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Commentator jimmyriddle finds statistics about the ethnic composition of scientific cadres in the Soviet Union in 1973 via Cassad (the original comes via the blogger Burkino Faso).

ethnicity-of-soviet-scientists-1973

 

Drawing on earlier statistical data, although on a more limited sample of different ethnicities, we have the following sets of correlations:

  • 1926 Census, literacy amongst 50 years olds+ – r = .92
  • 1926 Census, overall literacy – r = .72
  • 1939 Census, overall literacy – r = .61
  • 1939 Census, high school graduation – r = .93
  • 1939 Census, higher education – r = .99

Considering this without Jews who are huge outliers everywhere here:

  • 1926 Census, literacy amongst 50 years olds+ – r = .82
  • 1926 Census, overall literacy – r = .74
  • 1939 Census, overall literacy – r = .72
  • 1939 Census, high school graduation – r = .91
  • 1939 Census, higher education – r = .93

So the two best predictors are:

(1) The literacy rate amongst the last Tsarist era generation, i.e. people who were 50+ years old in 1926, hence were born before 1876. That was before the advent of mass schooling in the Russian Empire, so I suspect that was when the literacy rate amongst the various regions of the Russian Empire was also the most “g loaded” (apart from places where the Protestant factor was also at play).

(2) Even more so, the share of people with higher education according to the 1939 Census. This stands to reason.

***

PISA suggests that the Georgians have very low IQs. I mean literally India-like, in the low 80s. However, the above suggests that its underperformance is more a result of massive brain drain – as in other countries that score ridiculously lower than expected based on their ethnic composition, such as Moldova and Puerto Rico, and before the 1990s, Ireland – as well as possibly the collapse of the schooling system to an extent that didn’t happen elsewhere. Probably the two most highly achieving Georgians today are historical detective fiction writer and political oppositioner Boris Akunin (Chkhartishvili) and the controversial but undoutedbly very talented Moscow based sculptor Zurab Tsereteli.

Armenia does not participate in PISA, but its results from TIMSS were significantly lower than Russia’s, at around Ukraine’s or Romania’s level. However, it might be grossly underperforming for the same reasons that Georgia is. First off, a massive amount of the brainier Armenians have emigrated to Russia and the West. In both places they are prominent relative to their numbers, with a powerful lobby in the US (even if it has nothing on the Jewish lobby) and a very powerful lobby in Russia that one could argue stretches all the way to Sergey Lavrov himself, who is half-Armenian. Former chess champion and oppositionist Gary Kasparov is half-Armenian, while the older Soviet chess champion Tigran Petrosian was fully Armenian. They are also the closest cousins of the Jews in terms of genetic distance. A mischievous observation one can make is that like the Jews, Armenians also seem to be unduly prone to political radicalism when abroad, from Sergey Kurginyan and Gary Kasparov (in their own ways) in Russia to Maoist nutjob Bob Avakian and SJW figurehead Anita Sarkeesian in the US, but maintain a safely homogenous and culturally rightist (if dumber) society at home.

In the overall scheme of things, from Jews down to Gypsies, there are no really big surprises.

 
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In the latest news from the ongoing comedy skit that is Ukrainian politics, we learn that Mikheil Saakashvili has been appointed governor of Odessa oblast.

Who is Saakashvili?

The son of Soviet apparatchiks with ties to the diplomatic service, which was dominated by Georgians in the late USSR, this onetime university dropout enjoyed a great deal of success in the 1990s, picking up various fellowships, grants, stipends, awards, etc. from respectable European and American institutions. Invited back into Georgia by his friend Zurab Zhvania, he soon went into opposition to Gorby’s Foreign Minister turned Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Eventually, this culminated in Shevardnadze’s overthrow in the Rose Revolution of 2003. From then on, it was a familiar story.

Saakashvili was, back then, one of the beacons of pro-Western liberalism and reform in the former Soviet world, the object of regular paeons in the MSM. Some of the lustre has since come off, following his idiotic attack on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia that resulted in military defeat in 2008, and his own ignominious political end in Georgia itself following revelations of mass abuse in the prison system – under his Presidency, the incarceration rate tripled to become Europe’s highest per capita – relevations that were carefully coordinated by his political opponents. He is now wanted in his native land, which he fled even before his Presidential term came to a formal end, on an array of charges related to corruption as well as possible involvement in various suspicious deaths (including that of Zhvania kek) and murders. Nonetheless, for all his democratic and human rights failings, which all but the most hardcore neocons by now acknowledge, there is still a very widespread impression that he is at least someone who can get the job done – that is, improve living standards, strengthen the country, and root out corruption. After all, did he not liquidate the everyday bribery that is a depressing feature common to the entire post-Soviet world? Did he not make Georgia one of the world’s most attractive places for business? Did he not lay the foundations of, in his own word s, “a future Georgian Switzerland, the future Georgian Singapore, the future Georgian Dubai, the Georgian Hong Kong, and of the greatest Georgia of all times”? And would not Odessa benefit from his impeccable credentials and expertise?

The only problem is that his legend is lies, lurid and false; a con for the ages.

The Economy

The economy did grow under Saakashvili. And across a range of institutional indices like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and various economic freedom indices it did radically improve its position.

georgia-gdp-history

The only problem was that it was doing so from an exceedingly low base, and even today, total GDP per capita (in constant dollars) is still considerably lower than it was in 1990. That’s 25 years and counting! Moreover, the growth rate was virtually the same under the “reformist” Saakashvili as it was under the “Soviet fossil” Shevardnadze. Nor was it any better than that of Georgia’s neighbors. To the contrary, it was far worse than in Azerbaijan, which yes you could ascribe to oil, but was also far worse than in neighboring Armenia and in Belarus. Both Armenia and Belarus are located in geopolitical straits just as trying as Georgia’s – Armenia is blockaded on two sides by Turkey and Azerbaijan, while Belarus is known as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and is under longstanding Western sanctions. Georgia’s performance, including under Saakashvili, only looks adequate in comparison to the total disaster zones that are Ukraine and Moldova. Productivity in the agricultural sector – where around half the Georgian population still works – has remained completely static since the early 1990s, whereas it more than trebled in neighboring Armenia.

Amazing as it might sound, but fanatically-pursued libertarian reforms, US military aid, and a couple of hotels erected by Trump to service gushing Westerners seeking photo-ops with Saakashvili on G.W. Bush Boulevard do not a strong economy make.

Corruption

One of the things that virtually everyone agrees on, even his critics, is that under Saakashvili, Georgia “solved” its corruption problem. If so, this would make it a somewhat unique achievement for the ex-Soviet world, bar only Estonia, and worthy of praise.

Now what does the data say? Certainly Georgia greatly improved its positions on surveys that elites pay a lot of attention to, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, where Georgia increased its rating from an abysmal 18/100 in 2003 to a respectable, Baltic-level 49/100 by 2013. But according to ratings that measure corruption realities as opposed to the perceptions of anonymous “experts” who can be unduly influenced by PR agencies – the likes of Aspect Consulting, Orion Strategies, Public Strategies, and the Glover Park Group, which received millions of dollars under Saakashvili to burnish his reformist image – the improvement on the ground was far more modest. 6% of Georgians reported paying a bribe in the past year in 2004, the first year of Saakashvili’s Presidency, and before his reforms could reasonably be expected to have taken effect; in 2013, the last year of his President, it was 4%. An improvement, sure, but not a particularly radical one. Actual opinion polls by Transparency International suggest that lowlevel corruption was not a big problem in Georgia pre-Saakashvili, and its reduction under him could just as easily have been a simple matter of the general withering away of the state’s regulatory agencies under his libertarian reforms. For instance, the near wholesale removal of university tuition subsidies – essential for democratic access to higher education in a country as poor as Georgia – led to a plunge in tertiary enrollment by almost a third relative to the early-to-mid-2000s. Fewer students automatically translates to fewer bribes for grades. These examples can be extended indefinitely: Less contact with the state automatically leads to “lower” corruption. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “good” in all cases.

open-budget-index-georgia-russia

What about institutions? According to the Open Budget Index, an organization that asseses the transparency of state accounts according to objective criteria (as opposed to perceptions), Georgia did improve, but has always lagged Putin’s “mafia state.” Now, true, a low score in the OBI doesn’t necessarily imply institutions are more corrupt; they could be both secretive and honest. But in the virtual absence of objective, quantitative measures of institutional quality – of which corruption perceptions by a bunch of anonymous and unaccountable “experts” are most definitely not – it’s the best we have, at least as a rough proxy of states’ eagerness to tackle corruption and willingness to be forthright with their citizens.

Then, in addition to lowlevel and institutional corruption, we also have highlevel corruption. This is the hardest to gauge of them all, even just by definition (how many American bank bailouts are equivalent to how many Chinese or Russian offshore accounts?). That said, this is the one aspect of corruption in Georgia that many people acknowledge is unlikely to have improved and might have even become worse relative to Shevardnadze’s period. To the contrary, all accounts indicate that Saakashvili merely centralized highlevel corruption around his own figure – allegations that have now been given form by concrete criminal charges against him in Georgia.

Added all up, we likely see real but modest improvements in lowlevel and institutional corruption under Saakashvili, which is of course “good” but doesn’t come anywhere near to justifying the panegyrics addressed towards him by Western elites and their lackeys in Ukraine when we consider that these improvements were seen in most of the rest of the ex-Soviet world in the 2000s as well, including in the dark lands themselves, Putin’s Russia. As for highlevel corruption all that happened was that the pig put on lipstick.

Demography

Surely the ultimate litmus test of a political leader’s performance is in whether people want to live in his realm or not. For a long time, for all his foreign policy failings and overblown economic and institutional achievements, it appeared that in this at least Saakashvili had succeeded, with Georgia’s demographic decline stabilizing at around four and half million people after 2002 due to declining emigration and a rebound in the fertility rate from 1.4 children per woman in the early 2000s to 1.8 today.

Then came the 2014 Census, and it emerged that Georgia’s population decline had if anything accelerated under Saakashvili, with the population hitting 3.7 million relative to 4.4 million in 2002 and 4.9 million in 1989 (all figures are minus Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

georgia-population-trends-1959-2014

Where did all the Georgians go? Most went to Russia: Of the $1.26 billion Georgia received in remittances in 2011 (almost 10% of Georgia’s GDP), more than half – $655 million – came from Russia. Surely quite an embarassment that the economy of “Switzerland in the Caucasus” and “oldest Colchis Europe, the most ancient civilization” was essentially held afloat by Georgian Gasterbaiters in a “barbarian” country with “mongoloid brutality and ideology,” as Saakashvili himself put it.

But even as Saakashvili ranted and raved about Russia’s Asiatic barbarity, using vocabulary that had disappeared off respectable European tongues since 1968, it appears that Georgians continued to vote with their feet and emigrate to Russia in ridiculously large numbers. For comparison, Georgia’s population loss over the past decade is equivalent to what saw in Latvia or Lithuania after their accession to the EU. I imagine it is considerably easier for a Balt to move to Ireland than it is for a Georgian to move to Moscow.

Mishiko in Odessa

Now that the myth has been swept away, we have just the man before us, whose essence boils down to an idiosyncratic combination of iconoclasm, vindictive incompetence, and Western cargo cultism.

Perhaps the best real life metaphor for this was the demolition of a Soviet-era monument to victory in the Great Patriotic War in Kutaisi, in which 200,000 Georgians died. Not a monument to Stalin, or anything like that – though it should be noted that Georgians are far more partial towards Stalin than are Russians – but just a simple victory monument. But they couldn’t even get that right. When it was blown up, two people – a mother and her eight year old daughter – were killed by the flying concrete, and four others were seriously injured. This was noticed, even in the West. As a Western cargo cultist in a position of power you really have to fuck up pretty good to even get American state media like RFERL to criticize you.

It takes true skillz to make all three of these people laugh at you.

It takes true skillz to make all three of these people laugh at you.

On getting appointed to head Odessa oblast, despite having at most just ever visited it as a tourist, Saakashvili smarmily proclaimed “I ❤ Odessa.” A whole range of other people were not that happy. Kolomoysky, the oligarch-lord of Dnepropetrovsk, whose protege Igor Palitsa had previously ruled Odessa and who is locked in a simmering conflict with Poroshenko, said that Saakashvili would betray Odessa to the Russians at the first opportunity: “By the way, how many citizenships does Saakashvili have? Would probably beat even me. American, Georgian, Dutch, and now Ukrainian” (Kolomoysky, for the record, has three. When a journalist told him that double citizenship is illegal in Ukraine, Kolomoysky remarked that while that is true, there’s nothing illegal about triple citizenship on the lawbooks. A bona fide Odessan retort if there ever was one). Lyashko, a caricature of a nationalist politician who is also widely regarded as a faggot amongst all Ukrainians, including even his supporters (much more so for his hystrionic grandstanding and violent denials than for the actual details of his sexual orientation), and is also deeply at odds with Kolomoysky, was also against the appointment: “Of all Ukraine’s 45 million citizens, not a single one could be found to head Odessa oblast? … [Poroshenko] admitted before the whole world that Ukrainians are unable to govern themselves. Maybe we should get a President from abroad too?” Sure… why not. Finally, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s PM and President at the time of the South Ossetian War, undiplomatically remarked: “The comedy show continues. Unhappy Ukraine…”

When you have someone who simultaneously infuriates and/or amuses such an amazingly wide and conflicting range of political forces, you know that the whole thing is a pathetic farce.

Both Western and Russian analysts have linked Saakashvili’s appointment to the mounting blockade of Transnistria, the breakaway Russo-Ukrainian population Moldovan province. With Ukraine now on board as well as Moldova, its position has become very precarious. Short of Russia establishing an air corridor, the garrison within Transnistria is no longer able to resupply. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is now an additional potential flashpoint to an outbreak of overt hostilities between Russia and Ukraine. In this sense, bearing in mind Odessa’s position right next to Transnistria, Saakashvili’s resume is exceptional.

But in reality things are probably somewhat simpler. Odessa is the most unstable province in terms of separatist sentiment along with Kharkov, due to both demographics and memories of the massacre of anti-junta activists in May 2, 2014. Poroshenko needs someone who is able to crack heads if need be, someone who is unrelated to Kolomoysky, his prime rival in Ukraine’s game of thrones, and preferably also someone who as an outsider would be unable to establish his own independent powerbase. Finally, it is a solid “fuck you” to Russia, and fuck what Georgia – one of Ukraine’s putative allies – makes of that. This might not sound very rational to Western ears, but reason and moderation has always been foreign to the Maidan ideologues. That is why they have unleashed a civil war in place of dialog in the first place. That is why they have claimed the not inconsiderable achievement of alienating major figures in the Polish security establishment – traditionally, and understandably, highly anti-Russian – by their maniac worship of Stepan Bandera and his murderous goons.

So in this sense Saakashvili’s appointment is perfectly understandable.

On another level, however, it is also rather sad, and not just in the way it blithely ignores Odessan opinions and lays bare the failure of Ukrainian statecraft. Saakashvili might have been a cargo cultist, obsessed with making the correct gestures – G.W. Bush Boulevards, being the third largest contributor in terms of troop quantity in the occupation of Iraq – to get cargo from the West and even half-succeeding at it – Trump Towers in Tblisi, a few five star hotels in Batumi, copious US military aid, etc. None of that cargo made a difference when Saakashvili’s forces murdered Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia in the expectation that the US would openly intervene on his side, only to face complete military defeat and the permanent reversal of the Stalinist-era borders that gave ethnically distinct Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia in the first place.

But at least, in his defense, so far as cargo cults go, Saakashvili was the real deal. How much more pathetic is it that Poroshenko’s Ukraine is making a cargo cult of a cargo cultist?

 
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Olesya Gerasimenko interviews Konstantin Lebedev, recently convicted of planning riots at the Bolotnaya rally of 6 May, 2012 and given a 2.5 year prison sentence. After his plea bargain and shocking confessions, his former comrades now call him a traitor.

Konstantin Lebedev – “I Don’t Consider Myself a Traitor”

Were you pleased with the sentence?

I was facing 2-3 years anyhow, so I don’t see any point in appealing. My lawyer says I should wait a year and then request parole.

What exactly did you admit to in the deal with the prosecution?

I admitted to the organization of mass disorders on 6 May, along with Sergei Udaltsov, Leonid Razvozzhayev, and Givi Targamadze. I also admitted to planning similar disorders for some unspecified time in the future, along with the same participants.

Did they torture you?

No, I wasn’t tortured.

In that case, why did you agree to the deal?

I became convinced that the prosecution possessed overwhelming evidence of our guilt. I saw that the investigation had the testimony of Leonid Razvozzhayev. This (testimony) determined the further course of the investigation, and since Lenya [Razvozzhayev] was fully invested in everything, his testimony did not leave open any questions (in the minds of the investigators).

His statement was written before your deal (with the prosecution)?

Yes, of course. I learnt about it sometime around October 20, and my agreement with the investigators is dated 7 November. It was obvious to me that this whole story with the court, the prosecution, and the Investigative Committee – was just a big fiction. I had to assume that the video and tapped phone and Skype conversations were obtained by legal/operative means, and I understood perfectly that the decision (about our guilt) had already been made at the highest level. And that no matter how we might try to wiggle out of it, the only thing that awaits us is a guilty verdict. Hence, I had the following choice: either to fight back against overwhelming odds, to resist stubbornly, but nothing good would have come out of that, only a 10-year maximum sentence; the alternative: to admit the obvious, the OBVIOUS. In my confessions I did not utter one word that is not true, and I did not falsely accuse anyone. I am not an idiot, I KNOW that they wanted Udaltsov. I confessed to everything, and they were, like, “Run along, little boy, we’ll just give you the minimum (sentence), we’re not interested in you.” To fight back, dig in stubbornly, receive a 10-year sentence, and STILL not save anybody – well, that was the choice I had. A choice worthy of a fanatic, but not of a rational person.

Because of (the choice you made), many people have called you a traitor. Do you feel yourself to be a traitor?

No, in this circumstance, I don’t feel myself to be a traitor. The people who participated in this thing [Bolotnaya] knew what they were doing, and that such an outcome was a possibility. As far as all the participants of these mass disorders are concerned, I didn’t give any evidence that would make any one person’s situation worse than it already was. As for Lenya [Leonid Razvozzhayev] and Seryozha [Sergei Udaltsov], well, that’s our business. We knew what we were doing, and that the scale of our plan could well lead to serious consequences.

What do you mean by scale of your plan?

The creation of a powerful leftist party, receiving money from abroad, at least that is what Targamadze talked about, and, in the end, to enter into the organs of power. In other words, the plan was for us to replace the KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and to move Udaltsov up to the level of a politician at the federal level.

Such plans do not necessarily lead to a prison sentence.

No, but we realize how the government regards Udaltsov, and that leading people out onto Sakharov (Prospekt) really scared the government. Also, the organizers of these events are pretty clear about the fact that they want to demolish the present government. Hence, bringing Udaltsov into the power structure presupposes that he would (eventually) push out all the other people, who came to power through blood and corpses, and are not inclined to (easily) give up their power.

You yourself worked in one of these power structures. Why did you get involved in Vasily Yakemenko’s pro-Kremlin movement, “Walking Together”?

That was a long time ago. The ad agency that I worked for closed during the crisis of 1998. I was a member of the Russian Communist Working Party, this didn’t bring me any money, on the contrary [I needed money to pay my party dues]. Then “Walking” came along, and I was astonished [that they would invest money into a political organization?], so I thought this was interesting, I spoke with my party leadership, and went off to work (for “Walking”). Soon I became their press secretary, I worked there for several years, participated in all their activities.

Didn’t it bother you that “Walking” during its activities hung up portraits of Zyuganov alongside those of Berezovsky?

In all honesty… Well, I asked about it at the time. We laughed about it with our commie friends. Zyuganov was not particularly liked.

And when this movement called for people to gather up and toss (Karl) Marx’s books into the rubbish bin?

I took them (the gathered books) all home, to supplement my own collection. My soul is at peace in that regard.

When did you leave “Walking”?

The political situation began to change. Khodorkovsky was sent to jail. It was the start of the “Nashi” movement, which focused on crushing dissent. At that point it became impossible to reconcile my political views with my job. And since by that time I had accumulated political ambitions, experience, and even a little bit of money, I decided to leave.

What do you mean by “political ambitions”?

As with many people, the first impulse was curiosity. Before I joined the communists I would just hang around bullshitting. I started to read Marx only after joining the party. I did not come from a wealthy family. As a young man, I loved protest. After working briefly in a boiler room, I truly understood what it means to be a proletariat. At the same time I began to realize that pickets, meetings and so on, don’t work, so I went for the technologies of the Maidan.

When did you meet Givi Targamadze?

In 2005, in the Ukraine, towards the end of Maidan. In the course of several months I participated in the “Orange Revolution”. Some guys from the “Chernaya Pora” movement started to trust me, and they introduced me to their sponsors and teachers – the Targamadze team. Because I had already proved to them, not in words but in deeds, that I could do a lot and was capable of a lot.

What do you mean [by saying you were capable of a lot at Maidan.]

Well, we organized crowds. We helped bring whole institutions out into the street. In a conflict with the Donetsk guys [supporters of Yanukovich], we would tell them: “We’re from Moscow, and we’re against Putin.” We participated in all the actions. Yashin was there too, but just for a couple of hours, he handed out books, and then left. I’m not like that. I need to get totally involved.

When did you first receive money from Targamadze, and what was it for?

In 2006, for work (I did) in Belarus. I monitored how the local activists spent their funds. My job was simple: verify if they really did glue up the posters; count how many people really came to the demonstrations, talk to certain people, convey instructions. So I would go to them, I could go to them, they couldn’t come to me.

Why did Targamadze agree to work with you, a former member of a pro-Kremlin organization, someone without a higher education, someone with communist views?

I think the guys from “Pora” put in a good word for me. And you know, you have to trust somebody, otherwise nothing gets done. We hung out together, they got the fact that I was a man of convictions, a man with ambitions, a man who knew what to do. Also the fact that we were willing to devote so much of our time to Maidan, this was something exotic for them, there weren’t a whole lot of people like that.

But all the same, he [Givi] didn’t know you that well, and just a year after meeting you, he’s giving you money. Why did he trust you?

I can’t explain that. It happens. Also, the money was just crumbs, at first.

How much (money) did you receive for your work in Belarus?

They paid for all my expenses, room and board, plus a weekly salary of around 1000 Euros. They also paid me some small amounts for writing some analyses of the situation in Russia.

How did Targamadze’s first monies enter into Russia?

Via the movement that I created, called “Smena” (“Change”). This organization existed solely on grants from Georgia and Europe.

At present your comrades from “Smena” have made for themselves different careers: Nikolai Lyaskin has become the head of the Moscow filial of Navalny’s so-called political party, the “People’s Alliance”. Mikhail Velmakin has become the coordinator of the Council of Municipal Deputies. Stanislav Yakovlev is making a good living thanks to the head of the “Democratic Choice” party, Vladimir Milov. Did these men know at the time where the money was coming from?

I should prefer not to answer that question.

Okay. How did Udaltsov meet Targamadze?

On Targamadze’s initiative. In 2011, when the protests against the Duma elections started, he (Givi) became very excited and wanted to get involved in this process. He didn’t want to be left on the sidelines. He told me: “I really like Udaltsov.” I realized why (he said that), although I have to stress that Sergei (Udaltsov) and I had very poor relations at that time. They (Givi’s people) decided to grant him (Udaltsov) money, and I was cool with that, even though Sergei and I were not sympatico, but still at least he was a lefty, and so I could have some influence on him, you know.

And Targamadze was not interested in Alexei Navalny?

He asked me about Navalny. I told him that wasn’t an option, because Navalny would not go for it. And he didn’t go for it, in truth.

Why? Because Navalny is more intelligent than Udaltsov?

No, it’s just that he (Navalny) is not as monstrously desperate (as we are) when it comes to money. Now in hindsight we can look at this and ask, Well, why did he do it? Put yourself in Seryoga’s shoes: you’re a well-known activist with a decent number of followers, and you have no money at all. He (Udaltsov) really, really wanted his personal political independence. Maybe for a trip to Novosibirsk all you need is your principles, your honour, and a few horses; but how far will you get? When people accuse me of misleading honorable people, then I wish to reply: People, this is the way it is. Underground work and fund-raising: this is a part of the life of an oppositionist. And you don’t necessarily need to know all the gory facts .

Razvozzhayev and Udaltsov were not disturbed by the idea of receiving money from Georgia?

Nope, not one bit. However strange that sounds. I recall that we met once in “Yolki-Palki” [a fast-food chain]. We had to make an important decision whether or not to meet (with Givi). I expressed my misgivings: “This man is the head of the Georgian Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Security – this would be a step in a completely different direction for us, we need to really think, do we want to do this or not? I am thinking now that if Lenya [Leonid Razvozzhayev] had not been there, then nothing would have happened. But he (Razvozzhayev) saw the opportunity to engage unencumbered in his favourite activity: politics. Therefore he became the most active proponent of lobbying for a meeting with Targamadze. If at the time we had not been thinking about raising money for the party, but rather about the fact that this whole affair threatened us with 10 years of prison time, then (I am pretty sure) we would have lowered our gaze, stood up, and left (the restaurant). However, this conversation took place before the May 6 disorders. Furthermore, I am convinced that if this story had happened 5 years earlier, we would have gotten away with it.

How many times did you, along with Razvozzhayev and Udaltsov, meet with Targamadze in Minsk?

Three times. The first time was March 2012. We (three) arrived in the car of (Duma) Deputy Ilya Ponomarev, Lenya always drove Udaltsov everywhere in this car. We arrived, we got acquainted, we had a drink together. We attempted to write up some kind of estimate, but we were already drunk. Givi always had a lot of people around him, he was always accompanied by an entourage. Once he even arrived with a delegation of 40 people. We hung out (with him) in the hotel, sat around drinking and partying, as usual. The way it always happened was that we would drink for 2 days, then on the third day they would come up with some kind of plan, then they would leave. So, here you have these 42 people drinking and carousing, then they drag themselves off to the airport. Then they notice: what the fuck, where’s the boss? They left him behind in the hotel. They forgot to wake him up.

Then we came back in June, and also a third time – at the end of August, from Lithuania, in a car with “Vasilich” [Givi Targamadze’s alias]. Prior to that we had drunk 26 bottles of wine between the four of us in one evening, in Lithuania. And then Vasilich says, “We’re going to Minsk right now, phone Seryoga. I was totally drunk at the time, I somehow managed to phone Seryoga, he was somewhere around Bryansk. A car with diplomatic plates came to pick us up. Behind the wheel is the drunken Georgian ambassador to Lithuania, he was one of the guys who helped us drink all those bottles. And at a speed of 140 kph we zoom to the border. There we switch to a different car with diplomatic plates, this one belonging to the Georgian ambassador to Belarus. In this car we arrive at the apartment and start to party again. Seryoga and Lenya arrived the following day, and we all started to drink together. When we were flying home, I was really drunk, and at the airport I was scared that somebody would take a picture of me and Seryoga. The stewardesses were horrified (by our drunkenness), and I just prayed that nobody would recognize us.

Don’t you think it’s strange to be drinking so much while planning a revolution?

It’s a different culture [i.e., Georgian], it’s not like our (Russian) culture. It was in this state that they conducted affairs. Vasilich himself is a chronic, he’s a true alcoholic, a dissipated wretch of a man. As an activist and strategist, he’s a dead man walking.

Which one (of these 3) meetings was recorded in the NTV documentary, “Anatomy of a Protest”?

The second one. In June. At that one there were eight people, somebody or another was always coming and going. There was me, Seryoga (Sergei Udaltsov), Lenya (Leonid Razvozzhayev), another old pal of mine, Aimaletdinov. Almych in truth barely participated in the meeting, he had been sleeping it off since the morning. Targamadze, of course, who had been reading lectures on the Meladze protests to Russian activists at seminars in Lithuania; some Greco-Roman wrestler Georgi, I don’t know his last name, he had competed against [Russian wrestler Aleksancr] Karelin. He (Georgi) was huge, they nicknamed him “Luca Brazzi”. And some other guy from the (Georgia) embassy. There were a lot of people there.

Did you yourselves conduct any audio or video recording of this meeting?

No. Occasionally I did do some audio recordings of the Georgians, but not this time. Why did I sometimes do it? In 2010 when they invited me to work in Minsk on another occasion, I knew that since 2008 the Georgians and Belorussians had become friends. Lukashenko had made a turn towards Europe, and Berezovsky went there (to Belarus). Like I said, the Georgians and Belorussians had reconciled, and Sukharenko, who was at that time the head of the KGB in Belarus, allowed the Georgians to flock into Belarus. And in 2010 Targamadze told me how this all happened: They really wanted Lukashenko to turn away from Russia. One of his (Lukashenko’s) conditions was that the Georgians would turn over to his KGB all the files they had on the Belorussian opposition, with whom they (the Georgians) had been working for quite some time and who had been receiving a lot of Georgian money. So, they (the Georgians) complied (with Lukashenko’s conditions) and told him all about the actions they had sponsored, and handed over to him all the Belorussian oppositionists that they had been working with. At the 2010 elections they (the Georgians) had given me the following assignment: Go around to all your oppositionist friends, find out their plans, and tell us all about it. After that (conversation), I bought a dictaphone and began to record these types of conversations. I let my local activist friends listen to them, and they were shocked. It was an unpleasant situation.

