs.

(7) There’s a few references and hints at trouble sleeping. A sign of mild to moderate depression?

And when he did fall asleep, the dreams seem to be violent (see also the zombie apocalypse one above) and tortured.

(8) It also emerges 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.

(9) Some tweets were funny, some were ironic in light of what was to come. There are even a few pearls of wisdom there:

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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In one of the recent posts on corruption, commentator AP wrote:

Kids from Moscow are having trouble getting into universities now because entrance, based on exam results, skews the chances of acceptance in favor of those students from corrupt regions where they can buy better results. Moscow is less corrupt than, say, Dagestan so Dagestani students perform much better on entrance exams.

Is this true? Seeing as how the Russian state doesn’t release Unified State Exam (USE) results by region, probably due to PC considerations, at first this assertion might appear to be unanswerable. However, there is a way to get round the problem.

(1) We know the PISA-derived IQ’s of some 43 Russian regions (which account for about 75% of its school-age population).

(2) The Russian government DOES release the the numbers of maximum scores in the USE tests by region. In this post we will consider the data for 2012. Furthermore, we know that at least at the federal level, these results tend to form bell curves.

(3) One of the primary “proofs” of electoral fraud in the Russian elections was the presence of spikes at convenient increments of 5%. In the case of USE fraud, we only have access to data for 100% scores and measuring the fatness of that tail should give us a clue as to its relative magnitude. (While it is possible and even likely that school administrators and regions would take care not to create too many maximum marks on the notoriously hard USE tests, far from everybody will follow said precautions. After all, if many regions didn’t even bother to smoothen the spikes to conceal fraud in the elections, is it realistic to posit that they’d take greater care around trifles like exams?).

(4) We know the number of 16 year old’s per Russian region from the 2010 Census, who would have participated in the 2012 exam season.

(5) We know the normal distribution.

The blue bars below show the number of top-scoring exams per region as a multiple of Russian 18 year olds there with an expected IQ of 130 or more, based on the region’s average PISA scores and a standard deviation of 15. The red bars show the same thing, with the major exception that an average IQ of 96 – that is, the national average – is assumed for ALL Russian regions.

unified-state-exam-fraud

As we can see above, the most suspicious results are mostly from ethnic Russian oblasts such as Stavropol, Kaluga, Rostov, Perm, and Vladimir, with the two big exceptions being Mari El and Chuvashia. To the contrary, Dagestan – the biggest Caucasian Muslim republic – has very few top scores relative to the number of very bright people we can expect to find there relative to most other Russian regions.

Finally, the reason that the red bar is a lot higher than the blue bar in Moscow, and to a lesser extent Saint-Petersburg, probably doesn’t have anything to do with foul play, but with the fact that their average IQ’s are about 106.6 and 102.6, respectively (i.e. considerably higher than the national average of 96). So while they generate a relatively disproportionate number of top USE scores, that is presumably because they attract the bulk of Russia’s most intellectual families (the so-called “cognitive clustering” effect).

Of course one problem is that we don’t have PISA data for all Russian regions. Maybe the Chechens do all the cheating then?

Probably not. Chechnya only had a total of five top scored USE results (for comparison, Moscow had 654 top results). In the graph below I produced results for all Russian regions, but with an unavoidable concession: In the case of those regions with no results from PISA, I had to make do with assuming a regional IQ of 96 (as per the Russian national average).

unified-state-exam-fraud-2

In so doing, yet another major region of likely fraud crops up: Bryansk. This oblast, along with Vladimir, produces as many top USE results as a percentage of its 18 year old population as does the intellectual capital, Moscow. Kalmykia, Kirov, and Lipetsk also join the list of Russian regions with suspiciously good USE results (probably not entirely coincidentally, Lipetsk and Kalmykia – along with Ingushetia – were the three regions whose USE results raised suspicions to the extent that they were rechecked).

He also makes the comment:

The schools with the top math students in the country stopped winning Olympiads, while private schools with politically connected kids started to win them…

No obvious way to statistically analyze this, but what we can say with some confidence is that there is no major ethnic angle to this:

share-of-olympiad-scholars-russia

As we can see above, the Central and North-West regions of Russia, which contain the cognitive hotbeds of the two capitals, massively surpass the number of people from the North Caucasus in the share of “Olympians” (basically students who did really well and get benefits) in the annual university cohort.

This is pretty much what we can expect on the basis of the average IQ differentials between these regions.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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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 http://webvybory2012.ru/ 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)
 
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The above photo, part of a photo report by Ridus, shows the Anti-Orange protest at Poklonnaya Gora in Moscow on February 4th. Does that look like 35,000 people to you, let alone 20,000 or 15,000? Because those were the most commonly cited figures in the Western media, apart from those cases where they ignored them altogether (The Guardian) or even tried passing them off as a ANTI-Putin rallies (e.g. Le Parisien).

Let’s now try to get at the real figures. Attendance at Bolotnaya was respectable; not as high, probably, as the 75,000 or so at Prospekt Sakharova in December, but the photographer Ilya Varlamov’s estimate of 50,000-70,000 is eminently reasonable (reasonable estimates of turnout at the original December 10 rally there range from 30,000 to 60,000). Ridus estimates a lower 25,000-30,000. But regardless of whether the real numbers were closer to 25,000 or 70,000, it is certainly well short of the organizers’ figure of 120,000 that was typically uncritically quoted in the Western media. For it’s not quite dying away, but Navalny’s promise to get one million people onto the streets wasn’t fulfilled either.

Friendship of peoples at Poklonnaya. ;)

RIA has an app that tries to measure rally attendance by calculating areas and crowd densities. They estimate 53,600 for Bolotnaya and 117,600 for Poklonnaya. Back in December, Novaya Gazeta estimated 102,000 for Prospekt Sakharova counting not maximum attendance but the total number of people who arrived and left; the range for max attendance is 60,000-80,000, i.e. 60%-80% of the total figure. The figures quoted by the police on this basis for Poklonnaya is 140,000; applying the same adjustment gives max attendance of 85,000-115,000.

The other two Meetings on February 4th were complete flops. Zhirinovsky got 1000-3000 people, while the liberals-only Meeting with Borovoy and Novodvorskaya and co. got 150-200 despite that they had permission for 30,000.

Anyone, no matter how you spin it, it’s undeniable that the pro-Putin Meeting enjoyed substantially higher attendance than the Bolotnaya one – at least half as much again, and probably double or even triple. So no wonder that the liberals, abetted by the Western and the Russian liberal media, are trying to discredit the former by saying they were all state workers bussed in on the threat of firing. There are anecdotal accounts of this and there’s little doubt some are valid. But do they account for the majority? Probably not. From the videos, they do not look like an unenthusiastic bunch; the speakers enjoy many cheers, and chants of “Glory to Russia” are eagerly taken up.

Ignoring, misrepresenting, and trying to discredit the massive rallies in support for Putin, and in Moscow of all places – the bastion of liberalism in Russia – isn’t going to make it all go away. But it is going to make his supporters angry and all the more determined to vote for him one month hence.

Others odds and ends.

  • Ad for the Anti-Orange Meeting
  • Dystopian scenario of what will happen to Russia if Putin vanishes. EDIT: New link because the democratic heroes at Google decided to censor the old one.
  • Kurginyan, main organizer of Anti-Orange meeting, speaking at Poklonnaya.
  • Aleksandr Dugin.
  • A man at the Poklonnaya protest explains his reasons for going. And another one.
  • Now on to patriotic music instead of all that political nonsense.
  • There IS occasional impartial piece in the Western media that covers both sides, such as this and this, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
  • Doku Umarov, the leader of the terrorist Caucasus Emirate, comes out in support of the liberal malcontents. With friends like this…
  • LGBT activist allowed to speak at the St.-Petersburg, roundly booed by intensely homophobic liberal audience. Maybe they they and the Islamic radicals deserve each other?
  • Navalny goes over to the dark side. (Look at the hand)))
  • True Russian patriots.
  • Prokhorov: “I came to the Meeting as a citizen, not as a Presidential candidate.” (pay attention to the photo)
  • So it’s true. Latte-sipping liberalsactually do dislike Putin! Almost half of them would vote for Prokhorov.
  • List of political prisoners opposition demands pardon: Khodorkovsky and Lebedev (who’s surprised?), Arakcheev (waiting for ECHR ruling under chargers of murdering Chechen civilians), and Osipova (political activist whose 10 year sentence for drugs actually is suspicious).
  • Non-related: Did Berezovsky poison Badri, the Georgian tycoon? And rendition a US lawyer for torture in Belarus?

Update: Channel 1 has a balanced report on the Poklonnaya meeting. Look at 1:10 and on for confirmation of the 100,000-scale of the meeting.

http://www.1tv.ru/newsvideo/198305

(h/t Alexandre Latsa)

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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At least, surely more so than Obama, winner of 2009′s Nobel Peace Prize.

Let’s do it by the numbers. Russia under Putin fought one war, in response to Georgian aggression against Ossetians with Russian citizenship and UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers. In contrast, Obama has participated in two wars of aggression: the Iraq War he inherited from G.W., and a new one in Libya. The latter is a war of aggression because NATO clearly exceeded its UN mandate to protect civilians, instead conducting a campaign clearly aimed at regime change. So Obama has presided over two more wars than Putin, and crucially, has participated in two wars of aggression to Putin’s zero.

If you insist on counting the Second Chechen War, then one must also tally the dozen or so countries in which the US is currently waging shadow wars involving drone strikes on terrorists – or to be more accurate, suspected terrorists. But at least Chechnya was an internal affair and presented a truly direct threat to Russia, with armed bands raiding over the borders. There is far less of a case to be made why the US has the right to prosecute an international “war on terror.”

This is why the adjudicators of the Confucius Peace Prize, in awarding it to Putin, proved themselves far less dishonest than the Nobel Committee. The ridicule they have been subjected to by the Western media is a compliment to their integrity.

Update: Mark Adomanis raises some additional points on this matter.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Next in our line of Watching the Russia Watchers interviews is Mark Chapman, the fiery Canadian sailor who’s been blazing a path of destruction through the fetid Russophobe ranks since July 2010. That was when he first set up The Kremlin Stooge, after being blocked from La Russophobe, who couldn’t withstand his powerful arguments without resorting to Stalinist tactics. The blog’s name, as he explains below, was bestowed by one of LR’s commentators (“Soviet Goon Boy” was considered, but rejected). Since then, he has expanded his coverage well beyond exposing La Russophobe and now goes from strength to strength: humiliating the self-appointed experts, drawing guest posts, being regularly translated by InoSMI, praised by La Russophobe, and making first place in S/O’s own list of the Top 10 Russia blogs in 2011. Without any further ado, I present you Mark Chapman the Kremlin Stooge, the Rambo of the Russophile blogosphere!

The Kremlin Stooge: In His Own Words…

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

As I’ve mentioned before in various exchanges with commenters, I was invited – hell, the whole world has been invited – to start my own blog by La Russophobe. Most have noticed “she” doesn’t care for dissent or for having her own blog rules used to regulate her conduct, and a common response is “why don’t you go and start your own blog, and see who reads it”. So I did. Of course, the invitation is based on the presupposition that it will be a grim failure which will teach you what a useless worm you really are.

I stumbled upon the La Russophobe blog during a search for early souvenirs of the Olympic Games in Sochi – I was looking for a backpack as a present for my wife. La Russophobe ran a post mocking the Russian souvenirs at the Olympics then in progress in Vancouver, because they were allegedly tacky and cheap. An exchange took place between us, and eventually I was banned from commenting. I invented a new ID – snooty Englishman Francis Smyth-Beresford (so as to have the initials FSB, and it was amazing how quickly otherwise-clodlike Ukrainian/Australian La Russophobe devotee Bohdan caught on). I tried hard to keep the criticism subtle, but eventually I was banned under that name as well. After that, I started The Kremlin Stooge, adopting the name from one of Bohdan’s favourite insults.

Prior to the initial accidental visit to La Russophobe, I was quite honestly unaware of that brand of barking mad Russophobia. I understood, of course, that bias against Russia existed, but there’s some degree of bias against almost everybody, and I rationalized that some had good reasons to dislike Russia while others just thought they did. But there’s a gulf of difference between reasoned disapproval and slobbering hate. I enjoyed challenging that hate, and exchanges with commenters who took a more reasoned approach while backing up their opinions with solid references taught me a great deal. Starting a blog seemed enormously daunting because I’m not that computer-savvy. However, for anyone who’s thinking it over, it’s dead easy and I encourage you not to wait if that’s what’s holding you back.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The best was probably the first time a post was picked up by inoSMI; it was one I had done on Georgia and Saakashvili, about 6 weeks after I started the blog. I thought something had gone wrong with my stats counter, because I got more hits in one day than I’d accumulated to that time in total, I think – 1,146 where my total for all of July, the month I started, was only a pitiful 854. Also great is any time I get a comment from one of the blogging greats I admire, like Eugene Ivanov, Leos Tomicek, yourself, Sean Guillory or Kevin Rothrock.

The worst is whenever I get my ass handed to me because I failed to research something properly. A good example was the post, “Are Slavs Stupid?” At the time I’d had a running argument going for some time with a commenter who appeared to be a borderline white supremacist, and we’d gone the rounds of blacks being criminals because they were black to Mexicans being lazy because they were Mexicans, to Slavic peoples being genetically less intelligent because of their nationality. I kept pecking away at the post until quite late, and hit upon some killer references that totally vaporized his arguments by demonstrating that Estonians had an extremely high incidence of apparently uniform academic excellence. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the crucial step of ensuring Estonians were Slavs – which, by and large, they’re not. I just assumed they were. I was too tired to take the extra 5 minutes it would have required to check my main argument, and as a direct result the whole thing fell apart. The larger point that Slavs are no stupider than any other group and that research supporting “genetic intelligence” has been broadly discredited was lost in the triumphant mockery, which of course I richly deserved for my laziness. I’d like to say it taught me a lesson, but still every now and then a dodgy bit of research or some shortcutting has resulted in me getting my legs kicked out from under me. Live and learn, they say.

What are the best blogs about Russia? What are the worst?

That’s hard to answer, because there are so many good ones and not really any bad ones. All serve a purpose. I really like “Russia: Other Points of View”, especially those entries contributed by Patrick Armstrong – the blog strikes just the right tone of reproachful correction of errors or misconceptions without a lot of screeching histrionics. But it’s dull because there are hardly ever any comments or argument, and I’d love to learn from a really good bare-knuckle fight at that elevated level of discourse. “Truth and Beauty” is another really good one. I did a review of the Russia blogs right after we rolled through 100,000, but it left out all the brilliant ones I haven’t discovered yet. Mark Galeotti’s, “In Moscow’s Shadows” has had some fascinating discussion of Russian legal and constitutional reform and Caucasian politics, but it’s not updated very often and the comment format is awkward.

Even blogs like La Russophobe serve a purpose – they’re really funny, not only because of the over-the-top exaggeration, fabrication and deliberate attempts to mischaracterize actual reports, but because of the breathless arrogance, swollen ego and holier-than-thou self-stylings of its author or authors. It used to motivate me to argue, but now it more often makes me laugh on the rare occasions I read it, and I’ve kind of gotten away from using it for inspiration. I remember in his interview AGT singled out Catherine Fitzpatrick as well, for generally long-winded blather, and there has been a good deal of speculation that she actually is La Russophobe. While her writing often runs to lengthy rants and she does seem to fall into that Soviet expat Russia-is-the-root-of-all-the-world’s-problems pigeonhole, she comes across as intelligent and well-educated, and you can sometimes reason with her a little (both of which argue against her being La Russophobe, if anyone cares). I don’t think those kind of blogs are responsible for too many attitude changes, so they’re mostly harmless.

What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I’m not well-traveled in Russia at all, and have never been outside the Primorsky Krai. I love Vladivostok, and was greatly encouraged the last time I was there to see ongoing efforts to restore and properly maintain some of its old buildings, with their beautiful architectural detail. There are so very many places I’ve never been, but I tend to favour places with a lot of history and large areas where the “old city” is preserved. For that reason, I’m especially interested in St Petersburg. Although Moscow seems to me like a grey, anonymous city that could be anywhere, there are probably fabulous attractions there as well that I’d love to see. I enjoyed visiting a lot of small villages around the Primorsky region – usually just passing through – and would like to spend more time there as well. Generally, I’m less interested in going someplace I already know everything about, and more interested in discovering a place I know nothing about.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West”, by Oleg Kalugin [AK: Click to buy]. I imagine you were thinking more of a book that reveals the true Russian soul, or reflects a defining phase of the nation’s history. Doubtless such works exist, but I’m not an academic and I haven’t read them; besides, I’m not convinced my assessment of what constitutes the key to the Russian soul or a significant historical moment would have much value. Kalugin’s book was compelling because it revealed so much about the inner workings of the KGB, including how influential it was on all aspects of state policy. It was instructive in its substantiation that the best intelligence assets simply walk in off the street rather than being wooed by “honey traps” like you see in the movies, and that they are nearly always motivated by money. Kalugin was one of American spy John Walker’s handlers, and the most senior KGB operative to write about the organization he had been an influential part of. He also revealed that for many years they had a very highly-placed source in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service (which eventually became our version of the American CIA, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)); something I never knew.

For what it’s worth, I asked my family – all Russians (my Father-in-Law, Mother-in-Law and wife) – the same question. Each got a pick, although it inspired much anguish and a comment from Sveta that it was like asking a mother of ten to choose her favourite child. They came up with Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” , Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, and Tolstoy again with “War and Peace”. I’m not trying to cheat and recommend four books for a question that asked for just one, but to point out that the essential character of Russia means different things to different people.