Why didn’t you cut all ties with Targamadze after hearing such things?

Well, the thing is, they (the Georgians) had money. For us, lefties, that’s such a rare thing. We’re not liberals. We never had any money and never will have any money. I made the decision that it was impossible to pass on such a resource as the Chairman of the Parliamentary committee for Defense, who also happened to be best friends with the (Georgian) president.

Were you tormented by moral doubts?

For me it was a simple question. Every kopeck that goes to the struggle against the regime is sacred.

Is there ANY money that you would turn down?

The issue isn’t with the money, but whether there are strings attached. In our case we didn’t think there would be. This story was a two-way street. We were attempting to separate them (the Georgians) from their money in return for the opportunity to make them feel themselves participants of a broader process. This was very important to them, because this was Targamadze’s livelihood. That’s the image he has: That he can create revolutions anywhere he pleases, simply by snapping his fingers – and into the streets pour 10,000 people. What Givi wanted from us was disorders – any kind of disorders. They told us: “If you work hard, then we’ll get you a trip to London and we’ll provide your party with money.” It’s possible that we were simply bullshitting one another. I don’t regard any of this as out of the ordinary. You know they call me an unprincipled scoundrel, but I don’t think I am. Our difficult financial situation forces us to turn to people who, in other circumstances, would probably be our enemies. Instead, we become tactical allies. It goes without saying that our goals were different from Targamadze’s, but we came together in that narrow space, we tried to do something, well, and here is the result. I didn’t betray my own soul, I was honest with Seryoga and Lenya, I told them right away who these people were. I also told Givi that he shouldn’t have any illusions that we would be kissing his ass later on. I don’t consider myself to be a traitor.

No doubt, taking into account my political image, I should have held out to the bitter end, done my 10 years, and lost my health and my teeth. Maybe that’s what I should have done. I’ve been in politics for 15 years, and when I hear this kind of reproach from people who have only been going to protests for 2 months, with nothing worse than diarrhea threatening them – well, this seems strange to me. Or when the lawyers start to lecture me on how to make revolutions. Violetta Volkova was trying to convince my lawyer Lavrov: Don’t worry, everything will be okay if you do as we tell you. Tell Lebedev to deny everything, and he’s guaranteed political asylum in America. The deliveries of Georgian wine – that was some bullshit that we thought up along with Volkova, and now she is denying that we agreed on this together. Volkova and Feigin: They are shyster lawyers, they are grave robbers, not decent lawyers who try to get their clients off.

Going back to the meeting… You said you sometimes taped the Georgians on your dictaphone. Did you ever photograph them on your camera?

No. There would be no point. I needed the dictaphone, in case they ever tried to do to us what they did to the Belorussians, then maybe I could have had some leverage. The story with the Belorussians told me that people act in their own national interests. Our interests coincided with theirs in only one point: They hate Putin, and we hate Putin. It wasn’t like we trusted them further than we could throw them.

The reason I asked about the camera was because after your arrest your friends found a hidden camera in your flat that was sewed into a polo T-shirt. Did you use that camera?

That camera was purchased after the Duma elections of 2007 for the election monitors. At that time people weren’t allowed to photograph openly at the polling stations, so we had to get around that. I bought the camera at VDNKh [big Moscow outdoor market/exhibition centre], it was a camera shaped like a button.

So, where is the DVR from it [the secret spy button-camera]?

I never found it myself. At one point it existed, it was part of the mechanism of the camera, naturally. And I even used it once. When I was photographing some of the actions of the art group “Voina”: “The Death of a Tajik”. I had a regular camera in my hands, and a secret one as a spare.

I saw the film, you were wearing a plaid shirt, not a polo.

What’s the difference? The camera is in the shape of a button.

In other words, you re-sewed the button (onto the other shirt)?

So it would seem. I’m trying to remember… Yes, I’m pretty sure I used it then. You can unhook it and re-hook it.

Did you use at all during the elections?

No, not even once. And somehow the DVR got misplaced. It all got lost in a heap, with the clothes. I forgot all about the camera. In any case, what does it matter, because the pictures that were taken for “Anatomy of a Protest” were not done with this (particular button) camera.

What kind of camera did they use in Minsk?

In my opinion, it must have been inside the television set.

If it wasn’t you who secretly taped the meeting, then who?

There are several possibilities. I lean towards the opinion that it was the Georgians themselves who taped the meeting, for a “just in case” scenario. I even told Seryoga: Do you realize that they are taping us? He replied, “I realize this.” But we didn’t believe that they would ever betray us. To this day I don’t understand how this could have happened, and I don’t necessarily insist that it was the Georgians who did it. Naturally, they could have had second thoughts. They got some money from somewhere, then after 6 May nothing substantial happened, and the money was already spent. So maybe they decided to give us up, so as not to have to answer to us again. There was a certain personage, Anatoly Motkin, an emissary of Berezovsky, he was in the loop of everything that was going on, the Georgians trusted him completely. He is a real doer. But maybe this person could have been playing his own game. He was familiar with all the flats where we used to meet. He could have (set up the cameras). Anything is possible.

How did this tape get back to Russia?

According to one version, it came via London. We actually don’t know. Givi could have used the tape to prove to (Andrei) Borodin [former president of Bank of Moscow who received political asylum in Great Britain) that he was working with us. And Givi told us that they had already received half a million from Borodin. However, I don’t believe that the money Givi gave us came from Borodin. Because it was only later that he mentioned Borodin. The hell with it, who knows?

Did the money belong to them personally?

No, of course not, that was too much. Georgian government money? Hardly, they would have to account for it. Basically, Givi told me that he already had half a million. And that he had strong connections via Berezovsky with (several) fugitive businessmen, Borodin’s name was mentioned, along with several others, I don’t recall. I even had a trip planned. Borodin had supposedly promised to raise 10 million. The three of us planned to go to London to talk about money sometime after August, but then we put it off, and then, well, we were all arrested.

What motivated you to talk to Givi about blowing up the Trans-Siberian railway?

Well, you have to know Lenya (Razvozzhayev). He is a very impatient lad, and he took all this money close to heart. At one time he was well off, and the memory of those fat years never left him. He was tormented by the fact that he lived off his wife. His goal in life was to become a professional revolutionary, so that he wouldn’t have to think about business, and so that his relatives wouldn’t have to live from stealing. He wanted a guaranteed income.

So, what was the deal with the Trans-Siberian…?

Well, let’s say that he took it close to heart that it was necessary to separate the Georgians from their money. In my opinion, he tried to appear even more crazy than he actually is. It goes without saying that it is impossible to blow up the Trans-Siberian, or to close it down. In the same way, a lot of the things that the Georgians were proposing were also divorced from reality. For example, they suggested that (we) cover the FSB building with Valerian so that the cats would get drunk and come running. Or launch a balloon with Putin’s face on it, and shoot at it. There was also an idea to provoke Kadyrov’s bodyguards by blocking his cortège. To rent or steal lorries carrying buses and use them to barricade our meetings from the police.

Through whom did the money come into Russia?

All the money at that time came solely through me. I was in charge of all the ledger books. The people in the know were me, Seryoga, Lenya and Alimych. We had a very firm agreement not to let anyone else into the loop.

How much money was promised, and how much delivered?

It was agreed on $35,000 per month. Not a huge sum, but for lefties a determining one. They gave me the money in installments: At the entrance to the metro I would buy a pay-go phone with a SIM card, learn the time and place of our meeting, a man would approach me, I would show him my passport, and he would give me the money in an envelope.

How did you split the money between the three of you?

Each of us had a salary of around 50,000 rubles, but most of the money I would hand over in dollars to Lenya for the protest actions . Seryoga preferred not to take any money.

So, in April and May you received $35,000 per month, and then…?

In June, after the 6 May events, we received $90,000. This money was used to buy cars for Razvozzhayev and Nastya Udaltsova. Some was also spent for leaflets, around 70,000 rubles for each new issue, not to mention banners, HQ expenses, plus Lenya was building a team at the time. Trips. I used what was left to pay for my drinks in the pubs. I always had money on me.

When was the final instalment?

In August, $42,000.

And how much is left?

Nothing.

Currently Udaltsov, Razvozzhayev, and Targamadze are denying your version of events. Who is lying?

They are lying. But each for a different reason. Well, Seryoga is mouthing our original version of the story: That there were these businessmen, that we were talking about importing wine, yada yada. Well, he is the leader after all. He has to stand defiant to the very end. Although I personally don’t see the point. Targamadze is lying because this is a huge blow to his reputation. Razvozzhayev, on the other hand, wrote a full confession. My confession confirms his.

In your criminal case, along with the names of Udaltsov, Razvozzhayev, and Aimaletdinov, there are also a few unnamed figures. Did you help to establish who these people are?

All the unnamed persons can live in peace. I used my deal with the prosecution and told them everything that was of interest to them, and nothing more.

At the time when they showed an ad for “Anatomy of a Protest” on NTV, you were on vacation in France. Why did you return?

Because I was an idiot. I thought to myself, “Oh, it’s just a film. Why shouldn’t I go back?” I simply didn’t believe (what would happen next).

Do you know that shortly after your arrest, Aimaletdinov went to your friends and told them that you had been spying on oppositionist activists for Yakemenko back in 2008?

Yes, I know that.

Well, is is true?

No, it’s not true. Aimaletdinov and I were always friends. Not one person who knows him would tell you that he’s a normal guy. But he has a very interesting brain, at times he played the role of my muse. And at times, (the role of) my servant. Well, in short, he simply carried out a series of assignments. And, from what we know now, the Investigation put a lot of pressure on Alimych, and for him this was like psychological torture. He came along with us to the Georgians simply to party and carouse. For him, these were like party trips. And suddenly they turned out to be serious business, and besides, he didn’t suspect that they could put me in jail.

So, what does Yakemenko have to do with any of this?

The way I understand it is that he (Yakemenko) decided to pour dirt on me, because he decided that I was the source of all his problems. Also I had explained that he had contacts with the Georgians after my arrest. Maybe they promised him something if he tried to protect the Georgians. And I do have that one stain in my biography, and it’s an obvious one.

Supposedly he (Yakemenko) showed your correspondence with Roman Verbitsky, a member of the “Nashi” [pro-Putin youth] movement who was responsible for the bully-boy stuff. To be sure, he showed it (the correspondence) just once, and nobody saved a copy. Are you acquainted with Verbitsky?

Yes, I know “Sharky” very well, he was the chief of the goon squad in “Walking Together.” Before I was fired, I used to see him in his office. After that, occasionally at opposition activities, which he used to attend for some reason unknown to me. We would greet each other in a friendly manner. Aside from that, I never had any contact with him.

Who else from “Walking” did you have contacts with after you were fired (from that group)?

I don’t want to say their names, why complicate their lives now? Most of them aren’t involved in politics any more.

In your apartment they found a printed account book with the names of various activists, and their salaries. The names Lyaskin, Velmakin, a few other people. What was the purpose of that book?

Over the course of the years there were various accounts. It was probably an accounting for monthly expenses, or maybe for some specific activity. I had to account to our sponsors.

Did you keep an accurate account for the Georgians?

Mostly via email. Occasionally I would print out a hard-copy and give it to someone by hand. Mostly I would send it through the mail, of course.

After you cut the deal with the investigation and left remand prison for house arrest, many oppositionists decided that you work for the FSB, or for Centre E. They call you a grass. Did you collaborate with any of these organizations?

No, I didn’t collaborate. To be sure, a couple of times Lyosha “Smiley” tried to strike up a conversation with me, like he did with all the other activists. But that’s it. However, I wish to emphasize the following: During the course of several months before Udaltsov’s meeting with Targamadze, Seryoga (Udaltsov), with whom at the time I had very poor relations, I said many unflattering things about him, and he about me – anyhow, Seryoga, at a meeting of the “Left Front”, announced in front of everybody: “Lebedev is a grass.” They asked him, “Where do you get that from?”, to which he replied, “Well, I can’t prove it, it’s just my suspicion.” And then a few months after that he is driving to Minsk with me, to meet the head of the Georgian secret service. How do you figure that? It says a lot about the value of these rumors about me supposedly being an informer. Many people, who are shrieking now about the origins of my money, took this same money (from me) and never asked where it came from, and now they’re suddenly all agog about it.

What are you plans while you are in the labor colony?

I plan to learn Spanish. I’ll do a lot of reading. When I was in Lefortovo I read all of Gorky. Now I’ll read somebody else. They also make you work there. So I’ll work.

Are you sorry for what you did?

I will be perfectly frank with you. I have spent the last 14 years of my life planning mass disorders. In the eyes of the law, of course, I carried out anti-social acts. We were condemned from the very beginning. I understand the logic of the government and, from the point of view of a person who has been rammed up against the wall, I repent. Those OMON [riot police] who got hit on the head with stones – they shouldn’t have been hit on the head with them. I didn’t have anything to do with those (particular) acts, so I can’t repent for those, but all the same I do bear some responsibility. I created the conditions for these acts. The peaceful protest that we had planned did not occur. But it was wrong to throw stones at the police, our supposed future electorate. The government hires these poor fools, so that they get beaten up and spat in the face. They (the government) pits these two forces together, both repressed by the regime, and the regime comes out on top. Any person who throws a stone at a cop is willy-nilly a provocateur, even if he is doing it out of noble motives.

What can you tell people who are just learning about your friendship with Targamadze and saying to themselves: “My god, THESE are the people we were with in December?”

I should advise all the activists who take to the streets not because it is a fashionable lifestyle, but to be prepared for spending a long term in prison, or even getting killed for their views. I wasn’t really prepared for that. We all went along with this, because we thought it would be better that way. We didn’t see any other way. And if we had been more cautious, then we could have won. But we weren’t able to pull it off. Everything we did only concerns us three, this is our tragedy, and we will bear the punishment. And you (others) who were honorable people, will stay that way.

Do you plan to continue political activity after your release from prison?

I’m not sure. I guess it wouldn’t make sense for me to continue, because the situation, in which I turned out to be the biggest scoundrel, is convenient for so many sides.

Translator notes

This article was originally translated by “yalensis” at Mark Chapman’s blog, and was “spiced up” with British slang by “Moscow Exile” commenting over at the Guardian.

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

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

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

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

georgians-russians-approve-stalin

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

georgians-russians-stalin-tyrant

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

russians-georgians-strong-hand

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

russians-georgians-want-to-live-under-stalin

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

russians-georgians-repressions-justified

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

ukrainians-on-stalin

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

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

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Continuing from my previous post (which focused mostly on trends), this one focuses exclusively on international comparisons as per the results of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey of 2010-11. The graphs represent affirmative answers to the question of whether the respondent had paid a bribe in the past 12 months to each of 9 institutions if he had come into contact with them.

Is Russia the most corrupt of the BRICs?

This is the conventional wisdom, both as per the widely cited CPI as well as numerous pundits. Is it correct? Well, going by the best possibly objective measure of corruption – asking people whether they (or a member of their household) paid bribes in the past year – no, it isn’t. The honor goes to India. China is modestly less corrupt than Russia, while Brazil is basically a First World country in this respect.

brics-corruption-chart-institutions

Is Russia especially corrupt by Central-East European standards?

No, it isn’t. While it’s certainly more corrupt than average, that particular honor has to go to Azerbaijan. The Ukraine is systemically more corrupt than Russia, with a higher percentage of respondents reporting bribing all nine institutions. Even Lithuania is, on average, more corrupt than Russia. (So much for the pro-Western democracy automatically leading to cleanliness and transparency thesis).

cee-corruption-institutions

On the other hand, for the sake of honesty and consistency, one has to acknowledge that Saakashvili’s campaign against corruption in Georgia was a genuine and astoundingly successful achievement. In fact, if these polls are perfectly accurate, Georgia now has less “everyday” corruption than the US!

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Not often that you see Russia in some color other than bloody red on a world map of corruption or institutional quality. But according to the Open Budget Index (2012 results), the Russian budget is actually pretty transparent as far as these things go.

Of the major countries, only the UK (88), France (83), and the US (79) are ahead. The other major developed countries in the survey like Germany (71), Spain (63), and Italy (60) are all behind Russia (74), as are its fellow – and supposedly far cleaner – BRICs fellows Brazil (73), India (68), and China (11). Of perhaps greater import, only the Czech Republic (75) edges above Russia in the CEE group, whereas all the others – Slovakia (67), Bulgaria (65), Poland (59), Georgia (55), Ukraine (54), Romania (47), etc. – lag behind it. Also noteworthy is that Russia’s typical neighbors on Transparency International’s CPI, such as Zimbabwe (20), Nigeria (16), and Equatorial Guinea (0), reveal almost nothing in their national budgets.

Now of course the Open Budget Index is not the same thing as corruption. You can have an open budget but still steal from it (and this does happen in Russia frequently), and you can also have a closed budget from which few people steal, at least directly (as was the case in the USSR… or to take a more modern example, while Russia’s OBI is now higher than Germany’s, it is inconceivable that state corruption is even in the same league in these two countries).

Nonetheless, there is surely a very significant degree of correlation between the two. Having an open budget means that it is can be subjected to scrutiny; were Russia’s budget closed like China’s or Saudi Arabia’s, Navalny’s work to expose corrupt state tenders would be simply impossible (as it is, the latest ploy corrupt bureaucrats have been forced to resort to is to sprinkle Latin characters into the Cyrillic texts of state tenders so as to confound search engines).

Second, a high OBI score demonstrates the state’s commitment to fighting corruption. If Putin and Co. really didn’t care and were truly the kleptocrats they are repeatedly labeled as by the Western media, they would instead do everything in their power to hide the budget so as to remove the possibility of scrutinizing it. But they don’t. To the contrary, Russia’s OBI has increased from year to year.

As we can see above, Russia’s budget transparency in 2006 was… about middling; consistently below developed world standards, but higher than plenty of Third World countries and even quite a few CEE countries. But by 2012 it was 10th out of 100 countries. If Russia’s government were truly only committed to stealing as much as it possibly could why would it bother with the legislative and institutional improvements that enabled such a change in rankings?

It is now the most transparent of the BRIC’s, having overtaken both (consistently transparent) Brazil and (also rapidly improving) India in 2012.

Of most pertinence, Russia has massively improved its relative position to other CEE countries; only the Czech Republic and Georgia under Saakashvili have registered such appreciable improvements. To the contrary, both Poland and Romania actually registered declines in their overall levels of budget transparency.

Russia no longer even trails the developed world in this regard.

I would also note that this chimes with the findings of the Revenue Watch Index, which found Russia to be one of the world’s best countries at reporting information about revenue from the extractive sector. This in particular goes against the widespread trope of shady siloviki appropriating all the proceeds from Russian oil and gas and murdering the investigative journalists who go after them.

Conclusions

Once again I would like to emphasize that the OBI does not measure corruption. For instance, China is nowhere near as corrupt as the numbers indicate here; FWIW, my own impressions from perusing various indices and reading comments boards from both countries is that “everyday” corruption is somewhat higher in Russia and elite-level corruption is comparable. Nonetheless, the OBI is an objective measure, drawn from concrete metrics, and that alone makes it superior to Transparency International’s CPI, which is a measure of corruption perceptions.

To remove any possible insinuation that I only castigate the CPI because it ranks Russia abysmally low, I would ask the following question: Is it really plausible that Italy is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia, as implied by the CPI, when there is such a vast gulf in their levels of budget openness and other objective assessments of institutional quality?When we actually pretty much know that a substantial chunk of Saudi Arabia’s budget goes into feeding the country’s 15,000 odd princes… that the very country is named after the family that rules it? I find that very improbable. I would suggest it is somewhat more likely that the “experts” and businessmen asked to assign CPI ratings simply bumped up the Gulf states for their (admittedly) very generous and sumptuous hospitality and their pro-Western policies; all factors that would work in the reverse direction in the cases of countries like Russia, or Venezuela.

Still, all that is speculation. Much like the CPI itself. Back in the world of concrete statistics and facts, I think this further confirms my basic thesis on Russian corruption, which goes something like this:

  1. It was extremely high during the 1990′s.
  2. It declined at a steady if not breakneck rate (media narrative – it keeps getting worse every single year under Putin).
  3. The state itself is moderately but not extremely interested in curbing corruption (media narrative – Russia is a “mafia state”).
  4. Today, Russia is not an outlier or an anomaly on corruption when compared against Central-Eastern or Southern Europe. To the contrary, it is comparable to the worst-performing European countries (e.g. Hungary, Romania, Greece), and about middling in the overall global corruption ratings. (media narrative – “Nigeria with snow”).
  5. It continues to improve at a slow but steady pace.

For more information see my Corruption Realities Index, which I developed in 2010 and takes into account the OBI when computing corruption levels.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel on whether to view the recent Georgian elections, in which Saakashvili’s United National Movement lost a lot of power, as a Kremlin coup or a triumph of democracy. My view that it isn’t really either:

Two dominant themes prevailed in media coverage of the 2012 Georgian elections

(1) The people were hoodwinked, as Georgian Dream are a corrupt band of Russian stooges – as argued by neocon Jennifer Rubin and Yulia “Pinochet” Latynina (see juicy quote from her translated below):

It is possible that Georgia will get one more chance. In that one short moment, when a confused people will look on with astonishment as the band of thieves returning to power brings back its lawlessness – but at a point of time when the army and police are not yet wholly purged of respectable people, who care for the fate of their country – in that moment, Georgia will get another window of opportunity. Like the one, for instance, that Pinochet got on September 11, 1973. But maybe, this chance will never come.

(2) The elections were a genuine victory for Georgian democracy, with Saakashvili’s very defeat vindicating his historical status as a democrat and reformer. Two headlines from democratic journalist Konstantin von Eggert summarize this viewpoint: “Georgians are no longer a mass, but a people“; “Saakashvili accomplished the authoritarian modernization that Russian liberals only dreamed of.”

The Kremlin is in confusion: A state, which they practically denounced as a fascist dictatorship just three years ago, has become a democracy… And the oft-ridiculed and cursed Georgian President, known for his chewing of ties, became practically the most successful reformer in the post-Soviet space, barring the Baltics.

I think both viewpoints are substantially wrong, but to see why we have to consider this history in more detail.

In his first elections in 2004, Saakashvili won 96% of the votes. It was fairer than it looks, but only because of a complete absence of credible candidates at the time. In his second election, in 2008, not only did turnout correlate positively with the Saakashvili vote, but its graph had what is called a “long tail”, becoming suspicious after the 80% mark and registering quite a few stations with 100% turnout. This is remarkably similar to the pattern of falsifications in Russian elections under Putin (though needless to say, Georgia doesn’t attract a fraction of the same attention).

In these elections, multiple factors came together to produce radically different outcomes. The opposition came together, held together by Ivanishvili’s money – who also claims to have spent $1.7 billion, or more than 10% of Georgia’s GDP, over the past several years on stuff like paying officials’ salaries and buying new police cars. That’s like Prokhorov spending $150 billion in Russia, or Romney $1.5 trillion on the US election – while money is far from everything in politics, sums as huge as these certainly help.

Then there were the conveniently timed prison torture videos, broadcast by two suddenly opposition TV channels. These were Maestro, which in 2012 had been investigated for giving out free antennas, allegedly as part of vote-buying by Ivanishvili; and TV-9, a recent creation of Ivanishvili himself. Until recently, these channels appear to have been fairly minor; the big two were Rustavi 2, which is firmly pro-government, and Imedi. Though it was once the traditional opposition channel, Imedi – ever since its owner Badri Patarkatsishvili fell out with Saakashvili – had been tamed by police raids in 2007, to the extent that it orchestrated coverage of a hoax Russian invasion of Georgia to bolster support for Saakashvili.

All these factors – the background of Ivanishvili’s populist spending and opposition consolidation, plus his purchase of a TV presence and the very good timing of the videos – contributed to a drastic, sudden, and unforeseeable reversal in the United National Movement’s until recently far superior poll ratings (see below).

Furthermore, this election was far cleaner than previous ones (which of course favored the opposition): This time there were only a couple of stations with close-to-100% turnout, and in any case, greater turnout now coincided with more votes for Georgian Dream, not Saakashvili or his party (as was the case in 2007 and 2008). I suspect this is because, cognizant of the shift against Saakashvili, the “administrative resource” that had previously served him and the UNM became demoralized and fearful of prosecution in a future administration headed by Ivanishvili; as such, it now refused to give him his customary +3%-5% addon.

These developments were unexpected. It was Saakashvili’s very confidence in a United National Movement victory that presumably motivated him to shift formal powers from the Presidency to the Prime Minister, with a view to taking the latter position (or inserting an ally there) once his two terms were up. Until recently numerous commentators were speaking of Saakashvili “pulling a Putin” (rarely adding that Putin didn’t change the Constitution to empower the PM). Ironically, it was this very drive for greater political consolidation that ended up hoisting Saakashvili by his own petard. From 2013, it is Ivanishvili and allies who will get all the real power, regardless of who wins the Presidency.

In this context the dominant theories can be dismissed or modified. The theory that these elections were a “Russian coup” or somesuch is laughable on its face; only Saakashvili and his supporters seriously believe it, or pretend to. But the theory it’s a democratic triumph is also problematic given the critical role played by Ivanishvili’s money, not to mention Saakashvili’s own indifference to the concept (in practice, nor rhetoric). I submit that what we saw is an “oligarchic coup”, of the type not uncommon in poor countries with weak institutions and big personalities (and perhaps, of the type that Khodorkovsky may have accomplished in 2003 in a parallel world).

As such, given the contingent and artificial events that spawned this new revolution, Georgia can hardly be said to have become a model of democracy.

It is too early to tell what relations with Russia will be like after 2013. Doubtless better than under Saakashvili, but that’s not really saying anything considering how horrid they are now. I would caution that just because the Kremlin obviously prefers Ivanishvili certainly doesn’t mean he will be its puppet once in power (one factoid airbrushed out of history by everyone is that Russia also supported Saakashvili over Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution). He is strongly committed to NATO membership, which – if pursued with the same old vigor – will continue to cause irreconcilable problems. With 62% of Georgians favoring NATO accession, and only 10% against, it’s not like Ivanishvili will be in much of a position to halt this process even if he were so inclined.

One can only hope that under Georgian Dream these disagreements, which are unlikely to go away any time soon, will be discussed in rather more civilized ways than was the case on August 8, 2008.

PS. Also feel free to read Sergey Roy‘s rejoinder to my piece.

I must congratulate Mr. Karlin on his excellent analysis of the politics involved in the recent parliamentary election in Georgia, its causes and consequences. A few comments are due, though.

Politics and politicking, as described in Anatoly’s essay, are surely important, but it is also advisable to take the Marxian – or merely commonsensical view of changes in a society’s superstructure as mostly reflections of processes in its economic basis. Ignoring the latter is only excusable in someone like Ms. Latynina (quoted in Karlin’s piece): she writes novels, you know, and clearly has trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality. She may believe, for instance, that under Saakashvili Georgia was going through a period of unprecedented efflorescence, but that’s sheer fiction. Mere propaganda, actually. The facts on the ground are different, very much so.

In a nutshell, Georgia is a basket case, in economic terms. According to an oppositionist source, its national debt is four times the size of its annual GDP (not that the latter is anything to write home about). According to the same source, unemployment there runs at an unheard-of 70 percent which was only brought down to the official figure of 20 percent by including everyone who has a few vines growing on the plot of land their house stands on in the “gainfully self-employed” category. That’s the sort of cheating that simply does not fool anyone.

There is also the foreign trade factor. Russia used to absorb all the alcohol Georgia produced rather scandalously, I must say: before Saakashvili, Russia imported three times more wine than Georgian vineyards could physically yield. A friend of mine spent a couple of days in and out of the bathroom after drinking a bottle of unbelievably cheap Khvanchkara. Luckily I had savvy enough to spit out the first mouthful. No wonder a member of Saakashvili’s government notoriously said that those Russian swine can drink anything. Now they drink nothing nothing of Georgian origin, that is and Georgian wine and brandy producers know exactly who they can thank for it. No wonder they wish him out of the way of normal economic intercourse.

Also on the economy side, there are between 800,000 and one million Georgians (no one seems to know how many exactly) feeding their own faces in Russia and the mouths of their relations back home. Russo-Georgian relations being what they are, those wretched people have to travel to and from Georgia via Ukraine or Armenia. Again, they and their relations — know exactly at whose feet they can lay this inconvenience.

Still staying with the economy, only creative writers like Latynina can believe their own fiction that Saakashvili’s regime is squeaky clean, that under his rule corruption, endemic in Georgia just as in other lands one might point a finger at, was stamped out completely. Sure, US money contributed a lot toward computerization, and you can register a company in half an hour or so in Georgia. What will happen to your company afterwards is quite a different matter. All of Georgia’s economic life, what there is of it, is in the hands of regime-related clans, and outsiders are unwelcome to such a degree that they see their future as hopeless. Naturally they want a piece of the action which is impossible unless the present regime is changed. Well, so it has been, or is being not without a great deal of interclan fighting, one can safely predict.