If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?

Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Revva and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Mr. Putin because his leadership of Russia fascinates me, Aleksandr Revva in case the mood got too somber because everything he does and says is hilarious, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in case I had to do the cooking myself. I learned from “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that he’s not a fussy eater, and would likely make anything look tasty. Aleksandr Revva might not count, because he was born a Ukrainian, but he’s been a staple feature of Russian comedy for a long time.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 2000? What about 1988? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

All of those, I think, but I don’t have any firsthand knowledge and am basing that assessment simply on statistics. There will always be people who are dirt-poor no matter how good the economy becomes, because they don’t know how to manage their money and won’t ask for help. But the opportunities to be richer and freer are certainly present to a greater degree, as are those to be well-informed and connected. The entire category of what constitutes the “average Russian” has changed since 1988.

Who knows what makes people happy? Russians are no different than anyone else in that respect, and some people everywhere are happy regardless of the conditions that define their lives. But I believe Russians feel much more self-determinant and in control of their own lives now. If that’s happiness, then yes.

To what extent is there a difference between Putin and Medvedev, and who do you think offers the better vision for Russia’s future?

Medvedev is a dreamer and Putin is a pragmatist. Medvedev seems out of his depth trying to actually run a country – it’s quite a bit different from running a company – and there seem to be too many variables for him to grasp, while Putin knows as much about running a country as anyone in Russia. Medvedev would be gobbled up in nothing flat without Putin behind him, while Putin demonstrably could survive quite well without Medvedev. For all of that, Medvedev has a better vision for Russia’s future, because he’s a dreamer and he wants things that will only come true – in the short term – in dreams. I don’t doubt he wants what’s best for Russia, but the opportunities for him to fall into a pit on the way are legion. Putin is considerably more a realist and his ideas for reform are generally more achievable as a consequence of his worldview. Together they make a pretty good team, and would be even better as Medvedev gains a little political experience and learns when saying nothing is better than saying something stupid.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

National image management. Even though resistance is strong to any attempts by Russia to put itself in a positive light on…well, just about anything you care to name, it’s just a skill like any other, and you get out of it what you put into it. Look at Israel – legendary lobbying skills. The USA is very, very good at it as well. Russia, frankly, stinks out loud at it. Past time for a makeover.

This came up awhile ago, in a couple of places. One was at Eugene Ivanov’s blog, where he proposed – half-jokingly – in the comments section of an excellent post on the odious Jackson-Vanik Amendment that Alina Kabaeva be deputized as the “new face” of United Russia. Of course she doesn’t have any real qualifications for the job except that she couldn’t possibly be as stupid as Sarah Palin is, she’s beautiful and has eye-magnetizing cleavage. But the implication that Russia needs to get away from arm-waving “Commie” stereotypes who are too easy to mock and move in the direction of suave, personable diplomats who have been groomed all their working lives for their assignments is spot-on.

Another was at Denise Martin’s blog, where we were discussing the late-50’s-era novel, “The Ugly American”. Although it was a work of fiction, it bore down fairly strongly on American foreign policy vis-à-vis Asia and the fictional nation featured was often said to mirror real-life South Vietnam; it was tremendously influential on JFK’s revamped and revitalized foreign policy, and instrumental to the creation of the Peace Corps. In the novel, American diplomats are clumsy, ignorant and uncaring, speak the native language poorly or not at all and are plainly uninterested in learning. Their Soviet (at the time) counterparts are sophisticated and urbane, firmly in touch with the culture and traditions of their hosts and speak the language like natives. Consequently, their influence is viewed in a much more positive light than that of the United States.

Take a memo, Russia. Stop staffing your diplomatic corps with bad copies of Boris and Natasha from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and start recruiting people foreigners will want to listen to.

HARD Talk with The Kremlin Stooge

Now you often come off as a big Canadian patriot (in a good way), but you also respect Russia’s assertive foreign policy of recent years. But what happens should the two collide? They have conflicting claims in the Arctic, due to overlapping continental shelf extensions. In recent years, Ottawa has criticized Russia for planting flags at the North Pole and flying bombers near its airspace. Both countries are expanding their military forces in the High North. Whose claims are the most valid? Who is most to blame for the intemperate rhetoric? Is this just political grandstanding, or is there a risk of an escalating cold war?

I don’t see any risk at all of it escalating beyond the decision of a UN Commission, if it even goes that far. After all, in accordance with the Illulissat Declaration, all nations with skin in the game are resolved to settle the issue by bilateral agreement. Russia’s current claims do not extend into the existing coastal boundaries (EEZ’s) of any Arctic coastal claimant, although opinions differ on overlapping claims beyond those, as you say. From what I can see, although I certainly am not a geologist, the Lomonosov Ridge is just as likely to originate on the Canadian side as the Russian side, and that’s the subject of intense research, but it’s like trying to determine which end of the Golden Gate Bridge is its origin after everyone who built it is dead and there are no plans.

In truth, I would have to say Canadian rhetoric I have read on this specific issue has had more of the ring of challenge about it, while Russia’s position appears more conciliatory. However, our government – especially when it is a conservative government as it is now, often echoes the concerns of its more powerful neighbour without thinking too much about whether the issue actually threatens us. About 85% of our trade goes south to the USA, and any “misunderstanding” that might imperil that relationship is to be avoided. To be honest, any government would do the same in the same circumstances, because any hiccup would have immediate impact on our economy. And the USA is the only nation that has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly to send it to the Senate for a vote 5 years ago. The USA seems to be waiting for new developments before committing itself, and the potential for an open Northwest Passage is likely a big part of that reluctance. I see Canadian rhetoric on this issue as mostly strutting for the benefit of our partners to show them we are keeping their concerns in mind. The offshore patrol vessels currently in the imaginative design phase for the Canadian Arctic are unlikely to have any serious offensive capability, and surely are not intended to fight a war for the high north.

As far as flying bombers “near” another nation’s airspace goes, when did that become illegal? As the agreement cited above specifies, all Arctic coastal states share responsibility for and stewardship of the Arctic. And almost all Russian aircraft designed and crewed for long onstation patrol functions are military.

My first loyalty is always to my own country; but I see no need for bellicose posturing and swaggering and believe it serves no purpose other than to make you look an ass when you are probably not. I’m in agreement with U.S. Senator John Quincy Adams – “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

You’ve praised A Good Treaty, and he rewards you by telling La Russophobe that “you guys really deserve each other.” Ouch! Have anything to say to that?

I’m glad you brought that up, because I was really hurt. I threw up my supper, stumbled to my room, buried my face in my pillow, drummed my feet on the bed and screamed, “Fuck you!!! Fuck you!!! What do you know, anyway??” Now that I’ve had time to cool down a little, I demand satisfaction – let’s settle this like men. We’ll fight. Since it was my idea, I get to choose the weapons, and I pick can openers in six feet of water (I hope he’s a short little bastard). Meet me in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 16th (my birthday), MoFo, and only one of us will walk away.

Seriously, I doubt Kevin thinks very much about my blog, although he’s kind enough to leave it on his blogroll and I get a lot of referrals from AGT. But I believe Kevin sees himself as a Serious Blogger, while seeing me as a Fundamentally Unserious Halfwit. He announced at his first blogging anniversary that he was going to hang up the tilting-at-windmills stuff and try for serious analysis. Maybe there’s just not as much room in his life for silliness any more, or he’s lost his patience for it. Also, he has a new baby in the house – must be just about time for some teeth – and maybe he was just tired.

Anyway, I really didn’t take any offense, because he’s right – we do deserve each other. There wouldn’t be any Kremlin Stooge without La Russophobe, and although I don’t use her articles for inspiration as often as I once intended, it’s great blogs like his that coaxed my interest in Russia beyond the panting fury on show at her nutblog. I guess he’s entitled to a little criticism. And I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of room in the Russia-watching blogosphere for Serious Bloggers and Fundamentally Unserious Halfwits.

In the previous section, you said that Medvedev was a “dreamer.” Could you please elaborate? Because some would say that he has been very active at implementing reform. He has fired far more senior bureaucrats and regional bigwigs than Putin ever did, e.g. in the course of the police reforms a third of the most senior officers were recently dismissed. To give a range of other examples, in the past year Medvedev ordered state officials to leave the boards of state companies, signed a law that eliminates prison terms as mandatory punishment for white-collar crimes, promoted the privatization of state assets, and asked the government to draft a program for the support of education of Russian students in leading international universities. So is your attitude not, in fact, a “presumption of failure” in Eugene Ivanov’s words?

Actually, I kind of wish I had read that post before I responded. The comments as well; especially Patrick Armstrong’s, in which he pointed out that the attitude toward reform in Russia – from a typical western perspective – is that it’s immediately a complete success or else it’s another dismal failure. But it probably wouldn’t have changed my response much. Still, you’re right – as is Eugene – that Medvedev has achieved a good deal that he’s received little or no credit for, and perhaps that’s deliberate although it’s difficult to reconcile a west that wants to see Medvedev in the big chair rather than Putin with a west that never says anything good about Medvedev.

No, what I meant to infer when I said Medvedev was “a dreamer” was not so much Medvedev’s/Putin’s actual accomplishments (and admittedly, the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments is more impressive than I would have thought) as Medvedev’s hopes that these accomplishments are going to win over the west and inspire a renewed rapprochement with it. Putin, whom I described in the same question as “a realist”, knows there will be no such rapprochement unless the west has no other alternative, and that the international game of musical chairs in which the west tries to inch closer and closer with encircling military bases will continue long after the music stops. In this comparison, Medvedev looks like Charlie Brown; unable to stop himself from taking another run at the football, even though on some level he understands the probability it will be yanked away just as he commits.

However, if you suggested that’s uncharitable, and that someone who really wished Russia success insofar as her interests do not trample on those of someone else’s rights, you’d be correct. The thing to do would be to get behind Medvedev’s plans, and amplify his successes as they deserve to be. I humbly so resolve. And although I remain unconvinced he’s the strong leader Russia needs to consolidate and progress its gains achieved over the past decade, I apologize for my lack of faith in his ability to achieve anything constructive. If for no other reason, because anything that appears to put Lilia Shevtsova and I on the same side cannot go on unresolved.

When Putin came to power he promised to “eliminate the oligarchs as a class”, but as of last year there were 114 billionaires – an order of magnitude greater than under Yeltsin. Putin’s judo buddies and Ozero friends have done particularly well; e.g., to quote Daniel Treisman, “During his second term, control over valuable Gazprom assets began to pass into the hands of one of [Putin’s] old friends, Yury Kovalchuk… After Gazprom bought the oil company Sibneft from the oligarch Roman Abramovich, much of its oil was sold by another old Putin acquaintance, Gennady Timchenko.” (I’d also note the latter was sold the Port of Murmansk for $250 million this year with no public bidding). All this isn’t exactly out of character for Putin either; back in 1999, when the Prosecutor-General Skuratov insisted on investigating corruption in Yeltsin’s Family, Putin helped discredit him with a sex video and pressed him to resign. Even if we accept your arguments that Putin isn’t personally corrupt, isn’t it undeniable that he broke his promise and far from eliminating the oligarchs he has ensconced their power? And given the favors he’s dispensed to his friends, will he not be able to cash in on them with interest once he leaves the Presidency and thus enter the oligarchy himself?

First, what’s the direct relationship between numbers of billionaires and oligarchs? I’m afraid I don’t see a natural correlation between oligarchs and billionaires – if you are one, are you, ipso facto, the other as well? Is T. Boone Pickens an oligarch? If everyone in Russia is a little bit better off financially than they were under Yeltsin – and they are unless they are making a conscious effort to not be – are they incrementally more corrupt?

Although FT often goes out of its way to spin every news item that concerns Russia in an unfavourable light, this reference is at pains to point out that one of these oligarchs is Mikhail Prokhorov. Back in 2007, Prokhorov was allegedly forced by Putin to sell his 26% stake in Norilsk Nickel. This, according to the New York Times, suggests the Kremlin flexing its muscles and punishing Prokhorov. Bouncing back to your reference, we learn that the Kremlin actually did him a huge favour, since when markets collapsed, Prokhorov was “the only oligarch with any cash to spare.” If the Kremlin was able to foresee the market collapse a year before it happened, why didn’t every sugar-daddy make out like a bandit? There’s a disconnect here, in which (according to the NYT) “…under Mr. Putin, the Russian government is establishing vast, state-owned holding companies in automobile and aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding, nuclear power, diamonds, titanium and other industries. His economic model is sometimes compared with the state-owned, “national champion” industries in France under Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s. The policy of forcing owners of strategic assets to sell their holdings has also been compared to recent nationalizations in Venezuela and other Latin American nations. “Yet while Putin reinvents the Soviet Union – and, according to Irina Yasina, “In Russia today, no serious deal can be made without approval from the Kremlin” – despite the fact that there were no oligarchs until Yeltsin sold off state assets at fire-sale prices, somehow Putin is consolidating everything under the state’s iron grip, while a burgeoning bumper crop of oligarchs is getting rich. How? How can these two conditions coexist? A new Soviet Union and a simultaneous flabbergasting spike in private wealth? Come on, guys – get your narrative nailed down.

FT also points out that the surge in personal wealth by the wealthy it persists in referring to as “oligarchs” originates with a 20% increase in value in the Russian stock market in 2010, and increasing demand for raw materials from China. It’s a bit of a stretch to maintain that Putin personally controls the Russian stock market and is shunting sweet deals to his friends – when would he find the time to do that, and how could he have been such a dink as to let it crash in 2009, wiping out billions in his pals’ money? – but anyone who means to suggest Putin is behind Chinese economic growth is asking to be laughed out of the room. Maybe some of those wealthy businessmen gained their original oligarch spurs during the privatization giveaway (under Yeltsin); but if you make more money in straight business deals using that money, are you still an oligarch? When does that stop – ever? Is the west as unforgiving of the source of personal fortunes in the west?

It simply stands to reason that if the economy of the whole country is picking up, the rich will get richer and new rich will join their ranks. It’s astonishing how many places that happens, and the risks are demonstrably greater in Russia along with the rewards.

How has Putin “ensconced the oligarchs’ power” when Prokhorov is the first to dip a toe into politics since Khodorkovsky, and allegedly on the Kremlin’s side at that? As to the other part of the question, is it unusual for national leaders to be connected to the rich? Does this presuppose Putin will become a rich oligarch when he leaves politics? Maybe, but as someone who has not flaunted conspicuous wealth all his life as many similarly-connected western leaders have, it would not simply be a return to type. There’s no denying the opportunity is there. But a Putin no longer in a position to “dispense favours” might not be an advantage worth the price.

As a follow-up to the last question, don’t you think that the only reason Khodorkovsky was singled out by the regime for prosecution was because he funded the opposition and called for transparency? After all, plenty of other oligarchs who misappropriated Russia’s wealth in the 1990’s were allowed to enjoy their riches – or get even richer with the Kremlin’s help.

No, I don’t. Only a fool would argue everyone who deserves to be in jail in Russia is in jail, any more than that state of affairs prevails anywhere else. It was indeed unconscionable to make a deal with the oligarchs in the terms it’s been described – stay out of politics, and yer can keep the swag, ahrrrr. However, once again, was it effective? The country has prospered, the remaining oligarchs have indeed stayed out of politics or moved abroad to protect their wealth (have a look at the numbers of wealthy Americans moving abroad to avoid what they say are crippling taxes), and the chances of success for a policy that would have seen Putin pitting himself against the accumulated wealth of Russia’s richest and all the influence they could muster would have been, I submit, dim. Perhaps Mr. Putin viewed it as a necessary deal to move the country forward without opposition. Again, there’s no evidence to suggest he did it to enrich himself.

There certainly is a sizable segment of society that would like to believe Khodorkovsky is guilty only of funding the opposition and advocating transparency. However, despite YUKOS’s reputation for transparency in business dealings, company records are no such thing and Khodorkovsky is defiantly unrepentant for defrauding Russia of legal tax revenue in order to increase his profit. I believe he funded the opposition mostly to put stumbling-blocks in the government’s way and keep them occupied while he increased his personal control over Russian affairs, and that he had no interest in running the country himself as a political leader because it would have limited his opportunities to enrich himself further, provided he still wanted to court western support. I further believe he was sandbagged disproportionately hard for tax evasion because the government could not get anyone to testify against him for more serious crimes, although there is considerable circumstantial evidence those crimes occurred. Unfortunately, the government’s star witness – the former mayor of Nefteyugansk – is dead, and Mr. Khodorkovsky’s former chief of security is in jail for it.

In September 2000, central Russia was wracked by a series of apartment bomb blasts. As you probably know, many questions about it remain unanswered. There was the bizarre Ryazan incident, the materials on which the Duma voted to seal for 75 years. There was Duma Speaker Seleznyov telling the deputies about a bombing in Vologda, accurate in all respects but one – it occurred three days after his announcement. And those who tried to carry out independent investigations tended to see a drop in their life expectancies; one by one, they were assassinated (e.g. Yushenkov, Schekochikhin, Litvinenko). Is it possible that, directly or indirectly, Putin’s sky-rocketing popularity in late 2000 – and consequently, his Presidency – was built on the blood of innocents blown up by the FSB?

Well, of course it’s possible. However, every story has two sides, and in a disagreement regarding an event for which no direct evidence has been produced, much goes to the credibility of the defenders of each respective viewpoint. So, let’s take a look at who said what. On the “Putin did it” side, David Satter – former Moscow correspondent for FT Russia, then columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Yury Felshtinsky, co-author (with dead Alexander Litvinenko) of “Blowing Up Russia”, sponsored by Boris Berezovsky, in which Felshtinsky accuses Putin of masterminding the bombings to achieve political power. Supposedly the target of a 3-man FSB assassination team, which had arrived in Boston in 2007 to kill him, Felshtinsky is unaccountably (and embarrassingly) still alive 4 years later – perhaps they’re tied up in customs at Logan International (What? Poison gas-tipped umbrellas are illegal???). Boris Berezovsky himself, former oligarch who high-sided it to the UK with his money and forecast in 2001 that Putin would be gone by the end of the year, while blathering on as an authority on what constitutes corruption although the source of his fortune is generally acknowledged to have devolved from his connections with the Yeltsin “family”. The reference also helpfully notes that Berezovsky broke with Putin when he “moved to rein in the oligarchs”. Boris Kagarlitsky, editor-in-chief of Levaya Politika and democracy activist. Vladimir Pribylovski, another co-author with still-not-dead Felshtinsky, and another admittedly biased opposition supporter through his political website Anticompromat.ru. On the “That’s just bullshit” side, Gordon Bennett of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a former component of the Defence Academy of the UK and present component of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group. Robert Ware, noted expert on the North Caucasus. Henry Plater-Zyberk, former analyst for the British Foreign Office, specialist in Russia and Central Asia and senior analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Centre. Simon Saradzhyan, security and foreign policy expert, former editor of the Moscow Times and research fellow at Harvard. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, and recognized expert in Russian and Eastern European politics. Who has more invested in the “Putin blew up his own people” story being true?

None of the people mentioned were present when the bombings took place. Although there’s been a lot of talk about “evidence”, there apparently has been none brought forward, and those who supplied testimony are more or less disposed to lie depending on who’s telling the story. Novaya Gazeta reported the testimony of one Private Pinyaev, for example, who supposedly was party to a group who made tea with some “sugar” which was actually Hexogen and which “tasted terrible”, although RDX derivatives like Hexogen are a poison that is toxic even if inhaled or absorbed through the skin and can lead to seizures. That’d be hard to forget.

There are indeed inconsistencies in the case that are difficult to explain. However, the actions supposedly undertaken by the FSB seem so clownishly verifiable that it’s hard to imagine they would so obviously incriminate themselves. The side that argues for it being a false-flag operation consists mostly of political dissidents and democracy activists, while the side that argues against that explanation consists largely of respected academics with a good deal of experience. And if the FSB are all liars, well, it’d be worth remembering where Litvinenko came from.

I noticed that in the original discussion that drew you to La Russophobe (and blogging), you made the following bet with commentator Felix: “The Sochi Winter Games will go ahead as scheduled, and the positive reviews will far outnumber the negatives.” Are you still confident about that given the rate of embezzlement corroding that project? (For instance, one road was found to cost $8 billion; it would have been cheaper to pave it with black caviar). And if you’re wrong do you still intend to send Felix his beer?

I’m still confident Sochi will be rated a success, even though many English-language sources will be disposed to look for negatives. I believe that case of Stella is as good as mine, but of course a bet is a bet and I will pay up if I’m wrong. Note, though, that Felix defined the terms very narrowly, and it does not even need to be a roaring success for me to win – Russia merely has to hold to full completion more than 20 medal-winning events (20 is proposed to be a tie; less, and I lose), and as Felix points out, that’s less than half the events held in Vancouver. Money for jam, as the British used to say.

In that post I also got away with arguing that Boris Nemtsov was not from Sochi, which was Ding! Ding! Ding! incorrect. I didn’t know any better then. Of course, I do now.

As far as the road to Sochi goes – come on, Anatoly. You blew that one to pieces yourself, here. I quote: “Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!” Once you consider that, you told us, “things begin to make a lot more sense.” That kind of construction ain’t cheap. Although doubtless corruption has inflated the overall expense, this is commonplace with government projects in many countries, few of whom are sufficiently pure to cast aspersions; let’s not inflate it to “Congo-like proportions”. Say, did you notice it’s only Russophobes who counsel using caviar as an alternative – and economically competitive – road surface? I beg to differ: it has serious durability issues compared with asphalt, and in summer! Well, I don’t have to tell you what a caviar road would begin to smell like.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where their mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Russia will be a full member of the WTO by the end of 2012. Joint Asian financial institutions will form which will channel tremendous direct investment into Russia, and ties between Russia and China particularly will strengthen. New spheres of influence will form, and China and Russia will hold annual large-scale joint military exercises. Russia will permit a much greater degree of foreign ownership in state assets. The new Japanese government will formally forswear all claims to the Kuriles, and Russo-Japanese relations will dramatically improve.

That last one is really going out on a limb, as if any such initiative does look likely there will be intense lobbying from the USA to discourage it, and the USA is likely to remain strongly influential in the formation of Japanese foreign policy. But I feel good about it nonetheless.

And specifically, could you make any predictions on who will be the President from 2012?

Whoa – too close to call. I still think it’ll be Putin, and that’s what I’d like to see, but the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments you reeled off earlier makes me think he’s a better bet than I had at first supposed. Either of them could win easily, so I could just say, “The United Russia candidate”. But that’d be facetious.

I think it would be better for Russia if Putin won, for reasons I stated earlier. He’s less easy to seduce with saccharine promises of western cooperation, which is not going to be forthcoming unless whoever wins swears to run the country according to western diktat. However, Medvedev is the more likely of the two to push for liberal reforms that will benefit Russia long-term.

What are your plans for The Kremlin Stooge?

As long as I’m having fun, I plan to keep on keepin’ on. If I can encourage some more of my lazy commenters to put their opinions where my posts are, I plan to have more guest work. Confusion to our enemies, and death to Russophobia!!!

Thanks to The Kremlin Stooge for an excellent interview!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from Kim Zigfeld, she of the infamous La Russophobe, asking me if I was interested in an interview with her. It didn’t take long for me to come to the wrong decision!

And so commenced our interview. It was a long grind. After ceaseless goings back and forth, arguments about what is really going on in that land of Russia, some 12,000 words of it, we finally entered wacko paradise – INTERVIEW: Anatoly Karlin. Here are a few lines from the freak show stage to whet your appetites!

  • Suppose Shamil Basayev had been found in a lovely home just outside Tbilisi and after Russians assassinated him the Georgian president was invited to Washington and warmly embraced by Obama, how would Russians have reacted?
  • So the USA should forget that Russia is trying to destroy it because China is trying even harder?
  • Frankly, we find your intellectual dishonesty really repugnant, and characteristic of the failed Soviet state. The rulers of the USSR always spoke to the outside world as if they were speaking to clueless idiots. But it was the USSR that collapsed into ruin, wasn’t it?
  • We don’t believe any thinking person can argue that any other Russia blog that has ever existed has come close to being as inspirational to the blogosphere as La Russophobe… Yet many of your Russophile brethren insist on pretending to dismiss us. Why are they so unwilling to admit how good we are? Why don’t they realize how foolish they look? Is it some sort of psychological complex on their part, or is it a crazily ineffective propaganda scheme?

Indeed. Anyhow, apart from her flattering review of my work and the conspiratorial theorizing, the interview mostly focuses on the bread and butter politics that many of us Russia watchers love to talk about. Enjoy the ride! (I did!!!)

Because some of you guys don’t want to grace La Russophobe with a visit, or are banned from it, I’m reprinting the interview below and opening it to comments.

INTERVIEW: Anatoly Karlin

Anatoly Karlin (who says Russophiles don't have hair on their chests??)

Anatoly Karlin (who says Russophiles don’t have hair on their chests??)

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Welcome to La Russophobe, Anatoly. Let’s start with current events. Almost immediately after America’s public enemy #1 Osama Bin Laden was discovered hiding in plain sight in Pakistan and assassinated, the Pakistan government started coming in for heavy criticism in the West, especially in the USA. And right after that, Russia invited Pakistan to pay the first state visit on Moscow in three decades, and warmly embraced it. Do you think this was a mistake on the part of the Kremlin? Does it concern you at all to see Russia providing aid and comfort to nations like Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Libya? Suppose Shamil Basayev had been found in a lovely home just outside Tbilisi and after Russians assassinated him the Georgian president was invited to Washington and warmly embraced by Obama, how would Russians have reacted?

ANATOLY KARLIN: And yet the US – with the exception of a few Republicans – is still okay with continuing to provide Pakistan with dollops of aid every year. It has had close security relations with Pakistan since the 1980’s, when both supported jihadists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is ridiculous to condemn Russia for “warmly embracing” Pakistan – even if signing a few accords on anti-drugs and economic cooperation can be construed as such – when the US has much deeper relations with them, and for far longer.

Why talk of hypothetical scenarios, when we’ve got real examples? After the Georgians opened fire on UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, and invaded South Ossetia, the entire Western political class “warmly embraced” Georgian President Saakashvili – a terrorist to the inhabitants of Tskhinvali, whom his army shelled in their sleep.

As for providing “aid and comfort” to Iran or Libya – by which I take it you mean refusing to formally condemn them – why should Russia feel guilty about it, when the West keeps its peace on regimes that are every bit as odious but serve its interests? Saudi Arabia has no elections and doesn’t allow women to drive cars, which makes it less progressive than Iran. It hasn’t exactly made the top headlines in the US media, but in recent weeks Bahrain has “disappeared” hundreds of injured Shia protesters – and many of the doctors who treated them. Why no crocodile tears for them? Presumably, because Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet and Saudi Arabia is the world’s swing oil producer.

The US tries to pursue its own national interests, like most countries. Human rights are fig leaves, or secondary considerations at best. Good for America! Russia happens to have better relations with countries like Libya or Iran than with Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, and I don’t know why it should torpedo them for the sake of foreign national interests.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: That sure is a whole bunch of words, but you haven’t answered our questions, and if you don’t we won’t publish your answers. We’d like to you to assume that Americans are no better at admitting their hypocrisy than Russians, and won’t stop being offended by Russian actions just because they haven’t been as tough on Pakistan as they should be. Russia is puny economically and militarily compared to America, and America is a world leader while Russia has virtually no allies. Do you or don’t you think it was a mistake for Russia to antagonize the US by meeting with Pakistan in the wake of the Bin Laden arrest? How would Russians have reacted if the US had met with Georgia’s ruler after a hypothetical killing of Basayev in Georgia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Had Russian special forces killed Shamil Basayev in a Tbilisi suburb, this would have implied a very close security relationship between Russia and Georgia – including Georgian acquiescence for the Russian military to operate throughout its territory (i.e. something analogous to the US-Pakistani relationship). Or do you believe that Spetsnaz is so awesome that it could it just stroll into the heart of Georgia, take out the mark in a heavily defended compound, and exfiltrate back into Russia? I don’t think so, and I’m supposed to be the “Russophile” here. As such, I do not believe the Russians would have objected to the US inviting the Georgian ruler over for some Maine lobster and coffee.

If the Americans are deranged enough to be offended by Russia meeting with Pakistani leaders, then they should grow a thicker skin and / or undergo a sanity check. There are few good reasons not to pursue your national interests; indulging irrational psychoses is not one of them. Fortunately, I haven’t come across anything suggesting that the US got “antagonized” by the Russia-Pakistan meeting – and quite rightly so, as there is no need to get one’s knickers in a twist over perceived slights / ridiculous trivialities.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: The assumption made in our question was that the government of Pakistan was complicit in hiding Bin Laden for years and that the US forces struck without the government’s permission. Pakistan is rife with lurid anti-Americanism, similar to what flies about in Georgia with regard to Russia. Do you have any evidence to show that Pakistan helped the US to kill Bin Laden? Do you really expect our readers to take you seriously when you suggest that if it were discovered that Basayev had been hiding in Georgia for years and that Russians went in and killed him with no open Georgian assistance they would have seen Georgia as their friend?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t have the security clearances (or hacking skills) to have these details of Pakistan’s relationship with OBL. Even CIA Director Leon Panetta doesn’t know, at least publicly, whether Pakistan is “involved or incompetent.”

In your scenario, the Russians wouldn’t see Georgia as their friend; they would see it as a “frenemy,” much like how Americans view Pakistan. Managing frenemies requires delicacy, balance, and a lot of bribes. It’s easy for you to say that the US should “get tough” on Pakistan. The world isn’t that simple. Next thing you know, the Pakistanis will ditch the US, cease all attempts to root out militants and cosy up with China.

By and by, if you’re really that obsessed about Russia’s overtures to Pakistan, you might want to examine China’s role. They have recently offered Pakistan 50 new fighters, which is a much warmer embrace of Pakistan than anything Russia has proffered to date.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So the USA should forget that Russia is trying to destroy it because China is trying even harder? That’s the most hilariously stupid thing we’ve ever heard! Lots of Americans criticize China harshly, but our blog is about Russia and we don’t intend to lose that focus. Your childish attempts to throw the spotlight away from Russia are ridiculous and sad. You admit you have no evidence that Pakistan did anything except facilitate Bin Laden’s activities, which means that your first answer to our question was an absurd lie. Your suggestion that Russians would do anything other than brutalize Georgia utterly obliterates your credibility. Now please tell us: Russia has risked infuriating the world’s only superpower and biting the hand (Obama’s) that feeds it. What does Russia get in return to counterbalance that in terms of good relations with Pakistan?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think the idea that China selling fighters to Pakistan – let alone Russia signing economic deals with it – implies that it is trying to “destroy” the US is hilariously stupid, but then again that’s just me.

Russia doesn’t get much, as Pakistan is of little importance to it (unlike China, which partners with it against India, and unlike the US, which desires its cooperation on Islamic militants). But that doesn’t matter since the very idea that building relations with Pakistan “risks infuriating” the US is crazy and absurd on too many levels.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Why talk about hypotheticals, you ask? You don’t get to ask questions here, you haven’t invited us for an interview. But just for the heck of it, because it’s our blog and we make the rules, that’s why. If you don’t want to follow them, then you’ll publish your views elsewhere. Which, of course, is your right — but we’d have thought you’d enjoy a bit of access to our readers.

ANATOLY KARLIN: To clarify, it was a rhetorical question (as are all my questions in this interview). I did not mean to interview you here – though if you’re interested, I’m happy to offer you one on my blog. You’ll generate lively discussions among my readers at a minimum.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: In regard to Libya and Syria, we mean taking actions to block and obstruct Western support for the democratic movements, especially defending the regimes and criticizing the West in public, and providing Syria with weapons. Sorry if we weren’t clear. Can you understand the question now? Hopefully so, because you won’t get a third chance.

ANATOLY KARLIN: It does not concern me in the slightest. My reasons, in simple(r) language: (1) The West supports regimes that are every bit as odious when they serve its interests, (2) therefore, its motives are not pro-democratic, as its claims, but self-interested and imperialist, and (3) by the principles of reciprocity, Russia has every moral right to call the West out on its hypocrisy and support regimes that it is friendly with.

When the US cancels its $60 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, and condemns them for their human rights violations, perhaps then it would have the moral authority to demand Russia do likewise with its disreputable clients. As it stands, Washington’s protests regarding Russia’s relations with Libya & Co. reek of arrogance and double standards that Russia should not be expected to indulge.

BTW, I find your sensitivity to Russia “criticizing the West in public” to be quite hilarious. Surely the beacon of free speech can take some? Or does Russia have to build shrines to it, or rename its main boulevard after G.W. like Tbilisi did, or something? (these are rhetorical questions)

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you suggesting that you believe Russian power is such that it can afford to act however it likes regardless of the way in which its actions may provoke the USA and NATO?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Any country’s foreign policy has to take into account the likely reactions of other international actors. I do not believe Russia should “act however it likes,” though not so much for fear of “provoking” the US or NATO (which in any case have limited options for retaliation) but because in most cases cooperation and accommodation – to a reasonable extent – are more productive than mindless confrontation.

Your language indicates that you have a more zero-sum view of global affairs, what with your insinuation that the main reason Russia shouldn’t antagonize the US is because it is “puny” in comparison and “has virtually no allies.” In other words, it has to unconditionally submit to Western whims. Quite apart from its sordid implications – that might makes right, in which case you could make the same argument for why the “puny” Baltics and Georgia should bow down before Russia – it’s not even convincing on its own merits.

Russia is less powerful than the US, but on the other hand it doesn’t have America’s global commitments – the US is fighting three wars at this time, which drastically limits its freedom of action elsewhere. Its economy is much larger than Russia’s, but it has a far worse fiscal position. The US has big markets and technologies to offer, but Russia’s trade with America is insignificant compared with Europe. Besides, Russia enjoys leverage as a big supplier of oil to world markets, and natural gas to Europe, and of nuclear technology and weaponry to potential adversaries of the US (meaning that it’s patently not in America’s interests to alienate Russia). As for NATO, its relevance has plummeted in the post-Cold War period – its members haven’t been able to agree on a plethora of important issues such as the Iraq War, Georgia’s accession, and Libya!

And lest we forget, Russia is hardly alone in its skepticism on Libya. There’s also the other BRIC’s, as well as (NATO members) Turkey and Germany.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: In a recent comment on the Streetwise Professor blog, you called Russian “president” Dima Medvedev a “pathetic shell” and an “empty suit.” We couldn’t agree more! In return, would you agree with us that Vladimir Putin, who personally handed power to Medvedev, showed extremely poor judgment in doing so, and that this calls all his other policies into question? After all, though Medvedev has no real power he does have technical legal authority and could thrust Russia into a constitutional crisis at a moment’s notice if he chose to do so.