I am sure I have not covered all the economic factors that explain the Georgians’ desire to get rid of Saakashvili and much of what his regime stands for. Still, I am just as convinced that even these few factors carried more weight with voters than TV pictures of torture in Georgia’s prisons, Ivanishvili’s propaganda, and other political and circumpolitical events described in detail in Anatoly Karlin’s piece. Above all, the mood of general dissatisfaction with and anger at the populace’s economic condition had to be there. It was, and it was the prime factor in the events we have just witnessed and are going to witness.

As for politics, Georgians are no different from many other peoples: they want to eat their mamalyga and have it. They want to have Sukhum and Tskhinval back they lorded it over there for too long to reconcile themselves to the loss. So they want Russia to go away from these regions and yet have normal trade and other relations with it. What can Russia’s course be, in this situation? Withdrawing from Abkhazia and S.Ossetia is out of the question, for that would mean NATO bases practically on Russia’s southern flank. Therefore a bit of cognitive and emotional dissonance is inevitable for any future Georgian regime: it, and most Georgians, can dream of NATO and EU membership, heartily dislike Russia and at the same time keep selling it wine, their principal commodity under strict quality control, that is. No more slops with Khvanchkara labels, please.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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I will be jetting off tomorrow to Washington, but before I do – a translation of Edward Lozansky’s interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda (Америка ненавидит Россию, которую сама себе придумала). Lozansky, who used to be a Soviet dissident, is the organizer of the World Russia Forum and has many strong, pertinent views on why it’s a good idea to develop the US – Russian partnership.

An American politologist and a Russian journalist from Komsomolskaya Pravda tried to find out whether it’s possible to change Washington’s attitude to Moscow.

America Hates The Russia That It Invented Itself

Discussion with Edward Lozansky, Alexei Pankin, and KP’s Aleksandr Grishin.

A new period is beginning in US – Russia relations at the start of Vladimir Putin’s new term as Russian President. Washington doesn’t hide its critical attitude to Moscow, despite mutual assurances that the Reset is here to stay. American politologist Edward Lozansky and Russian journalist Alexei Pankin are with us at Komsomolskaya Pravda to discuss what we can expect from these new developments.

For some – a partner, for others – a competitor

Lozansky: I would identify two schools of political thought and public opinion. One of them is more influential than the other. It considers Russia to be not far removed from the Soviet Union, and while there may no longer be ideological differences, geopolitical conflicts remain unresolved. That is why Russia is seen as an unfriendly country. And how do you deal with an unfriendly country? You use hard power – the Pentagon, and soft power, including the media. And you take other opportunities to portray this country in a bad light. The vast majority of the American media holds these positions.

The second school consists of pragmatists, who consider that Russia has made certain progress in areas such as freedom, human rights, and democracy. They understand that it is not perfect – there are no perfect countries. Nonetheless, Russia is an important geopolitical partner of the US, and has to be treated accordingly. No interference in its internal affairs, but a search for common problems and their solutions.

This is the main difference. The first group assumes that Russia is a competitor and an adversary. The possible future President, Mitt Romney, even claimed that Russia is Enemy Number One, a characterization to which even his fellow party members objected. The second group considers your country a partner. Unfortunately, the second school, to which I attach myself, is less significant. Its voice only occasionally seeps into the mass media, while the first one dominates.

Pankin: As the editor of the Russian version of an international publishing journal, I have a lot of contacts with foreign journalists. And I am surprised that they, who monitor the state of freedoms in Russia and – one might think – would be a highly informed public, live in a world of strange stereotypes. I was recently in Tunis, where UNESCO was marking World Press Freedom Day. I was struck by the attitudes there towards me, as if I was someone who had escaped from Putin’s torture chambers. I was unable to explain to them that I was not some kind of downtrodden person, because they simply refuse to see anything which doesn’t coincide with their stereotypes.

For instance, they tell me: “What bad luck for you, that you guys elected Putin again.” And when you try to grind in the point that Putin got a MAJORITY OF THE VOTES in the country, that he was ELECTED by the people, you can see them becoming flabbergasted as their frames of reference are challenged.

Grishin: Well doesn’t this mean that for the American political majority it doesn’t matter who’s in power in Moscow, democrats or conservatives. Putin comes in, goes out, but Russia remains a geopolitical rival or enemy. It is Russia’s very existence in its current form that the US has a problem with. Is that not so?

Lozansky: It is likely that ultimately a few things will change, if people who are prepared to help the US more come to power. Much depends to what extent your policies support American interests. Take Georgia. They got colossal financial support. The biggest in per capita terms, by the way, of all the other countries that get American aid. For all its debts – and America has huge debts – it is still able to find the funds to support Georgia, because it considered to be a country that performs certain functions that answer to US geopolitical interests.

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You can also watch a detailed discussion with Lozansky on Prosveshenie TV.AK

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLqsjKQHWxo]

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Fear and loathing in Washington

Grishin: Anyone in particular in Washington that Russia bothers, and how?

Lozansky: I would identify four groups, whom Russia bothers for one reason or another. First, the neocons. For them, Russia is always wrong. And they believe that it’s necessary to change the situation in Russia, relying on both hard power, and soft. This is a fairly influential group. It was especially dominant under Bush, when Cheney was one of its main leaders. And relations between Russia and America under Bush slipped below the levels of the Cold War.

The second group of the anti-Russian lobby are the ethnic communities of the East European countries, the Baltics. Those, who suffered under the USSR. For them, the new Russia might not quite be the USSR, but it is still a threat to their security. They retain the fear that Russia might at any time occupy them. The third group is the military industrial complex. For them, Russia isn’t only an enemy, but a bogeyman which they can trot out in order to earn orders and attract funding.

There is also a new element – oligarchic capital. Those are billion dollar fortunes, uncompromising hatred towards Russia’s leader. With such capital, it is possible to hire any journalist’s pen, the media. This factor, which previously did not exist, is very significant: This powerful group creates a certain background, applies pressure on the US Congress.

Grishin: Pressure on Congress – isn’t that from the realm of fantasy?

Lozansky: Every week Congress holds hearings in which Russia is subjected to the harshest criticism. Representatives of the Russian opposition take the floor. By the way, about this lack of freedom. They arrive there without ruffle or excitement, the leaders of this very opposition, from Bolotnaya. There they say the most dreadful things. Surprising even to the Americans. This is not accepted among us. You can criticize anyone you want at home, but when you go to another country, it is not acceptable to besmirch your own country… Such demeaning criticism, which Congressmen hear from Russian citizens, doesn’t happen in any other country. And then they come back to Russia.. And nobody arrests them, or throws them into any dungeons.

Pankin: What, in the opinion of Americans, now characterizes Russia? Rollback of democracy, suppression of freedom. They feel that only under Yeltsin was there a true democracy. They have forgotten Gorbachev and don’t want to understand that Yeltsin didn’t add anything to Russian freedoms, relative to the Secretary General of the CPSU Central Committee Gorbachev.

But with that very same freedom of speech, we’ve advanced very far. It has become a market. People got the opportunity, and learned to earn themselves a decent living. But all this is tossed to the side and ignored.

Our non-systemic opposition decided to ascertain the road to democracy with the American ambassador, coming as guests to Michael McFaul almost on his first day of work in Moscow.

For a large part of the US, Russia doesn’t exist

Grishin: There’s this anecdote, some people are on a famous radio station and having a live discussion on how there is no free speech in Russia and are not allowed to express their views. (AK: Refers to Echo of Moscow)

Lozansky: As regards this radio station, it truly amazes me. The majority shareholder is a structure, in which the government has a controlling stake. (AK: Gazprom) In the US we have “Voice of America”, which exists on government money. And they have no right to criticize either US policies, nor any individuals in government. In your country, this radio station almost acts as an opposition organizer. Here Russia is ahead of us on democracy.

Pankin: By the way, there are now some very interesting developments in the “Arab Spring” countries. From the stands come the same speeches which we heard back in the early 90′s, but when you climb down, you hear entirely different conversations in the gullies. That it was iPad-toting people who came out on the streets, but entirely different people came to power. In Cairo today there is panic among female professors: They fear that they’ll have a hijab forced over their heads.

Lozansky: Did you know, that after the Arab revolution, the Egyptian authorities raided the offices of Freedom House and arrested their employees, accusing them of interfering in the internal affairs of the state. And this was all after Mubarak. Also arrested were members of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, which all continue to operate entirely freely in Moscow. And they had to be bought back.

Grishin: Let’s leave the Arabs aside, return to Russia and America and press freedoms. Edward, do you, with you views, get printed in the US? You do have, after all, many more freedoms than we do, according to US opinion.

Lozansky: Of course we have freedom – nobody is imprisoning me for my views. But there are problems with publication. The editors say, as you here put it, “Newspapers aren’t made of rubber.” And so it’s good when just one out of 15 articles goes through. But I also have an alternate path. I have a small business – “Russia House” in Washington – and I can sometimes just buy a page in the Washington Times newspaper and write everything I want to there.

But in general, I’m amazed by the significance that you attach to what they say about Russia in America. I can tell you that in America few people are actually interested in Russia. The Russian factor is mostly raised by those groups, which I described above, and they do it to advance their own interests. For the average American, especially during election season, the most important issue is the economy. The budget, gas prices, the unemployment rates are what most concern the American family. These are simple and human things, to which Russia is irrelevant.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Despite the unremitting hostility of its Russian neighbor, which crescendoed in a military occupation of a chunk of its territories, plucky Georgia’s commitment to reform and democratic values will ensure its rapid development into a “booming Western-style economy.” Under its charismatic Western-trained President, Saakashvili, it has rooted out corruption, ushered in untold prosperity and freedoms, and left dictatorial Russia in the dust. ““There are barbarians there and civilization here,” summarizes Saakashvili himself, “There they have mongoloid brutality and ideology while here we have the true, the oldest Colchis Europe, the most ancient civilization.”

At least, that’s the picture you might have of Georgia if you read Saakashvili’s speeches, Western op-eds, Russian liberals like Cato Institute flunky and global warming denier Andrey Illarionov, and a sundry host of Georgian ambassadors and lobbyists shilling for all they’re worth in major Western newspapers. But rhetoric and reality can be two very different things. To what extent do objective indicators (e.g. statistics) bear out this neocon vision of Tbilisi as the shining city on the Caucasian hills?

By the numbers… Let’s start with the economy. Saakashvili deserves some credit for maintaining respectable GDP growth rates, albeit they are far from the awe-inspiring figures of China or, for that matter, several other post-Soviet republics. From 2004 to 2011, the Georgian economy grew at an average of 6.0% per annum, which is only modestly higher than Russia’s 4.5%.

However, this comparison becomes much more unfavorable once Georgian growth is adjusted for other factors. First, Russia is already much richer than Georgia – its GDP, however you measure it, is more than three times higher – so by basic economic theory, ceteris paribus its growth rate should be much higher as poorer countries have many more easy opportunities to increase productivity. (Illarionov, by the way, is ignorant of convergence theory, a fairly basic macroeconomic concept; it’s frightening that this “economist”, who is more accurately a libertarian ideologue, was once a major economic adviser to the Russian government). Second, Georgia had by far the biggest and sharpest decline in GDP during the early 1990′s of all the Soviet republics, and even as of this year, its gross output is still 20% below the peak levels of 1989. This should also, in principle, help Georgia grow much faster than Russia – which surpassed its peak Soviet-era output sometime in the mid-2000′s – because in a sense it is still “recovering” from an economic depression.

A much more appropriate comparison would be with Armenia. Both are in the unstable Caucasus region. Georgia has intermittently faced sanctions from Russia, whereas Armenia is under permanent economic blockade from Turkey and Azerbaijan. Unlike Azerbaijan, neither Tbilisi nor Yerevan enjoy an oil windfall. Their GDP per capita is almost exactly the same: About $3000 nominal, and $5000 in purchasing power adjusted dollars. Unlike Georgia, Armenia has recovered its Soviet-era production levels and then some; its GDP is now more than 50% as big as in 1989, so it is well past the period of mere “recovery growth”. Both countries suffered from destructive wars in the early 1990′s, and both remain highly militarized to this day. Nonetheless, with the exception of the past three years, when it was crushed by the economic crisis, Armenia has consistently clocked up higher GDP growth rates than Georgia. In sum terms, during the 2004-2011 period, both countries grew at approximately the same pace: 6.0% for Georgia, 6.3% for Armenia.

In the graph above, GDP per capita is indexed to 100 at 2003 for a range of post-Soviet countries. It is clear that Estonia and Armenia, despite their deep recent recessions, are highly successful transition economies; both are a lot more prosperous now than in 1989. Russia is only moderately successful. Along with Ukraine, Georgia is still well below Soviet-era peak output levels, and its growth under Saakashvili wasn’t exceptional by the standards of other post-Soviet republics, despite its twin advantages of starting from a low base (unlike Russia, Estonia) and still being in the process of recovering lost output (unlike Armenia).

Another relevant comparison is with the “corrupt” and “nepotistic” Shevardnadze administration from 1995-2003, which was overthrown to great fanfare in the “Rose Revolution”. What was Georgia’s growth rate then? 5.9%. That is within rounding error of growth under Saakashvili. It should furthermore be noted that growth was accelerating throughout Shevardnadze’s Presidency, reaching a peak of 11.1% in 2003. So there are valid questions as to the extent the high growth rates of the early Saakashvili Presidency were due to his neoliberal reforms.

What about life for ordinary people? There is no doubt that the average Georgian became significantly better off, as was the case everywhere in the former USSR during this period. Georgian statistics show nominal wages almost quadrupling from 2004-2010, from 157 lari to 598 lari per month, albeit adjusting for inflation would reduce it to only a bit better than a doubling.

However, higher wages can only be enjoyed by people who actually get them. During the same period, unemployment grew from 12.6% to 16.3%. Despite neoliberal reforms that undercut the bargaining power of labor, unemployment in Georgian urban areas – approaching 40% in the capital, Tbilisi – is now as prevalent as in the most impoverished provinces of the Russian Caucasus. About half of the Georgian labor force is “self-employed” in sustenance farming, which is a higher figure than two decades ago. In contrast, unemployment in both neighboring Armenia, and “corrupt” and “stagnating” Russia is around 6%-7%.

So bearing in mind actual statistics, does Georgia still deserve the status of a “miracle economy” conferred to it by libertarians and neocons? Don’t get me wrong, 6% is not bad. It’s no worse than under (maligned) Shevardnadze, and modestly better than the 4% average growth rates observed in Moldova, the very worst performer in the entire post-Soviet space. But even so, Georgia is not going to catch up with the developed world at its current pace of development – not like China, which has comparable income levels but is growing at 10% rates, or Russia, which is already three to four times richer.

Moving on, Georgia has also been lauded for excoriating previously endemic corruption, and becoming one of the world’s most “economically free” and business-friendly locations. The latter may well be true; objective ratings such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which measure the number of days and permission slips required to start a business, place Georgia 16th globally. This seems a genuine achievement, albeit as real world data shows, these things have at best only a marginal influence on economic growth rates, which are primarily determined by a country’s initial development level relative to the quality of its educational human capital.

On the Corruption Perceptions Index, Georgia improved its score from 1.8 in 2003 to 4.1 by 2011, which is a very significant change (in contrast, Russia languishes at 2.4, and Armenia at 2.6). But some Georgian businesses report government agents demanding political “donations” to Saakashvili’s ruling party to avert hostile raids, and in any case it must be borne in mind that the CPI is a proxy of corruption perceptions, not corruption realities per se. The CPI rating can thus be unduly influenced by good PR and lobbying. As a Western-trained lawyer, Saakashvili appreciates their importance, and has over the years paid millions of dollars to PR firms like Aspect Consulting, Orion Strategies, Public Strategies, and the Glover Park Group to burnish Georgia’s reformist, anti-corruption and democratic image abroad.

Other indicators that are not as reliant on the perceptions of anonymous experts show a somewhat different picture. In the Global Integrity Report, which is based on blind review, Georgia does only modestly better than Russia, scoring 76/100 as compared to Moscow’s 71/100. On the Open Budget Index, which assesses the transparency of government accounts, Russia actually does better, scoring 60/100 to Georgia’s 55/100. And according to Transparency International, the same outfit behind the CPI, the percentage of Georgians who reported paying a bribe in the past year in 2004 was only 6%; as of 2010, this had declined to 3%. A positive and appreciable change to be sure, but the data indicates that petty corruption was not that much of a problem in Georgia to start off with.

Didn’t Saakashvili at least democratize Georgia? Well, no. The fact of the matter is that Georgia was already a democracy under Shevardnadze, if a highly imperfect and illiberal one. The same remains true today. Unofficial protests are brutally broken up, independent TV stations have their licenses revoked, and opposition figures have their citizenships canceled or forced into exile abroad. Georgia has also become a revisionist and highly nationalist power under the charismatic President, whose actions have ranged from the petty and incompetent, e.g. blowing up a Soviet war memorial to Georgian war dead, and in the process killing a mother and her daughter in the blast, to the criminally deranged and incompetent, e.g. the invasion of South Ossetia and carpet bombing of Tskhinvali, even though virtually no Ossetian wants to live in a Greater Georgia.

If one doubts that Saakashvili is in fact rather far from being a nice liberal democrat, all one has to do is look at the indicators of political freedoms. In the Polity IV rankings, the most comprehensive democracy indicators database assembled by political scientists, Georgia increased from 5/10 to 6/10 on a scale from -10 (zero democracy) to 10 (full democracy) under Saakashvili. This is hardly the glorious transformation the Rose Revolution is often made out to be; nor is it very much different from the Evil Empire’s. Russia’s current score is 4/10, for whatever reason down from 6/10 after Medvedev’s election in 2008.

There are however two socio-economic indicators under Saakashvili that did register highly visible, concrete changes. If not for the better.

From 36% in 1991, the tertiary enrollment rate remained steady until the late 1990′s, when it began to grow, reaching 43% by 2003 and peaking at 47% in 2005. Then it plummeted to 25% by 2009, edging up to 28% in 2010. This seems to have been in substantial part due to an increase in the cost of annual university tuition from 500-600 lari in 2003 to 3000-4000 lari by 2009, an eight-fold increase far exceeding the quadrupling of salaries during the same period (even disregarding increased unemployment). Bearing in mind that the average salary was 557 lari in 2009, it is clear that for many families university education became unaffordable. Government grants have also plummeted: From wholly financing the educations of 9,700 students in 2003, by 2009 they were subsidizing only half the tuition costs of 1,000 students. University access has dropped by more than 80% in some regions.

This is particularly catastrophic for Georgia because international student assessments indicate that their schools are almost useless at imparting real world skills. According to PISA 2009, only “31% of [Georgian] students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways that are considered fundamental for their future development.” The equivalent figure for Russia was 72%, and about 78% for the OECD as a whole. On Reading, Math, and Science, Georgian students came, respectively, 67th, 66th, and 70th out of the 75 countries in the PISA assessment. Other international student assessments paint a similarly dire picture. For instance, in TIMMS 2007, Georgian students got an average score of 410 in the Math component, relative to Armenia’s 499 and Russia’s 512. The gap is not substantially different in the Science component, or in the PIRLS 2006 literacy survey. This is unlikely to improve any time soon, as under Saakashvili, the number of public libraries more than halved.

While Georgia was disinvesting in its future workforce, tertiary enrollment has risen in Georgia’s neighbors. In Armenia, it rose from 24% in 1998 to 52% by 2010; the percentage of Russians undergoing university education rose from 55% in 2000 to 76% by 2009. That is because the leaderships of these countries, as in much of the rest of the civilized world, appreciate the importance of human capital to fostering economic growth. In Saakashvili’s world, presumably, praying to the souls of Hayek, Mises and Rothbard would suffice. More education is the road to serfdom.

But in the end, I guess it’s all a matter of priorities. The Georgian army and police are now well fed. Who needs math, science, and literacy anyway? “Military-patriotic education means training in civil defense,” Saakashvili says, “Stimulating soldierly spirit, which historically was always in nature of people in Georgia; as well as courses in Georgia’s military history” is what is really important. Hear hear? Meanwhile, the prison population has tripled from 182/100,000 in 2004, to 536/100,000 in 2011. Under Saakashvili’s democratic guidance, Georgia has acquired the dubious distinction of being the European country with the most prisoners per capita, displacing Russia (the irony!) in the process.

This is not to say that Georgia is a corrupt, stagnant tinpot dictatorship, its tottering foundations stabilized by huge inflows of American capital (though the latter sums, ranging in the billions, are very substantial relative to the tiny size of the Georgian economy). Saakashvili has maintained a mediocre level of economic growth, wages have risen substantially, and corruption has been reduced. Nonetheless, its performance is far less impressive than that of a comparable neighbor, Armenia, and on almost every socio-economic indicator it massively lags Russia. It is a democracy, but the quality of its democracy is not substantially better than that of Russia, which countless Western pundits describe as an authoritarian kleptocracy returning to the USSR.

In place of building the foundations for sustained long-term growth, Saakashvili has instead been busy undermining what little of it exists. No amount of reforms to make life easier for capitalists can compensate for the abysmal quality of the Georgian education system, and Saakashvili’s wanton curtailment of the only partial remedy for it, university access. He is at essence a blowhard, passable perhaps as a mercenary lawyer, but utterly unqualified for the work of statesmanship. He pontificates about building huge new cities on swampland (complete with “seven star hotels”), demands Slavic countries stop calling his country “Gruzia” as they have done for centuries, and arrests Russian tourists who dare holiday in his country for the mere suspicion of having passed through breakaway Abkhazia. Russian language schools are closed down, and the main Tbilisi boulevard is renamed in honor of G.W. Bush, while the latter was still President to boot!

What emerges of Saakashvili is a small, petty and vainglorious man, who blames all of Georgia’s problems on his “Mongoloid” northern neighbor and deflects all criticism of his ham-fisted rule by arresting the critics as Russian spies. He presides over “Potemkin Georgia”*, hyped as a tiger economy of the Caucasus by ideologues and paid-up PR men, but in reality fast becoming an isolated Cuba of the Caucasus.

If the good people of Georgia accede to this, it is of course their right as a sovereign people. It is also understandable that neocons who appreciate his irrevocably pro-Western science, libertarians dreaming of culling labor laws and defunding public services, sundry Russophobes operating on an the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend basis, and plain paid-up PR men would defend Saakashvili’s record. But it is also then incumbent on people of honesty and integrity to publicize the lies of his apologists (Andrey Illarionov, David Hamilton, Garry Kasparov, Valeriya Novodvorskaya and Vladimir Bukovsky, Giorgi Badridze, Randy Scheunemann, Jennifer Rubin, Eli Lake, Melik Kalyan, etc), and continue revealing Saakashvili for what he really is – an emperor with no clothes.

Because even if Saakashvili is hellbent on undermining the future of his own country, he should not be allowed to do the same again to Abkhazia or South Ossetia – or for Potemkin Georgia to be portrayed as a model of good and effective governance for other countries to follow.

* Yes, I’m aware that “Potemkin villages” are probably a historical urban legend. But as the term is regularly and uncritically used as regards Russia in the Western press, I don’t see the problem in turning the tables on them.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Now that my initial triumphalism over Putin’s return has faded a bit, it’s time for a more analytical look. One of the main reasons I thought Medvedev would be the more likely person to be United Russia’s Presidential candidate is that Putin was simply unwilling to return. As Daniel Treisman wrote in his book on post-Soviet Russia, “Once President, Putin very often looked like he would rather be somewhere else… I have never seen Putin look as happy as he did on election night 2008, when [he appeared] to congratulate Medvedev on his victory.” Not a description of someone who longs for power for its own sake, when considering that he was relinquishing the top position that he could have easily (and legally!) kept by simply amending the Constitution to allow more consecutive terms. Combined with Medvedev’s steadily high approval ratings, just a permanent whiff short of Putin’s according to the opinion polls, and the negative PR repercussions (at least abroad) of this move, I still don’t think that my original logic for arguing for Medvedev’s staying on was all that faulty.

But didn’t both Medvedev and Putin both refute that, saying everything had already been decided years in advance? Well, no. Contrary to the Western media coverage, that didn’t necessarily follow from their words. What Medvedev said was: “We really did discuss this variant of development back in that period, when we first formed our gentlemanly agreement” (мы действительно обсуждали этот вариант развития событий еще в тот период, когда сформировался наш товарищеский союз). What Putin said was: “I want to say it straight, that the agreement about what to do, what to work on in the future, we already made a long time ago, several years back” (хочу прямо сказать, что договоренность о том, что делать, чем заниматься в будущем, между нами давно достигнута, уже несколько лет назад).

But it is far from evident that what they meant by this was that they had decided on specifically Putin’s return long ago and just took the country on a wild goose chase in the intervening years of Medvedev’s Presidency. They merely said that the plan of action was decided long ago, but nobody actually said anything about specific personalities – any (i.e. most) reporting that referred to the “reshuffle” or “Putin’s return” as the object of those was misleading, since it could just have easily being something along the lines of “let the most popular man stand for President in 2012.” For all we know the Plan could have just been something along the lines of: “Let the most popular and authoritative man stand for President in 2012.” So those pundits who took their decision as an implicit condemnation of Russian democratic culture – that everything was decided years ago and the rest were all just for show, such as Medvedev’s earlier comments about not being averse to running for the Presidency – do not have the incontrovertible evidence that they think they do. This is why accurate translations and paying attention to the specifics of what is being said is actually very important.

In short, I think that it was a more close-run thing than many analysts now claim it to be, for in hindsight all things acquire the tinge of inevitability.

Why, in the end, was this course chosen? After all, while many of the criticisms leveled against Putin’s return, e.g. that it would shock investors* into fleeing, were clearly fallacious – the announcement had zero discernible effect on Russia’s stockmarkets – it is still undeniable that one has great power: the concept that leaders have a best before date and Putin now risks overstaying it. Ultimately, it boils down to Russia being a plebiscitary regime that tries to pay the utmost attention to opinion polls. And on this metric, Putin is unquestionably ahead. As of September 2011, according to Levada Putin has an approval rating of 37% to Medvedev’s 26%. But even this understates Putin’s popularity. In a recent Levada poll that asked whom Russians would vote for if the elections were held this weekend, Putin got 42%, whereas Medvedev got just 6%, lagging both Zyuganov at 10% and Zhirinovsky at 9%. When forced to choose between the two, most Russians overwhelmingly support Putin. Now obviously if Putin wasn’t running, most of his votes would have gone to Medvedev anyway, but the margin of victory would have been smaller and turnout would have been lower due to the lower numbers of genuine Medvedev fans. Consequently, the next administration’s legitimacy to make reforms promoted by liberal technocrats would have been lower.

You can’t ascribe Putin’s popularity to more TV coverage either, as some have tried to do such as A Good Treaty. According to the guys who actually keep the statistics, Medvedev has been consistently getting more coverage on federal TV media than Putin. It’s just that it’s far easier to be a fan of professional badass Putin – despite his antics becoming lamer of late – than of an iPhone President who manages to get owned by someone as PR-challenged as Bat’ka. Another refrain I’ve heard is that the polls don’t matter anyway, because the Kremlin will just rig the elections anyway. The cognitive dissonance is hard to fully comprehend. If we accept their claim that the Kremlin does rig elections – despite there being strong evidence against it, as election results correlate closely to opinion polls and exit polls – then how does that square with their support for Medvedev on account of his supposed liberal credentials? Isn’t liberalism and vote rigging mutually exclusive?

My conclusion after some thought is that things are far simpler than much of the commentariat make them out to be. There is zero evidence of any fundamental rift, or even friction between, Putin and Medvedev (even the lone “dissident” member of the Team, Kudrin, isn’t exactly out in the political wilderness). The logical consequence is that the ultimate question of Putin’s return wasn’t decided in 2008, but sometime during Medvedev’s Presidency; possibly, not even prior to my prediction of a second Medvedev term in 2012. I still do not think Putin is all that enthusiastic about it. The descent into lameness of his trademark popularity stunts, i.e. supposedly fishing ancient Greek urns out of the sea, may be associated with that. He just can no longer be assed to do any better. But faced with lackluster support for Putin’s only alternative, Medvedev; the relative lack of discernible economic, social, or foreign policy successes during his Presidency; and the increasingly fraught international environment – the Arab Spring, peak oil, the Eurozone crisis, the likely return of a Republican President unfriendly to Russia (enough to say that the current favorite, Mitt Romney, has Leon Aron as his Russia adviser) – pushed the Tandem into a cordial agreement to let Putin return. One is reminded of Putin’s August 2010 interview with Kommersant, in which he said: “I only have two choices. Either to watch from the bank how the waters are flowing away and how something is collapsing or falling away or to get involved. I prefer to be involved.”

One final point has to do with the outlining of Putin’s vision for Russian foreign policy, which seems to have decisively shifted towards Eurasian integration. This reminds one of another Putin interview more than ten years ago, in the months before Putin became President for the first time, which allows us to see a clear intersection between Putin’s long-term vision and the role of more recent contingencies: “We will strive to remain in [Europe], where we are geographically and spiritually located. But if we are going to get pushed out of it, we will be spurred into seeking alliances, and strengthening ourselves” (мы будем стремиться оставаться там, где мы географически и духовно находимся. А если нас будут оттуда выталкивать, то мы будем вынуждены искать союзы, укрепляться). Despite being at the brink of fiscal collapse along its peripheries, very little has changed in European attitudes to Russia. One clear and recent demonstration of the failure of the Reset – a policy associated with Medvedev, let it be reminded – is Sarkozy’s recent visit to Georgia, where he unreservedly supported Tbilisi’s position on the Russian “occupation” of Abkhazia and North Ossetia. The information war continues, albeit on a more playing field – it is good to see Russia finally learning the lessons of soft power, with RT providing good coverage of social protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and repression in Western countries that had previously gone unnoticed in their “free” medias. The way ahead has become more clear. Eurasian integration and closer relations with the rising Powers of the world, as opposed to the waning West – it is telling that Putin’s first visit post-United Russia congress will be to China – now makes patent sense from every perspective, and it is just as well that it is going to be spearheaded by the man with the higher approval ratings and a more authentic connection to popular Russian sentiment than the current Presidential incumbent.

А как же? Обязательно.

* Speaking of investors, it is good to see that Putin is actively promoting Russia to foreign investors by stressing its positive points at investment forums, as opposed to Medvedev’s rather bizarre strategy for luring foreign capital by telling them that “Russia’s “slow growth” hides stagnation.”

(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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Though I originally meant to write my own analysis of what the Wikileaks cables have contributed to our understanding of the 2008 South Ossetia War, I realized that I would essentially be trying to duplicate the excellent efforts of Patrick Armstrong. (See also the New York Times article Embracing Georgia, U.S. Misread Signs of Rifts). Patrick’s article for Russia Other Points Of View is reprinted below:

I have been a diplomat: I have written reports like the ones leaked and I have read many. And my conclusion is that some report writers are better informed than others. So it is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I have read the Wikileaks on US reports.

My sources for the following are the reports presented at this Website (passed to me by Metin Sonmez – thank you): (Direct quotations are bolded; I will not give detailed references – search the site). The reports published there are a small sample of all the communications that would have passed from the posts to Washington in August 2008. They are, in fact, low-grade reporting tels with low security classifications and only a partial set at that. Nonetheless they give the flavour of what Washington was receiving from its missions abroad. (It is inconceivable that the US Embassy in Tbilisi was reporting everything Saakashvili told it without comment in one set of reports while another said that he was lying; that’s not how it works).

One of the jobs of embassies is to inform their headquarters; in many cases, this involves passing on what they are told without comment. But passive transmission does not justify the fabulous expense of an Embassy – official statements are easy to find on the Net – informed judgement is what you are paying for. We don’t see a lot of that in these reports. What struck me immediately upon reading the reports from Tbilisi was how reliant they were on Official Tbilisi. Had they never talked to Okruashvili, or Kitsmarishvili? They could have told them that the conquest of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was always on the agenda. They actually did speak to Kitsmarishvili: he says he met with Ambassador Tefft to ask whether Washington had given Tbilisi “U.S. support to carry out the military operation” as he said the Tbilisi leadership believed it had. He says Tefft “categorically denied that”. How about former close associates of Saakashvili like Burjanadze or Zurabishvili who could have told them how trustworthy he was? (The last’s French connections may have helped insulate Paris from swallowing Saakashvili’s version whole).

The first report from Tbilisi, on 6 August, deals with Georgian reports of fighting in South Ossetia. This doesn’t mean anything in particular – sporadic outbursts have been common on the border since the war ended in 1992 – they are generally a response to the other side’s activities. What’s important about this particular outburst is that it formed the base of Saakashvili’s Justification 1.0 for his attack. We now must remind readers of his initial statement to the Georgian people when he thought it was almost over: “Georgian government troops had gone ‘on the offensive’ after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.” His justification changed as what he had to explain grew more catastrophic. The US Embassy in Tbilisi comments (ie not reporting what they were told:comments are the Embassy speaking) “From evidence available to us it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation”. The comment sets the stage: the Ossetians started it and Moscow may be involved. There appears to be no realisation that the Ossetians are responding to some Georgian activity (itself a reaction to an Ossetian activity and so on back to 1991, when the Georgians attacked). Shouldn’t Tefft have wondered at this point why Kitsmarishvili had asked him that question a few months earlier? (Parenthetically I might observe that there is never, in any of the reports that I have seen, any consideration, however fleeting, of the Ossetian point of view. But that is the Original Sin of all of this: Stalin’s borders are sacrosanct and Ossetians are nothing but Russian proxies).

On 8 August comes what is probably the most important message that the US Embassy in Tbilisi sent to its masters in Washington: “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.” The comment is: “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention. Key Georgian officials who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway. As late as 2230 last night Georgian MOD and MFA officials were still hopeful that the unilateral cease-fire announced by President Saakashvili would hold. Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages, did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin. Post has eyes on the ground at the Ministry of Interior command post in Tbilisi and will continue to provide updates..,. If the Georgians are right, and the fighting is mainly over, the real unknown is what the Russian role will be and whether there is potential for the conflict to expand.” The Embassy also reported “We understand that at this point the Georgians control 75 percent of Tskhinvali and 11 villages around it. Journalists report that Georgian forces are moving toward the Roki tunnel”. How wrong can you be? The Georgians did not control 75% of Tskhinval and they were not approaching Roki; at this time their attack had already run out of steam, stopped by the Ossetian militia.

Saakashvili and the Georgian leadership now believe that this entire Russian military operation is all part of a grand design by Putin to take Georgia and change the regime.” Already we see that Tbilisi is preparing the ground for Justification 2.0. I refer the reader to Saakashvili’s “victory speech” made on Day 1. As I have written elsewhere, when Saakashvili saw that his war was not turning out as he expected, he changed his story. The Embassy reports the beginnings of Justification 2.0 without comment: “Saakashvili, who told the Ambassador that he was in Gori when a Russian bomb fell in the city center, confirmed that the Georgians had not decided to move ahead until the shelling intensified and the Russians were seen to be amassing forces on the northern side of the Roki Tunnel.” From the US NATO delegation we get the final version of Justification 2.0: “Crucially, part of their calculus had been information that Russian forces were already moving through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia. Tkeshelashvili underlined that the Russian incursion could not have been a response to the Georgian thrust into South Ossetia because the Russians had begun their movements before the Georgians.” But, really – think about it – would Georgia have invaded in the hope that its forces could beat the Russians on a 60 kilometre road race into Tskhinval that the Russians had already started?

But at last we begin to see some scepticism: “It is increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.” By the 12th Georgian reports are accompanied by some caution: “Note: Post is attempting to obtain independent confirmation of these events. End note.” At last it is comparing the different stories: “Merabishvili said that 600 of his MOIA special forces, with their Kobra vehicles (armored Humvees with 40-mm guns), took Tskhinvali in six hours, against 2,000 defenders. He claimed that in the future they will use the attack to teach tactics. He returned again to the subject, noting that ‘we held Tskhinvali for four days despite the Russians’ bombing. Half of our men were wounded, but none died. These guys are heroes.’ (Comment: Post understands MOIA control of Tskhinvali was actually closer to 24 hours. End Comment.)”

Nonetheless the Embassy passively transmits: “bombed hospitals”; “Russian Cossacks are shooting local Georgians and raping women/girls”; “The Georgians suffered terrible losses (estimated in the thousands) overnight”; “Russian helicopters were dropping flares on the Borjomi national forest to start fires”; “Russia targeted civilians in Gori and Tskhinvali”; “the Backfires targeted 95 percent civilian targets”; “raping women and shooting resisters”; “stripped Georgian installations they have occupied of anything valuable, right down to the toilet seats”.

However, enough of this: it’s clear that the US Embassy in Tbilisi believed what it was told, had not in the past questioned what it was told and, for the most part, uncritically passed on what it had been told. The US Embassy reports shaped the narrative in key areas:

1. Ossetians (and maybe Moscow) started it;

2. The Russian forces were doing tremendous and indiscriminate damage;

3. Possibly the Russians wanted to take over Georgia altogether.

Many reports deal with attempts to produce a unified statement of condemnation from NATO and show differences among the members. On the one hand, “Latvia, echoed by Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland highlighted their Presidents’ joint statement on the crisis and invited Allies to support that declaration. Each of these Allies expressed that Russian violence should ‘not serve the aggressor’s purpose’ and that NATO should respond by suspending all NRC activity with the exception of any discussion aimed at bringing an end to the conflict. Bulgaria liked the idea immediately”. But not everyone bought into Washington’s contention that Ossetia or Moscow had started it: “Hungary and Slovakia called for NATO to take into account the role Georgia played at the beginning of this recent conflict, suggesting that Georgia invaded South Ossetia without provocation.” Germany is even described as “parroting Russian points on Georgian culpability for the crisis” and described as “the standard bearer for pro-Russia camp”. Would Berlin’s scepticism have any connection with the fact that Der Spiegel was the only Western media outlet that got it right: “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.”? Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, there is agreement that Moscow’s response was “disproportionate”. (But how much was that judgement affected by Tbilisi’s hysterical reports of indiscriminate bombardment, casualties in the thousands and the exaggerated reports about the destruction of Gori? To say nothing of meretricious reporting by Western media.)

The Western media – with the exception of Der Spiegel – was no better. Perhaps the best example of its slanted and incompetent coverage was passing off pictures of Tskhinval as pictures from Gori: one newspaper even tried to pass off a Georgian soldier – wearing a visible Georgian flag patch – as a Russian in “blazing” Gori. It was months before the New York Times or the BBC, for example, began to climb off their Tbilisi-fed reporting.

During the war I was interviewed by Russia Today and I said that, sitting at my computer in my basement in Ottawa, far from the centre of the world, I had a better take on what was happening than Washington did. I see nothing in these reports to change my opinion. I also said that the war would be a reality check for the West when it was understood that Moscow’s version of events was a much better fit with reality than Tbilisi’s. And so it has proved to be.

Why did I do better? Assumptions. The American diplomats assumed that Tbilisi was telling the truth (despite the strong hint from Kitmarishvili). People in Warsaw, Riga and other places assumed that Russia wanted to conquer Georgia. On the other hand, my assumption was that Tbilisi hardly ever told the truth – I had followed all the back and forth about jihadists in Pankisi or Ruslan Gelayev’s attack on Abkhazia. I knew about Saakashvili’s takeover of Imedi TV. I knew that Ossetians had reasons to fear Tbilisi years ago and more recently. I knew that they were only in Georgia because Stalin-Jughashvili had put them there and that they wanted out. I remembered the Gamsakhurdia years when all this began. I was not pre-disposed to believe Tbilisi on this, or, truth to tell, anything else. Assumptions are everything and that is what we see in these reports. Russia is assumed to be evil, Georgia assumed to be good.

But, what a change in only two years: today NATO courts Russia and Saakashvili courts Iran.

Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and started working for the Canadian government as a defence scientist in 1977. He began a 22-year specialisation on the USSR and then Russia in 1984, and was Political Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996.

(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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One of the staples of the neocon-Russophobe narrative is that Russia is alone in the world, utterly bereft of friends, left only with the likes of Nicaragua and Nauru to indulge it in its anachronistic “imperial fantasies”. Not really. Conflating the West with the world won’t change the fact that amongst the peoples of China, India, and most of the Middle East and Latin America – that is, the regions containing the bulk of the world’s population and future economic potential – Russia is actually viewed rather favorably. But what about peoples recently liberated from the oppressive, iron boots of Russian chauvinism – surely they dislike Russia? Not that simple. Some sure do – Estonians, Poles, West Ukrainians, Georgians… But plenty more don’t (Armenians, Bulgarians, East Ukrainians). It’s a complex picture of significant political and geopolitical import.

Back in November 2008, the VTsIOM polling site released some very detailed results about what peoples in the former Soviet Union think about each other. The first graph below asks people which countries they consider to be friends or allies of their country.

And these were the results. Some 74% of Belarussians, 58% of Ukrainians, 49% of Moldovans, 82% of Armenians, and 67-89% of Central Asians named Russia as a friend and ally. In contrast, only 11-17% in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Lithuania like Russia this way, but that is hardly surprising. (The Latvians are rather higher at 26%, presumably because of their large Russian minority, though far higher numbers, almost half of them, orient themselves with the other Baltic states).

The poll below is even more telling. It asks peoples in the former USSR to name which countries or blocs they would like to unite with, the main contenders being Russia, the EU, and “independence”.

Russians are mostly split between those favoring some kind of Slavic or Eurasian bloc (37% – Belarus, 29% – Ukraine, 24% – Kazakhstan), and Russia-as-is (32%); the European Union really isn’t that popular at 15%. This isn’t much different in Ukraine or Belarus. Some 56% of Belarussians and 47 of Ukrainians would like to unite with Russia, while 25% and 22% favor the EU, and 18% and 25% favor independence, respectively. Some 51% of Kazakhs favor Russia and 32% independence.

The Moldovans are equally split between Russia and the EU or independence (which in practical terms would mean the Romanian sphere of influence). The Azeris identify most strongly with Turkey, with 31% expressing a desire to join it, followed by 24% yearning for the EU and 24% for continued independence. Big majorities (65-73%) in the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan would like to rejoin Russia, which is unsurprising given their relative underdevelopment and the relative success of Russification there. Georgia has always had a strong sense of national identity, including during the Soviet period, so by far the majority there wants independence (38%) or the EU (37%); only 10% wouldn’t mind falling back into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Why is this important? Because to some extent, even in semi-authoritarian systems, national leaders are to some extent beholden to popular sentiment. This is not to say, of course, that this is the only factor – an objective assessment of national interests (which are often synonymous with the interests of the ruling elites) almost always trumps anything else. But it does illustrate that the much ballyhooed “Russian resurgence” across the former USSR rests on firmer foundations than just political pressure or economic takeovers – of at least equal importance is that many of the peoples in its path back to regional hegemony aren’t actually that averse to it*.

PS. Another useful survey of attitudes towards Eurasian regional integration by Gallup: “In all countries except Azerbaijan, the median average wants at least an economic union across Eurasia”.

* The big exception is Georgia. This is where there is both a clash of primary geopolitical interests (the irreconcilability of Georgia westward path and Russia’s desire to anchor itself in the South Caucasus) and of civilizational values (AFAIK, the only social grouping in Georgia with a real pro-Russia tendency are the monarchist “People’s Orthodox Movement“). Coupled with simmering border tensions, it is probably not surprising that this developed into a flashpoint for armed conflict.

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

Ukraine Returns to the Empire?

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

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

[Click on map to enlarge].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eurasian Energy Map Redrawn

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

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

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

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

[Click on map to enlarge].

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

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

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

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

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

And from Pipe dreams come true (bne):

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

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

The R of the BRIC’s Remains Solid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel free to read the whole article.

Russia’s Population Grows in 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Volatile Caucasus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Projection & Military Modernization

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

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

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

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovoo-n9b5Bs&w=425&h=344]

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

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

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

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

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This is a summary of opinion polls conducted by the Levada-Center, Russia’s Gallup, since February 2009, and continues on from the first post. Along with the original post Lovely Levada, this series constitutes a unique English-language reference for social trends under late Putinism as expressed by the Russian people themselves, rather than the limousine liberals, pro-Western ideologues, and Kremlin flunkies who claim to speak for them. Unless stated otherwise, all opinion poll data refers to 2009.

2009, Dec 28: Around 60% of Russians are against the building of a sleek 400-meter skyscraper, the Okhta Center, in central St.-Petersburg, while only 21% are for. Myself, I’m of two minds about it. Though I like skyscrapers, I don’t want to see any public money going to Gazprom ego-building.

Dec 24: The Western tradition of celebrating Christmas on December 25th is not catching on in Russia, with only 4% of Russians saying they will do so this year.

1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Yes 13 12 17 16 18 18 19 16 6 4 6 6 4

Nor are perceptions of the reform era getting any better. In 2009, only 29% of the population considers the post-1992 period to have been good for the country, whereas 49% disagree. Furthermore, only 23% feel they personally benefited from those reforms, while 50% disagree. However, a majority feel, nonetheless, that some kind of “perestroika” was necessary to reform the Soviet regime.

Today, the majority of the population – 51% – would like to see more state involvement in the economy and social protections, though only 15% would like a return to the Soviet model (down from 20-30% before 2006), and an even smaller 10% favor a course of reducing government and focusing on creating on more opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Summing up 2009, although Russians considered the year to be worse than 2007 or 2008, there is no evidence the economic crisis had an inordinate effect on their subjective perceptions of success.

Year Summary 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Successful 36 37 42 47 51 42 47 49 52 46 43
Not Successful 51 51 38 37 34 37 34 29 28 32 37
N/A 14 12 20 16 15 21 19 22 20 22 20

Dec 21: There remains a strong nostalgia for the Soviet past, or what I like to call an “imagined past of a bright socialist future”. Around 60% of Russians still regret its collapse, so no wonder it is returning to its future.

Regret? 1992 1994 2000 2002 2004 2006 2007 2008 2009
Yes 66 66 75 68 67 61 55 60 60
No 23 19 19 25 26 32 36 30 28
N/A 11 15 6 7 7 7 9 10 12

Furthermore, the majority believe that Soviet collapse was not inevitable (a viewpoint backed by some theoretical work).

Inevitable? 1998 2001 2004 2006 2007 2008 2009
Yes 24 29 24 27 30 30 28
Could have been avoided 58 58 65 59 56 55 57
N/A 18 13 11 14 14 15 15

Proposed remedies for the future include closer, voluntary ties between the post-Soviet republics (27%), a Eurasian EU-like confederation (22%), a neo-USSR (16%), independent coexistence amongst the former Soviet republics (14%), and the continuation of the CIS in its current state (13%).

Dec 17: Putin and Medvedev continue dominating the political scene, and retain very high approval ratings. On the question of “tandemocracy”, 55% believe Medvedev is merely continuing Putin’s policies, and 48% believe power is shared equally between Medvedev and Putin (while 30% believe Putin is the more powerful player pulling the strings).

Dec 16: A stuffy, but insightful, and non-Kremlin-friendly, essay by Lev Gudkov, Levada’s founder, on The Nature of Putinism (in Russian).

Dec 15: Attitudes towards the West remain in a deep rut, its conduct during the South Ossetian War having left an irreparable cleft. Regarding the US, despite the election of Obama, Russia’s attitudes towards the US are today about as favorable as in November 1999, after the NATO bombing of Serbia (however, the depth of the animosity should not be exaggerated; for real anti-Americanism, one can do little better than stroll through the “Arab street” in the Middle East”).

Attitudes towards the EU are also on a long-term secular decline, though the slope is much less steep than for the US.

Attitudes towards Georgia remain highly negative, which is not surprising given the Georgian President Saakashvili’s deepening megalomania. Equally not surprising is that Belarus under Bat’ka remains far more popular than Ukraine, as demonstrated in this comedic song about “cutting off Ukraine’s gas“.

Dec 7: A majority of Russians support, to some extent, the slogan “Russia for Russians!“, though there hasn’t been any major upward trend in the past decade. So the theme about the uniquely prevalent nature of Russian racism should not be overplayed.

“Russia for Russians”? Aug.98 Nov.01 Aug.03 Dec.04 Jun.05 Nov.06 Aug.07 Oct.08 Nov.09
Yes – it’s about time we implemented this! 15 16 21 16 19 15 14 15 18
It would be a good idea to implement this within reasonable bounds 31 42 32 37 39 35 41 42 36
No – this is real fascism! 32 20 18 25 23 26 27 25 32
I’m not that interested 10 11 7 12 9 12 11 12 9
Haven’t thought on this 5 6 14 5 7 8 -* - -
N/A 7 5 8 4 3 4 7 6 5

Also, 61% believe the state should check unrestrained migration into Russia, and 35% do not feel too comfortable about the influx of foreign laborers from the “Near Abroad”. Neither of these have seen major changes in the past decade.

Nov 26: Very detailed historical information on approval ratings for Russia’s political forces – as of November 2009, President Medvedev had 74%, PM Putin had 79%, and the government had 50%. The economic crisis made nary a dent.

Furthermore, more Russians than not think Russia is moving in the right direction – again despite the crisis. This should all give pose to those who say that Putin’s popularity and Russia’s recent turn towards greater self-confidence was based exclusively on high oil prices and economic growth.

Nov 25: 63% of Russians think the situation in the North Caucasus is tense, but 64% believe it will remain stable during the next year. On the 15th anniversary of the First Chechen War, 43% think the Russian government was correct in its use of force to bring it to heel, whereas 11% believe it should have been granted full independence.

Nov 20: Russia extends its moratorium on the death penalty, despite that most Russians support it.

Death Penalty Feb.00 Feb.02 Mar.06 Apr.07 Jun.09
Should be resumed on early-1990′s levels 54 49 43 39 37
The current state of affairs (moratorium) should be preserved 15 12 23 19 20
Death penalty should be completely abolished 12 12 12 19 14
Death penalty should be expanded 10 19 8 14 16
N/A 10 8 14 10 13

What is the main point of the death penalty for Russians?

Why death penalty? Jul.07
Only as an extreme measure for punishing irredeemable felons 27
To deter others from committing crimes 18
Lawful measure for punishing especially severe crimes 18
To cleanse society of irredeemable criminals 10
Exacting vengeance on the criminal is justice 10
I don’t see any valid justification for the death penalty 7
To heal society and restore moral values 4
Other 6

However, for some classes of crimes support for the death penalty is significantly higher than when the question is asked in a more general way.

Death penalty for… Jul.07
Serial murder? 71
Child rape? 65
Premeditated killing? 48
Selling of drugs? 39
Terrorism, preparation for revolution? 32
Corruption? 16
Treason & espionage in peacetime? 13
Armed robbery? 11
Attempted murder of head of state? 9
Death penalty is always unacceptable 8
Other 1
N/A 4

Some 47% of Russians would feel personally safer if they reintroduced the death penalty, whereas 39% disagree.

Nov 18: Perceptions of subjective wealth have improved in Russia over the past decade, along with salaries and pensions. Today, far more shopping is done in big stores and supermarkets than a decade ago, whereas buying stuff on the streets is rarer. Again, not surprising given its economic growth.

Quality of life? Dec.99 Nov.09
Well-off 6 24
Middle-class 46 62
Barely make ends meet 35 10
Poor 10 3
Very poor 3 >1

Below is a more detailed breakdown.

Which group do you belong to? 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Barely make ends meet – not even enough money for food. 22 19 15 18 15 12 14 9 10
Can buy food, but getting clothes is a problem. 44 42 45 41 37 35 33 27 30
Can buy the basics like food and clothes, but durable consumer goods (TV, refrigerator) present more of a problem. 27 32 31 31 37 40 37 48 48
Can easily get durable consumer goods, but truly expensive things are less accessible. 7 7 8 9 10 13 15 15 12
Can make really expensive purchases like apartments, dachas, etc, without problem. <1 <1 1 <1 1 <1 1 1 <1

Nov 6: Russia’s attitudes on the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – 63% are positive, and only 11% are negative.

Nov 5: The Russia-Ukraine relation in detail, at the level of peoples rather than governments.

What should Russia-Ukraine relations resemble? Russia Ukraine
Jan. 09 Jun. 09 Jan. 09 Jun. 09 Oct. 09
As is usual for states – closed borders, tariffs, visas 29 25 8 10 11
Independent but friendly states, characterized by open borders without visas or tariffs. 51 55 68 65 67
Russia and Ukraine should unite into a single state. 12 14 23 23 19
N/A 8 6 1 2 3

What do Russians think about Ukraine, and Ukrainians about Russia?

What do you think? Russians about Ukraine Ukrainians about Russians
Mar.08 Jan.09 Jun.09 Sep. 09 Apr. 08 Feb.09 Jun.09 Oct.09
Good / very good 55 29 33 46 88 91 93 91
Bad / very bad 33 62 55 44 7 5 4 6
N/A 12 9 11 10 5 4 3 3

However, given the choice most Ukrainians would prefer (re-)integration into Eurasia than Westernization. Only 17% of Ukrainians would have voted to join NATO in October 2009, whereas 63% were against. Furthermore, 55% of Ukrainians prefer a union with Russia and Belarus, compared to 24% who would prefer accession to the European Union.

EU or Union of Russia & Belarus? Ukrainians
certainly EU 12
sooner EU 12
sooner Russia & Belarus 30
certainly Russia & Belarus 25
N/A 21

This is one of the main reasons why it is likely that some kind of Eurasian Empire – be it an EU-like confederation or neo-Soviet Union – will be slowly but surely resurrected in the near future (as is indeed already happening).

Nov 5: What is your opinion on the October Revolution for Russia’s peoples?

1990 1997 2004 2005 2009
Opened a new era in Russian history. 23 23 30 26 28
Gave a push towards social and economic development. 26 26 27 31 29
It put a brake on development. 18 19 16 16 16
It became a catastrophe. 12 16 14 15 10
N/A 21 16 13 12 17

Oct 29: Only 4% of Russians celebrate Halloween.

Oct 27: Most Russians believe Putin represents the interests of the siloviks (27%), middle class (24%), oligarchs (22%), simple folks (21%), and his close friends (18%).

Oct 23: 71% of Russians believe they need a serious opposition party, while 47% believe that no such parties currently exist (38% disagree).

Oct 15: Russians on democracy – a series of very detailed and telling graphs.

33% believe Russia has some kind of democracy, another 33% think its democracy has not yet become firmly grounded, while 20% believe it is regressing. As of June 2009, some 57% believed Russia needs democracy, while 26% disagreed – these figures are changed from 66% and 21% respectively in June 2005.

According to the polls below, it seems that Russians have recently come to truly believe in “sovereign democracy“.

As of 2006, around 63% of Russians are basically “statists” – they believe the state should care about all its citizens and guarantee a fitting standard of living, whereas only 25% subscribe to the classical liberal position that the state should limit itself to setting and enforcing the “rules of the game”, and an even smaller 4% take the neoliberal view that government should minimize its involvement in its citizens’ economic affairs. These figures are changed from 71%, 19%, and 6% respectively, in 2001.

Most Russians support a strong, centralized Presidency, and in contrast to the late Soviet period, support for what could be called “authoritarianism” has risen.

The share of Russians believing that Russia’s rulers only look out for their “material wellbeing and career”, which once hovered at 50-60%, has since 2007 fallen to 20-30% – nearly equalizing with those thinking it is a “strong team of politicians, leading the country along the right road”. This is yet another illustration of Russia’s recent, quasi-spiritual transition from “poshlost” to “sobornost”.

At the same time, the number of Russians considering themselves to be “free” in their society has increased under the Putin years. In 1990, 38% of Russians felt society had too little freedom, 30% enough freedom, and 17% too much freedom; in 1997, these figures were 20%, 32%, and 34%; in 2008, they were 18%, 55%, and 20%, all respectively. Ironically, the (perceived) decline in liberalism since 1998 has been accompanied by greater democratization, in that the state has moved closer to the “people’s will”.

Only a tiny minority of Russians, 2-3%, – interestingly, the same percentage that voices approval for Russian “liberals” like Kasparov and Illarionov – have ever regarded Western-style democracy as a necessary “savior” of Russia – many have the practical attitude that it has many useful things to offer (45% in 2008), or that it is not suitable for Russia (30%) or outright dangerous (12%).

All in all, this is all in stark contrast to the Western media theme that Putin, the tyrant, is forcefully re-submerging an unwilling populace back into its totalitarian past. See Armageddon, Putvedev is Russia’s White Rider, and Russia’s Sisyphean Loop for detailed discussions of these phenomena and trends.

Oct 9: Russia’s opinions on the US BMD program (ballistic missile defense). Whereas only 8% think the European installations are being built to defend against Iran, some 69% of Russians believe that it is to ensure its military superiority over Russia, pressure Russia geopolitically, or defend against Russian nuclear attacks.

Regarding America’s plans to postpone the European BMD sites, some 41% think it is a temporary concession, 16% think it’s just a move in a geopolitical “trade” between Russia and the US – while only 21% consider it a “victory” of Russia. The vast majority of Russians believe that the US will continue with its ABM program.

In other words, Russians are cynical about US intentions – and almost certainly correct to be so.

Oct 1: Russians have a great deal of skepticism towards the 1993 bombing of the Duma in Moscow – they perceive it as being evidence of purely inter-elite struggles, a sign of national decline, etc. Some 81% of Russians say both were wrong, both were right, or N/A.

Sept 8: After a peak in 2002, TV viewership is on a slow decline in Russia, especially amongst the young who have the Internet. However, it remains extremely prevalent, with 86% watching it daily or almost daily.

Sept 4: A slim majority of Russians do not consider Stalin to be a “state criminal”, or mostly responsible for the repressions of the 1930′s-50′s. Around half consider the USSR had some resemblances to Nazi Germany, whereas another half disagree. This illustrates the highly binaried view of Russian society towards Stalin – the despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament.

Whereas 55% of Russians think it important to improve relations with Japan, especially in the sphere of hi-tech, most of them (82%) are against doing this by handing over the southern Kurils.

Sept 3: Around 70% of Russians support 1) the teaching of subjects at elementary schools in non-Russian languages and 2) the teaching of the controversial course “The Foundations of Orthodox Culture”.

Aug 31: A majority of Russians continue going out to pick mushrooms at least once per year.

Aug 26: The best Russian films of the last decade: The 9th Company, The Barber of Siberia, Admiral, Island, Twelve, Taras Bulba, Night Watch, The Turkish Gambit, The Irony of Fate 2, Brother, Love – Carrot, Bastards.