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t view Medvedev as a disaster. On a positive note, he fired more entrenched bigwigs in two years as President than Putin did in eight. But too often, he comes off as naïve and overly submissive to Western demands. A good example is his okaying of the UN resolution authorizing NATO to protect Libyan civilians, which has seamlessly transitioned into a lawless drive for regime change. According to Konstantin Makienko, editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, this will cost Russia at least $8.5 billion in lost economic opportunities (not to mention hurting its image as a sovereign world power).

Putin’s choice of Medvedev wasn’t a mistake. At least, it’s too early to tell. For now, I don’t oppose Dima iPhonechik (as he is known on Runet). On the other hand, I certainly think it prudent that someone like Putin is there to give Medvedev the occasional reality check, and remind him that the West only looks out for itself and that Russia’s only true allies are its army and navy.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So just to be clear, you don’t think it was a mistake to give enormous power to a “pathetic shell” and an “empty suit,” right?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Most politicians fit this description. So, no.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you saying there is nobody in Russia except Vladimir Putin who is not a pathetic shell and empty suit?

ANATOLY KARLIN: That is not what I’m saying, as most Russians are not politicians.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Your answer is profoundly childish, asinine, and indicates you have no wish to be taken seriously. Any intelligent person would have clearly understood were asking whether you are excusing Putin’s choice of a “pathetic shell” and “empty suit” for president because every other person he could have chosen also fit that description. There is no requirement that the Russian president be a politician. Mikhail Khodorkovsky would be president today, for instance, but for Putin having him arrested and sent to Siberia. So we’ll ask again: Are you saying there was nobody who was not a pathetic shell and an empty suit that Putin could have chosen to succeed him?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t know. If I had access to alternate worlds in which Putin nominated other successors, and they got to demonstrate whether or not they were empty suits, then I’d be able to answer the question.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But you’ve already said that you approve of Gennady Zyuganov and Dmitri Rogozin. Wouldn’t Russia have been better off if Putin had named one of them as his successor? We ask you again to stop dodging our questions like a coward: Can you or can you not point to a person Putin could have chosen as his successor who would not have been an “empty suit” and a “pathetic shell”? We realize that you can’t win by answering. If you say there is nobody, then you confirm Russia is a truly wretched land. If you say there is somebody, then Putin made a gigantic error in judgment by not choosing that person. But you must answer. Because if you don’t, everyone will see you as a sniveling intellectual coward.

ANATOLY KARLIN: This implies that anything is better than an empty suit, which is not really the case. For instance, Zhirinovsky is quite obviously not an empty suit, but does any reasonable person want him in power? I don’t think so.

But if you still insist on a concrete answer, a Putin – Zyuganov tandem is my dream team (implausible as it is in practice).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: What makes you say it is implausible? If Vladimir Putin had told the Russian people to vote for a ham sandwich to replace him, they would have done it. What’s more, Putin would not have allowed anybody but the sandwich to receive votes. If Putin had named Zyuganov, Zyuganov would have been elected. Apparently you mean it’s implausible because Putin doesn’t share your admiration for Zyuganov. Why not? What mistake is Putin making in evaluating this fellow?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Presumably, because the gap in their worldviews is too unbridgeable. Zyuganov has condemned Putin as a protégé and stooge of the oligarchy, which to a large extent is true. Though I don’t presume to speak for Putin, I imagine he sees Zyuganov as a Soviet-era dinosaur, whose autarkic leanings and unqualified admiration of Stalin have no place in a modern society. This is also true.

But their incompatibilities are precisely the reason why I’d like to juxtapose them, the idea being that Zyuganov can push for the restoration of a social state, while Putin’s influence will provide a check on his more regressive, Brezhnevite tendencies.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: The single greatest mystery for us about Russia is why, when Boris Yeltsin was universally despised in 1999, in single-digit approval territory with talks of impeachment for genocide, the Russian people followed his instructions like lemmings and picked Putin as his successor. Can you explain that behavior to us?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think the conventional explanation is that Putin’s law-and-order image and savvy handling of the Second Chechen War contributed more to his political ascent than Yeltsin’s endorsement.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Do you have any factual basis whatsoever for that ridiculous statement? Are you seriously suggesting that Putin could have emerged from a contested election as the winner without being the incumbent in March 2000? Even if the people were widely impressed in that way, why wasn’t Yeltsin’s approval more than enough to cause the Russian people to reject him? And if Putin did so well, isn’t that a huge positive reflection on Yeltsin, meaning Russians have vastly misjudged him?

ANATOLY KARLIN: From the beginning, Putin worked hard to differentiate himself from Yeltsin and his “Family.” Athletic sobriety versus a fermentation barrel. Sort out the mess, drown the terrorists in the outhouse, reconsolidate the country. Now obviously, incumbency advantages and the oligarch media helped Putin immensely, but for all that there are limits to what those factors could have accomplished by themselves. There was a flurry of short-lived Prime Ministers between March 1998 and VVP’s appointment in August 1999, and their approval ratings bombed nearly as much as Yeltsin’s despite the oligarch media being on the Kremlin’s side throughout.

Putin wouldn’t have won if he hadn’t been the incumbent for the simple reason that he’d have had no administrative resources to draw upon. But his incumbency allowed him to shine, and become popular, and defeat Zyuganov. Had Yeltsin nominated someone like Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko, Stepashin, or Nemtsov as his successor, then today’s ‘party of power’ might well be the KPRF.

I agree that Yeltsin’s designation of Putin as his successor is one of his best decisions – not that there’s much competition there.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So you have no factual basis (i.e., a citation to published authority) for your claim, right?

ANATOLY KARLIN: It’s certainly news to me that any of the above is controversial. I guess I can Google up a paper if you insist on it:

“Putin enjoyed a vertiginous rise in popularity following his appointment as prime minister in August 1999. Polls indicated those willing to vote for him as president climbed from 2% in August [to] 59% in January. By then his approval rating as prime minister was 79%. In contrast, for the past several years Yeltsin’s approval rating had been in the single digits. Putin’s rise was fueled by two factors: the war in Chechnya, and the strong showing of the pro-Putin Unity party in the December 1999 Duma elections… It was Putin’s determined handling of the war which then led to his spectacular and sustained rise in popularity.” – from Putin’s Path to Power (Peter Rutland, 2000).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Do you realize that you are citing a “forthcoming” publication and that the footnote given by the author is blank? Do you realize that your own source says Putin didn’t get above 50% voter inclination until Yeltsin had already made him president? If Putin could have got elected on his own as prime minister, why in the world was it necessary to make him president first? Wasn’t that obviously a gambit to wedge him into office?

ANATOLY KARLIN: You’re just nitpicking now. This was the version accessible on the Web, it was published and if you want a formal citation here it is – Peter Rutland, “Putin’s Path to Power,” Post-Soviet Affairs 16, no. 4 (December 2000): 313-54. The footnote is not blank, it names the source as Yuri Levada.

The same source indicates that the bulk of Putin’s rise in popularity took place during his tenure as Prime Minister, with voter inclination going from the low single digits in August to exactly 50% in December 1999, which I’d say is a winning figure. He was appointed President on January 1st, 2000, after which his popularity remained stable at a high level. This had the practical effect of bringing forwards the elections by 3 months. Did this make a crucial difference? Putin’s approval rating was 70% in March 2000; it was 61% in June 2000 (but rose to 73% a month later), when the election would have otherwise occurred. Considering that Putin won the 2000 elections with 53% of the vote to runner-up Zyuganov’s 29%, I don’t see how the delay could have made a difference.

Mind you, this is all said with the benefit of hindsight. It may well be Yeltsin wasn’t confident that Putin would maintain his high ratings – for instance, he may have feared that the Second Chechen War would go badly and dent his popularity – and wanted to maximize his chances at the elections by giving him the Presidency early. Alternatively, he may have realized just how deeply he screwed up the post-Soviet transition, and decided that it was in Russia’s national interests to get a new face for the new millennium.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Despite nothing but pro-Kremlin propaganda on TV, and a soaring price of oil and revived Russian stock market, confidence in the Kremlin just slipped below a majority. Yet job approval for both Medvedev and Putin remains above 65%. Given that Medvedev and Putin wield dictatorial power and completely control the Kremlin. How is that possible? Are the people of Russia stupid or something?

ANATOLY KARLIN: This is a non-story. Approval for the government always lags the personal popularity of Putin and Medvedev by about 20-30% points, as you can confirm by browsing previous Levada opinion polls. Why that is the case, I’d guess because Tsars are often more popular than their Ministers.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You’re saying Russia is an irrational country where people hate the government and its policies but don’t hate those who wield absolute authority over the government and its policies?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I’m saying what I said: rulers are often more popular than the government as a whole (for instance, whereas only 19% of Americans trusted the government in Washington in 2010, Obama’s approval rating has hovered from 41% to 52% in the past year).

Anyhow, I would hardly take a government approval rating of 51% (as of May 2010) as evidence that Russians “hate the government and its policies.”

LA RUSSOPHOBE: May 2010? Wouldn’t this year be more relevant? In May 2011, approval fell below a majority. Do you really believe that’s not at all significant? Don’t you think it’s rather idiotic to compare Obama, who has just replaced a highly unpopular president and is undertaking massive reform, and who does not have one tenth the control over the US government that Putin has over Russia, to Putin, who was replaced by a puppet of his own choosing? And don’t you think it’s utterly dishonest for you to use America as a benchmark when it’s convenient for you, but then to say that America is a “different country” and inapplicable to Russia whenever it’s not convenient? Frankly, we find your intellectual dishonesty really repugnant, and characteristic of the failed Soviet state. The rulers of the USSR always spoke to the outside world as if they were speaking to clueless idiots. But it was the USSR that collapsed into ruin, wasn’t it?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Apologies for the mistype, it should have said May 2011. As you can see from the link, government approval was 48% in April and 51% in May. I don’t believe it’s significant, because it’s hardly changed from a year ago when it was 56% in May 2010, and going even further back, government approval was lower than 50% for almost the entirety of the 2000-2007 period, falling to as low as 25% in March 2005.

I was only using Obama to illustrate that Russia is hardly atypical in that its leaders are more popular than the government as a whole, not to draw a direct comparison between him and Putin. Ditto for your next question accusing me of double standards.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Obama doesn’t illustrate that. You again reveal a very poor understanding of how the US government works. Obama has very little power under the US Constitution, so he can’t properly be blamed for most of the decisions that the American public care about. It’s entirely rational to have one view of him and another of the legislature. But Putin has total power, and all of the government’s actions are directly controlled by him. Russians would have to be psychotic to view the government and Putin as being separate, or to allow Putin to escape blame for the government’s failed policies. But what really interests us is this: Isn’t it pretty telling that in a country where the government controls all the TV broadcasts and does not allow any true opposition political parties it cannot manage to generate more than a bare majority of support? What would the rating be if NTV were still going strong and Nemtsov had 75 seats in the Duma? Can’t you admit that the Russian government is obviously failing under Vladimir Putin?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Not really because it is likewise entirely rational to have one view of a Russian ruler (e.g. as competent), and another of the state bureaucracy (e.g. as venal and incompetent). But I digress.

I disagree with your assumptions. Though the Russian state does exert editorial influence over TV broadcasts, as in De Gaulle’s France, this ignores the fact that the print media is largely independent and critical; furthermore, as of 2011, some 42% of Russians accessed the (unregulated) Internet at least once per week. I notice that your own articles are regularly translated on Inosmi (mostly for their entertainment value, if the comments are anything to go by). And the main reason that “true” opposition parties – by which I take it you mean the liberals – aren’t in the Duma has nothing to do with their being “oppressed” and everything to do with their proud association with the disastrous neoliberal reforms of the 1990’s, lack of constructive solutions (their slogans are pretty much limited to “Putin Must Go!” and variations thereof) and worshipful adulation of everything “European” or “Western” as “civilized” in contrast to barbaric, corrupt Russia, or “Rashka” as they like to call it. There is no need to cite Kremlin propaganda or “web brigades” to explain their 5% approval ratings, as their anti-Russian elitism is quite enough to do the trick by itself.

So to answer your questions, by the numbers. The government’s approval rating of 51% is respectable, and the main reason it isn’t higher is that – as with governments anywhere – some of its policies aren’t successful and/or hurt big electoral groups (a good example is the 2005 reforms of pensions benefits, in the course of which its approval rating fell to a nadir of 25%). If Nemtsov had 75 seats in the Duma, this would imply that he somehow managed to reacquire significant support, which would in turn mean that the current regime must have failed in a major way and consequently its approval rating would necessarily be very low. I can’t admit that the Russian government is failing under Putin because to me its failure is very, very far from “obvious.” Give me a call when the protesters at your Dissenters’ Marches start to outnumber the journalists.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Isn’t it true that the only reason the prime minister of Russia has not been sacked is that his name is Vladimir Putin?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t believe things would be much different if his name was Vladislav, or Ivan, or indeed any other.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So you’re seriously saying that you believe if Putin were president and Medvedev was prime minister with Putin’s record, Putin would not have fired Medvedev .

ANATOLY KARLIN: This assumes that the reason Medvedev hasn’t fired Putin is because he is the bad man’s puppet.

My impression is that they form one team, with Putin as its unofficial CEO, and Medvedev as his protégé. Their end goals are broadly similar: stabilization (largely achieved under the Putin Presidency), followed by economic modernization, and liberalization. Their differences are ones of emphasis, not essence. Furthermore, Putin has lots of political experience, immense reserves of political capital in the form of 70% approval ratings and influence over United Russia, and close relationships with the siloviki clans.

In other words, Putin is an extremely useful asset, and Medvedev is wise to keep him on board – despite Putin’s occasional acts of symbolic insubordination.

Had Medvedev behaved in a similar way in 2007-2008, then yes, he’d probably have been demoted, or passed over as a Presidential candidate. But why on Earth should Medvedev have done that? At the time, he was an apprentice. He did not have the qualifications to be cocky like Putin does now, e.g. stalling the disintegration of the country, breaking the oligarchs’ power, managing Russia’s economic revival, presiding over a decade of broadly rising living standards, etc.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: One more time. Putin has a bad record as prime minister. No thinking person can dispute that. Are you seriously saying it’s not bad enough to justify his dismissal, not as bad as that of other Russian prime ministers who have been dismissed in the past, that another man with the same record would not have been dismissed by Putin himself?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If approval ratings are anything to go by, then Putin’s record as PM is very, very far from “bad.” He MAY have dismissed a similar PM in his position, but the reasons for that would have been insubordination or his political ambitions – not incompetence or unpopularity.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: The Politburo had high approval ratings too, didn’t it? And Putin’s approval is falling, isn’t it?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I don’t know about the Politburo, as I’m not aware of any opinion polls on them. Yes, Putin’s approval rating has fallen by about 10% points in the past year. So what? It’s still at 69%, a figure most national leaders can only dream of. It’s not unprecedented either. For instance, it was less than 70% from November 2004 to July 2005.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Well, some people would say falling approval is a bad thing. Guess you think they are all morons. Putin’s poll rating slipped below 50% in mid-2003, and right after that both Khodorkovsky and Trepashkin were arrested. Then people in the opposition started dying. Guess by you that’s all just pure coincidence, right?

ANATOLY KARLIN: What? According to the link I provided above, Putin approval rating was in the 70%’s in mid-2003. More specifically, it was at 75% in September, the month before MBK’s arrest. Please read the link more carefully before making insinuations.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Your egomania is getting the better of you, dude. We were not referring to anything you linked to, we were referring to the fact that the war in Chechnya was going really badly in 2003, it was a bloodbath and the Russian people were sick of it. As a result, this. You have totally ignored the wave of arrests and murders that followed. You’re the one who needs to pay more attention. We ask you again: Was it just a coincidence that when the war in Chechnya, Putin’s main claim to fame, started going really badly major opposition figures started getting arrested and killed? Believe it or not, we can keep this up just as long as you can, you’re not smarter or tougher than us, and we will wipe that schoolboy smirk right off your face.

ANATOLY KARLIN: We’ll see about that. Your first problem is that the poll you cite ISN’T of Putin’s approval rate, but of VOTER INCLINATIONS. There is a big difference, namely that whereas you can “approve” of several different politicians, you can only vote for one of them. Hence, the percentage of people saying they’d vote for Putin can always be expected to be lower than his approval rate – which was at 70% in May 2003. That’s relatively low but still well within his usual band of 65%-85%.

Second, I want to see the evidence for your claim that the war in Chechnya was going “really badly” in 2003. In that year, 299 soldiers died in the line of duty, down from 485 in 2002, 502 in 2001, and 1397 in 2000. According to the graph of North Caucasus violence in this paper (see pg. 185), there was no discernible uptick in 2003.

Third, both Trepashkin and Khodorkovsky were arrested in October 2003. That’s a whole five months after the poll showing a slight dip in Putin’s popularity. Your conspiracy theory has no legs.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you really unaware of what was happening in Chechnya between the middle of 2002 and the middle of 2004? This is what, just for instance:

“Between May 2002 and September 2004, the Chechen and Chechen-led militants, mostly answering to Shamil Basayev, launched a campaign of terrorism directed against civilian targets in Russia. About 200 people were killed in a series of bombings (most of them suicide attacks), most of them in the 2003 Stavropol train bombing (46), the 2004 Moscow metro bombing (40), and the 2004 Russian aircraft bombings (89).”