The 63% of Russians expecting a “second wave” of the economic crisis during autumn 2009 were wrong.

Aug 24: In July 2009, some 34% of Russians supported the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the August 23, 1939 non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the USSR), 23% condemned it, and 44% didn’t really know or care. Attitudes towards it seem to correlate with those towards Stalin.

Aug 17: Russians are thoroughly disillusioned with the events of the August “Putsch” of 1991, in whose aftermath the USSR collapsed – 42% think it was nothing more than an intra-elite struggle for power, 33% consider it a tragic event with ruinous consequences for the country and people, and just 9% believe it to have been a victory of democracy over the Communist Party.

Aug 7: The increasing penetration of electronic devices in Russia. Do you have a cell phone?

Jan.01 Jan.02 Jan.03 Jan.04 Jan.05 Jan.06 Jan.07 Jan.08 Jan.09 Jul.09
Yes 2 5 9 19 32 45 58 71 78 78
No 98 95 91 81 68 55 42 29 22 22

Do you use a personal computer? (yes if once a month or more; no if less than once per month).

Jan.01 Jan.02 Jan.03 Jan.04 Jan.05 Jan.06 Jan.07 Jan.08 Jan.09 Jul.09
Yes 4 6 6 7 13 13 16 23 30 31
No 96 94 94 93 87 87 84 77 70 69

The latest Levada figures show that 25% of Russians use email.

Jul 27: On the 10-year anniversary of Putin’s power, Russians credit him most with: increasing life quality, salaries, and pensions (22%); economic development (17%); raising optimism about the country’s future (9%); restoration of order and political stability (8%); and the strengthening of Russia’s international standing (5%).

Jul 20: Contrary to some opinions, around 67% of Muscovites approved of the closure of the Cherkizovsky market (20% disapproved).

Jul 1: Putin is most popular in Russia, India, China, and Ukraine; and unpopular in the West and “moderate” Islamic nations.

Jun 30: Some 45% of Russians are opposed to selling Iran nuclear and missile technologies, while 29% don’t mind. As for North Korea’s nuclear program, 70% of Russians prefer to curtail it via diplomatic negotiation or sanctions.

On the occasion of Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow, 57% of Russians thought relations hadn’t improved from the Bush-era nadir, and 55% are against cuts in their nuclear arsenal (bearing in mind that Washington is working on ABM).

Jun 25: Though only 5% of Russians tried drugs and 18% know of friends or relatives who tried drugs, almost all – 97% – consider it to be a serious problem in Russia. Another 65% believe that trying a drug just once may have the potential to create an addiction. (However, Russia’s drug laws are surprisingly liberal, given the conservative attitudes described above).

Jun 19: Why were Soviet losses during the Great Patriotic War significantly higher than Germany’s?

1991 2001 2006 2009
The suddenness of the invasion 21 35 31 35
Stalin’s administration didn’t care for losses 33 22 26 21
German military and technological superiority 16 19 18 19
Weakness and incompetence of Soviet command 12 11 11 10
Nazi cruelty 5 8 9 9
N/A 13 5 5 7

Jun 10: Russia’s friends and enemies – countries scoring more than 30% are highlighted. Friends: Belarus, Kazakhstan, China, Germany, Armenia, India, Cuba, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, France, Tajikistan, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Italy. Enemies: Georgia, USA, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Germany, Japan, Israel, China, Romania.

May 18: Russians’ opinions about the Unified State Exam.

May 5: 63% of Russians celebrate Victory in the Great Patriotic War, and the same percentage think the USSR could have won the war without Allied help (27% disagree).

Apr 29: Another 57% celebrate May 1st, the labor holiday.

Apr 17: The 2008-09 economic crisis had a far smaller effect on Russians’ wellbeing than the 1998-99 crisis. While the percentage of the population barely making ends meet went up from 29% in July 1998 to 40% in December 1998, this figure remained stable at around 10% throughout the recent crisis.

The main shift occurred amongst Russia’s “consumer class” (the ones who buy cars, PC’s, etc), whose percentage of the population tumbled by a quarter from 19% to 14%, and perhaps explains the reason for its large drop in GDP for 2009. The silver lining is that this implies inequality has decreased during the crisis.

Mar 30: Opinions are highly split regarding conscription and the Army. 47% of Russians would like to retain mandatory military service, whereas 43% would prefer a full transition to a contract army.

Jan.00 Jul.00 Jan.02 Feb.05 Oct.05 Feb.06 Feb.07 Feb.08 Mar.09
Conscription 30 34 27 31 39 32 41 45 47
Contract army 63 58 64 62 52 62 54 48 43
N/A 8 8 9 8 9 6 5 7 9

If someone in your army was obligated to perform mandatory military service, would you rather they served, or searched for ways to avoid it?

Prefer him to serve in Army 50
Prefer him to try to avoid service in the Army 35
N/A 15

Rather surprising, perhaps, considering the Russian Army’s reputation for hazing (dedovschina). However, its severity may have declined in the past few years, what with the shortening of the term of service from 2 years to 1 year by 2008 – this automatically removed the “grandfathers” from the barracks (conscripts doing their last half-year of service), who tended to be responsible for the worst abuses. Add in the increase in patriotic propaganda and the start of efforts to repress hazing, and this may explain the recent social “rehabilitation” of military service.

Mar 3: More military questions and answers. Does Russia face a military threat from other countries?

2000 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Yes 48 42 47 37 44 40 49 52 50
No 45 42 45 55 44 51 43 38 41
N/A 8 16 8 8 12 9 8 10 9

Is the Russian Army currently capable of defending the nation in the case of a real war threat from other countries?

2000 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Yes 60 56 55 60 52 62 65 73 73
No 31 30 38 32 38 28 27 17 17
N/A 9 14 7 8 10 10 8 10 10

Hope you enjoyed browsing through these! ;)

(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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This is a list of common Russophobe myths about Russia and its people, and the successor to a March 2008 post on a similar theme. Please be sure to check the supporting notes at the bottom before dismissing this as neo-Soviet propaganda. Also partially available en français & на русском thanks to Alexandre Latsa’s translation.

1

MYTH: Life has only improved for a few oligarchs, while the poor and everyone outside Moscow remain impoverished.

REALITY: During Putin’s Presidency, poverty rates more than halved and wages nearly tripled, fueling an on-going consumption boom shared across all regions and social groups.

2

MYTH: Russia is in a demographic death spiral that has gotten worse under Putin and which will soon sink its economy.

REALITY: The birth rate has increased, the death rate has fallen and mortality from murder, suicide and alcohol poisoning has plummeted. Projections of Russia’s future dependency ratios are no worse than for China or the G7.

3

MYTH: Putin abused human rights, personally murdered 200 journalists and returned Russia to its totalitarian past.

REALITY: Too bad that only 3% of Russians agree, despite having easy access to such views via the press, cable TV and the Internet. The number of journalists killed under Putin (17) is less than under Yeltsin (30), and only five of them can be definitively linked to their professional work. Elections have been mostly free and fair.

4

MYTH: Russia’s economy is one big oil bubble, and the severity of Russia’s recession in 2009 confirms this.

REALITY: The extractive industries contributed a negligible amount to Russia’s real GDP growth during the Putin Presidency and the big collapse in output at the end of 2008 was mostly due to Western banks cutting off the credit flows on which many Russian companies had unwisely come to rely upon during the boom years. Russia exports few manufactured goods because its comparative advantage lies in resource extraction.

5

MYTH: Heroic Americans with their British sidekicks won World War Two, while the Russians just threw billions of soldiers without rifles in front of German machine guns and raped every last Prussian wench when they finally arrived in Berlin.

The vast majority of German soldiers were killed, taken POW or otherwise incapacitated on the Eastern front. The Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1 and the USSR outproduced Germany in every weapons system throughout the war. The number of alleged rape victims is vastly inflated for propagandistic purposes, and in any case does not come close to the scale of German barbarism which resulted in the deaths of fifteen to twenty million Soviet citizens.

This popular myth appeared because self-serving former Wehrmacht officers wanted to rehabilitate the German Army after World War Two and their goals were shared by American policy-makers in the strained atmosphere of the Cold War.

6

MYTH: Russia brutally invaded Georgia, a beacon of freedom and democracy in the Eurasian darkness.

REALITY: Hours after President Saakashvili promised friendship to the Ossetian people, his forces were invading South Ossetia and raining down indiscriminate rocket fire on sleeping Tskhinvali. Russia’s retaliation was a just and proportionate response to the murder of its citizens and UN-mandated peace-keepers.

The beating of opposition protesters and the shutdown of anti-regime TV networks are serious blemishes on Georgian democracy.

7

MYTH: Russian liberals are altruistic campaigners for justice and the true voice of the oppressed Russian people.

REALITY: The Russian “liberals” (or liberasts, as they are often called) get low single-digit approval ratings from the Russian population, which is not at all surprising given their reputation for mendacious hypocrisy, Bolshevik-like rhetoric and dogmatic support for the West regardless of Russia’s national interests.

8

MYTH: Russians are sexists and xenophobic racists who hate the West.

REALITY: Russian women live longer and are better educated than men, enjoy full abortion rights and participate extensively in the economy. Few Russians are predisposed against the US and there are far fewer anti-Semitic incidents in Russia than in France, Germany and the UK.

9

MYTH: Russia is an aggressive state which is hated by its neighbors.

REALITY: Unlike some superpowers, the Russia Federation has yet to invade another country unprovoked. Most of its neighbors view Russia favorably and a plurality of Ukrainians would be happy to join it.

10

MYTH: The barbarous state of Muscovy arose in the sixteenth century when Ivan the Terrible climbed out of the trees.

REALITY: The more than 1000-year old civilization of Kievan Rus’ was literate, affluent, governed by a legal code that abhorred cruel and unusual punishments (including the death penalty) and accorded women extensive property and inheritance rights.

11

MYTH: Russia is soon going to see a sub-Saharan scaled AIDS epidemic, causing mortality rates to soar and plunging its demography into utter oblivion.

REALITY: These “pessimistic” models rely on assumptions that HIV transmission patterns in Russia will be similar to those prevailing in Africa. This is patently ridiculous given even a cursory acquaintance with differences in their host populations and epidemic dynamics.

The percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive reached a plateau in 2002 and tended down ever since. Furthermore, since few Russians are malnourished they have greater immune resistance than Africans. Unlike the case in sub-Saharan Africa, in Russia medical equipment tends to be sterilized and having many sexual partners is socially unacceptable.

12

MYTH: Russians are a pack of uncultured illiterates.

REALITY: Russia leads the world in literacy, level of tertiary attainment and the quality of its mathematicians and programmers. It possesses a world-class literary, musical and artistic heritage and to claim otherwise is in fact to admit oneself ignorant and uncultured.

13

MYTH: A nation with European birth rates and African death rates cannot have a future.

REALITY: Sure it can. The post-Soviet collapse in fertility rates was a result of childbirth postponement caused by the transition shock, not a fundamental values shift, and as such can be expected to reverse itself in the next decade. Meanwhile, Russia’s “hypermortality” primarily affects older Russian men who do not directly contribute to population reproduction.

14

MYTH: Russia has fallen to Tsarist levels of inequality and is plagued by endemic, African-level corruption. Both of these have become much worse under Putin.

REALITY: Russia’s level of income inequality and of corruption is average by world standards. Under Putin, they have registered a slight deterioration and slight improvement, respectively.

15

MYTH: Chechnya’s heroic freedom fighters deserve their independence and will soon get it, Insha’Allah!

REALITY: When they had de facto independence, the Chechens created a criminalized, Wahhabi state, practiced ethnic cleansing against local Russians and launched armed raids against border regions. Much as the Russophobes and jihadists may wish otherwise, it is difficult to see how Chechnya could repeat this considering that the region is stabilized, reconstruction is in full swing and the war officially ended in 2009.

16

MYTH: All Soviet space programs were developed by German prisoners of war, who are still kept in labor camps in Siberia.

REALITY: Sorry, but wrong country. All German leading hi-tech professionals, including rocket scientists, surrendered to the Americans and many worked on their space program.

17

MYTH: The Western media is accurate and objective in representing Putin as a ranting autocrat and Medvedev’s puppeteer.

REALITY: Putin is frequently mistranslated, quoted out of context and censored by the Western press in its efforts to portray him as a neo-Soviet fascist overlord. The tandem’s relationship is based on cooperation and they share a longterm goal of transforming Russia into a liberal, affluent society.

18

MYTH: Chinese settlers are taking over the rapidly depopulating Russian Far East and the region is under increasing threat from the People’s Liberation Army.

REALITY: A few hundreds of thousands of Chinese seasonal labor migrants pose no demographic threat to the more than five million Russians in the region. Even if China abandons its traditional focus on south-east Asia and the unthinkable happens, a Chinese conventional attack on Russia will be repelled by tactical nuclear weapons.

19

MYTH: Russia’s industrial base is hollowed out and obsolete, and the stationary bandits who rule it have no interest in making long-term investments into areas like hi-tech. As such, it is doomed to remain a resource appendage of the West.

REALITY: Russia has seen healthy manufacturing expansion aided by a weakened ruble, the creation of special economic zones and a robust industrial policy geared towards gradual import substitution. State funding for education, nanotechnology and other hi-tech ventures has soared in recent years.

20

MYTH: The Soviet Union was doomed to collapse because of its internal contradictions and dependence on oil exports.

REALITY: Theoretical work shows that the Soviet system was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant. Output collapse was precipitated by Gorbachev’s abandonment of central planning in the absence of evolved market mechanisms, which simply led to ruinous insider plunder and political crisis.

21

MYTH: Russia has proven itself uncooperative and untrustworthy as a Western partner.

REALITY: Bearing in mind the USA’s record of broken promises and undisguised aggression towards Russia coupled with arrogant dismissal of Russian protestations (as seen on Kosovo, NATO expansion, Georgia’s aggression, missile defense, color revolutions, Jackson-Vanik, etc), perhaps the question of just who is uncooperative and untrustworthy should be reconsidered.

22

MYTH: Russia’s youth is liberal and pro-Western, and will soon kick Putin and his KGB goons out of the Kremlin.

REALITY: The most pro-American section of the Russian population are the middle-aged. Russian children and youth are at least as skeptical as their grandparents, despite that – and because – they are the most sophisticated and globally-minded age group.

23

MYTH: New schoolbooks aim to rehabilitate Stalin, steeping the next generation of Russians in the glories of sovereign democracy.

REALITY: The controversial textbook in question had a very limited print run and is in any case one of a huge number of other permitted textbooks. Nor does it leave out Stalin’s repressions and liquidation of entire social classes. Its main “sin” is that it also dares to point out Stalin’s positive achievements and refuses to unequivocally condemn him in the belabored, moralizing way commonly expected of such textbooks.

24

MYTH: Ethnic Russians invent grievances about how they are being discriminated against in Estonia and Latvia,

REALITY: Many human rights organizations have documented that the Russophone minority in Estonia is subject to severe language and citizenship laws. This results in the disenfranchisement of around a quarter of their populations and discrimination against Russophones in employment and education. SS veterans proudly march through the streets of Riga while anti-fascist conferences and protests are brutally broken up.

25

MYTH: Ten million Ukrainians died from the organized famine-genocide of 1932-33, which Russia continues to deny. Understandably most Ukrainians yearn to break free from Russia’s baleful orbit.

REALITY: The famine was caused by the misguided collectivization campaign and aggravated by poor harvests. Though there were around two million excess deaths in Ukraine, overall losses in the Soviet Union were twice as high because South Russia, the Volga region and Kazakhstan were also badly affected. Russia’s position is that the famine was directed against the kulaks (the social class) and not Ukraine (the nation), which is an academically valid point of view; Ukraine on the other hand illiberally criminalizes “Holodomor denial”.

The hardline position on Russia and the Holodomor is exclusively pursued by the discredited Orange elites. In stark contrast, the vast majority of Ukrainians like Russia and Putin would probably win if he could run for the Ukrainian Presidency.

26

MYTH: Russia’s military technology is obsolete, its doctrines are outdated and its armed forces are increasingly decrepit. It will get crushed if it goes to war with China or NATO.

REALITY: Russia is developing fifth-generation capabilities in fighters, surveillance, electronic warfare, information warfare and precision weapons. Upgrading old Soviet platforms with modern electronic technology multiplies their effectiveness. It has major strengths in asymmetric counters like air defense, anti-ship cruise missiles and submarines. Russia retains its Soviet-era military-industrial complex, massive mobilization capacity and huge nuclear forces.

27

MYTH: Stalin killed 62 million innocent souls, making him a far worse tyrant than Hitler.

REALITY: During the entire 1921-53 period, some 4.1mn people were condemned for counter-revolutionary activities, of them 0.8mn to death and 1.1mn of whom died in camps and prisons. After adding the 3.5-5.0mn excess deaths from the collectivization famines, it is hard to see how Stalin could have been responsible for more than ten million deaths at the absolute maximum. Figures in the tens of millions have no basis in physical evidence or demographic plausibility.

Even in just the occupied territories of the USSR, there were there were 13.7mn deaths due to Nazi reprisals, labor requisitioning and famine. Even excluding the vast war casualties, the deaths of about 20mn Slav civilians, 6mn Jews, 3-4mn Soviet POWs and up to a million Roma can be attributed to the Nazis during the far shorter period 1941-45. If Nazi plans had come to fruition, then all the Slavs of eastern Europe would have been exterminated, helotized or driven into Siberian exile. As such, it is hard to see how the latter could be construed as being worse except by the most diehard Russophobes and fascists.

28

MYTH: Putin instigated a vicious clampdown on judicial independence and assaulted Russian civil society with restrictive NGO laws.

REALITY: Under the Putin administration the number of plaintiffs seeking redress through Russian courts increased sixfold and acquittal rates soared from 0.8% to 10%, mainly thanks to the introduction of jury trials, and claimants win 71% of cases against the state. There is now a system of free legal aid, more privacy protections and increased accountability.

The infamous NGO laws merely required the registration of all NGOs, simplified the registration process and extended their rights against bureaucratic interference.

29

MYTH: People have been saying Russia will be great in the future for nearly a thousand years. And every year, Russia keeps getting worse.

REALITY: Popular perceptions of Russians were always bifurcated in the West between optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints, with little room for nuance. However, Russia tends to perform best soon after Russophobe rhetoric reaches its peak and it has indeed improved by almost all meaningful metrics since the late 1990′s.

30

MYTH: Because of the above, Russia is doomed to continued stagnation culminating in collapse and disintegration.

REALITY: Only in your dreams…and in the Economist‘s, which predicted fifteen of the past zero Russian collapses.

It is far more likely that its impressive human capital, macroeconomic rationalism and energy windfalls stand Russia in good stead for convergence to First World living standards by the 2020′s.

31

MYTH: Khodorkovsky was a progressive entrepreneur who is being prosecuted by the evil siloviks for pursuing transparency and democracy. Even if he did steal state assets in the 1990′s, every other oligarch was doing the same so this is selective political persecution.

REALITY: Khodorkovsky transgressed against Putin’s early deal with the oligarchs to leave their ill-gotten fortunes alone in return for halting their meddling in the country’s politics. He bribed Duma members and tried to stack it with his own people in an effort to lower his taxes, which he was already evading on a massive scale. He subverted Russia’s security by insisting on his own pipeline route to the east, maintaining close contacts with Washington neocons and trying to merge his oil company YUKOS with Exxon. There is strong evidence that Khodorkovsky’s employees murdered those who got in his way.

32

MYTH: Yeltsin was a heroic democrat and hero of the people.

REALITY: He might have posed on a tank after checking the hardline Communist coup in 1991, but just two years later those same tanks were bombarding a Duma which dared object to his corrupt privatizations and assault on social welfare. He prosecuted a criminally incompetent war in Chechnya, used administrative resources to win the 1996 elections and surrounded himself with nepotistic cronies. Despite this – or more likely because of this – he was praised and supported by the West.

33

MYTH: Russia uses energy blackmail to intimidate its neighbors and exploits its energy clout to project political influence.

REALITY: It has full rights to charge its neighbors whatever it pleases for its gas, so this is not blackmail. The second part is true enough, but ignores that this is common to all Great Powers – as demonstrated by Western control of international trade and finance organizations and energy imperialism like the Iraq War.

34

MYTH: The Russian Empire was a backward despotism populated by illiterate peasants.

REALITY: Not really a myth, but this perception was becoming increasingly dated during the last years of Tsarism. By 1913 Russia had near universal primary schooling enrollment, a (rapidly growing) literacy rate of 41% and the fastest industrial growth rate in Europe.

35

MYTH: Russia is ruled by the neo-Tsarist Slavophile Soviet-nostalgic Eurasianist ultra-nationalist Orthodox-theocrat quasi-fascist statist Stalinist corporatist gangsta-capitalist Putin

REALITY: And perhaps the fact that he has so many ideologies ascribed to him actually means that he is extremely pragmatic, rational and post-ideological.

36

MYTH: Russia will become an Islamic Caliphate by 2050.

REALITY: Ethnic Russians still account for 80% of the Federation’s population, and since the fertility rates of all major Muslim ethnic groups have declined to below replacement-level rates it is certain that Russians will retain a firm majority into the foreseeable future. And even if Russians and Tatars magically swap demographic places, almost nothing will change because vodka has long since dissolved away the Koran in Russia.

37

MYTH: Stalin wrecked the Red Army by purging all its officers, did not anticipate his buddy Hitler’s attack and blundered by concentrating his forces on the Soviet borders instead of conducting defense in depth. This resulted in the huge casualty disparities between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in 1941.

REALITY: Though the purges were detrimental to the Red Army, the main reason it experienced officer shortages was its massive expansion from 1.2mn to 5.0mn men during 1938-41. Stalin fully anticipated an eventual German attack, but Soviet intelligence was far from unambiguous about its timing.

Defense in depth at the strategic level would have led to defeat in detail and catastrophe; the policy of mounting constant diversionary attacks on the German flanks, though costly, distorted the shape and sapped the strength of Barbarossa. This ultimately saved Moscow and averted total defeat in 1941.

Though heavily skewed, Red Army loss ratios in 1941 were no worse than those of the Poles or the French when pitted against the Wehrmacht.

38

MYTH: By teaming up with Nazi Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Russians were just as culpable for the outbreak of World War Two as the Germans.

REALITY: Munich. The USSR had been pressing for an alliance with the Western democracies to contain Hitler as early as the 1930′s, but they repeatedly sold it down the river – most notably by betraying Czechoslovakia in 1938, which was partitioned between Germany, Hungary and Poland soon after.

Realizing the West was most interested in having Germany and the USSR duke it out between them, Stalin stalled for time by cautiously cooperating with Hitler while rapidly building up Soviet military-industrial potential.

39

MYTH: Unlike Germany’s reconciliation with its Nazi past, Russia has never apologized for its Soviet past.

REALITY: Why should modern Russians apologize for policies pursued by the small clique that ruled them a long time ago, and many of whom were non-Russians to boot?

No European state has made much effort to fully account for its imperial legacies; the main feature of German exceptionalism was that you were supposed to confine your genocides to colored peoples in hot, sticky places, and in any case a) the Nazi regime was not morally comparable to the Soviet Union and b) even so the only reason Germany apologized so much was because it was occupied. Turkey criminalizes affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, Japan brushes off complaints about its brutal conduct in China during the Second World War and the Baltic states whitewash their involvement in the Holocaust.

Speaking of whom, apologies imply acceptance of responsibility and unleash demands for reparations… Latvia has already set up a commission to calculate a bill for “Soviet-era losses” to present to Russia, which ironically had to be disbanded recently because of the economic crisis.

And yet despite all this, Russia did apologize profusely under Yeltsin. The main difference under Putin is that he dares to chart a more objective course on historical truth, acknowledging past wrongs but refusing to one-sidedly smear Russia’s proud Soviet legacy, unlike his alcoholic predecessor in the Kremlin.

40

MYTH: The difference between a “russophobe” and a “russophile” is that while both “love” Russia, they define “love” differently: the “russophile” does everything he can to destroy the country, while the “russophobe” does everything he can to save it from destruction.

REALITY: The difference between a “Russophobe” and a “Russophile” is that while both “love” Russia, they define “love” differently: The “Russophobe” does everything she can to smear and condemn the country and those who defend it from within her own blinkered frames of reference, while the “Russophile” does everything she can to understand Russia on its own terms.

41

MYTH: Berezovsky is a heroic crusader for democracy.

REALITY: General Lebel said of him, “Berezovsky is the apotheosis of sleaziness on the state level: this representative of the small clique in power is not satisfied with stealing–he wants everybody to see that he is stealing with complete impunity”. He died in a plane crash.

The journalist Paul Khlebnikov christened him, “Godfather of the Kremlin”. He was gunned down on the streets of Moscow.

Berezovsky was involved in multiple scams during the 1990′s and there are strong links tying him to several unresolved murders in the 1990′s. With friends like these, the Russophobes need no enemies.

42

MYTH: The FSB goon Lugovoi assassinated the heroic dissident Litvinenko in the heart of London using ultra-rare polonium only produced in a few reactor cores in Russia. Putin’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi makes him complicit in nuclear terrorism.

REALITY: There are many, many things that don’t fit in this kitschy feel-good (for Westerners) account. Usual claims to the contrary, plutonium is not that rare and is usually a major byproduct in early nuclear weapons development programs. Nonetheless, it would have been much more convenient, easy and reliable to kill him with a gun or knife.

There is also evidence that Litvinenko was in prolonged contact with polonium before the fatal ingestion. One of his associates, the shady Italian, Scaramella, became contaminated before meeting Lugovoi or Kovtun, the two main suspects. Hence only Litvinenko could have contaminated him. (Scaramella was later imprisoned in Italy for attempting to plant incriminating evidence on a suspected nuclear-component smuggler). Russian requests for actual evidence as to the guilt of Lugovoi were stonewalled by the British, who nonetheless arrogantly insisted on extradition in contravention of the Russian Constitution.

Litvinenko could have been an MI6 pawn tasked with investigating a nuclear smuggling ring. Or he could have been complicit himself, either for profit or to incriminate certain Russians. There are many possible interpretations and the James Bond-like version of evil FSB spies silencing dissent abroad expertly spun by Berezovsky and his acolyte Goldfarb is far from the most likely one.

43

MYTH: Human rights abuses and authoritarian trends in Russia are transmitted top down from the Kremlin.

REALITY: If anything, Putin is more liberal than 70% of the Russian population. Russia is a post-totalitarian society with many features of the old order still hanging around in institutions like the police, the penal system and the bureaucracy. It is fully capable of evolving its own brand of democracy, but that requires time and a measure of political consolidation.

44

MYTH: Russia is Mordor.

REALITY: Scratch a Russophobe, and you find a talentless fantasy writer. Sorry to disappoint you folks, but there aren’t billions of orcs beneath the Ural Mountains preparing the final phase of their assault on the West. Not as far as I know, anyway.

45

MYTH: Rising up against the crony pro-Moscow Communists who rigged the elections in Moldova, masses of heroic young democrats tried to Tweet their their nation back into the light of Western iCivilization.

REALITY: The Communists enjoy a broad level of support across all age groups, run a fully democratic country and always steered a course between Moscow and the West. Of their biggest electoral opponents, one was a pro-Romanian nationalist and admirer of fascist dictator Antonescu, and the other had a reputation as the biggest thief in Moldova. The unruly protesters were an unholy mix of Romanian nationalists, common hooligans, and liberast provocateurs with shadowy connections to Atlanticist “pro-democracy” outfits.

46

MYTH: The Kremlin supports Hamas and aids Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

REALITY: Putin has never met with Hamas and Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear they would be treated as “undeveloped teenagers” until they recognize Israel. Russia’s relations with Iran are complex – on the one hand, it strongly opposes nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil and refuses to rule out economic sanctions. On the other hand, Iran’s gas reserves pose a substantial long-term threat to Russian energy influence in Europe and it is in Russia’s interests to keep tensions between Iran and the West high.

47

MYTH: A radar and ten interceptor missiles in central Europe will have absolutely no chance of stopping Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal, so it’s just using the issue as a bargaining chip to further its imperial ambitions.

REALITY: Should the US acquires the capability to decapitate Russia’s leadership and destroy its decaying nuclear arsenal in a first strike, then even a small ABM system could mop up any Russian retaliation. Furthermore, once the basic Air Defense Ground Environment is built up, massively expanding the system becomes much cheaper. Though this is a paranoid way of looking at things, only the paranoid survive. Especially in the military.

48

MYTH: Nations that have embraced the West like Georgia and Ukraine are much more economically dynamic than Russia, which proves the bankruptcy of the Kremlin’s economic model.

REALITY: Since Georgia and Ukraine are much poorer than Russia and collapsed farther after the dissolution of the USSR, they are supposed to have higher growth rates. But they actually don’t. Ukraine’s growth rate of 7% was similar to Russia’s during the boom years from 2000-2008 and its year on year GDP collapsed by a stunning 20%+ in Q1 2009. Though Georgia’s growth rate of 9-10% under Saakashvili’s market fundamentalism was substantially higher, it started from a much lower base and was accompanied by rising social iniquity, deindustrialization and the removal of the social safety net.

49

MYTH: Since most Russians are lazy, irresponsible and submissive sovok sheeple, they will remain backwards and under the thumbs of Kremlin thugs for a long time to come.