“Two large-scale hostage takings, the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis (850 hostages) and the 2004 Beslan school siege (about 1,200), resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. In the Moscow stand-off, FSB Spetsnaz forces stormed the buildings on the third day using a lethal chemical agent. In the Beslan hostage case, a grenade exploding inside the school triggered the storming of the school. Some 20 Beslan hostages had been executed by their captors before the storming.”

We’re not going to allow any further responses, the fact that you are willing to speak about Chechnya without knowing such basic information makes it clear nothing at all would be achieved in doing so. Let’s move on.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Suppose that Boris Nemtsov were elected president of Russia in 2012. What specific negative consequences do you think this would have for Russia? Would you admit that anything at all in Russia would change for the better if Nemtsov was in charge?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I’m no seer as to predict what will happen with President Borya at the helm, but I can make some inferences from history. As the liberal governor of Nizhniy Novgorod oblast from 1991 to 1996, praised by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, he oversaw an economic collapse that was – if anything – even deeper than in Russia as a whole. Industrial production fell by almost 70%, as opposed to 50% at the federal level; mean incomes declined from 90.8% of the Russian average in 1991, to just 69.5% by 1996.

As Deputy Prime Minister, the New York Times described Nemtsov as an “architect of Russia’s fiscal policy.” In July 29th, 1998, Borya predicted that “there will be no devaluation.” Three weeks later, on August 17th, Russia defaulted on its debts. The ruble plummeted into oblivion, along with his approval ratings, and soon after he quit the government. The next decade he spent on self-promoting liberal politics and writing “independent expert reports” whining about Putin that are as prolific (there are now 7 of them) as they are misleading.

Nemtsov hasn’t exactly made a good impression on the two occasions he enjoyed real power. Who knows, perhaps third time’s the lucky charm. But I wouldn’t bet the house – or should that be the Kremlin? – on it.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Same question for Alexei Navalny.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Life may become harder for corrupt bureaucrats and dark-skinned minorities. Supporters of gun rights will have cause to celebrate.

In short, it’s a mixed bag. I wish Navalny well in his RosPil project, but I wouldn’t support any of his political ambitions unless he firmly disavows ethnic Russian chauvinism.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Putin hasn’t disavowed ethnic Russian chauvinism. So why do you support his political ambitions? Would you criticize Putin if Navalny announces his candidacy and then gets arrested just like Khodorkovsky?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Putin is most assuredly not a Russian (russkij) chauvinist. He has condemned nationalism on many occasions, and stressed the multiethnic nature of the Russian Federation – as well he should, as nationalism is one of the biggest threats to its territorial integrity. If anything, the nationalists hate Putin even more than the liberals. Visit their message boards and you will see endless condemnations of the current regime as a Zionist Occupation Government intent on selling off the country, populating it with minorities, and exterminating ethnic Russians. The Manezh riots and the banning of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) of the past few months should, if anything, convince one that relations between the Kremlin and far-right groups are decidedly antagonistic.

I will certainly criticize the Kremlin if Navalny is arrested on bogus charges (unlike Khodorkovsky, who is quite guilty of tax evasion). Not Putin because it is highly unlikely he’d have anything to do with it. But I very much doubt it will come to that. To have done so much anti-corruption work as Navalny without getting into any major trouble for it – at least up till now – means that he almost certainly has a good krysha (roof), i.e. political protection of some sort.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Please provide a link quoting Putin “condemning” Russian nationalism. And please explain why the cabinet wasn’t multi-ethnic under Putin.

ANATOLY KARLIN: There are literally thousands of links on this topic. Here’s one for your delectation, from December 2010:

“If we don’t appreciate Russia’s strength as a multinational society, and run about like madmen with razor blades, we will destroy Russia. If we allow this, we will not create a great Russia, but a territory riven by internal contradictions, which will crumble before our very eyes… I wouldn’t give 10 kopeks for someone who travels from central Russia to the North Caucasus and disrespects the Koran.”

There is nothing to explain. Off the top of my head, Minister of Economic Development and Trade Elvira Nabiullina and Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliyev are Tatars, and Minister of Emergency Situations Sergey Shoygu is Tuvan.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Our readers may not be familiar with Life News. Can you tell them what that is? Is it, for instance a national TV network? Has Putin ever condemned Russian nationalism in a speech to the Duma, or one of his national Q&A sessions, or in an address to the nation? Has his government ever handled a nationalist the way it handled Mikhail Khodorkovsky? If Putin is serious about protecting the people of the North Caucasus, why do so many of them have to go to Strasbourg?

ANATOLY KARLIN: As far as I know, it’s an online news site with a TV operation. (I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it, it was the first to get hold of a video of Oleg Kashin’s beating). But you can find the above quotes repeated on hundreds of sites. You can read the full speech here.

Would this Q&A on national TV from December 24th, 2010 qualify? That’s at least five denunciations of nationalism in one speech:

“We have to suppress extremism from all sides, wherever it comes from… It’s vital that that all Russians citizens, whatever their faith or nationality, recognize that we are children of one country. In order to feel comfortable anywhere on our territory, we need to behave in such a way, that a Caucasian isn’t afraid to walk Moscow’s streets, and that a Slav isn’t afraid to live in a republic of the North Caucasus… I’ve said this many times before, and I say it again, that from its beginnings Russia grew as a multinational and multiconfessional state… This “bacillus” of radicalism, it’s always present in society, just like viruses in nearly every human organism. But if a human has good immune defenses, these viruses don’t propagate. Likewise with society: if society has a good immune system, then this “bacillus” of nationalism sits quietly somewhere on the cellular level and doesn’t seep out. As soon as society begins to slack off, this immunity falls – and so the disease begins to spread… Russia is a multinational state. This is our strength. No matter what they say, those who sabotage these foundations, they undermine the country.”

If by that you mean prosecuting MBK for breaking laws, then just this past month two ultra-nationalists were jailed for the murder of HR lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova.

Presumably, there are many Russian cases at Strasbourg because Russia is part of the Council of Europe – which it could leave, if it wanted to – and because it has a big population with a creaky justice system?

LA RUSSOPHOBE: We didn’t say we hadn’t heard of it, we said our readers might not have. Because it’s pretty obscure. On Strasbourg, you’re again missing the point. See, if Russia under Putin really treated the ethnic peoples fairly, then they would not need to go to Strasbourg, and they would not go because it’s lot of trouble to go. And Putin could order that it be so, and it would be so. But he has not done it. And that’s why they go to Strasbourg. You’ve also lost the thread on Putin and nationalism. Putin is only talking about race murders and racism, not Russian nationalism, and only from the perspective that he fears racists who dare to run wild in the streets he’s supposed to control. And it’s only lip service. When is Putin photographed cuddling dark-skinned people? Where is his program for racial tolerance in Russian schools? Has he ever delivered a speech on national television, ever once in his entire tenure, to lecture the nation on race violence? More importantly, though, when has he ever gone beyond race murder to discuss the horrific consequences of raging Russian nationalism — for instance towards Georgia? Never. To the contrary, Putin actively stoked the flames of hostility towards Georgia, actively fuels Russian xenophobia and hatred of the United States, because doing so helps him stay in power. Your attempt to claim that Putin is Russia’s variant of Martin Luther King is absurd on its face. When Politkovskaya was killed for championing the rights of dark-skinned people, Putin basically said she got what she deserved. Putin routinely pours scorn on the Strasbourg court and has done nothing to improve the quality of justice for Russians as a result of its numerous decrees finding Putin’s government guilty of state-sponsored murder, kidnapping and torture. He has never once taken a such a personal interest it the prosecution of a nationalist as he did with Khodorkovsky. That’s what we meant.

ANATOLY KARLIN: I never claimed that Putin is Russia’s MLK, that is absurd, as his job is in governance not civil activism.

By the numbers. “Cuddling dark-skinned people” – what, just like he does with rare and exotic animals? Do you realize how patronizing – and yes, racist – that sounds? I don’t know about his school policies. As far as I know, Putin never gave a speech solely on race violence on Russian TV, but even if he did, I’m sure you’ll just move the goalposts further (as you did here) and ask if he ever apologized to ethnic minority representatives for past hate crimes, as Germany did for the Holocaust.

As for Georgia, I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong suspect – better ask Saakashvili why he feels it’s okay to invade a South Ossetia that wants nothing to do with him and murder people with Katyusha rockets in their sleep in the cause of Georgian nationalism. Though I’m aware that you’d have much preferred that Russia turn a blind eye to the attacks on Ossetian civilians and its own peace-keepers, failing to do so isn’t exactly nationalism.

Individual racist hoodlums, reprehensible as they are, are not the grave threat to the state that Khodorkovsky was. As such, a personal interest in their prosecution is not required or expected.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You mean you actually believe that Navalny could be arrested on bogus charges in order to prevent him challenging Putin for the presidency and Putin might have nothing to do with it? That if Putin gave the order to do no such thing, and let Navalny run if he wanted, Putin might be ignored?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I suppose Putin COULD do it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not how they roll. If the powers that be really, really didn’t want Navalny to run for the Presidency, he’d be disqualified on a technicality. As for the latter point, the notion that Putin would think of “ordering” someone NOT to be arrested is pretty ludicrous as it implies an absurd degree of micro-management on his part.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: There’s no doubt that Khodorkovsky was guilty of some criminal violations, that’s not the point. We believe your comment about him is extremely dishonest and an insult to our intelligence. The point is the Khodorkovsky was arrested for doing things that many other Russian businessmen close to Putin have done and continue to do without charges being filed, and was arrested only when he began making noises about challenging for the presidency, and that unlike any of the others he was lobbying strongly to bring Western accounting transparency to Russian business. Do you honestly believe that Putin himself declares all his income on his tax returns? That Khodorkovsky’s arrest was in no way political?

ANATOLY KARLIN: My main problem isn’t that Khodorkovsky’s arrest was political, but that it wasn’t political enough! Were I in charge like a Sid Meier’s Civilization player, all the other oligarchs would join MBK on his extended Siberian vacation, with their ill-gotten assets confiscated and returned to the Russian people.

And if wishes were fishes… Still, let’s get some things straight. On coming to power, Putin made an informal deal with the oligarchs that allowed them to keep their misappropriated wealth in return for paying taxes and staying out of politics. This wasn’t a perfect solution, but one could reasonably argue that it was a better compromise than the two alternatives: large-scale renationalization, or a continuation of full-fledged oligarchy.

For whatever reason – be it self-interest, hubristic arrogance, or even genuine conviction in his own rebranding as a transparency activist – MBK wasn’t interested in this deal. Instead, he bribed Duma deputies to build a power base and tried to run his own foreign policy through YUKOS. So what if other businessmen close to Putin were involved in shady enterprises, you ask? The “others do it too” argument is for the playground, not a court of law. Unlike them, MBK mounted a direct challenge to the Russian state – funded by wealth he’d stolen from it – that Putin was under no obligation to tolerate.

The bottom line is he failed at his power grab, becoming a victim of the same lawless system that he had no qualms exploiting to become Russia’s wealthiest man in the first place (his sordid activities may have extended to murder). Too bad for him, he should have spent his loot on buying foreign football clubs and luxury yachts, like Abramovich. Smallest violin in the world playing for his lost opportunity to enjoy la dolce vita!

I’d really recommend the liberals adopt some other martyr as the face of their Cabbage Revolution, because Khodorkovsky’s sure ain’t pretty!

As regards Putin’s financial probity, I addressed this question below.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If you had to choose someone from the opposition to replace Medvedev in 2012, who would you choose and why?

ANATOLY KARLIN: That’s easy, Gennady Zyuganov. The Communists are by far the most popular opposition to the Kremlin today. Plus, they make awesome vids.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: We’re not sure you understood the question. You mean you think Zyuganov is the best choice among all those opposed to Putin and Medvedev to be their successor?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Yes, I’d take the Communists over liberals mooching at Western embassies any day of the week. If you listen to Zyuganov’s recent speech, you will find that he is deeply critical of Putin’s and Medvedev’s record.

I think he’s the best choice among the current opposition, but the issue is, of course, arguable. What’s undisputable is that it’s the most democratic. According to opinion polls, a great many Russians hold socialist (40%), Communist (18%), and agrarian (19%) values – all of which the KPRF espouses. The numbers of those with liberal (12%) or ethnic nationalist (12%) values is much lower.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: So you’re saying you think an avowed communist apparatchik is a better choice to govern Russia than Mikhail Kasyanov, who was hand-picked by Vladimir Putin to run the country?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Zyuganov has some good ideas about reintroducing progressive taxation, strengthening the social safety net, and increasing spending on groups like pensioners, working mothers, students, and public workers. Misha knows how to take 2% kickbacks and whine about his former employer to Western journalists.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If you are right and, two decades after the collapse of the USSR, the best alternative to a proud KGB spy as Russia’s leader is a shameless Communist apparatchik, doesn’t that say something pretty damning about the people of Russia, the quality of their citizenry and their ability to modernize, adapt and grow? After all, Americans were able to follow Richard Nixon with Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush with Barack Obama. Are they really that much better than Russians in this regard?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If the Communists are Russians’ best alternative, it implies that they suffer much less cognitive dissonance than Americans, who claim to want a Swedish-style wealth distribution but consistently give power to plutocrats drawn from a common “bipartisan consensus.” So that’s another way of looking at things.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If you had to choose someone, and you could choose anyone at all, to be the next president of Russia, who would you choose and why?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Dmitry Rogozin, because his Twitter feed is the best thing since sliced white bread. Realistically? Despite my criticisms of his rule, I think Vladimir Putin remains the best choice.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Rogozin is a fire-breathing nationalist. How do you square criticizing Navalny on this ground and then totally ignoring it with respect to Rogozin?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think advancing Rogozin on the merits of his Twitter feed provides a strong clue on the (non) seriousness of the proposal.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Kevin Rothrock of “A Good Treaty” says Putin won’t return to the presidency in 2012, Medvedev will be reelected. Do you agree?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Yes, I do. If I had to bet on it, I’d give the following odds: Medvedev – 70%, Putin – 25%, Other – 5%.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: What odds do you give Medvedev of defeating Putin in an “election” that Putin wants to win?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If they go head to head, I’d say: Putin – 75%, Medvedev – 25%.

According to opinion polls, 27% of Russians would like Putin to run as a candidate in the 2012 elections, compared to just 18% who are Medvedev supporters (another 16% would like to have both of them run; I count myself among them). Putin’s approval ratings are consistently higher. He has the support of the party of power and the siloviki, though Medvedev can count on the Presidential Staff. A recent infographic in Kommersant indicates that Medvedev enjoys slightly more media coverage.

I think Medvedev will only get a good chance to beat Putin if the allegations of massive corruption against the latter are found to be actually true. As I argue below, I doubt Putin is personally corrupt – at least, not to banana republic-type levels – so I don’t see that becoming a decisive factor.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Rothrock says the 2012 election won’t be free and fair by European standards. Do you agree?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Mostly, I disagree. As I noted in this post, the results of the 2008 Presidential elections almost exactly matched the results of a post-elections Levada poll asking Russians whom they voted for. The percentage of votes for Medvedev, and the percentage of those who later recalled having voted for Medvedev (excluding non-voters), was exactly the same at 71%. If vote rigging were as prevalent as you guys seem to think, there would logically be a big discrepancy between these two figures, no?

(And before you retort that the director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, is an FSB stooge or some such, consider that he writes things like this: “Putinism is a system of decentralized use of the institutional instruments of coercion, preserved in the power ministries as relics of the totalitarian regime, and hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.” Doesn’t exactly sound like the biggest Putin fanboy out there…)

The question of whether elections will be fair is a different quantity. The Russian political system is a restricted space, in comparison to much of Europe, which I suppose makes it less fair. On the other hand, it’s hardly unique in that respect. The first past the post system in the UK, for instance, means that in regions dominated by one party, there is no point in voting for an alternate candidate (a feature that has led to artificially long periods of Conservative domination).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: If Putin does return to the Russian presidency in 2012, do you believe there’s any chance he’ll leave power in anything but a coffin? If so, tell us how you think it could happen.

ANATOLY KARLIN: He might also leave in a helicopter, a Mercedes (or a Lada Kalina, if he’s feeling patriotic that day), or even a computer if “mind uploading” is developed like those technological singularity geeks predict.

Okay, let’s be clear… unlike you, I don’t view Putin as a dictator. The Russian Federation is, at worst, semi-authoritarian, and has been such since 1993 – when the “democratic hero” Yeltsin imposed a super-presidential Constitution with tank shells. If Putin becomes President in 2012, he will likely leave in 2018 or 2024.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But according to your own words, the only way Putin will become “president” in 2012 is if you are very, very wrong. So your prediction about him them leaving office is just drivel, isn’t it? Or are you saying he’ll take a six-year holiday and come back in 2030?

ANATOLY KARLIN: It’s not a prediction, it’s a supposition (note my qualifier: “likely”). As I said, I’m not a seer. What I do know is that Putin honored the constitutional limit on two Presidential terms in 2008, defying the predictions of legions of Kremlinologists, so based on historical precedent I assume he’ll continue to follow the letter of the law.

VVP will be 78 years old in 2030. I suspect he’ll be playing with his great grandchildren by then, not running the country. Unless he takes up Steven Seagal on his offer to become a cyborg, or something.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Could you have asked for a more Russophile-friendly president of the USA than Barack Obama? If so, how could Obama have been even more Russophile-friendly while still retaining credibility among American voters?

ANATOLY KARLIN: If by “Russophile-friendly” you mean a President who takes a neutral and constructive position towards Russia (as opposed to McCain’s kneejerk Russophobia), then yes, quite a few improvements could be made.

Repealing Jackson-Vanik is one long overdue reform, as Russia hasn’t restricted emigration for over two decades. Introducing a visa-free regimen will make life a lot easier for both Russians and Americans. Agreeing to let Russia have joint control of European ballistic missile defense will alleviate Russian concerns that the system is targeted against them, and will give the US leverage to extract more Russian cooperation on issues of mutual concern such as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Admittedly, the last will be a difficult pill to swallow, for those who are still entombed in Cold War mindsets.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You seem a bit confused. The President of the USA can’t repeal a law. Try reading the Constitution. What could Obama have done within his power as president that he has not done? Are you proposing that Europe will have joint control over Russian ballistic missile defense as well?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Presidents can lobby to repeal a law, but OK – point well taken. I don’t deny that Obama has been a good President for US-Russia relations.

This is common sense on his part. The US is an overstretched Power, with a budget deficit of 10%+ of GDP; it’s fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya; China is emerging as a major economic and military challenger; and the government is sinking into dysfunctional partisanship. Reaching some kind of accommodation with Russia is very much in the US national interest, even if the residual Cold Warriors and neocons are too blind to see it.

If the US granted Russia joint control of its BMD systems in Europe, and if – for whatever reason – Russia were to install BMD facilities abroad in Belarus or Transnistria, then yes, it would be justified for the US and a European authority to demand joint control over those Russian BMD systems.

(Ideally, in my view, all parties should abandon BMD projects against next to non-existent threats from countries like Iran, and concentrate their resources on far more pressing issues, such as anthropogenic climate change).

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Are you saying Obama isn’t lobbying to repeal JV?

ANATOLY KARLIN: Obama could be more pro-active about it. It’s been three years now and still no cake.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: According to Transparency International Russia has become much more corrupt while Putin has held power, and there’s certainly no evidence it has become less corrupt. Do you believe Putin is personally corrupt, in other words that he’s taken any money or wealth in any form that he has not declared on his tax return while president or prime minister?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I take issue with your first statement. Russia’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was 2.1 in 2000; it remained unchanged, at 2.1, in 2010. How does this indicate that Russia has become “much more corrupt” under Putin? I’d call it stagnation. (And that’s corruption as measured by a metric that has been widely criticized for its subjectivity and methodological flaws. But that’s another topic).

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Putin’s bank accounts (of course, neither do the legions of journalists writing about his $40 billion offshore fortunes). In fact, as far as I know, these claims originated with Stanislav Belkovsky, a political scientist citing “anonymous sources” in the Kremlin. The sole problem with his thesis? He doesn’t give any evidence whatsoever to back up his claims.

My impression is that Putin is not personally corrupt – at least, not to Suharto-like extremes. Sure, it’s not as if Putin buys his $50,000 watches and vintage cars with his own salary; that’s the job of his staff, to maintain a respectable image. And this isn’t uncommon. For instance, President Sarkozy wears a $120,000 Breguet, among several other luxury watches in his collection.

PS. I noticed in your translation of Nemtsov’s report that he took issue with taxpayer-funded estates “that are at the disposal of the country’s top leaders” as one example of Putin’s incorrigible corruption. The first example of this ‘corruption’ he cited was Konstantinovo Palace, near St.-Petersburg. Some facts: it’s an imperial-era palace that fell into disrepair in the 1990’s; Putin merely ordered its restoration. It’s possible to visit it as a tourist, and in fact I did, in 2003. Like many other cultural attractions, it has its own website. I wouldn’t find it surprising if tourism has already repaid the ‘corrupt’ state investments into its reconstruction.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Please have a look at the nice red-and-white chart in this link. Would you like to change your answer?

ANATOLY KARLIN: The chart shows that Russia’s position fell in Transparency International’s global rankings from 82nd in 2000, to 154th a decade later. What the esteemed author, Ben Judah, conveniently forgot to mention was that the sample of countries it was measured against rose from 90 to 178.

So, that’s a no.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: You’re saying that the revelation that there are seventy two more countries in the world than previously thought that are less corrupt than Russia is insignificant? You’re saying that you don’t think it reflects at all badly on Vladimir Putin that there are 153 world nations that are less corrupt than Putin’s Russia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: You’d benefit from a course in Stats 101. Russia’s absolute ranking has fallen, but this was exclusively due to a doubled sample. Its absolute score remains exactly the same at 2.1, and it stayed in the bottom quintile in the global rankings. There is no “revelation” to speak of as statisticians would have ACCOUNTED for the fact that the sample only covered less than half the world’s countries in 2000!

I completely agree with you that Russia’s position in Transparency International’s CPI rankings reflects badly on VVP… if the ‘perceptions’ of their self-appointed experts actually had anything to do with reality! Fortunately for Russia, that is not the case. Quite apart from its methodological flaws – using changing mixes of different surveys to gauge a fluid, opaque-by-definition social phenomenon – it doesn’t pass the face validity test. In other words, many of the CPI’s results are frankly ludicrous. Do you truly believe that Russia (2.1) is more corrupt than failed states like Zimbabwe (2.4) and Haiti (2.2), or that Italy (3.9) is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia (4.7) which is a feudalistic monarchy for crying out loud!? If you do, may I respectfully suggest getting your head checked?

There are many other corruption indices that are far more useful and objective than the risible CPI.

One of them is Transparency International’s less well-known Global Corruption Barometer. Every year, they poll respondents on the following question: “In the past 12 months have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe?” According to the 2010 version, some 26% of Russians said they did, which is broadly similar to other middle-income countries such as Thailand (23%), Hungary (24%), Romania (28%), or Lithuania (34%). It is significantly worse than developed countries such as the US (5%) or Italy (13%) – though Greece (18%) isn’t that distant – but leagues ahead of Third World territories like India (54%) or Sub-Saharan Africa (56% average).

Another resource is the Global Integrity Report, which evaluates countries on their “actually existing” legal frameworks and implementation on issues such as “the transparency of the public procurement process, media freedom, asset disclosure requirements, and conflicts of interest regulations.” (This involves rigorous line by line examination of the laws in question, as opposed to polling “experts” on their “perceptions” as in the CPI). Russia has relatively good laws, but weak implementation, making for an average score of 71/100 as of 2010 (up from 63/100 in 2006). As with the Barometer, Russia is somewhere in the middle of the pack. It does better on the International Budget Partnership, which – believe it or not – assesses budget transparency. On the Open Budgets Index of 2010, Russia scored 60/100 (or 21st/94 countries), which is worse than most developed countries like the US (82) or Germany (67), but average for its region, and well above states like Nigeria (18) or Saudi Arabia (1).

Now I hope you won’t take away the wrong impression here. It is not my intention to argue that there’s no corruption in Russia, or that it isn’t any worse than in most of the developed world. But I do not consider Russia’s corruption to be atypical of other middle-income countries, and it’s certainly nowhere near the likes of Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea as those who praise the Corruption Perceptions Index would have you think.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: But Anatoly, you’re still ignoring our questions, and that’s very rude. As TI started bringing in more and more countries within its survey, it found that far, far more of them were LESS corrupt than Russia, and only a handful were MORE corrupt. You can’t seem to decide if TI’s data is reliable, and therefore proves corruption isn’t getting worse in Russia, or unreliable, and therefore can be ignored when it claims Russia is a disastrous failure. Since you don’t care about facts, let’s talk about anecdotes: Have you personally ever actually tried to do business in Russia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: So what?? The experts polled by Transparency International believed Russia to be a corrupt hellhole in 2000 (bottom 9% globally). They believed Russia to be a corrupt hellhole in 2010 (bottom 14% globally). Nothing changed.

Just because more countries were included in the survey during the intervening period says absolutely nothing about corruption trends in Russia!

TI’s data used to compile the CPI is reliable enough at measuring corruption PERCEPTIONS; what I think I made quite clear is that I do not believe those perceptions to be reflective of Russia’s corruption REALITIES, because of the methodological and face validity problems that I discussed above. As such, I do NOT view TI’s CPI as a reliable measure of corruption in Russia. There are far better measures such as the Global Corruption Barometer, the Global Integrity Report, and the Open Budget Index.

You can view Russia’s scores on these, relative to other countries, in my new post on the Corruption Realities Index 2010. It combines the findings of the three organizations above, and in the final results Russia comes 46th/93 (and before you rush off to claim it is “Russophile”-biased, note that Georgia comes 21st/93). Nobody would claim being about as corrupt as the world average to be a great achievement, and I never did; but neither is it apocalyptic.

No, I haven’t done business in Russia. Is it supposed to be a prerequisite for studying corruption in Russia? In any case, even if I had done business there, my experiences wouldn’t necessarily be representative of the business community at large.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Well, see, if Russia wasn’t really so bad, or was in stasis compared to other countries, then you’d expect to see an equal division between “less corrupt than Russia” and “more corrupt than Russia” as new countries were added to the mix. But in fact, as new countries are added the overwhelming majority turn out to be less corrupt than Russia. Even if Russia’s score is overstated by one-third, Russia still isn’t among the 100 most honest nations on the planet. A person who truly cared about Russia would be very, very concerned about this. You, instead, seek to rationalize Russian failure and by doing so you help it continue. So as we’ve said before, with “friends” like you Russia needs no enemies.

ANATOLY KARLIN: I doubt Russia’s corruption problem will be fixed sooner by screaming “ZAIRE WITH PERMAFROST!!!” at any opportunity, but that’s just me so let’s agree to disagree.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Why don’t you live in Russia?

ANATOLY KARLIN: This question appears to be a variation of the “love it then go there” argument, which is a false dilemma fallacy.

Anything more I say will only be recapping issues I’ve already addressed in this post.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Again, you’ll have to answer our questions or your interview won’t be published. Bizarre as it may seem to you, those are our rules. Incidentally, our readers aren’t overly interested in following links to your blog. Care to try again?

ANATOLY KARLIN: My reasons for living not living in Russia are simple and mundane: at the present time, I see more opportunities for myself where I currently reside than I do in Russia. I’d prefer to finish my last year in university, and overall, the Bay Area is a pretty cool place to be in.

This may change in the future, as in general, I view myself as a wanderer, a “rootless cosmopolitan” if you will, and some other countries on my to-go list include China, Argentina, and Ukraine / Belarus.

However, I doubt your motive in asking this question is to exchange pleasantries about my life goals. Instead you or your readers may legitimately ask why my opinions on Russian politics, society, etc., should carry any weight when I don’t live there.

First, who I am, where I live, and what flavor of ice cream I like has no bearing on the validity of any arguments I make about Russia or indeed almost anything else. Not only is disputing that a logical fallacy, but for consistency you’d then have to dismiss almost all Western Kremlinologists – including those you approve of, such as Streetwise Professor, Paul Goble, Leon Aron, etc – who likewise don’t live in Russia.

Second, you might be implying that I should “love it or leave it,” i.e. leave the US (which I hate) and go to Russia (which I love). Not only is this also a logical fallacy, a false choice dilemma, but it is also untrue. There are many aspects of the US which I love and likewise many aspects of Russia that I hate, and vice versa.

Third, you may say that I “voted with my feet,” thus proving that USA is Number One. Sorry to disappoint, but one person cannot be generalized to ‘prove’ things one way or another on issues as subjective as which country is better or worse than another. The exercise is entirely pointless given the huge impact of unquantifiable cultural factors and specific and personal circumstances inherent to any such judgment.

Fourth, and finally, even if I did live in Russia, the Russophobe ideologue will only argue that it’s confirmation that I’m an FSB stooge – because, as he or she well knows, the Kremlin crushes all dissent and only allows Putinistas online.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: We don’t believe any thinking person can argue that any other Russia blog that has ever existed has come close to being as inspirational to the blogosphere as La Russophobe. Just for instance, neither your blog nor the one you (laughably) consider the best in the universe, Kremlin Stooge, would exist without our inspiration. And if there’s one thing we respect about you, it would be your willingness to admit the extent of our influence. Yet many of your Russophile brethren insist on pretending to dismiss us. Why are they so unwilling to admit how good we are? Why don’t they realize how foolish they look? Is it some sort of psychological complex on their part, or is it a crazily ineffective propaganda scheme?

ANATOLY KARLIN: I think you’ve given all the answers in advance.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: No, we’ve given a choice of options, and maybe you can think of another one we haven’t.

ANATOLY KARLIN: It might have something to do with them seeing you as a slanderous egomaniac with delusions of grandeur (“La Russophobe, of course, stands alone as the best Russia blog on this planet, or any other”), though admittedly, also morbidly entertaining, like the artworks of Damien Hirst. But I’m sure they’re just jealous. After all: “ревность – сестра любви, подобно тому как дьявол – брат ангелов.”

You’ll always be an angel to me, La Russophobe!

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Do you seriously believe Kremlin Stooge is the best Russia blog on the planet, or were you just being a provocateur?

ANATOLY KARLIN: It’s a tossup between Kremlin Stooge (popular coverage), Russia: Other Points Of View (in-depth economy, politics, media), A Good Treaty (society), The Power Vertical (politics), Sean’s Russia Blog (history), and Sublime Oblivion (demography)… well, if you insist, add La Russophobe (the кровавая гэбня).

(Of course, these are only the English-language blogs. There is also Alexandre Latsa’s Dissonance blog, en français, and it goes without saying that there are dozens of extremely good Russia blogs на русском.)

At a minimum, they all offer something unique. Selecting the best one is, by necessity, an exercise in subjectivity. With that caveat, I find Mark Chapman’s Kremlin Stooge, Russia: Other Points of View, and Eric Kraus’ Truth and Beauty to be the most interesting English-language blogs.

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, and wish you the best.

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Thanks for the interview, and good luck with your blogging!

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I was recently interviewed on Middle East geopolitics and the Iran Question by Marat Kunaev, a blogger and translator at InoForum. I would like to thank him for the opportunity to express my views on the topic and providing a possible gateway into the geopolitical commentary on Runet. I’m reprinting the interview from here, with a few very minor edits; Marat made a Russian translation here.

What do you think about the situation in the Middle East?

The mainstream media likes to make generalizations about this very diverse region. Most of these are idiotic, simplistic tropes (oil, Islam, terrorists, etc). I don’t think this is productive, so instead I’ll highlight two things that get little traction in the Western mainstream media.

First, water scarcity is the root of many of the region’s problems. The Middle East is the world’s only major region perennially incapable of feeding itself, forcing it to import “virtual water” in the form of food. One of the main causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is over the unfair distribution of water, which is skewed towards Israel and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. On a bigger scale, water flows are almost as important to the region’s strategic balance as the distribution of oil deposits. Control of the headwaters of the Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, coupled with the biggest economic base in the region, gives Turkey immense strategic clout. To the contrary, Egypt’s food production deficits make it potentially vulnerable, as seen in the food riots of 2008 when global grain prices spiked. The urban poor who are hardest hit tend to resent their secular authoritarian rulers and support Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, making good with Israel and seeking US protection and subsidies makes perfect sense for the Egyptian political elites: resources can be freed up from military spending towards maintaining domestic stability.

Second, the “Islamic Resurgence” is rather simplistically portrayed as single-minded opposition to the West. The real situation is a lot more complex. The movement takes a variety of guises, from the moderate Islamism of Turkey’s AKP to Al-Qaeda’s franchise-based terrorist cells to the internal clan-based conflicts of Shi’ite Iran’s “Velayat-e faqih” system. It is inaccurate to treat them as a hostile monolith. And many of their grievances do sound genuine to ordinary Muslims. For instance, even Osama bin Laden doesn’t hate the US for its “freedom”, but for its support of Arab elites that he sees as corrupt, anti-democratic and hostile to Islam — e. g., the House of Saud’s acquiescence in stationing US troops in the holy lands of Mecca and Medina to protect the oil exports whose proceeds overwhelmingly benefit influential cliques. But arguing that this interpretation has some validity to it is a sure road to a wrecked career in American mainstream journalism.

Should we wait for radical change in Afghanistan?

No. Even Ronald Reagan and Rambo were pessimistic, back in the 1980’s! :) Americans don’t want to stay in Afghanistan for much longer, and their finances won’t allow them to anyway. In a few years, the Afghan government will have to sink or swim without US ground forces to support it.

However, I doubt the Taleban will seize central control again. Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untapped mineral reserves, and regional giants China, India, Russia and Iran have no interest in fundamentalists blocking access to them — especially in our world of increasingly scarce, harder-to-get resources.

How real is the possibility of US or Israeli strikes on Iran?

It’s one of those things that everyone talks about all the time, but never happens: until a spark sets of the bonfire, the Big Thing happens, and acquires the tinge of inevitability as viewed in the rear-view mirror of our common history. Kind of like World War One…

I wrote about this in my post The US Strategic Dilemma and Persian Deadlock. The key players are the US, Russia and Iran (the “triangle”) and Israel (the “wildcard”). Each have diverging interests that are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.

The Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz.

Iran wants nuclear weapons to secure its mountain base, acquire the capability to project influence through its proxies (e. g. Hezbollah) with impunity and become the hegemon over the oil riches of the Gulf. Russia wants to keep the US occupied in the Middle East as it rebuilds its Eurasian sphere of influence, but all things considered, it would rather Iran not get the Bomb. The US is firmly against both Iranian hegemony in the Gulf and Russian hegemony in Eurasia: however, the tools at its disposal are insufficient to prevent both (it doesn’t have the hard power to contain Russian influence within its current borders, while a strike against Iran will have severe repercussions — up to and including a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, through which pass 40% of the world’s oil exports, the commodity underpinning America’s own global hegemony). As such, the US, Russia, and Iran are locked into an uneasy, but potentially sustainable, strategic “triangle”.