REALITY: Ushering in the new era of legality, markets and social activism is the so-called Putin generation, which has vastly differing values from those of older generations – initiative, boldness, hierarchy, individualism, cosmopolitanism and patriotism. Furthermore, many Soviet-era values like love for the Motherland, confidence in tomorrow, community spirit, social justice, courage, tolerance and skepticism remain highly respectable.

50

MYTH: Russians are extremely pessimistic, unhappy and spiritually doomed. A people who don’t believe in a better tomorrow can’t have one.

REALITY: After a long period of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 more people began to believe Russia was moving in a positive than in a negative direction, and from early 2008 more people felt confident in tomorrow than not. Though the economic crisis dented confidence, social morale is still far higher than during the Time of Troubles in the 1990′s.

Notes:

1. According to Rosstat, from 2000-2007 poverty rates have more than halved (from 30% to 14%). In real terms during 2000-2007, pensions have grown by a factor of 2.3 and wages by a factor of 2.6 (while the Gini index of inequality has remained roughly steady). A consumption boom has seen soaring automobile ownership, greater average living spaces and cell phone and Internet penetration by 2008 exceed 100% and reach 28%, respectively.

2. From 2000-2008 per thousand people, the birth rate has increased from 8.7 to 12.1, while the death rate has fallen from 15.3 to 14.8 – thus, natural population growth has improved from -6.6 to -2.6. Similarly, infant mortality has tumbled from 15.3/1000 to 8.5/1000. (In fact, increased migration meant the total population fall in 2008 was just -0.09%, i.e., virtually flat and not substantially different from Japan, Germany or just about any central-east European nation). During the same period, mortality from alcohol poisonings, suicide and murder has nearly halved.

However, all of this misses the point that in economics what matters isn’t the population or its growth rate per se, but the dynamics of the working age population as a percentage of the whole population – in this respect, Russia’s projected decline is no more severe than that in the the G7 or China (see pg.8 of this Goldman Sachs report). Fiscal problems will occur only if a) the old-age dependency ratio is high and b) old age social security systems are too generous or improperly structured. Russia’s old-age ratio is not projected to get excessively high even by 2050, while the World Bank believes long-term fiscal sustainability will be assured if the primary non-oil budget deficit remains below 4.7% of GDP.

For more on Russia’s demography, please see my articles Rite of Spring: Russia Fertility Trends and Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography.

3. The Western notion that Putin has strangled Russia’s nascent democracy is not one shared by the silent Russian majority. 64% of Russians think Putin has had a positive influence on democracy and human rights, while only 3% think it was ‘very negative’ (see recent BBC World Service poll and Fedia Kriukov’s excellent commentary on it). The data on journalists is taken from the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ database and Fedia Kriukov’s audit of it. See also Nicolai Petro in Russia through the looking glass and Russian democracy: a reply to Mischa Gabowitsch.

No election watch-dog has been able to point out anything other than vacuous allegations that I’m aware of. For instance, on the topic of the 2008 Presidential elections, please consult the response of independent Russian election monitor GOLOS (here):

GOLOS Association observed that the Election Day was held in a relatively quiet atmosphere in contrast to the State Duma election day. Such large-scale violations observed then as campaigning next to polling stations, transporting of voters, intimidation of voters and others were practically non-existent. Polling stations were better prepared and the voting process was better organized. At the majority of polling stations voters’ lists were properly bound, there were fewer representatives of administration at inside polling stations. In general the process of opening of the polling stations went well without any major incidents.

4. To take 2007 as an example, Russia’s economy grew by 8.1%, driven by construction (16.4%), retail (12.0%), finance (10.4%) and manufacturing (7.9%) and weighted down by the extractive industries (a meager 0.3%) (source). This pattern has held since 2005, and even in the 2000-2004 period only a third of growth was due to increasing hydrocarbons production according to Rudiger Ahrend of the OECD. See also the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (which unfortunately the Economist itself ignores) Russia’s booming economy, which illustrates the bankruptcy of several conceptions about Russia’s economy, including a) its hydrocarbons dependence and b) supposed stagnation in investment and manufacturing. Continuing increases in oil prices during 2003-2008 masked volume growth in non-hydrocarbons exports. Before the crisis, Russia had a healthy current account surplus, 600bn $ in foreign currency reserves and healthy budget surpluses intended to break even at 65$ / barrel oil.

For an insight into the vital importance of Western intermediation towards funneling credit into the Russian economy and its problems stemming from lacking an indigenous financial system, check my The Importance of Self-Sufficiency.

During the fat years, Russia bought up foreign currency reserves (e.g. T-Bills, US state-guaranteed mortgage securities, etc) to prevent an excessive ruble strengthening, which would have hurt manufacturers and exporters. However, this starved the local market of capital, thus forcing the domestic corporate sector to access foreign debt finance – therefore the rapid rise in official reserves were matched by a corresponding rise in private indebtedness, albeit the latter proceeded at a slower pace and allowed Russia to remain a large net creditor nation. This was a conservative and pricey choice, since the interest on the borrowing was substantially greater than the yields on Russia’s sovereign assets, thus forcing Russia Inc. to pay a ‘very substantial “spread” between the yield on its assets and the cost of the private debt in return for this foreign intermediation’. In light of the global credit crunch, it ended up providing only an ‘illusory degree of security’ for a ‘hefty price’. This is because now the Russian corporate system faced a triple whammy as credit availability dried up, existing creditors demanded repayments and and the commodity prices on which their balance sheets depended plummeted.

5. This can actually be said to encompass four myths, which I comprehensively refuted in The Poisonous Myths of the Eastern Front. I will quote summaries; please see the post for supporting notes:

MYTH I: Heroic Americans with their British sidekicks won World War Two, while the Russian campaign was a sideshow.

REALITY: Although Western Lend-Lease and strategic bombing was highly useful, the reality is that the vast majority of German soldiers and airmen fought and died on the Eastern Front throughout the war.

MYTH II: The Russians just threw billions of soldiers without rifles in front of German machine guns.

REALITY: The vast majority of German soldiers were killed, taken POW or otherwise incapacitated on the Eastern front. T he Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1 and the USSR outproduced Germany in every weapons system throughout the war. [For comprehensive stats on the matter, check out Colonel-General G. F. Krivosheev's authoritative book Soviet casualties and combat losses in the twentieth century; another good source / summary is Sergei Fedosov's article поБеда или Победа: как мы воевали].

MYTH III: Though the Wehrmacht fought with honor and dignity on the Eastern Front, the Russians killed all the German POW’s and raped and looted east Germany when they conquered it.

REALITY: The Great Patriotic War was an absolute war that was more brutal than anything seen in the West by orders of magnitude throughout its entire length. The hundreds of thousands German civilian and POW deaths at Soviet hands, though tragic, pale besides the up to 15-20mn Soviet civilian dead and the 60% mortality ratio of Soviet POW’s in German camps. Set against these numbers, the Red Army rapes in east Germany seem almost irrelevant. [See Fedia Kriukov's refutating comment about the validity of "megarape" estimates attributed to the Red Army].

MYTH IV: The mainstream Western narrative on the Eastern Front during the Second World War was formed by academic historians and is fundamentally fair and objective.

REALITY: The exigencies of the Cold War, coupled with traditional US anti-Communism, meant that many Americans sympathized with the German narrative of the war. In particular, the Wehrmacht officers talked, networked and wrote about how the German military was not complicit in Nazi war crimes so as to cement West Germany (not to mention their own careers) into the Western alliance on equal terms. The complexities and compromises of military involvement in genocide in the East was whitewashed into a kitschy image of the German soldier as a patriot braving the odds to defend family and Heimat from the Bolshevik hordes. The US military and politicians were just fine with this, because they faced an ideological struggle and possible land war with the Soviet Union. Though there is serious and reasonably objective Western academic work on the Eastern Front, popular culture is still dominated by German memoirs and a-historical romanticizers.

6. There is a wealth of evidence for the position that Georgia initiated the 2008 Ossetia War. For a summary, see Spiegel‘s A Shattered Dream in Georgia: EU Probe Creates Burden for Saakashvili: Other key articles include my The Western Media, Craven Shills for their Neocon Masters; How to Screp up a War Story by Mark Ames; and this BBC documentary about the evidence of Georgian atrocies – What really happened in South Ossetia?

There are many articles even in the Western media covering Saakashvili’s strong-arm tactics against the opposition, though the difficult issue of Western complicity (through silence) in it – especially when contrasted against the howls and cries whenever an unsanctioned protest in Russia is broken up – is rarely raised. Because it would reveal the moral bankruptcy behind the West’s support for Saakashvili, of course.

Read Russia’s Limousine Liberals (Anatol Lieven) and Why Russian Liberals Lose (Nicolai Petro).

8. For abortion laws, see Wikipedia. For other stats, see the WEF Gender Gap Index 2007 Russia section, according to which women are better educated, healthier and constitute 38% of decision-makers and 64% of professional workers. (Admittedly, the political subsection isn’t as good, though it should be noted that since the last Duma elections, the percentage of women in parliament has increased from 10% to 14% and two women have entered the Russian Cabinet). Only 8% of Russians view Americans very negatively (an attitude not shared by most people in Latin America and the Middle East). In 2006, a typical year, there were 136 violent anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, 97 in France, 74 in Canada, 38 in Germany and 34 in the Ukraine, compared to just 30 in Russia (according to the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism).

9. 81% of Ukrainians, 78% of Bulgars, 59% of Slovaks and 54% of Chinese view Russia favorably (in each country, that’s more than those who view the US in a positive light). These opinion polls are from the 47-nation PEW survey Global Unease with Major Powers. (Ok, admittedly the same cannot be said for Poles and the Czechs). Some 54% of Ukrainians are positive about joining the Union of Russia and Belarus, while only 24% are negative (see this poll). More Ukrainians would prefer to join the Union of Russian & Belarus (43%) than the European Union (30%) (see Levada poll here), and this is still the case as of 2009 – see Would the real Ukraine please stand up?

A Ukrainian public opinion study recently published by the Kiev-based Research and Branding polling institute found that top Russian politicians, including Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, enjoy sky-high public approval ratings—much more impressive than those of their Ukrainian counterparts. Moreover, the number of Ukrainians who want a union state with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is greater than the number of those rooting to join the European Union.

According to Gallup polls in recent years, all the former Soviet countries except Armenia and Georgia massively approve of the Russian leadership and in all post Soviet nations except Azerbaijan pluralities want at least an economic union. Though some might quibble with the assertion that Russia has not invaded any sovereign states in the post-Cold War period, citing Georgia. This is unfair and disingenuous – please see Myth #6.

10. Read the Kievan Rus’ wiki and consult its sources for confirmation and more information. Just to pre-empt any confrontations, I am aware that some Ukrainian nationalists consider the history of Rus’ to be exclusively theirs, dating the emergence of the Russian state to the late medieval expansion of Muscovy. This is a ridiculous viewpoint. Firstly, Kievan Rus’ also covered modern-day Belarus and most of European Russia west of the Volga. Secondly, even Muscovy can trace its ancestry from the principality of Vladimir-Suzdal’, which was nearly as old as Kiev or Novgorod.

11. See my article Myth of the Russian AIDS Apocalypse:

In 2007 [Russian government anti-AIDS crusader] Pokrovsky believed that there were “as many as 1.3mn” people infected with AIDS, very far from the multi-million rates he was predicting just five years ago, and not a catastrophic increase from “expert estimates” of 0.8mn in 2000. [Comprehensive] Russian government data shows that the percentage of pregnant women testing HIV positive reached a plateau in 2002 and tended down ever since. The models used by Eberstadt and co. are themselves critically flawed, because according to the international research program Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia, they assume that “the epidemic would be essentially heterosexual in nature and follow trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa”, which is “not borne out by current surveillance data from Russia”. (They are also not borne out by the slightest acquaintance with comparative development and sociology. Few Russians are malnourished and hence have greater immune resistance, their medical equipment tends to be sterilized and it is socially unacceptable for them to have many partners or engage in anal sex; all this cannot be said for sub-Saharan Africans).

12. Russia has universal literacy (see World Bank). Statistics on the percentage of the population with tertiary education from the OECD. In PIRLS 2006 (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), Russia came first in the world on the average combined reading literacy score. In mathematics, 17% of all Fields Medal winners (and 36% since the RF came into existence) have been Russian/Soviet nationals (see Wikipedia). Programming prowess is indicated by articles such as these (The next Silicon Valley: Siberia) and reflected in things like Maths Olympiad and programming competition results.

13. See, in particular, the short intro Through the Looking Glass into Russia’s Demography.

…First, fertility expectations today are little different from those of the late Soviet era, when the TFR was still relatively healthy. According to numerous surveys since the early 1990’s, Russians consistently say they want to have an average of 2.5 children. This is broadly similar to respondents from the British Isles, France and Scandinavia, who have relatively good TFR’s of around 1.7-2.1. This suggests Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to middle-European norms, where people only want 1.7-1.8 children.

Second, a major problem with the TFR is that it ignores the effects of birth timing. A more accurate measure of long-term fertility is the average birth sequence (ABS), which gives the mean order of all newborn children. If in one fine year all women in a previously childless country decide to give birth for some reason, the TFR will soar to an absurdly high level but the ABS will equal exactly one. In Russia the ABS remained steady at 1.6 children per woman from 1992-2006, little changed from Soviet times, even though the TFR plummeted well below this number. This indicates that many women were postponing children until they settled into careers and improved their material wellbeing – a hypothesis attested to by the rising age of mothers at childbirth since 1993. Though this may be a false positive if many women remain childless, the 2002 Census indicated that only 6-7% of women did not have any children by the end of their reproductive years. This indicates that childlessness is not in vogue and worries about widespread sterility are overblown.

Third, a new confident conservatism has recently taken hold in Russian society. After two decades of disillusionment, at the end of 2006 consistently more Russians began to believe the nation was moving in a positive than in a negative direction. It is likely no coincidence that it the TFR began to consistently rise just then – from 1.3 in 2006 to about 1.5 in 2008, though generous new child benefits helped.

High mortality rates only have a direct impact on replacement-level TFR when significant numbers of women die before or during childbearing age, as in Third World countries. Russia’s infant mortality rate of 8.5 / 1000 in 2008 is close to developed-country levels and not statistically significant. Though tragic and unnecessary, its “hypermortality” crisis mainly affects older men and as such has negligible direct effects on fertility.

For a more in-depth explorations of these issues, consult my Rite of Spring: Russia’s Fertility Trends (recommended by Thomas PM Barnett), Russia’s Demographic Resilience (what the economic crisis means for Russia’s demography) and Faces of the Future (my own models of future Russian demography).

14. Russia’s income Gini coefficient (a standard measure of income inequality) of around 41.3 as of 2007 is high only by the standards of socialist European countries. It is lower than in the US, China and the vast majority of developing countries. It has remained almost completely constant from 1994-2003, and by projection, to 2007 (see HDR05 RF: Rusia in 2015, p.33). Only 17% of Russians paid a bribe to obtain a service in 2007 (see Transparency International’s GCB) – putting them into the same quintile as Bulgaria, Turkey and the Czech Republic, i.e. slap bang in the middle of world corruption rather than at the end. Even according to the World Bank (control of corruption 16.5 in 2000; 24.3 in 2006) and Transparency International (CPI of 2.1 in 2000; 2.3 in 2007), which crucially rely on foreign perceptions of corruption in Russia, transparency has slightly improved under Putin. I have already discussed issues of inequality and corruption (in particular the problem with CPI) here and here. To quote A Normal Country (Andrei Shleifer & Daniel Treisman, Foreign Affairs, Mar/Apr 2004) in extenso:

Yet what about sources less dependent on the perception of outsiders? In the summer of 1999, the World Bank and the EBRD conducted a survey of business managers in 22 postcommunist countries. Respondents were asked to estimate the share of annual revenues that “firms like theirs” typically devoted to unofficial payments to public officials “in order to get things done.” Such payments might be made, the questionnaire added, to facilitate connection to public utilities, to obtain licenses or permits, to improve relations with tax collectors, or in relation to customs or imports. Respondents were also asked to what extent the sale of parliamentary laws, presidential decrees, or court decisions had directly affected their businesses, in the hope of measuring the extent to which policymakers were co-opted by business.

On both the “burden of bribery” and “state capture” dimensions, Russia ranked right in the middle of its postcommunist peers. On average, Russian firms reportedly paid 2.8 percent of revenues on bribes, less than in Ukraine and Uzbekistan, and far less than in Azerbaijan (5.7 percent) and Kyrgyzstan (5.3 percent). The percentage who said it was “sometimes,” “frequently,” “mostly,” or “always” necessary for their firms to make extra, unofficial payments to public officials in order to influence the content of new laws, decrees, or regulations was also about average: 9 percent, compared to 24 percent in Azerbaijan, 14 percent in Latvia and Lithuania, and 2 percent in Belarus and Uzbekistan. In both cases, Russian responses were very close to what one would predict given Russia’s relative level of economic development.

How does corruption in Russia affect individuals? The UN conducts a cross-national survey of crime victims. Between 1996 and 2000, it asked urban residents in a number of countries the following question: “In some countries, there is a problem of corruption among government or public officials. During [the last year] has any government official, for instance a customs officer, a police officer or inspector in your country asked you, or expected you, to pay a bribe for his service?” The percentage of positive responses in Russia was about average for the developing and middle-income countries surveyed. Some 17 percent of Russians said they had been asked for or had been expected to pay bribes in the preceding year, fewer than in Argentina, Brazil, Lithuania, or Romania. Again, Russia’s relative position was almost exactly what one would expect given its per capita income.

15. See the Chechnya section from my old article What we Believe.

Re-allegations of “Russian genocide”. Note that from 1989 to 1994, the 250,000 ethnic Russians living in the two Chechen regions of the River Terek were reduced to just 20,000, i.e. they were ethnically cleansed from the area under the kind attentions of “free Chechnya”. Meanwhile, from 1989 to 2002, according to the census results of those respective years, the Chechen population in the Russian Federation increased by 42% from 957,000 to 1,360,000. If this is an anti-Chechen genocide, then it must have been the most incompetent in history.

16. See Brother Karamazov’s comment from the original Top 10 Russophobe Myths post:

All German leading hi-tech professionals, including rocket scientists, surrendered to Americans. Many of them were working in the USA; for some time as half-prisoners, e.g. Wernher von Brown’s team. Wernher von Brown was placed in charge of American space programmes in the end of 50s in order to close the gap with the soviets. He successfully completed the task by landing Americans on the Moon. In contrast, soviet space research was lead by ethnic Russian Sergei Korolev. Boris Raushenbakh, the highest ranked ethnic German in the soviet rocket program, was born to an ethnic German family settled in Russia well before the revolution. He grown up and was educated entirely in the USSR. He was imprisoned in a soviet labour camp in the very beginning of his professional career during the war alongside with many other ethnic Germans who lived in the USSR, similar to the detention of ethnic Japanese in the USA.

17. See The Unfathomable Depths of Western Hypocrisy and Is CNN Getting Kicked Out of Russia? by Yasha Levine for the full story of CNN’s odious censorship of its Putin interview. Basically, it transformed his coherently argued points about the historical origins of the Georgian-Ossetian antagonism, the justice of Russian intervention and inconvenient questions about US involvement in the affair, to seem like a crazy rant about global neocon conspiracies and embargoes on dead chickens (in contrast Saakashvili got regular 5-10 min slots at CNN, unedited).

Another good example is the famous Putin speech from 2008 stating that, “крушение Советского Союза было “крупнейшей геополитической катастрофой века” , which translates as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century”. True enough. But now for the all-vital context: Putin was acknowledging the fact that there was some good in the USSR (e.g. values of fairness, idealism, etc), and that its collapse was brought about in corrupt and incompetent ways that ended up making the whole thing catastrophic for many folks (as confirmed by a myriad of socio-economic statistics). Yet during that 2005 speech he also stressed that “the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be our main political and ideological goal”, and praised the steps taken towards that even amidst the chaos and disintegration of the Yeltsin era. So this is hardly the ravings of a Russian chauvinist dead-set on resurrecting the Soviet empire. Another example – the (in)famous Munich speech in 2007, in which his (rather measured and rational) criticism of US military unilateralism was reinterpreted to sheer absurdity by the neocons.

Re-Putin and Medvedev, their old relationship is one of Putin the mentor and Medvedev the protege. As such it is not surprising that it is generally still Putin who takes the international limelight, but this will presumably change as Medvedev finds his own feet – much as Putin remained in the shadow of the oligarchs in the first few years of his Presidency. More sources about the dynamics at the heart of the Putin circle include The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan altered Russian Society and The Medevedev Moment by Nicolai Petro and Eric Kraus’ critique of ideas that Medvedev is a stooge / threat to Putin.

So in conclusion, it pays to be extremely wary of Western media reports on anything Putin, or Russian officials in general, say.

18. See my Myth of the Yellow Peril.

19. Russia saw a vigorous manufacturing revival during the 2000′s, with soaring domestic production of consumer goods substituting those previously imported. The ruble was kept artificially weakened, special economic zones were created and foreign firms carrying out assembly work in Russia were given incentives to draw their supplies from domestic producers. Automobile production rose from 1.2mn in 2000 to 1.8mn in 2008 (OICA), the company Power Machines (Силовые машины) is one of the world’s leading producers of turbines and the country has successfully joined in supplying the regional jet market with the Sukhoi SuperJet.

Though it is undeniable that there is still a large degree of unproductive rent-seeking and corruption in the Russian economy (that it has its share of “stationary bandits”, to use Mancur Olson’s terminology), it is folly to deny the obvious progress in manufacturing production made and the improvements in the business climate that made it possible. After all, unlike the “roving bandits” of the 1990′s, their stationary counterparts actually have incentives to improve their assets and profit from them, instead of stripping them down and making with the proceeds to Miami Beach or Londongrad. Furthermore, as proved by successful emerging markets like South Korea such economic policies can indeed work (see Putvedev is Russia’s White Rider). Finally, if there’s one thing that the economic crisis revealed is that Westerners should not be so complacent about the absence of rent-seeking and corrupt parasites in their own economies.

To gauge the seriousness with which Russia is pursuing an innovation economy, check out Russia’s Nanotechnology crash program and this forum thread about Russian nanotechnology investments, developments, etc. Though one can argue this is a waste of state resources, the historical evidence suggests that some level of state support is necessary for incubating successful hi-tech industries. This is especially the case in Russia which has traditionally pursued state-backed modernization programs.

20.See Are command economies unstable? Why did the Soviet economy collapse? by Mark Harrison.

21. Just a few examples would include: NATO broke its early guarantees disavowing eastern expansion in return for German reunification; criminally attacked and dismembered Serbia on false pretenses of genocide without listening to Russian concerns; encouraged enmity against Russia throughout the post-Soviet space; possibly allowed Georgia to go ahead with its criminal assault on South Ossetia; unilateral abrogation of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty in 2002; financial and moral support for color revolutions throughout the post-Soviet space; pushing a Russophobic agenda from the highest political levels; pushing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, despite the fact that Georgia has outstanding territorial claims and most Ukrainians are firmly opposed to joining NATO, the retainment of the Jackson-Vanik amendment penalizing trade with Russia despite the fact that it is no longer a Soviet Union which restricts Jewish emigration, the blocking of WTO entry, etc, etc, etc…

That said Russia can certainly cooperate with Washington in an atmosphere of mutual respect, e.g. work towards containing nuclear proliferation, combating terrorism in Central Asia (Moscow recently allowed transport of goods, including military goods, across its territory to support military efforts in Afghanistan).

22. The social group most disillusioned with the West are young Muscovite university-educated men. Susan Richards in Russians don’t much like the West:

The obvious response to these findings is that attitudes will change over time, as people get richer. But this study appears not to bear out these hopes. For where you might have expected young Russians to like the West more than their parents, in fact, the opposite is true. The youngest respondents (20-year-olds) showed the same degree of dislike of the US as their grandparents, while the 35-45 year olds were less hostile to the US.

This is not, however, because of Putinist brainwashing – contrary to what one might believe. Nicolai Petro in Russia’s New Cyberwarriors:

…unlike their elders who were uncomfortable dealing with the outside world, today’s young Russians are not about to let insulting stereotypes about their lives and their values pass totally unchallenged. To earn their respect, one has to give it.

Until recently, Russians rarely ever saw what was said about them in the Western media. When they did, language barriers and scarcity of internet access meant they had no way to respond in a timely manner, and to set the record straight.

But now that a quarter of the population has regular internet access, they can read what is being written about their country in real time on Russian translation sites, and they are finding out, as Daniel Thorniley, Senior Vice President of the Economist Group recently put it, that it is “95 percent rubbish” (true, he was talking about business–an area where the coverage is still relatively favorable).

For the first time in history, the global reach of the internet is allowing large numbers of Russians (and others within the former Soviet Union) to talk to the West directly, rather than only through the filter provided by visiting journalists and pundits. This means the free pass given by Russians to those who write about them, something that most of us here have long taken for granted, is rapidly coming to an end. We already see the first signs of the new era in the blistering comments from outraged Russian readers that now appear regularly on the web sites of major British newspapers…

There attitudes are becoming prevalent even amongst Russian schoolchildren, but unfortunately the West has no-one but themselves to blame (see #21).

23. See my translation of the controversial chapter in question The Case of the “Stalinist” Textbook, as well as a summary of my arguments about the textbook and the Western media’s malevolent approach to it in Manipulating Russia’s Manipulation of History.

24. According to the Amnesty International report Estonia: Linguistic Minorities – Discrimination must end, Russophones who arrived after Estonia’s incorporation into the USSR, and their children, were denied citizenship except upon the completion of strict language proficiency exams. This is unrealistic for the many older folks who arrived in the 1950′s- 1960′s and helped build up the Estonian industrial economy, who have now been discarded as worthless detritus. They are unable to vote in national or European elections. Unemployment is two to three times higher amongst Russophones than ethnic Estonians, and many of the former have left to find work in other countries of the EU or returned to Russia. All public sector jobs and the vast majority of non-manual private sector jobs, even in almost completely Russian cities like Narva, require certificates of language proficiency in Estonian. There is a lot of petty discrimination against Russians on the part of ethnic Estonian nationalists. The ominously-named outfit the “Language Inspectorate” goes about making unannounced visits to workplaces to check up language skills and fine employers and fire workers who do not show the requisite Estonian-language abilities. The Polity IV project has given Estonia a democracy score of 6/10, making it only marginally democratic by their definition. The LSE study Discrimination against the Russophone Minority in Estonia and Latvia characterizes the two Baltic states as “ethnic democracies” who place “extensive policy regimes of discrimination” based on restrictions on Russophones under three policy pillars – citizenship, language, and participation. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of Baltic Russians, perhaps naively in terms of their own interests, supported the independence of their newly-adopted nation, not knowing that it would refuse to reciprocate the favor.

Nicolai Petro in Russian rights and Estonian wrongs:

…The government’s discriminatory policies have included: the passage of laws requiring that all political meetings and private businesses be conducted by “fluent” speakers of Estonian, the removal of the popularly elected mayor of the town of Sillamae for not speaking Estonian well enough, the prosecution of elected officials in the town of Narva under hate-crimes statutes for taking part in a World War II memorial service under the slogan “Narva is against fascism!” and the abrupt cancellation of all 25 Russian television channels by cable operators in the capital, Tallinn (watched by a quarter of city’s population).

In the early ’90s it was deemed more important to encourage the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Later, in the mid-’90s, during the debates over expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was said that security concerns should be paramount. At the turn of the century, European Union expansion was given precedence. At each turn, non-native residents were assured by Western leaders that Estonia’s inclusion in these organizations would soon take care of all their problems. Instead, however, Estonian leaders have taken approval of membership in Western organizations as proof that they can safely ignore the civil rights of their non-native minority…

Given this history, it is scarcely surprising that minority sensitivities registered so little with the government that a monument to the fallen of World War II was dismantled nearly on the eve of Victory Day, the one holiday universally revered by former Soviet citizens of all nationalities.

…How can anyone take human rights seriously if Western politicians scream bloody murder at the detention of a few score demonstrators in Moscow, but then try to sweep the arrest of more than 1,000 and the injury of several hundred in Estonia quietly under the rug .

These issues came to the fore when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dismantled, resulting in vigorous Russophone protests against discrimination that were brutally crushed. To add insult to injury, Russia was also baselessly accused of conducting “cyberterrorism” against Estonia and a NATO cyberwar center is being built in that country.

Latvia also prosecutes “economic saboteurs” who suggest it may have to devalue its currency.

25. Serious estimates of Ukrainian deaths range from 3.0-3.5mn (Stanislav Kulchytsky), who is championed by those claiming it as genocide (thus 3.5mn is the absolute upper limited). A more modern estimate is 2.2mn (Jacques Vallin). Declassified Soviet statistics indicate excess deaths in Ukraine from 1932-33 numbered 1.5mn, out of 3.2mn deaths across the whole Soviet Union – though they have problems of reliability. The statistical distribution of famine’s victims among the ethnicities closely reflects the ethnic distribution of the rural population of Ukraine. Though Ukraine was undeniable one of the regions most affected, areas like Southern Russia, the Volga region and Kazakhstan also suffered greatly. As such, there is no grounds for calling this a Russian-chauvinist organized famine-genocide against Ukrainians (especially since Russians were even not that prominent amongst the Soviet leadership, e.g. Stalin and Beria were both Georgians).