However, this “triangle” is broken by the “wildcard”, Israel. While the Israelis couldn’t care less what Russia gets up to, it sees an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an existential threat: not exclusively in a military sense — Israel has 200 nukes of its own (though Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic rantings aren’t reassuring) — but in a political and cultural one. If Iran gets the Bomb, a nuclear race will break out in the Middle East. A sense of doubt and uncertainty will seep into Israel. Hezbollah will grow bolder; the possible entrenchment of political Islam in Turkey or Egypt will create a strategic nightmare for Israel. Educated Jews will start leaving the Jewish homeland, undermining the tax base needed for increased military expenditures (e. g. on anti-ballistic missile systems), as well as the Jewish nature of the Israeli state itself. In short, a nuclearized Middle East will make Israel’s foothold in the Levant vulnerable, even untenable.

If Israel feels that the US is wavering in its commitment to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, then it will go it alone — perhaps with the covert agreement of states like Saudi Arabia, which aren’t much interested in seeing a hostile, nuclear-armed Shi’ite state on the other side of the Gulf either. The US will almost certainly be drawn into the fight in the aftermath — e. g. by an Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, or even false flag Israeli attacks on the US.

In my opinion, the dates of likely Israeli action are from early-2011 (when the US acquires its Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb capable of busting concrete bunkers 60m deep) to end-2012 (the date by which Iran is likely to have developed workable nuclear weapons). Otherwise, the stage is set for the eventual nuclearization of the Middle East.

Should we expect a further strengthening of sanctions against Iran?

President Medvedev said on 23 September, 2009, “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” What he means by this Aesopian language is that it is Russia that will be able to decide whether the results of strengthened sanctions are going to be “productive” (however you define that). Russia’s position is crucial because it is the only country with the spare refining capacity and secure trans-Caspian transport routes to successfully break any gasoline sanctions against Iran.

But even Russia’s participation will not dissuade Iran from working on the Bomb. To the contrary, it can even increase Iranian resolve if it creates the conditions for a “siege mentality” within the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, sanctions are in the interests of both the US (it would prefer accommodating with Iran to fighting it, if possible) and even Russia (to appease the US in exchange for concessions on other policy fronts). As such, sanctions are a very convenient pretext for delaying military action. But for understandable reasons, Israel is unlikely to be as patient.

What do you think are the real Russian, Indian and Chinese positions on Iran?

Though Russia might have a few more friends than just her Army and Navy, Iran certainly isn’t one of them. It’s just a lever to be used for extracting concessions from the US. At this time, supporting sanctions is good for Russia because the Americans are compromising on many spheres (e. g. on modernization, START, Georgia). However, a time may come when Russia performs volte face, e. g. if the US shows signs of reaching a reconciliation with Iran in order to refocus its energies on containing Russia, or ceases supporting Russia’s modernization drive.

China and India are both interested in cooperating with Iran to develop its hydrocarbons sector and lock in its oil and LNG exports. Both countries espouse non-Western values of “national sovereignty” and non-interference. Furthermore, India is interested in recruiting Iran as a western counterweight against its rival Pakistan. As a result, neither country has any interest whatsoever in stringently enforcing sanctions against Iran out of pure altruism.

What do you think are the positions of Georgia and Azerbaijan on military action against Iran and its aftermath?

Since Iran is in a “cold war” with Azerbaijan and supports its prime enemy Armenia, the Azeri elites would probably secretly welcome military action against Iran. Furthermore, there are twice as many Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan, and though they enjoy equal rights with Persians, it is Islam — or the system of Guardianship of the Islamic Jury — that really keeps Iran united (with help from the security apparatus). If Iran were to suffer military defeat, the regime may be discredited, and a liberal democratic one may even take its place.

map-iran-ethnicities

Map of Iran’s ethnicities.

In that case, centrifugal tendencies may become predominant — as in the last years of the Soviet Union — and maybe even a Greater Azerbaijan will emerge on both sides of the Caspian Sea in alliance with Turkey to the west. On the other hand, Azerbaijan can’t be too openly enthusiastic about undermining Iran because it borders Russia to the north, which is friendlier with Iran. That is why the Azeris categorically refuse to let Israeli planes fly over its airspace in a strike on Iran.

Georgia’s position is much harder to decipher, as it maintains fairly good relations with everyone except Russia — against which it is irrevocable opposed because of its liberation / occupation (cross out as you wish) of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia. Though in previous years they’d have supported Israel, their current interests aren’t clear, since the Israelis stopped delivering arms to Georgia in exchange for Russia not delivering the S-300 air defense system to Iran. I don’t think a strike against Iran by either Israel or the US will cardinally change Georgia’s situation.

What do you think about the situation in the Russian North Caucasus and the Caucasus region in general?

Russia’s North Caucasus remains bloody and unstable, but secure under Russian control. Kadyrov is the Kremlin’s vassal in Chechnya: should he turn renegade, they’ll find another baron to replace him easily enough.

I doubt there’ll be another Georgia-Russia war. Its clear that the Ossetians and Abkhazians prefer implicit Russian control to explicit Georgian rule, and Saakashvili has no chance of changing this reality by military force. On the other hand, he remains genuinely popular amongst Georgians and secure in his rule. The cold war between Russia and Georgia will continue, but it’s unlikely to turn hot again; not unless Saakashvili is a total loon and tries to replay 08/08/08.

Another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is also unlikely. Though Azeri military spending, bolstered by its oil wealth, now exceeds the entire Armenian state budget, the latter has had fifteen years to reinforce its positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Furthermore, direct Azeri attacks on Armenia proper will probably provoke a Russian military response through the mutual defense provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization). Aliyev is a rational, calculating leader and would much rather enjoy Azerbaijan’s oil bounty than run the risk of military defeat and popular uprisings against his regime.

How would you interpret the recent Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal in the context of multipolarity?

It’s an ideological statement: the voices of formerly peripheral countries rejecting the Western consensus on nuclear rights and proposing an alternative project amongst members of the “Rest”. As such, it is a very strong endorsement of the multi-polar ideal. But in real life, the actors playing the key roles are the countries with both interests in the issue and power projection capabilities in the region: Israel, the US, Iran, and Russia. West or Rest, it doesn’t matter: only power and the will to power.

I’d like to thank Marat Kunaev for this interview. I tried to make my answers as thought-provoking as his questions, and though I might have failed in that endevour, I hope the gap is not unbridgeable.

Interviewed by Marat Kunaev.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The next installment of our Watching the Russia Watchers series at S/O features an interview with Peter Lavelle, the main political analyst at the Russia Today TV network, host of its CrossTalk debate show and Untimely Thoughts blogger. (He also has a Wikipedia page!) Peter is opposed to Western media hegemony, considering it neither fair nor useful, and firmly believes that global media should feature a diversity of voices from all cultural traditions; as such, the rise of alternate forums such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today are a boon for media consumers everywhere. Peter Lavelle actualizes this philosophy in his own CrossTalk program, in which controversial topics from France’s burqa ban to the collapse of Soviet Amerika are discussed: agree with him or not, one can certainly never get bored listening. The serious Russia watcher is recommended to join his “Untimely Thoughts” – Expert Discussion Group on Russia.

Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…

What first sparked your interest in journalism and Russia, and how did the twain meet?

The reason I started to write about Russia – circa 1999 – came about for two reasons. First, having an education in Eastern European and Russian history gave me a reason to write about where I lived. I didn’t like much of what the commentariat was writing on contemporary Russia. The second reason was to earn some money, which later led to needing to make a living.

I came to Russia to live in late 1997. I was employed as an equity analyst at what was then called Alfa Capital. I was lured to Russia by my former boss (an American) I worked with in Poland. I never wanted to move to Russia – actually I must say I was rather adverse to Russia, having lived in eastern Europe for about 12 years. As a result of the financial crisis of 1998, I was given a generous severance package. This allowed me to stay in Russia for a while without worrying too much about money. In spring of 2000 I started to work for a small Russian bank. The money wasn’t great, but at least the bank organized and paid for my visa. Plus, I had time to write now and then. It was at this time I discovered the JRL – Johnson’s Russia List. I have been hooked on (even an addict to) Russia watching ever since.

So you ask “how did the twain meet?” I was furious with what some journalists passed off as serious analysis and commentary on Russia and I was given opportunities to express myself as a corrective to what I thought was awful journalism. The synthesis is me today (and not just regarding Russia).

My first stop was the Russia Journal. It wasn’t much of a newspaper, but I sure did write a lot for it and really enjoyed it. Then UPI’s former Moscow bureau chief asked me to come on board as a stringer – I was thrilled. That was the first time I called myself a journalist.

Later, I wrote for Asia Times Online and – yes! – for Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty. Being published in “Current History” was also a special benchmark for me as a journalist.

This was also the first time I started butting heads with the commentariat. I would like to point out that this is way before I had anything to do with Russian state (funded) media. Please remember my Untimely Thoughts newsletter was going full blast during all of this.

And for all those interested: I started to work at RIAN (2005) becauseI was tired of the “slave wages” UPI was paying and for problems associated with getting a new visa. Thus, I had very practical reasons to make this move.

It is simply not true I went to RIAN (later RT) due to “ideological” motivations. I had already settled in Russia and wanted to stay settled. My journalism in front of a camera today differs little from the journalism I practiced in print years before RT came into existence.

What were your best and worst experiences as a Russia journalist?

The highlight of my career to date in journalism, in which I include television, was covering Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia in August 2008. I was in the news studio hour after hour, day in and day out. I lived on cigarettes and coffee, and with very little sleep. Watching such a story from the start and unfold was exhilarating. I am proud to say RT did an excellent job and that we at RT got the story right from the beginning when other news outlets either got it wrong or played catch-up (following RT’s lead of course!).

Having my own television program (aired three times a week) remains a great highlight. I dreamed (or day dreamed) of having such an opportunity at a very early age watching the Sunday political chat shows in the US. So dreams can come true, I suppose.

What is my worst experience? This will surprise you: not getting paid for my work. I have lost count of the number of articles I wrote without being compensated when I was still in print journalism. Today I can write for media outlets without asking for compensation – a wonderful position to be in.

I would like to also mention that while not directly under the category of “worst experience” I can say an on-going “unpleasant experience” is being called “Putin’s mouth piece” or the “Kremlin’s tool.” I speak my mind, I have always done this. Anyone acquainted with my long lost friend – my Untimely Thoughts newsletter – knows I have changed very little over the years. Television has not changed me; it has only allowed me to amplify my worldview.

Who are the best Russia commentators? Who are the worst?

Who are the best? There are some really great ones – ones that come to mind immediately: Patrick Armstrong, Vlad Sobell, Thomas Graham, Eugene Ivanov, Dale Herspring, Stephen Cohen, Paul Sauders, Dmitry Sims, Anatol Lieven, Mary Dejevsky, and Chris Weafer (and of course you Anatoly!).

Who are the worst? I think it is pointless to answer this question. Among the commentariat there is a small cottage industry that regularly condemns me – everyone reading this interview knows who I am referring to. To this day not one aspersion said or written about me warrants my reply. These are small minded people and most of them are journalists because they lack the ability and talent to do anything else. These are the worst kind of people – they get along by going along. When it comes to writing about Russia, the majority of them don’t have the guts to stand alone and speak up.

What is your favourite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I love and hate Moscow! Moscow is my home so I make the best of it. Because of my CrossTalk program, I very rarely travel anymore. In fact, I have seen very little of this vast country. I have visited various cities between Moscow and St Petersburg and down south as far as Chechnya. By my own admission, I should be better travelled after so many years. I am still hoping to make it to Vladivostok.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

Martin Malia’s “Russia under Western Eyes” [AK: Click to buy] – I can’t remember how many times I have read this great tome, but each time I do I learn something new to reflect upon.

Do you think today’s Russian media environment is better than in 1999? The late 1980′s? Are Russian journalists freer or safer than they were before?

Comparing Russian media of the 80’s to the 90s to the 00s is not very constructive. The ending of Soviet era censorship was a great moment for Russians and Russian society. Some embraced honest and professional journalism; others practiced this trade with regrettable irresponsibility.

The way I look at Russia’s media transition – and the journey is long from over – is through the prism of business models. In the 80s the state’s monopoly had to be broken and eventually was. In the 90s the oligarchs divided up among themselves huge media empires – none ofwhich had any interest in real journalism or the social good. These media empires were political tools that terribly damaged journalism as a trade, profession, the political environment and even the world of business.

Since about 2000 (circa Putin), media in Russia is very much a business and a very profitable one at that! Today media caters more to audience interests and tastes – mostly entertainment (particularly when it comes to television). Is this good? Does this make a better society? Are people well enough informed? On the whole I don’t see Russian media being all that different from other media markets in the world. Russians – like their global counterparts – are well enough informed about their environment to make rational decisions about their lives. There is plenty of diversity, though one has to make an effort to satisfy interests beyond Russia’s mainstream.

As for the safety of journalists in Russia: this is a very painful and even shameful state of affairs. The police and judiciary need to do much more for journalists. Their inability to prosecute those behind high profile murders hurts journalism as a profession and public trust in state authorities.

Also, I want to point out that journalists are killed more likely because of “kompromat” being investigated or written about someone else’s money – not politics in its normative sense. In Russia money is everything – politics is a sideshow that amuses Russia’s hopelessly retarded liberal intelligentsia.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

I don’t like the term “Putinism.” There is no such “ism.” Russia is going through what I call the “post-soviet purgatory” – and doing well at that by my estimation, considering the other post-soviet states.

Vladimir Putin is the best thing to happen to Russia in its modern history – he is a rational person and a true patriot. Because of Putin, Russians are freer and richer now than any time since the Russian state came into existence centuries ago. Putin saved the Russian state from thieving oligarchs and their highly paid western advisors. Putin reconstructed the Russian state, was behind the creation of a middle class, and Russia’s dignified turn to the world stage. And he rightfully fought terrorism in the Caucasus when the West hoped for the slow and painful collapse of the Russian state in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Putin is also the indirect creation of western hubris and the gross irresponsibility of Russia’s self-hating cappuccino-drinking liberals. Russia doesn’t need to be lectured by an outrageously hypocritical West, especially American posturing. Putin is the antithesis of Western hypocrisy and history will be very kind to him. Russians give him a lot of credit and he deserves it.

How will Russia-West relations be affected by Obama’s “reset” policy and Medvedev’s new emphasis on modernization? Which was the main party responsible for their deterioration in the first place?

The so-called “re-set” is a media strategy and in a sense a fraud – it has nothing to do with reality or political facts on the ground. Washington caved to reality – the American empire is collapsing. To slow the inevitable, Washington needs Moscow’s help. Out of self-interest Russia is willing to engage Obama. Pragmatic Russia today is helping Soviet Amerika out of a mess of its own making.

Most of the world’s problems can’t be resolved without Russia’s involvement – Washington now acknowledges this. Moscow does not give a hoot about Obama or the US. What Moscow does care about is how the world will evolve as the US deals with its own and much needed, but rarely spoken about, perestroika. The US is in decline and Russia (along with the emerging world) is readying itself for the inevitable paradigm shift.

Lastly, Russia and the US are not enemies, but they are competitors at times. Competition is good for both countries – even when dealing with common problems facing the world.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

The Russian government claims it is fighting corruption (and there are signs of this), but it is not doing nearly enough. If Russia is to modernize itself to be competitive in the global marketplace, then it must to do more to fight this cancer. If this is not done, then history will pass Russia by.

HARD Talk* with Peter Lavelle

ANATOLY KARLIN: You are a fierce critic of US policy towards the Muslim world, and its enabling of Israeli expansionism and sidelining of dissenters like Robert Fisk and Norman Finkelstein. First, could you please expound on the similarities between Russophobia and Islamophobia? Second, why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUz14bvK4A8&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: First of all, I don’t like the terms Russophobia and Islamophobia – both terms are emotive and lack precision. That said, it is obvious that Russia and Islam today serve as the West’s “other” – meaning both are feared because they are different and will not submit. It is the highest form of hubris on the part of the West to believe (even demand) that everyone in the world should be like the West. The fact is many in the world simply don’t want this. They want good education, health care, prosperity, etc., but not necessarily Western values and certainly not Western (read: American) militarism. This really annoys the West, particularly poorly educated and poorly informed Americans.

Russia sees itself as its own unique civilization. This may or may not be true, but many Russians seem to think so. Islam is obviously a civilization different from the West. Islam is experiencing a resurgence and a great deal of this resurgence is the rejection that Muslims must become more like American, Europeans, etc. I blame Western mainstream media for misleading Western audiences about Islam and the Muslim world. Tragically this is part of the grossly one-sided reporting when it comes to Israel and Greater Middle East politics.

Russia is terribly misinterpreted and misunderstood in the West. Russia is presented as the loser in the Cold War and thus should act as a defeated power. Russia refuses to do this. This infuriates many in the West. The fact is Russia and Russians liberated themselves from communism! According to the Western discourse regarding history, Russia is not repenting for the past, thus it still must be the enemy. The good news is Russia is a political fact on the ground and the West has no choice but to do business with it.

You ask: why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate? You are asking me to compare apples with cement bricks!

The Israelis threw the Palestinians off their land and deny them their own state. Chechens have their republic within the Russian Federation, which is generously supported by the federal government.

Palestinians are less than second class citizens in Palestine, Chechens have the same rights as any other Russian citizen. Israel is a zionist state; Russia is a secular state protecting the religious rights of all citizens. Hamas was democratically elected; the Caucasus Emirate was not elected by anyone.