In 2008, Russia condemned the Soviet regime’s “disregard for the lives of people in the attainment of economic and political goals”, along with “any attempts to revive totalitarian regimes that disregard the rights and lives of citizens in former Soviet states.” yet stated that “there is no historic evidence that the famine was organized on ethnic grounds.” This is a valid position to take that is not at odds with academic views on the subject; on the other hand, Ukraine’s criminalization of “Holodomor denial” by ” a fine of 100 to 300 untaxed minimum salaries, or imprisonment of up to two years” – pushed through the Rada by a slender-thin majority in 2006 – is extremely anti-historical and ideological in nature.

In reality the Holodomor was caused by willful negligence, poor climatic conditions and an ideological fervor against kulaks in the midst of the collectivization campaign which aimed to produce a food surplus to fund industrialization. That said, it was overall ineffective since it was followed up by a halving of livestock numbers, losses of the most experienced farmers and a 66% fall in grain exports in 1933-34 from 1931-32, which kind of defeated its purpose of increasing foreign currency earnings to fund industrialization (though it was partially made up by increasing electrification and mechanization by the late 1930’s).

As for the alleged Ukrainian dislike of Russia, please see Myth #9.

26. New Russian versions of Integrated Air Defense Systems are able to counter all aircraft in the US fleet except the F-22 Raptor and B-2 heavy bomber, which are reliant on prohibitively expensive stealth features, and are highly mobile and survivable; in any case, even they will become increasingly vulnerable. Russia is rapidly developing / stealing / implementing stealth technologies, resulting in that upgraded Russian fourth-generation fighters:

the notion that contemporary production Russian fighters are inferior in technology, performance and overall capability to their US/EU peers is largely not correct, and predicated on assumptions about Russian technological capabilities which ceased to be true a decade or more ago.

On the high seas, US aircraft carriers – the bedrock of US maritime supremacy – are under increasing threat from new developments in supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, silent diesel submarines armed with supercavitating torpedoes, UAVs / drones, and modernized fourth-generation fighters like Flankers. Not only can Russia manufacture and use these things itself, but it can also sell them on to unfriendly nations like Iran. In the long run this may spell the end to global US military hegemony.

It is true that Russia is hobbled by a lack of a professional, motivated army, organizational inefficiencies and the lack of great power projection capabilities. Nonetheless, it is in the middle of major military reforms that aim to address these problems by decreasing the numbers of officers in the ranks, moving to a brigade rather than divisional system and instituting a state of permanent readiness amongst its military units.

Russia continues to have one of the world’s two greatest nuclear arsenals and fully independent military-industrial complexes (along with the US). Should there be severe international tensions, it can return to the permanent war mobilization footing of the USSR, for it retains a “dormant structurally militarized potential” (Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower, Steven Rosefielde). Though no-one will win, it will destroy its enemies at least as thoroughly as it is destroyed itself in the case of a nuclear war.

27. Archival evidence here. Note also that a) not all sentences were carried out due to the system’s inefficiency and b) the death rate in the Gulag labor camps never exceeded 10% a year except in the dearth years of 1934 and 1943-44 – so in total out of the c.3.3mn imprisoned, around 1.1mn or a third died.

As for the scale of Hitler’s democide, consult Myth III in The Poisonous Myths of the Eastern Front.

28. See Russia through the looking glass and The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan altered Russian Societ y by Nicolai Petro. Note that the high conviction rates are not unique to Russia: Japan is infamous for forced confessions and 99%+ conviction rates. As for the NGO laws, see Russia through the looking glass (Nicolai Petro):

For example, registration can no longer be denied on the whim of local officials; and without one of four specific reasons, registration has to be granted within thirty days. The proposal also limits review of NCO activities to once a year, and stipulates that any administrative actions have to be done under court supervision. The much-touted issue of the closing of foreign organisations is a red herring, since the proposed legislation specifically deprives bureaucrats of the ability to act on their own in this regard.

29. A few quotes to illustrate the point.

At present, all we see is chaos, struggle, economic collapse, ethnic disintegration – just as the observers of 1918 did. How could they have foreseen then that a decade or so later the USSR would have begun to produce chemicals, aircraft, trucks, tanks, and machine tools and be growing faster than any other industrialized society? By extension, how could Western admirers of Stalin’s centralized economy in the 1930’s know that the very system contained the seeds of its own collapse? [ Preparing for the Twenty First Century, Ch. 11, ‘The Erstwhile USSR and its Crumbled Empire’, pp. 249, Paul Kennedy (1993) ]

And from John Scott in Behind the Urals, who spent a few years living and working in the USSR during the 1930′s:

In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren't we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe.

30. Re-The Economist, from Press Review: Press Review: The Economist’s Three Stooges by Kirill Pankratov:

Of course, its Russian coverage is far from the only of magazine’s bloopers. The list is long. There’s the famous March 1999 cover story predicting an “endless era of cheap oil,” which appeared the same week that oil prices began their steady ascent from the lowest point in a quarter century. Perfect timing! Then there were The Economist’s strident editorials in favor of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

First up is Edward Lucas, the Moscow correspondent who in the annual glossy “The World in 1999″ issue, issued this prediction for Russia, at once gloating and apocalyptic:

“1999 will be the year of Russia’s disintegration… Trade between Russia’s regions will plunge at least until they hit on a stable, trusted currency in which to do business. That is hardly likely to be the rouble, and the planned coupons and currencies which some regions have been planning look equally unattractive substitutes… foreign invasion, albeit of a peaceful and benevolent kind, is exactly what Russia’s regions should want… The probable decline in Russia’s wealth in 1999 will be around 10%… expect yet another bleak and miserable year”.

For why I am bullish on continuing high growth in the future, see my own article Kremlin Dreams sometimes come true and Goldman Sachs thinks that Russia is the only member of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, China, India) with the potential to reach Western levels of GDP per capita in the foreseeable future.

31. Lots of sources on this on the Internet. Re-murders, I’d mention Former YUKOS Security Chief Gets 20 Years for Murder. Also from Russia Blog in 10 Western Media Stereotypes About Russia: How Truthful Are They?

YUKOS was practicing tax evasion on a massive, multi- billion-dollar scale. A deeper investigation is now underway, and Khodorkovsky’s aides face charges of murder and attempted murder in the process of conducting company business. They were also charged with unlawful business practices, such as tax evasion, fraud and money laundering. In addition, Israeli lawyers are working with Russian prosecutors to extradite Khodorkovsky’s former partner Leonid Nevzlin, as many political circles in Israel find his presence harmful to their country’s image. Israeli lawyers are investigating allegations that Nevzlin fraudulently obtained his Israeli citizenship in 2003 after Russian prosecutors indicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In March 2005, Alexei Pichugin, the former chief of security for YUKOS, was sentenced to prison time for multiple counts of murder. Many oligarchs do face prosecution, but not because of their political beliefs; rather, they face punishment for actual crimes they have committed

32. E.g. see Remembering Yeltsin for a hard look at Yeltsin’s real, anti-Russian character. He won the 1996 elections despite losing a war and having approval ratings in the single-digits, which were immediately endorsed by Western election observers like OSCE. See Who Killed The OSCE? by Alexander Zaitchik and Mark Ames.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that the recent Russia-OSCE door-slamming episode is the inevitable outcome of years of cynical Western manipulation of an organization that once held enormous promise and impeccable credentials, but is now with good reason considered a propaganda tool for the West.

If that last sentence sounds like the paranoid rant of a Putin-era silovik revanchist, then think again. It’s the view held by none other than the man who headed the OSCE’s 1996 election mission in Russia, Michael Meadowcroft. “The West let Russia down, and it’s a shame,” said Meadowcroft, a former British MP and veteran of 48 election-monitoring missions to 35 countries.

In a recent telephone interview with The eXile, Meadowcroft explained how he was pressured by OSCE and EU authorities to ignore serious irregularities in Boris Yeltsin’s heavily manipulated 1996 election victory, and how EU officials suppressed a report about the Russian media’s near-total subservience to pro-Yeltsin forces.

“Up to the last minute I was being pressured by [the OSCE higher-ups in] Warsaw to change what I wanted to say,” said Meadowcroft. “In terms of what the OSCE was prepared to say publicly about the election, they were very opposed to any suggestion that the election had been manipulated.” In fact, he says, the OSCE and the West had made its mind up about how wonderfully free and fair Boris Yeltsin’s election was before voting even started.

Though it is true that Putin also probably abuses administrative resources to win elections – though the extent and scale are small and should not be exaggerated, as I point out in Lying Liars and their Lies and More Reflections on Election Fraud, a) OSCE and the West now condemns him for this because Putin is not their stooge and b) it doesn’t matter nearly as much because Putin has the overwhelming support of the people and would win in any case.

33. Yes, Russia uses (at times underhanded) means to tie up world energy sources and uses its energy clout to exert economic and political pressure. But the US and all other Great Powers do the exact same thing, in ways ranging from the Iraq War to support of economically-subordinate theocratic or authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia to the Chiquita Banana case. Note that the counter-refutation to the Iraq War as energy imperialism thesis – that US companies did not particularly benefit from new contracts – doesn’t really hold water, because the whole point was to unlock Iraq’s oil supplies into the world market and to establish a firm military presence in the critical (for energy) Middle East region.

34. Re-education, see National Literacy Campaigns (By Robert F. Arnove, Harvey J. Graff). Re-industry, the fast rate of late Tsarist growth is pretty well known to economic historians.

35. Western treatment of Russia signifies an erosion of reason (Vlad Sobell) – argues that Western views on the “post-totalitarian” society of Russia have ossified since the end of the Cold War and are no longer able to recognize that it has embarked on its own path to liberal democracy.

Or as noted by Gregor in Deformable Mirror,

What type of political ideology privatises land, nationalises petroleum, introduces a flat tax, uses soldiers to verify tax accounts, enforces protectionism, celebrates diversity, celebrates patriotism, celebrates science, introduces state protection for the National Church, supports the NATO war in Afghanistan, opposes the war in Iraq, is strongly democratic but largely authoritarian, takes power from an atheist, alcoholic Communist apparatchik and leaves it in the hands of a devout, prissy lawyer? For want of a better word we could call it ‘reactionary’… or maybe Putinism? This somehow highlights one of the oddest paradoxes about British Russophobia. Putin is only called a ‘reactionary’ because British ‘intellectual’ culture has frozen to such an extent that we have no real word for his ideology.

Hence commentators like John Dimbleby resort to calling Russia a “totalitarian regime in thrall to a Tsar who’s creating the new Facist empire”.

36. Consult the Myth of Dhimmitude part of my Rite of Spring: Russia Fertility Trends article.

37. See this post and comments at Fedia Kriukov’s blog.

Re-army purges, there are revisionist arguments that they did not have a major effect in absolute terms, e.g. from this book review (although it is true they contributed to greater rigidity in military thought prior to the war, which would have been damaging – that said, its effects should not be overstated):

Stalin’s Reluctant Soldiers makes two fundamental points about the history of the Red Army, as well as several important observations. The first fundamental point is that the impact of the political terror of the 1937-38 was, in absolute and relative terms, less than it is generally taken to have been. A number of newly uncovered sources, notably General E.A. Shchadenko’s report of May 1940, make it possible to conclude that net losses of officers and commissars (taking into account reinstatements) was some 23 000. Reese also reassesses the size of the total officer corps, making it 150 000 in 1937. Previous historians have estimated higher losses and assumed a much smaller officer corps, and Reese convincingly shows a smaller percentage loss.

The second fundamental point is related to the first. The basic reason why the Red Army fought so badly in 1941. Reese argues, was not the purges. What really mattered was the army’s incohesiveness, which resulted from shortcomings across the interwar years, but especially the too rapid expansion in the late 1930s. The crucial weaknesses of the Red Army were inadequately trained junior officers and poor platoon-level organization. Both weaknesses were accentuated by a lack of career NCOs. This general point is developed especially well by Reese in an archivally based case study of the Kiev military district.

Re-unanticipated attack of Hitler. Stalin did not dismiss intelligence reports. Note that Soviet intelligence did not unambiguously predict the German attack – there were many contradictory reports and sophisticated German disinformation. He was understandably cautious about trusting British sources given their past duplicity and latent interest in drawing the USSR into the war. Second, Stalin finally erred on the side of caution and authorized the forward deployment of the second operational echelon around June 17, which however did not reach their destinations when the war broke out. “Moreover, on June 21 Stalin signed a directive (which later came to be known as Directive No 1) authorizing all formations deployed along the border to take up defensive positions (in effect, partially implement covering plans). Unfortunately, when the war started, this directive was still stuck being decrypted somewhere at the MD and army level.”

Re-defense in depth. It’s a somewhat overused cliche nowadays.

First, we need to look at what it is exactly. At the tactical level, it means creating a cluster of strong-points separated by gaps filled with mines, dragon’s teeth, and other obstacles, such that enemy would be channeled into assaults on the strong-points one by one. But the Red Army of 1941 was too unwieldy and unprepared for this, and the question of why? should be directed more towards the military establishment than to Stalin.

And not only for them, but to the militaries of all countries. No rifle formation of the time, the Wehrmacht included, had the ability to repulse a single Panzer division concentrated on a narrow front. It would inevitably be sliced up and the (slow) remnants enveloped and destroyed by mobile enemy forces (i.e. the ones which spearheaded Barbarossa – though it is true as you say that the bulk of the German army was relatively immobile, it was still much more so than the Soviet in 1941 and its mobile elements were extremely well trained with plenty of RL experience).

This was the major bane of Soviet forces which was only significantly reversed in Kursk, two years into the war, when the Soviet Army reached a level of competence and organization an order of magnitude higher than was the case in 1941. (it should be noted also that it was only after 1943 that Axis-Soviet losses on the Eastern Front equalized).

But if you’re talking of the operational level (which is a question that relates more directly to Stalin’s role), “defense in depth” is utterly bankrupt since the depth to the defense can only be provided at the tactical level, and trying this on the operational scale implies splitting up your divisions and suffering defeat in detail.

“Against such an army, trading space, defending in depth, was the appropriate method. Eventually the Soviets learned this, and implemented it at Kursk in 1943.”

And from above, we see it would have led to utter disaster in 1941 and it is to their credit that the Soviet military leadership recognized this (unlike all prior German opponents). Thus they instead pursued an “active defense” based on constant initiative-seizing counterattacks, which although predictably a failure on the tactical levels distorted the shape and flow of Barbarossa by forcing the Germans to reinforce their flanks at the cost of their points – and was a much better idea than simply throwing rifle division after division against armored spears that would just effortlessly slice through them.

At the time, encirclements were inevitable because the German Panzer divisions were quicker than Soviet rifle divisions, and stopping them was hopeless (no country had managed that before, and it was not until 1943 that the Soviets first managed to contain a German armored assault). The idea rather was to launch constant counter-offensives to blunt and divert the overall German attack, which though a failure at tactical and operational levels succeeded at the strategic level.

“Stalin effectively did the same thing by massing near the border. It was necessary to trade space for time. Space was what the USSR had in abundance.’

On this point, I would repeat the above point that a) intelligence was highly contradictory about German intentions, especially since the latter mounted a well-planned disinformation campaign, and b) most fortifications near the border were in the stage of construction – again, because the Soviet leadership genuinely believed that Hitler was not ready to attack until 1942 at the earliest (and more likely the mid-1940’s) and c) you can’t really say they were that massed at the border, when the earliest really big encirclements took place in Minsk / Kiev (places which are gateways to the Soviet heartlands and really needed to be defended for strategic and political reasons).

I would also note that even with constant Soviet counter-attacks and diversions, the Germans still managed to reach the gates of Moscow, and again got uncomfortably close to cutting off the Caucasus oil supply in 1942. Russia’s has a lot of space but it’s not infinite.

38. See here at Sergei Fedosov’s site for a full account of the diplomatic events in the run-up to World War Two.

Specifically re-Munich and the sincerity of Soviet intentions to coordinate with the Western Allies to contain and if necessary fight Germany over Czechoslovakia (all quoted from commentator rkka here):

To start with, Soviet intentions to militarily aid Czechoslovakia are indicated by the delivery of Soviet-built combat aircraft in August and September 1938 through Romanian airspace, Soviet willingness to set aside the issue of Bessarabia in discussion of Soviet forces transiting Romania in the event of a German attack on Czechlslovakia, the mobilization of 10 Tank and 60 Rifle Divisions in the fall of 1938, and the diplomatic note to the Polish government warning that hostile Polish action against Czechoslovakia would void the Polish-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The Czech leader Benes makes it clear that Soviet support was unstinting:

“In September, 1938, therefore, we were left in military, as well as political, isolation with the Soviet Union to prepare our defense against a Nazi attack. We were also well aware not only of our own moral, political, and military prepardness, but also had a general picture of the condition of Western Europe; as well as of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in regard to these matters.

At that moment indeed Europe was in every respect ripe to accept without a fight the orders of the Berchtesgaden corporal. When Czechoslovakia vigorously resisted his dictation in the September negotiations with our German citizens, we first of all recieved a joint note from the British and French governments on September 19th, 1938, insisting that we should accept without amendment the draft of a capitulation based essentially on an agreement reached by Hitler and Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden on September 15th. When we refused, there arrived from France and Great Britain on September 21st an ultimatum accompanied by emphatic personal interventions in Prague during the night on the part of the Ministers of both countries and repeated later in writing. We were informed that if we did not accept their plan for the cession of the so-called Sudeten regions, they would leave us to our fate, which, they said, we had brought upon ourselves. They explained that they certainly would not go to war with Germany just ‘to keep the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia’. I felt very keenly the fact that there were at that time so few in France and Great Britain who understood that something much more serious was at stake for Europe than the retention of the so-called Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia.

The measure of this fearful European development was now full, precipitating Europe into ruin. Through three dreadful years I had watched the whole tragedy unfolding, knowing to the full what was at stake. We had resisted desperately with all our strength. And then, from Munich, during the night of September 30th our State and Nation recieved the stunning blow: Without our participation and in spite of the mobilization of our whole Army, the Munich Agreement – fatal for Europe and the whole world – was concluded and signed by the four Great Powers – and then was forced upon us.”

Dr. Eduard Benes “Memoirs”, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1954, pgs 42 – 43.

“I do not intend to examine here in detail the policy of the Soviet Union from Munich to the beginning of the Soviet-German war. I will mention only the necessary facts. Even today it is still a delicate question. The events preceeding Munich and between Munich and the Soviet Union’s entry into World War II have been used, and in a certain sense, misused, against Soviet policy both before and after Munich. I will only repeat that before Munich the Soviet Union was prepared to fulfill its treaty with France and with Czechoslovakia in the case of a German attack.”

Benes, pg 131.

39. No European state has made much effort to fully account for its imperial legacies; the main feature of German exceptionalism was that you were supposed to confine you genocides to colored peoples in hot, sticky places (e.g. the Belgians in the Congo, the “Victorian Holocausts” under the British Raj, the Irish Potato Famine which was no different from the Holodomor except that the ideology that it was conducted under was laissez-faire capitalism…)

The Baltic states whitewash their involvement in the Holocaust, Turkey criminalizes affirmation of the Armenian Genocide and Japan brushes off complaints about its brutal conduct in China during the Second World War. The only reason Germany apologized was because it was occupied, and in any case the Nazi regime was not morally comparable to the Soviet Union. And apologies imply acceptance of responsibility and demands for reparations…Latvia had already set up a commission to calculate a bill for “Soviet-era losses” to present to Russia, which ironically had to be disbanded because of the economic crisis.

One example of Russia’s apologies: “When President Yeltsin visited the Czech Republic in 1993 he was not speaking just for himself, he was speaking for the Russian Federation and for the Russian people. Today, not only do we respect all agreements signed previously – we also share all the evaluations that were made at the beginning of the 1990s…I must tell you with absolute frankness – we do not, of course, bear any legal responsibility. But the moral responsibility is there, of course.”

For Russian attitudes to their history under Putin, I recommend my article Manipulating Russia’s Manipulation of History and Airbrushing History by Patrick Armstrong.

40. See my Responses to common Russophobe arguments for an insight into the sheer intellectual bankruptcy of the Russophobe worldview.

41. See the seminal Forbes article Godfather of the Kremlin (Paul Khlebnikov) or read the book of the same name.

42. The Specter that haunts the Death of Litvinenko (Edward Jay Epstein) and The Alexander Litvinenko Story Revisited (David Habakkuk) are vital primers on the very murky circumstances of his death.

Before the extradition dispute, Russian investigators, in theory, could have questioned relevant witnesses in London. Their proposed roster of witnesses suggested that Russian interest extended to the Russian expatriate community in Britain, or “Londongrad,” as it is now called. The Litvinenko case provided the Russians with the opportunity for a fishing expedition, since Litvinenko had at the time of his death worked with many of Russia’s enemies, including Mr. Berezovsky; his foundation head, Mr. Goldfarb, who dispensed money to a web of anti-Putin websites; his Chechen ally Akhmed Zakayev, who headed a commission investigating Russian war crimes in Chechnya (for which Litvinenko acted as an investigator), and former owners of the expropriated oil giant Yukos, who were battling in the courts to regain control of billions of dollars in its off-shore bank accounts.

The Russian investigation could also have veered into Litvinenko’s activities in the shadowy world of security consultants, including his dealings with the two security companies in Mr. Berezovsky’s building, Erinys International and Titon International, and his involvement with Mr. Scaramella in an attempt to plant incriminating evidence on a suspected nuclear-component smuggler — a plot for which Mr. Scaramella was jailed after his phone conversations with Litvinenko were intercepted by the Italian national police.

The Russians had asked for more information about radiation traces at the offices of these companies, and Mr. Lugovoi had said that at one of these companies, Erinys, he had been offered large sums of money to provide compromising information about Russian officials. Mr. Kovtun, who also attended that meeting, backs up Mr. Lugovoi’s story. Such charges had the potential for embarrassing not only the security companies that had employed Litvinenko and employed former Scotland Yard and British intelligence officers, but the British government, since it had provided Litvinenko with a passport under the alias “Edwin Redwald Carter” to travel to parts of the former Soviet Union.

The British extradition gambit ended the Russian investigation in Londongrad. It also discredited Mr. Lugovoi’s account by naming him as a murder suspect. In terms of a public relations tactic, it resulted in a brilliant success by putting the blame on Russian stonewalling for the failure to solve the mystery. What it obscured is the elephant-in-the-room that haunts the case: the fact that a crucial component for building an early-stage nuke was smuggled into London in 2006. Was it brought in merely as a murder weapon or as part of a transaction on the international arms market?

There is little, if any, possibility, that this question will be answered in the present stalemate. The Russian prosecutor-general has declared that the British case is baseless; Mr. Lugovoi, elected to the Russian Parliament in December 2007, now has immunity from prosecution, and Mr. Scaramella, under house arrest in Naples, has been silenced. The press, for its part, remains largely fixated on a revenge murder theory that corresponds more closely to the SMERSH villain in James Bond movies than to the reality of the case of the smuggled Polonium-210.

After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a Polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations.

His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of Polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him.

To unlock the mystery, Britain must make available its secret evidence, including the autopsy report, the comprehensive list of places in which radiation was detected, and the surveillance reports of Litvinenko and his associates. If Britain considers it too sensitive for public release, it should be turned over to an international commission of inquiry. The stakes are too high here to leave unresolved the mystery of the smuggled Polonium-210.

43. Re-the first sentence. This is one rare thing on which Khodorkovsky and I are in perfect concord. See Putin’s political reforms need not be viewed as anti-democratic by Vlad Sobell and Nicolai Petro’s work on the subject for more.

44. This last myth is a bit tongue in cheek, although on the topic of Mordor I’ve actually managed to find a Russophobe who makes the comparison explicitly.

But as time since 1991 passed and the two countries drifted in their development further and further away from each other, the city was increasingly attached to Estonia because of the dark presence of its evil twin, Russian Ivangorod (right). …

Crossing the river bridge into Ivangorod makes those numbers quickly grow in flesh and obtain form in miriad of differences, which set Russia apart from Europe, starting with sickening public toilets and ending with the hopelessness in the people’s eyes.This is why looking again at the crude limestone fortress almost invisible at night with only the howling of wild beasts giving away the presence of life on the other side of the vast body of water I can’t help it but recollect the following verse:

…to bring them all and in darkness bind… in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.

I have a feeling that this attitude could be just one of several things uniting myself and many decent Narva inhabitants. And this feeling is good.

And then there’s this gem (or rather, a Ring) from dear old Ed Lucas, who explicitly compares Russia to Mordor, Putin to Sauron and the his silovik henchmen to the Orcs.

But as the skies darken once again over the European continent (or Middle Earth if you prefer) , the temptation to find analogies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is overwhelming. Mordor is clearly the Russian Federation, ruled by the demonic overlord Sauron (Putin). His email address, to give a contemporary note, might be sauron@gov.morder.me (the suffix is for Middle Earth). The threat from Mordor—symbolised by the Ring—is the combination of dirty money and authoritarian political thinking.

And Sauron’s henchmen the Orcs are clearly the murderous goons of the old KGB. The new twist—the Uruk-Hai, is the mutation of the old Soviet intelligence service with organised crime and big business. Sauron’s allies—the Nazgul—are the Siloviki, the sinister chieftains of the Kremlin’s authoritarian capitalist system. Like the Nazgul, we seldom see their faces.

…Picking out the cast on the bad side runs the risk an encounter with England’s ferocious libel laws. It is not too hard, however, to see candidates to be Wormtongue, the slimy propagandist for Mordor who weakens the will of the King of Rohan, Theoden. His kingdom could be almost any country in Europe, but had better be Germany. And it is easy to think who might count as Germany’s foremost expert on Russia and a biographer of Sauron. Saruman is more difficult still—a hero of past wars who has switched sides to disastrous effect. He could be any one of the top West European leaders who have so disastrously forgotten the lessons of the Cold War and have been seduced by Mordor’s dirty money

45. Read my article Twitter Terror in Moldova for insight into just how convuluted, murky and “virtual” the events in Moldova really were.

46. Re-Hamas, see 10 Western Media Stereotypes About Russia: How Truthful Are They? from Russia Blog. Re-Iran, see The Medvedev Doctrine and American Strategy from Stratfor. The US potentially faces a trade-off between “a hegemonic threat from Eurasia and instability and a terror threat from the Islamic world”, and the keys to these threats are Russia and Iran, respectively. It is in Russia’s interests for the US to keep focused on the Middle East, so as to give itself a freer hand in Eurasia – and inflaming relations between Iran and the West is an excellent way to do it.

47. See the classic Foreign Affairs article The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy (Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press).

Re-Russian ICBMs would be launched over the North Pole, so central Europe wouldn’t play a role argument. Not really, because the US has radar installations at Thule, Greenland, and has substantial numbers of ground based interceptor missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska. It also has rapidly increasing sea-based ABM capabilities. This is not to say that the US has plans to launch a debilitating first strike on Russia or other strategic competitors, but ABM is certainly a destabilizing force in world security and risks unleashing an arms race in which countries like Russia are forced to upgrade the penetration capabilities of their nuclear delivery systems.

48.The nations of the former USSR are still very much economically integrated with Russia, meaning that they are subject to Russia’s cycles; furthermore, almost all of them are significantly poorer so they should grow faster because of their greater potential for economic convergence.

See the Georgian Economy under Saakashvili, which asserts that much of Georgia’s growth was one-off based on state asset sale and government lay-offs, which were accompanied by accelerating deindustrialization, continued emigration and poverty, the destruction of all remaining safety nets and the pressure put by the government on independent businesses to provide “voluntary contributions” in return for not bankrupting them under prosecutions for corruption.

Stats on growth rates taken from IMF.

49. Ushering in the new era of legality, markets and social activism is the so-called Putin generation, which has vastly differing values from those of older generations – initiative, boldness, hierarchy, individualism and Westernized patriotism (consult Economic Modernization and System of Values by Evgeny Yasin for an interesting study that shows that the values of the new Russia differ much more from traditionalist / Tsarist and Soviet values, which are surprisingly similar).

Also as I once pointed out, there are plenty of good sovok attributes…and even some of the bad ones aren’t actually all that bad upon closer examination.

50. I’ve aggregated Levada’s measures of Russia’s social mood since the late 1990′s here. My letter to the Moscow Times cites recent opinion polls, again from Levada, to disprove the contention that morale during this crisis has collapsed back to 1990′s / pre-”oil boom” levels.

The notion that Putin has strangled Russia’s nascent democracy is an exclusively Western one. 64% of Russians think Putin has had a positive influence on democracy and human rights, while only 3% think it was ‘very negative’ (see recent BBC World Service poll and fedia’s excellent commentary on it). For more information, please consult this blog’s stated position on HR in Russia and my appearance on Al-Jazeera. The data on journalists is taken from the Committee to Protect Journalists‘ database and fedia’s audit of it. Finally, on the topic of the election, no election watch-dog has been able to point out anything other than vacuous allegations that I’m aware of. For instance, on the topic of the 2008 Presidential elections, please consult my blog post on it (including the Western media’s shameless manipulation of the response to the Moscow protests) and the response of independent Russian election monitor GOLOS (here):

GOLOS Association observed that the Election Day was held in a relatively quiet atmosphere in contrast to the State Duma election day. Such large-scale violations observed then as campaigning next to polling stations, transporting of voters, intimidation of voters and others were practically non-existent. Polling stations were better prepared and the voting process was better organized. At the majority of polling stations voters’ lists were properly bound, there were fewer representatives of administration at inside polling stations. In general the process of opening of the polling stations went well without any major incidents.

PS. After publishing this, I noticed that rather appropriately this post is the 100th in the Da Russophile blog. So perhaps I should have done 100 myths, but I only have so much time and patience! ;)

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Since the last time I covered Levada‘s opinion polls was a whopping half a year back, I reckon its time to make an update on what Russians are thinking since then. A comprehensive kind of post, like what I did in Lovely Levada (check it out, if you haven’t already!) and hopefully a good resource for Russia-watchers of all stripes. Russophobes will find some good material here too :). I’ll start from the most recent and presumably relevant ones, and work my way down to where we left off last July, trying to select polls that are non-repetitive and interesting. Please note that there is a Part II since the original post was too long to post.

2009, Feb 13: Two opinion polls on wellbeing and consumer expectations. The Crisis and Social Feelings has lots of different graphs of consumer confidence plummeting down towards the end of 2008, as everywhere else in the world. People are postponing consumption; preferences are shifting from the Euro to the $, but the ruble remains surprisingly strong; and worryingly, 41% think the economy will not start recovering for more than a year compared to 27% who think otherwise (my own bet is half a year to a year, as I wrote in previous posts).

The second poll is the Crisis and problems in consumer credit. It has an interesting chart of how people’s feelings about buying expensive things on loans changed from 2001 to 2009. Not surprisingly they collapsed recently, which is one of the main reasons that car sales, of instance, have fallen off a cliff. What I find more interesting is that the height of debt mania was during the mid-2000′s. Meanwhile, attitudes worsened during the past two years, when the worst excesses of Russian corporate binging on cheap foreign credit took place.

Dynamics of positive and negative feelings towards buying expensive stuff on debt. Debt-averse | Debt junkies.

Dynamics of positive and negative feelings towards buying expensive stuff on debt. Debt-averse | Debt junkies.

The number of Russians buying electronics, furniture, cars and real estate on credit grew rapidly in recent years, from 26% in 2003 to 38% in 2008 and was more prevalent amongst younger generations (unsurprisingly). There is confirmation that the consumer wellbeing of Russians definitely improved. From 2001 to 2008 the percentage of the population having difficulties buying enough food more than halved from 21% to 9%, while those that could be classed genuinely middle-class by Western standards (those who have enough money for necessities and reasonably priced consumer durables) increased from 7% to 18%, stats on ownership of consumer durables by household wealth and lots of data on the opinions of who with unpaid debts.

Feb 11: I came across a recent British poll on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, which indicated a whopping 51% of Britons believed in “intelligent design”. With the exception of old people (> 55 years), the younger people were the stronger was their rejection of evolution. (Although a caveat is that the evolution denialists were more concentrated around London and the West Midlands, so I suspect concentrations of Muslims would have played a role too). No wonder the Flynn effect of increasing IQ over time is stagnating since the last few decades in advanced countries.

Results from Russia were no better, sadly. Only 20% subscribe to the Darwinian theory of evolution; 13% believe that God created man, and 43% believe it was both (i.e. presumably intelligent design). 49% believe humanity was created by God and 26% consider it descended from the apes.

Feb 9: Things worsening on the labor front. From October to December the number of people or their family members being withheld salaries rose from 10% to 30% of respondents, those having salaries cut rose from 6% to 29% and experiencing layoffs rising from 7% to 30%.

Surveys from 2001 to 2009 of how many people have cell phones…

янв.01

янв.02

янв.03

янв.04

янв.05

янв.06

янв.07

янв.08

янв.09

Yes

2

5

9

19

32

45

58

71

78

No

98

95

91

81

68

55

42

29

22

…and access to a computer.

янв.01

янв.02

янв.03

янв.04

янв.05

янв.06

янв.07

янв.08

янв.09

Yes

4

6

9

10

14

17

20

28

33

No

96

94

91

90

86

83

80

72

67

About 35% of Russians now use a computer at least once a week, up from 12% in 2001. Internet penetration in January 2009 was at 24% if users are defined as those who use it at least once per week, up from just 3% in 2001.

Finally, a poll on human rights. Russians tend to value social rights like access to free education, medical pensions and old age social security (68%); right to life (58%); and right to a well-paid job for one’s specialization (51%). More traditional Western rights like property (33%), freedom of speech (28%), freedom of religion (15%) and electing representatives to the government (13%) aren’t as relatively popular. Contrary to popular belief, this is not unique to Russia and a similar pattern is prevalent throughout Eastern Europe, including the likes of Poland or Ukraine. This is because they went through times of social hardship and realize that abstract Western notions of freedom mean little when there’s no bread.

Jan 30:Graphs on historic relations towards the US, the EU, Ukraine and Georgia.

Russian approval towards the US dips sharply whenever they have an acute foreign policy conflict, as in 1999 (bombing of Serbia), 2003 (Iraq invasion) and 2008 (Georgia intervention). There is also a secular stagnation that saw the US going from being regarded in a very positive light in Putin’s early days to neutral-negative territory. The dynamics in US views of Russia have been very similar. Let’s hope that the 34% of Russians who think relations will improve under Obama are correct.

The EU has had historically higher approval ratings than the US and has always remained in net positive territory. It has declined in the past eight years, but at a slower pace than the US until it dipped very sharply during the Ossetian War.

Initially good views of Ukraine started declining after the Orange Revolution, dipping sharply in the wake of hostile rhetoric during the Ossetian War and going into negative territory for the first time in history. Relations continue deteriorating due to the gas crisis.

Georgia was never viewed positively and net approval turned negative in 2005. Not surprisingly it plummeted to -58% during the war and stayed low since.

Jan 29: mention an international survey of the morality of national foreign policies from World Public Opinion. Interesting, almost as many Ukrainians believe in the morality of Russian foreign policy as Russians themselves; Western nations give it uniformly very low marks.

Jan 27: 27% support tariffs on foreign cars and 46% oppose them. On the topic of the Gaza War, the Americans/US/Bush/NATO/The West were blamed by 31%, Islamists/Arabs by 15%, Israel/Jews by 12%, oil companies by 2% and Iran by 1%. Some 12% support the Palestinians, 10% support the Israelis and the rest are neutral or don’t care. 56% believe terrorists should be killed, while 24% support negotiations. 17% support the Israeli operation against Hamas and 47% are opposed. The vast majority think Russia should either try to foster peace between the warring parties or stay out altogether.

Jan 22: Leader approval ratings and state of the nation. More people are starting to think the country is on the wrong track, but not at a fast rate (morale is still much higher than it was for almost the entire period 1996-2006). As of January 2009, Medvedev’s approval was at 75% and Putin’s at 83%, virtually unchanged from the last nine years. Therefore talk of popular uprisings is clearly premature.

Net approval ratings of Putin and Medvedev.

Net approval ratings of Putin and Medvedev.

Jan 12: The most significant events of 2008 were the death of Patriarch Alexei II (41%), the South Ossetian War (39%), election of Medvedev (39%), the financial/economic crisis (38%), the Beijing Games (21%), reduction of conscription to twelve months (20%), Russian recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence (18%) and Russian footballing successes (15%). (I skipped a few). I think the most significant events were the economic crisis and the Ossetian War from the list, in that order.

 

2008, Dec 24: More evidence that talk of popular uprising is premature. As of December, 66% of Russians believed the likelihood of mass protests against falling living standards or for defense of rights was unlikely in their town or region; only 20% said they were ready to man the barricades. These figures are totally unchanged from previous years. Russians on the fall of the USSR and the future of the CIS. As of 2008, 60% regret the fall of the Soviet Union; 55% think it could have been avoided. These figures have remained remarkedly steady since 1992. The future of the CIS is viewed in a negative light, with only 19% expecting further integration and 25% awaiting intensifying conflict or dissolution. On the topic of what they want to develop on the post-Soviet space…

Варианты ответа

2001

2002

2003

2006

2007

2008

Greater union based on mutually voluntary decisions

32

27

24

23

23

28

Restoration of the USSR in its old form

23

21

25

18

16

13

Greater union on the EU model

15

19

17

19

23

22

Keeping the CIS in its current form

13

12

13

17

12

14

Independence of all republics

12

12

11

12

17

14

No comment

5

9

10

11

9

9

Dec 11: On unemployment, 47% think its unacceptable. Dec 8: On industrial action / strikes,

Варианты ответа

1989

2001

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

Striking is the only way to get one’s demands fulfilled

17

13

14

15

14

15

12

Strikes are a normal way of resolving new problems

12

13

19

20

20

21

16

Strikes are an extreme measure, but sometimes necessary

44

30

29

34

30

33

29

Strikes don’t accomplish anything

5

33

29

23

23

17

30

Strikes must not be allowed in our country

14

5

4

3

3

6

5

No comment

8

6

5

5

10

8

8

Dec 5: Reading in Russia: Trends and Problems, a Levada report for the government that you can download.

Nov 27: Reacting to the election of an African-American, Russians expressed amazement (16%), satisfaction (15%), delight (15%), annoyance (2%), indignation (1%) and envy (<1%). 58% weren’t emotionally affected.

Nov 20: According to World Public Opinion on attitudes towards government responsibilities, 77% of Russians think the government should guarantee food for all which is somewhat lower than international norms (the vast majority says this in all countries). 68% of Russians believe the government is doing an inadequate job in providing food, compared with 80% in Ukraine and Argentina, 47% in the US, 56% in France and 12% in Germany. Interestingly the figure is only 37% in India, which still suffers from widespread malnutrition.

Nov 18: Interethnic tensions. Some 11% of Russians regularly sense hostility from other ethnicities, while 58% never do – this figure has remained roughly unchanged since 2002, despite the big inflows of immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia and the very well publicized rise in racist murders. However, 39% believe that large-scale, violent conflicts are possible in Russia, and 20% think it possible in their own region. However, these are down from 49% and 24%, respectively, in 2002.

Nov 11: Russian views of US leaders. Of the last four Presidents, 28% thought relations were best with Bill Clinton (28%), Reagan, Bush I and Bush II got around 10% each. 39% thought the Democrats were better for Russia-US relations, 11% preferred Republicans. Obama (27%) was much more popular than McCain (15%).

Oct 31: Russians are by and large indifferent to the YUKOS case.

Oct 23: Attitudes towards the financial crisis. As of October, 72% of people had no savings and 21% did, little changed from 2002. Some 35% thought that housing was the best asset class, compared with 8% for gold, 12% for cash, 25% for Sberbank and 4% for commercial banks / stocks. These figures also remained static over history. Below are detailed stats on historical currency preferences…

июл.02

июл.03

дек.03

июл.04

дек.04

июл.05

фев.06

июл.06

фев.07

июл.07

мар.08

17-20 окт.08

Ruble

29

29

46

38

39

35

40

50

50

49

41

52

$

33

27

13

17

11

23

15

8

7

5

4

4

Euro

18

25

25

28

29

25

21

24

23

30

32

25

No comment

21

19

16

17

21

18

24

18

21

16

24

19

and on social wellbeing (PS: “enough money for basics, not consumer goods” is short-hand for “enough money for food / clothes, buying stuff like TV’s, fridges is a difficulty for us”, same with other categories).

окт.98

окт.99

окт.00

окт.01

окт.02

окт.03

окт.04

окт.05

окт.06

окт.07

17-20 окт.08

Can hardly make ends meet

36

36

23

21

17

17

15

14

12

10

9

Enough for food, not clothes

46

40

46

42

42

39

36

37

28

29

27

Enough for basics not goods

15

20

26

28

35

35

40

38

47

45

49

Enough for basics, goods

3

3

4

9

6

9

9

11

13

17

15

Can afford expensive things

<1

<1

<1

<1

<1

1

<1

<1

<1

<1

1

Since Russians are pessimistic – throughout this period the number of people claiming their financial position will get worse in the coming months was consistently higher than those seeing an improvements, in contrast to reality – it is more the trend that matters above. So quote that whenever a Russophobe claims that it is only the oligarchs living in Rublevka who’ve improved their lot in Russia under Putin.

Oct 14: As if well known, the police do not have a good reputation in Russia. According to a recent poll, only 21% of respondents believe they deserve trust, while 43% think they don’t fully deserve it and 28% believe they completely don’t deserve it. Geographically, by far the most negative responses are in cities of <500,000 people exception Moscow, where 14% of people think they deserve trust and 37% think that they wholly don’t deserve trust. In Moscow, the figures are 22% and 16%, respectively; 26% and 25% in smaller towns; and 18% and 28% in rural areas. The poorest have the least amount of respect for the police; apart from them, attitudes are similar across social classes. Interestingly, people with a higher education have much higher respect for the police (37% for and 20% against) than less educated Russians.

Above is a historical graph of a police approval index. If A = people who say the police deserve trust, B = not wholly deserving, and C = totally undeserving of trust, then the index is calculated by Index = A – 0.5B – C. As with many other indexes of social trust and confidence covered in Lovely Levada, it seems a strong trend to improvement began around about mid-2007.

 

Oct 7: 46% Russians have a close friend or relative living abroad, mostly in the post-Soviet space.

Sept 24: 67% of Russians believe Russia will qualify for the football World Cup in 2010, while a 13% league of fifth-columnists believes otherwise.

Sept 22: Attitudes on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 56% support stationing troops in South Ossetia while 27% support withdrawal. 40% believe recognizing their independence will benefit Russia, 15% think it will harm Russia and 28% believe it won’t make a difference one way or the other. 46% support their immediate or eventual inclusion into the Russian Federation, while 25% counsel caution and 12% are against.

Sept 16: 15% of Russians believe they can speak another language fluently, including 26% of 18-24 year olds, 30% of people with higher educations and 35% of Muscovites. Older, less educated and more rural people have generally lower stats. The most cosmopolitan professions are the Armed Forced / Ministry of Internal Affairs / public prosecution service (46%), admin / management (33%), indepedent entrepreneur (33%) and students (30%); the most insular are ordinary workers (8%) and pensioners (7%). According to older polls, the most popular languages are English (44%), other Slavic (19%) and German (15%). Amongst young people who know one or more foreign languages, the most popular are English (80%), German (16%) and French (4%).

9/11: Attitudes towards the Beslan terrorist acts. 33% believe there authorities are covering up the truth and 50% think they’re only communicating part of the truth. 12% considered the operation to rescue the hostages successful, 51% satisfactory and 25% unsatisfactory. Majorities believe that in hostage situations the priority should be to save the hostages rather than destroy the terrorists and 55% believe the authorities did all they could to save the Beslan hostages.

They cite a report from World Public Opinion on international opinions about who masterminded 9/11. 57% of Russians think it was Islamic terrorists, 15% the American government, 2% Israel and 4% other Arab governments. These numbers are very similar to other European countries. Large numbers of Arab respondents attributed it to Israel.

Sept 9: There was overwhelming support for Russia’s recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, with 80% being for and 10% against. However, 64% would support allowing the return of Georgian refugees to those regions and protecting them from pressure on the part of Ossetins and Abkhazins. 34% support leaving regular Russian soldiers in South Ossetia while 43% favor a peace-keeping contingent, while 11% urge for withdrawal and substitution for UN and EU peacekeepers. 66% support using budgetary funds to reconstruct destroyed Ossetian infrastructure and 27% are against. Only 1% expressed agreement and 4% understanding with the negative positions of Western powers on Russia’s intervention, while 20% experienced bewilderment, 22% anxiety and 39% indignation. A big majority think that current tensions with the West will subside soon enough (correctly, as it turned out).

This is a good one – do Russians want freedom? Since Russophobes love to carp on about this, I’ll reproduce the results in detail. The first table deals with the question of whether Russians think they have enough freedom. As you can see, 56% believe they have enough freedom; more people actually believe they have too much freedom than too little.

1990 Май

1997 Май

2007 Июль

2008 Июль

Too little freedom

38

20

12

18

Enough freedom

30

32

57

56

Too much freedom

16

34

24

20

No comment

16

14

7

6

Russophobes like to paint Russian men in particular as drunken beasts who enslave women and are particularly authoritarian, when in fact it is women who are (very slightly) more “authoritarian”. Nor are there great differences by age, education, wealth or place of residence. (Note: those that are poorly educated, poor and live in rural places and lost most from the end of the Soviet system tend to vote more on “too much freedom”, i.e. the freedom to steal national wealth, etc, as they perceive the situation).

Total

Sex

Age

Education

M

F

18-24

25-39

40-54

55+

Higher

Middle Specialist

Middle

Lower Middle

Too little freedom

18

20

16

20

18

18

16

18

22

17

14

Enough freedom

56

56

55

59

62

56

47

59

52

62

53

Too much freedom

20

19

21

15

12

20

30

15

21

18

23

No comment

7

5

8

5

7

7

7

8

6

3

10

Anyway, whenever you hear or read a Russian categorically stating that freedoms are dissipating or that poverty is soaring (well, admittedly the latter might be true for the last two or three months), note that she speaks only for herself and the c.10% of the population that are fifth-columnists, not the silent majority of Russians.

Social attitudes based on place of residence is a multi-issue poll organized according to where the respondents live. In September when this poll was held the ruble-$ exchange rate was 25:1, so 8k rubles was 320$, 16k rubles was 640$ and 22k rubles was 880$. (Note that to get a realistic comparison with the US you should double these figures to take relative puchasing power issues into account).

Family Monthly Income

Russia

Moscow

Cities >500k

Cities 100-500k

Small Towns

Villages

Low (< 8k rubles)

26

5

16

24

28

39

Lower-middle (8k-16k r)

29

7

27

29

38

29

Higher-middle (16k-22k r)

14

12

22

19

11

9

High (22k+ r)

18

59

24

17

11

9

No comment

13

18

12

12

12

15

Lots of other interesting results there too.

Sept 3: A poll on access to education. 36% of Russians would like to complete one university degree and 24% prefer a specialized school or college. Others would opt for just the elementary or basic school (5%), completed high school (10%), technical school (9%), two universities (7%) and graduate studies (2%). Younger people, men and Muscovites report having affordable access to more educational opportunities; overall accessibility slightly increased from 2003. Interestingly, the number of people who wanted themselves or their children or grandchildren to get educated in a foreign university dropped to 39%, from 52% in 1999; those who do not want this increased from 24% to 36%. Younger people, men and those living in bigger cities are more favorable to the idea of getting a foreign education.

Sept 1: One of those inane greatest people polls. All the usual suspects – Pushkin, Peter the Great, Stalin, Lenin, Putin, Gagarin, Lomonosov, etc, dominate.

Aug 26: Attitudes towards the Prague Spring forty years on.

Aug 25: This poll registers improvements in perceptions of accessibility to education, healthcare and good jobs. All show slight improvements in the past six years, but remain deeply unsatisfactory. Can you and your family members get access to quality healthcare?

Варианты ответа

2002г.

2003г.

2004г.

2005г.

2006г.

2007г

2008г

Yes / probably yes

25

26

25

23

28

24

30

No / probably not

73

72

72

76

70

72

66

No comment

2

2

3

1

2

4

4

Can you, your children, grandchildren, etc, get a good education?

Варианты ответа 2002г. 2003г. 2004г. 2005г. 2006г. 2007г 2008г
Yes / probably yes

37

32

37

32

42

39

42

No / probably not

59

64

60

63

53

56

53

No comment

4

4

3

5

5

5

5

Can inhabitants of your town or region get a good job according to their specialization?

Варианты ответа 2002г. 2003г. 2004г. 2005г. 2006г. 2007г 2008г
Yes / probably yes

19

21

16

14

18

20

24

No / probably not

74

75

78

82

77

75

69

No comment

7

4

6

4

5

5

7

Aug 7: Detailed survey of Russian food consumption habits by food category. Also includes a long historical record of what share of their salaries Russians spent on food since 1991. We can see that during most of the 1990′s, a majority spent almost all their money on food; since then, this has fallen to just 14%. So again, a further reason for ignoring Russophobes who insist life did not get better for just about everyone under Putin.

Варианты ответа

1991

1992

1994

1999

2001

2002

2004

2006

2007

2008

Less than half

6

3

3

5

4

6

11

17

19

18

About half

20

12

13

15

14

24

32

35

38

39

About two thirds

40

19

20

21

38

28

28

27

25

23

Almost everything

30

63

59

55

42

37

27

17

14

14

No comment

5

2

4

4

2

5

3

4

4

6

Russians have mixed views on whether their mass media are free; 12% think its completely free, 34% think its mostly free, 35% think its mostly controlled, and 10% believe its totally controlled by the government.

Aug 4: A very comprehensive survey (and results of some past surveys) on Russian smoking patterns.

Total

Sex

Age

Education

Men Women 18-24 года 25-39 года 40-54 года 55 лет и старше higher middle /spect. lower middle

smoking now

37

61

18

45

49

43

17

28

40

39

don’t smoke now, but smoked in the past

14

19

11

12

14

12

19

19

14

13

never smoked

47

19

71

43

36

44

64

53

45

47

no comment

1

1

1

1

2

1

1

1

1

1

A very high percentage of people continue to smoke (37%), including 61% amongst men. This is up from 35% in 2004 and the same as in 2007. Most disturbingly there does not appear to be any clear trend of improvement with younger ages. Amongst professions the highest incidence of smokers can be found amongst independent entrepreneurs (63%), the unemployed (60%) and workers and farmers (56%); the lowest are admin/managers (27%), Armed Forces / Internal Affairs / Prosecutor’s Service (30%), students (30%) and pensioners; the highest rate of former smokers is in the Armed Forces / Internal Affairs / Prosecutor’s Service (29%). Interestingly, the highest numbers of smokers are amongst the well-off financially and Muscovites.

July 31: Russians believe the country needs a few strong opposing parties. The number of people wanting one strong party dropped from 43% in 1999 to 32% in 2008, while those favoring two or three big parties rose from 35% to 45%. Some 46% believe there is an opposition to the regime, while 35% disagree (by opposition they mean parties like the Communists, Just Russia, Yabloko, etc, not Kasparov’s pack of clowns). 62% believe the country needs an opposition, while 21% disagree.

July 28: Mixed views of businesspeople, with 45% viewing their activities as useful for Russia and 38% as harmful.

July 18: What do Russians believe in?. Faith in all kinds of mystical things like signs and dreams and the evil eye increased since the end of the Soviet Union, turning Russia from an atheistic to a pagan-Christian nation (like much of western Europe). Or maybe they just became more comfortable with admitting it.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The ludicrous claims spouted by Saakashvili continue falling apart as soon as his febrile mind makes them, forcing even the most ardent Cold Warriors to temper their uncompromising narrative of “Russian aggression against the ‘fledgling’ Georgian democracy”. And despite the impressive achievements of Georgian infowar, after many tribulations the truth came out. OCSE monitors confirmed that Georgia fired the first shot and evidence of Georgian war crimes was uncovered by the BBC and Western human rights organizations like Amnesty and HRW*.

As such, the Western media has been forced to retract its most egregious Russophobic assertions: one needs only look at some postbellum headlines from the Western press – Georgia fired first shot (Sunday Times); OSCE failed in Georgia warnings (BBC); The Story from Inside Wartorn South Ossetia (Embassy); US Says Georgia Erred in August Attack in South Ossetia (Voice of America); OSCE chairman coy about Russia-Georgia War (IHT); Georgia Claims on Russia War Called into Question (NYT); Did Saakashvili Lie?: West Begins to Doubt Georgian Leader (Spiegel). Even that neocon redoubt, the Washington Post, allowed its bloggers to publish Georgia may have sparked war with Russia. Thus confirming the veracity of what Russian ‘state-backed propaganda’ has been getting at all along, although the MSM would commit mass seppuko before acknowledging that.

Nonetheless, we must not celebrate the New Cold War’s premature ejaculation – the damage has already been done. The narrative of revanchist Russia has been reinforced – interested thinktanks and media sources can now cite Western MSM coverage on ‘Russian aggression’ to further foster institutional Russophobia. Meanwhile, those same lying Western media outlets can now retain their reputation for objectivity in the eyes of their audiences by pointing to how they later ‘righted’ the record when ‘new’ evidence came in, no matter it came in dribbles and at a time when interest in the war had long since peaked.

Despite all that, however, it is good to see that the sheer weight of Saakashvili’s duplicity and transparent lies are bringing down the whole edifice of his power. Experts predict he will face severe political challenges in the winter and spring, as government unity crumbles, foreign investors flee due to the war and global financial crunch and protesters take to the streets in opposition to the recklessness that has brought that country so much blood and ruin (or so one hopes). Hopes of joining NATO any time soon are wrecked, with even the US hedging its position.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, one of the key initial leaders of the ‘Rose Revolution’ and the regime’s ambassador to Moscow until mid-2008 when he was recalled, has since joined the opposition and brought forth a devastating account of the lead-up to the Ossetia War (presented to that objective-sounding Georgian outfit, the “Temporary Commission to Study Russia’s Military Aggression and Other Actions Undertaken With the Aim to Infringe Georgia’s Territorial Integrity”). He alleges that in April 2008 Saakashvili’s inner circle received the green light from the ‘western partner’ to carry out a military operation against the separatist republics, according to senior government sources he refused to name for their safety. From then on Israeli advisers were brought in and intensive military preparations began for a military restoration of ‘constitutional order’.

Some of the Russia watchers I spoke to charitably think that Saakashvili misinterpreted Washington’s intentions, or wrongfully took the opinions of disparate elements in the Bush administration as official policy; others take a dimmer view of US culpability, quoting Kitsmarishvili on Georgia’s arrogant refusal of a Russian olive branch:

On July 10 President Saakashvili calls me – I want to stress that this phone call was not made on a secured line – and tells me: ‘Is that someone – Naryshkin [head of the Russian President’s administration] – really coming to Tbilisi?’ I replied that yes he plans; Saakashvili then told me: ‘OK, let him come, but tell Naryshkin that we have just met with Condoleezza Rice [in Tbilisi on July 10] and we are in a good situation now.’ That is what he told me on a phone and it was not a secured line. About two hours after this phone call, the Russian Foreign Ministry posted on its website a statement – in which Moscow admitted that its jets violated the Georgian airspace…Of course this visit by Naryshkin was thwarted; of course this visit could not have any results, because there was no readiness from the Georgian side as well for having any results.

Furthermore, this explains unwavering US support for Georgia during (and after) the conflict, up to and including refusing to join a Russian request for the UN to call for a cessation of Georgian military operations in Ossetia. This gives credence to Medvedev’s following assertion to Western journalists and opinion-makers at the annual Valdai Discussion Club (and by extension Putin’s claims that elements of the US foreign policy elite orchestrated the war) held this September:

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories neither am I a fan of black-or-white descriptions, but I cannot help but say the following. After a while our close partner Condoleezza Rice arrived, and after that the guy acted differently. He stopped calling, he said: “We don’t need the meeting in Sochi, maybe at the end of the year”. Please: that’s your business. He started to prepare for war. Because of this our view on the question of recognition certainly evolved and my personal point of view did as well.

There is a price to pay for revealing inconvenient truths in democratic Georgia, of course. Kitsmarishvili is to be put on trial for ‘professional negligence’ and his ‘irresponsible and shameless fabrication’ due to ‘either the result of a lack of information or the personal resentment of a man who has lost his job and wants to get involved in politics’.

Meanwhile, most Western officials are continuing to distance themselves from Saakashvili, who reveals more of his psychopathic tendencies by the day. An example. While escorting Polish President Lech Kaczyński near the South Ossetian border, shots were fired on their motorcade. Saakashvili immediately claimed that Moscow was trying to assassinate him, which was theatrically reproduces in the Western mediasphere. But just a few days later, Polish intelligence services revealed that it was a provocation, staged by the political corpse to “to distract attention from Georgia’s internal problems and make everyone say that Russia does not fulfill the provisions of the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement occupying Georgian territories”. One almost begins to feel sorry for the poor jackass, until jolted back into reality by the memory of his sordid deeds.

The corpse continues squirming, squealing and stumbling on into oblivion, not realizing it’s already dead.

* The Georgian army started a premeditated assault on Ossetia hours after proclaiming a unilateral ceasefire, bombarded a sleeping, densely packed city with indiscriminate Grad rockets and murdered UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers. The Russian Army targeted military objects, albeit the use of cluster munitions (which neither Russia, Georgia or the US have repudiated) meant collateral damage; nor did it to much to prevent vengeful Ossetian militias from forcing out Georgian civilians.

It is true that Russia was not entirely blameless, but it’s vital to keep a sense of perspective. Russia was not the state that initiated military hostilies expressly aimed at ethnic cleansing (and which later tried to sweep it under the carpet with a well organized PR effort, albeit one which is collapsing and burdened under ever progressively flimsier ‘evidence’). Furthermore, Western criticism of Russia for bombing and moving into Georgia proper is bankrupt: in modern wars, the battlespace covers vast areas and military bases and arms’ factories around Tbilisi are as legitimate targets as Georgian occupying tanks in Tskhinvali. In conclusion, there is an abyssal and qualitative difference between Georgian and Russian actions.

(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.