I could easily go on. As you can see I don’t see there is much of a comparison.

ANATOLY KARLIN: In my question to you about Russia-US relations, you claim the “American empire is collapsing” and allude to “Soviet Amerika” (that’s even the title of one your Crosstalk programs). Now it’s no secret that the United States has its share of problems: an overstretched military, awning budget deficits, etc. Nonetheless, we need some perspective. The US economy is still much larger than that of its nearest competitor, China (which has lots of bad loans and will be devastated if it were to pull the plug on its prime export market). The Eurozone may already be on the verge of unraveling. As for Russia, its GDP is an order of magnitude smaller than America’s.

So is it then reasonable to speculate about the collapse of Pax Americana, considering its current strength and the problems afflicting potential rivals? If it does collapse, which country or bloc will take its place, if any? Finally, have you heard of Dmitry Orlov’s idea of “the Collapse Gap” between the USSR and America today?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usiu_EefUow&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: Yes, I have come across Orlov’s work and remain skeptical – he simply wants to the US to collapse. Everything you point out in your question is correct about the US. But you left out one important issue – the current weakness of America’s democracy. There is no political will in America to live within the country’s means. No one wants to sacrifice – and so many want too much without paying for it. This cannot last much longer – a couple of decades at best. America simply cannot maintain a global empire and prosperity at home. The only card up America’s sleeve is the dollar at the moment, but there is every indication that it will be replaced by a basket of currencies by mid-century.

Who will lead in the wake of America’s inevitable retreat? Hopefully the world will truly become multi-polar. Such a world is better for all of humanity. Multipolarity is better suited to dealing with issues such as climate change, food and energy security, non-proliferation, dealing with HIV/AIDs, etc. Today the world has to wait on all these issues because the US is very often the greatest barrier to positive change in world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You say that you’re not a paid shill because you are quite sincere in your beliefs: you’re not “the man who $old his homeland”, as alleged by Russia Today’s (RT) former Tbilisi correspondant William Dunbar**. That may be so.

Nonetheless, many observers believe you and RT are hardly free of the same biases that you claim pervade the Western MSM. Though accusing you of being a “latter-day Lord Haw Haw” is surely extreme (as well as a reductio ad hitlerum), the perception definitely exists that what you call “challenging the Western media hegemony” is really just a euphemism for pushing Kremlin spin on unwitting Westerners.

First, do you think this is a valid argument? (If you use the “whataboutism” response, e.g. but the Western media is controlled too!, explain why you think that justifies Russia doing the same.) Second, if you still insist that you’re not beholden to the Kremlin, could you make three criticisms of the Medvedev-Putin tandem?

PETER LAVELLE: I knew William Dunbar and know a few of the details connected to his departure from RT. He is entitled to his opinion, though they are not opinions I agree with. Indeed, he does claim I am “the man who $old his homeland.” This only informs me that he knows little about me and my opinions.

So I will answer my critics on the compensation issue. Yes, I live a comfortable life in Moscow as far as a journalist is concerned, but that is not saying much these days! I am compensated because my work is hard, presenting truly alternative viewpoints, and promoting the station – no different from other television professionals around the world.

What does it mean to sell out one’s homeland? I am American and proud of it. Being American allows me to dissent – and I dissent all the time! RT allows me to do this when most western media outlets could never dream of giving a journalist so much free space. My program CrossTalk is my creation and I am very thankful RT management supports me. I decide the program’s topics and approve guests. I inform my boss what I am doing; I don’t ask for permission.

I don’t care what some disgruntled RT employee has to say about me. The same applies to others in the commentariat because their lack of talent or success. How often these days do I openly attack my critics? The answer is that I don’t. I am attacked and vilified because of my employer, but not my message. That is cheap.

I do not speak for RT – I can only speak for myself and my work at the television station. And let me make it clear – I don’t alway like every story RT broadcasts. At the same time I will defend the station’s commitment to being different. Again being honest – some RT reports are a bit over the top. But this is a good thing in the end – we ask our audience one basic thing: Question More. We may not always get it right, but our intention is spot on.

As far as Kremlin spin-doctoring is concerned, all I can say that this assumption is laughable. I come across this accusation all the time, but after working at RT for almost 5 years I still don’t see the evidence. Does RT present the government’s point of view? Yes, of course it does (and many other viewpoints as well). But is this “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? Obviously Russia’s political elite views the world differently from let’s say the US. Why should anyone be surprised by this? Also, anyone who has watched RT will tell you that the station is not only about politics. How can non-political stories be “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? RT wants to be and is competitive. This is because it is consciously different from its competitors.

RT doesn’t do the same. It is part of my job to watch the competition. I watch CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. CNN and BBC are wildly one-sided on most global issues compared to RT. Where I work you can come across opinions never heard by RT’s competitors. I give Al Jazeera very high points for its coverage of the Greater Middle East (though not its Russia coverage). Thus, I have no need to use the “whataboutism” argument.

You want me to prove that I am not the Kremlin’s slave and live to talk about it! I welcome this opportunity. You asked for 3 examples, well I will give you 10. Over the past 10 years Russia’s leading politicians haven’t done enough regarding:

  1. Corruption at all levels.
  2. Support of the older generation (pensions).
  3. Repair of and construction of new infrastructure.
  4. Support of small and medium size businesses.
  5. Development of political parties.
  6. Promotion of civil society’s role in solving social problems.
  7. Over reliance on the oil and natural gas sectors.
  8. Introduction of a volunteer-only military and military reform in general.
  9. Finding justice in so-called high-profile murders.
  10. The lack of competition in the marketplace.

I could easily go on. Russia has a lot of problems, no different from ALL OTHER countries in the world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Global warming [deniers / skeptics] (delete as needed) like Alex Jones, Piers Corbyn and Chris Monckton – all with fairly minimal scientific credentials – get prominent coverage at RT. The entire topic of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is treated as a debate in which either side has yet to prove its case.

However, in the real world, there is a consensus: in a 2004 study, Naomi Oreskes concluded that 75% of papers backed the AGW view, while none directly dissented from it. (And the latest studies are almost always more pessimistic about the magnitude of future warming than “previously expected”.) Given the sheer amount of evidence in favor of AGW, it seems strange to put a hereditary aristocrat who calls his opponents “Hitler Youth” and organizes witch hunts on the same pedestal as climate scientists. Even though more Americans believe in creationism than in evolution, news channels don’t normally give equal weight to both sides in that “debate”, do they?

So I’m at a loss how to explain this. Does RT want to get the scoop on the Western media, even at the cost of its own credibility? Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate because global warming is expected to benefit Russia? Or do you really believe that the AGW “debate” is still far from “settled”?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAvpH-dOP5A&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: Again you are asking me to speak for RT – I am not RT’s spokesperson. And to be frank, I find your “Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate…” insulting. The fact is many of our viewers are interested in climate change. RT follows its viewers.

Nonetheless, I am glad you ask about AGW. I have done two programs on the subject – a topic I want to learn more about. I have no problem having Piers Corbryn and Chris Monckton on my program. Could you debate them? My other guests were actually quite keen to debate them. Let me be clear about something: RT gets credibility because it gives air time to different voices. And you are right, there really is no debate on American television. That can’t be said about my CrossTalk program and RT. Speaking about different voices: I may be one of the most prominent backers of dissent in the world of television today! I am proud of that.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Thank you for answering four very HARD questions. I’ll go easy on the last one. As you told us earlier in the interview, you dreamed of having your own TV program from an early age. Your wish came true. There are many who share your dream. Some of them might even be reading this interview! What advice would you give them on becoming a made man or woman in journalism? (The mafia reference isn’t entirely whimsical: from a distance, the profession does appear distinctly cliquish.)

PETER LAVELLE: This is the hardest question of all. All I can say is if you really want to be a journalist (including a TV journalist) you have to make a huge commitment. The competition is enormous and at times talented. Be different because you really are – not because being different might sell. Start blogging and pitching your material. Be prepared for rejection – many times over before things start to happen. Stay away from attacking individuals – staying with your convictions will be enough. Don’t try to become famous, that will come with hard work and honest and fair beliefs. Be willing to learn from others. And lastly stay away from journalists – a caste of people who, for the most part, aren’t worth even having a cup of coffee with.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Ok, Peter Lavelle’s predictions:

  • The current tandem will rule for the foreseable future – which is a good thing.
  • The next election cycle will go smoothly – parliamentary and presidential. Fingers crossed Russia’s political parties will mature some.
  • Russia will continue to recover and grow during the on-going global slump. If the US and Europe experience another turn-down, Russia will be spared.
  • Over the next few years, Russia and its eastern European neighbors will continue a robust process of reconciliation.
  • Russia will have to step in to play a greater role in the Greater Middle East as Washington is anything but a fair broker.
  • Russia will not continue down the path of pressuring Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear program – Russia-US relations again will be strained (though nothing like during the Bush years).
  • Russia will continue to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere, though not as a direct competitor to the US.
  • NATO will start to seriously listen to Russia (as most European capitals will pretend they have never heard of Saak!).
  • Mainstream western media will continue to get Russia wrong — that is an easy preduction!
  • Eventually, Putin will be blamed for the oil spill in the Gulf and creating the HIV/AIDS virus.

Do you plan to revive your Untimely Thoughts blog? Could you throw us a bone about any other projects you may have in the works?

What about the future? I am having a new website created to mirror my CrossTalk program. There, I intend to return to blogging in a big way in September.

Anatoly, thanks for the interview!

And thank you too, Peter, for a brilliant interview that gives fans and critics alike a lot to chew on!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

* A note on HARD Talk: My job as an interviewer is be a contrarian and even a “devil’s advocate” of sorts; to air common, common-sense or germane criticisms of the interviewee’s arguments and worldview, REGARDLESS of what my opinions might or might not be. (For instance, though I criticized Peter Lavelle’s views on the collapse of “Soviet Amerika”, I’ve made the same arguments on this very site: e.g. see here, here). I hope this clarifies things for the angry person who wrote me the email accusing me of Russophobia (LOL) in my HARD Talk with A Good Treaty.

** UPDATE August 14, 2010: William Dunbar has since deleted his only comment at that Facebook Group, which is reproduced below:

William Dunbar: hi, i just resigned from RT because i was being censored about georgia, i was the tbilisi correspondent. i have to say this is among the best groups i have ever seen on facebook. peter used to have a profile, i guess he left because it was another example of the double standards of the biased western media… or maybe putin prefers myspace

After I contacted him, Dunbar said that 1) he never alleged that Peter Lavelle is ““the man who $old his homeland” and that he left the Facebook group after reading this interview, 2) the last sentence is an inside joke between Dunbar and Lavelle that is “light hearted and not had absolutely nothing to do with how much Peter may or may not be paid”, and 3) he thinks that Peter Lavelle “is a true believer”, albeit his “commentary is objectionable, prejudiced and misleading.”

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Three interesting stories, all tied with Russia and water.

1. The explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in Siberia. Though the official Russian version is that it was a blown transformer, the Chechen separatists / terrorists are claiming that it’s their work:

A decision was taken at the start of the year at a meeting of the council of the Mujahideen of the Emirate of the Caucasus, led by Caucasus Emir Doku Abu Usman, to activate an economic war against Russia on its territory. To carry out these tasks, subversive groups were created and sent to a host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage power lines, and sabotage at factories.

In the name of Allah, through our efforts on Aug. 17 an act of sabotage, long in the making and thoroughly thought out, was carried out at the Khakasia region’s Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power plant, the largest in Russia. An anti-tank mine on a timer was planted in the turbine room, and its explosion caused enormous damage, greater than we anticipated. The result halted the hydro-power station completely, and caused losses to Russia worth many billions of dollars.

[...talks about their recent militant attacks in Ingushetia & threatens those who cooperate with the "apostates" with death]

Lay down your arms and return to your homes, work and earn money in the ways permitted under Sharia, and you will once again have a calm life.

However, they’re not exactly the most reliable of sources (they were wrong in their prediction that Russia would invade Georgia in mid-August 2008), and there could be genuine infrastructural reasons for the dam failure, such as the well-known depreciation of Soviet-era infrastructure. (Though it should be noted that from Wikipedia this dam seems to have had a bad history of accidents even throughout the Soviet era).

On other hand, according to people in the know (from Untimely Thoughts), this could not have been a question of aging infrastructure, but rather incompetence at the highest levels:

It takes serious skill to screw up a hydro plant. The only energy is water falling in ready built channels. My apprenticeship was in a large electrical machine plant. Amongst other things we built hydrosets. I later did insulation design for hydro (and also nuclear) generating sets. A 30 year old turbine is not old. The parts that might age are the insulation and the bearings, both easy to maintain. This was not an insulation failure. The bearings can be monitored automatically for vibration and temperature rise (UK practice since before my apprenticeship began in 1970). It is easy to predict failure and replace months before any real problems begin. Poor maintenance is not strong enough a term for this. It would require acts of serious criminal negligence to put a hydroset in the way of danger. The same goes for the ability to open a sluice gate so quickly that there was a serious overpressure of water. The motors opening the sluice gate wouldn’t be able to run fast enough. It takes over 12 hours to run a big hydroset up to full speed. (Pumped storage schemes use different, less efficient channel designs and water channels). If it was possible to open the gates with simple gravity then the design was appalling in the first place. The responsibility for this goes up to the top of Roshydro. An example should be set to encourage other bosses to pay attention to their maintenance bills. Corporate Manslaughter anyone? Do the workers families have access to the legal (and supporting financial) capacity to demand damages? Will the Roshydro security director persuade them otherwise?

In other words, they didn’t give a dam.

The effects are certainly serious, with 6000MW of power going off-line, several billions of dollars in damage and 500,000 tons of annual aluminium production curtailed. It would certainly be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to this. This is yet another blow to Siberia this year, which has lost the bulk of its winter harvest to drought and fires this year.

So far, the official reaction seems to be pure Показуха (appearing to be doing something, but not really), with Putin calling for a “sweeping probe” of the nation’s infrastructure. It would have been more useful if a) these things were done a few years ago, instead of building polar bridges to nowhere, and b) in any case with the drying up of foreign credits and investment, Russia will not have the means to address its vast infrastructural problems in the next few years bar much heavier state intervention. Thus, yet more incentive and impetus for the return of the Russian state as the spearhead of economic development in the next decade.

2. Kursk – A Submarine in Troubled Waters by Jean-Michel Carré, 2005.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=3601018731467852276&hl=en&fs=true

This is a very interesting examination of the Kursk sinking in August 2000, which goes contrary to the official claims, both Western and Russian, that the tragedy was due to a torpedo detonation caused by hydrogen peroxide propellant seeping out from underneath the torpedo casings. It presents evidence that during the exercises, which involved the testing of the advanced, supercavitating Shkval torpedos in the presence of Chinese observers (and prospective buyers), the US submarine USS Toled o, which was tailing the Kursk, crashed into it and damaged it. To cover its tracks, and upon what it perceived as the Kursk readying a torpedo to launch against the Toledo in retaliation, the USS Memphis pre-emptively torpedoed the Russian submarine. The USS Toledo appeared damaged off a Norwegian naval base according to satellite photos and took a suspiciously long time to limp back across the Atlantic to the Norfolk naval base, where it was promtly hidden from civilian eyes. Given the political implications of the truth, both Western and Russian leaders connived to cover it up (recall that Russia was still pro-Western at the time). Soon after, Russia received a 10bn $ loan on favorable terms from the IMF. According to the French film-maker, the sinking of the Kursk, with all the ensuing criticism of the government, marked a seminal point in Russia’s drift back to authoritarianism.

It has its holes, but an intriguing thesis / conspiracy theory. Recommended viewing.

3. I am rather cold to the recent sensationalist talk of Arctic piracy, especially Latynina’s bizarre claims about the ship being used to transport nuclear materials to Syria at the behest of the Russian government (there are far more reliable routes, even if Russia thought it worthwhile to do this). However, there’s a far more interesting case of real piracy being played out in the Black Sea. Abkhazia Threatens Tbilisi Over Seizure of Fuel Tanker:

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region accused Tbilisi on Thursday of trying to suffocate the Black Sea territory and threatened a “proportionate response” after Georgian authorities detained a tanker delivering fuel.

Georgia has stepped up efforts to isolate Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, since a five-day war with Russia last August. It has banned economic and commercial activities there without its permission.

The Turkish captain of the tanker, operating under a Panama flag, was remanded in custody Wednesday and faces up to 24 years imprisonment if found guilty of smuggling and violating the ban on unauthorized economic activity.

“Under the law in force in Georgia, we don’t even have the right to breathe without permission from Tbilisi,” Abkhazia’s foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, told Interfax.

“We warned Georgia that we can make a proportionate response, take the same kind of actions that the Georgian side allows itself,” he said.

The tanker, with its Turkish and Azeri crew, was detained in the Black Sea off the Georgian coast on Monday carrying 2,000 tons of gasoline and 700 tons of diesel.

No date has been set for the captain’s trial. Abkhazia said it was the third case of “Georgian piracy” this year. The tanker remains in the Georgian port of Poti.

This is a de facto naval embargo and, it could be argued by Abkhazia and Russia, an act of war against a sovereign state. Again, Russia is caught in the cleft of a dilemma. On the one hand, it could confirm it is serious about its recognition of Abkhazian independence and take military action to lift the embargo… on the other hand, this will be met by a chorus of Western condemnation and more to the point, this would be a dangerous move given the US naval presence in the region.

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