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I had been meaning to post about this for a long time. Better late than never, I suppose.

The TIMSS and PIRLS are international assessments of academic ability in math, science and literacy that are conducted once every four years. They are similar to the PISA tests, although the latter are less purely academically focused and more a test of pure IQ.

Here are the results of TIMSS/PIRLS (h/t North Asian). And here are the results of PISA from 2009 for comparison.

As can be expected, they are highly correlated (r > 0.8 to be precise). This however makes the few differences all the more interesting. The gap between the East Asian countries and European countries, though substantial in PISA, is significantly greater in TIMSS/PIRLS. And most strikingly, both Russia and Israel go from being laggards in the OECD group to being at the forefront of the class.

Math (PISA) Math (TIMSS)
Korea 539 613
Sweden 494 484
Russia 468 539
Israel 447 516

From performing more poorly than Turkey in the PISA reading test, Russia soars to take second global position in the PIRLS.

Reading (PISA) Reading (PIRLS)
HK 533 571
Sweden 497 542
Russia 459 568
Israel 474 541

Meanwhile, some European countries, especially Sweden and Norway, plummet quite substantially.

What explains all this?

There are two possibilities. First, the TIMSS/PIRLS tests may have poorer samples than the PISA. For instance, we know from the latter that Moscow has a 10-point IQ lead over the rest of the country. If Muscovite pupils are over-sampled, then it’s quite feasible for the consequent result to be closer to say Hong Kong or Korea than to Greece or Turkey.

However, a second possibility is that the PISA-TIMSS/PIRLS gap is a proxy for differences in the quality of educational systems. It is more feasible to prepare for the TIMSS/PIRLS than it is for PISA, which is closer to an IQ test and is, as such, more difficult to improve through policy interventions. It is nowadays fashionable to lambast the ex-Soviet and East Asian school systems for “rote learning,” “stifling creativity,” and whatnot. However, the data shows that under these systems, pupils perform well above the levels they “should” as indicated by their underlying IQ levels. Meanwhile, in places where “creativity” and “self-expression” are given full bloom, where science lessons focus on the evils of plastic bags in between sermons on LGBT appreciation and the progressiveness of Islamic civilization, academic performance is somewhat less than what might expect based on the local students’ apparent IQ levels.

This all makes sense, I suppose. To be truly “creative” you first have to acquire a ton of skills and knowledge via the old method of applied hard work. Without that, “creativity” simply boils down to a sea of PoMo-waffling curmudgeons and MacBook-toting hipsters. And whoever needs that?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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Here it is in Russian: Вверх-вниз по рейтингу свободы. This translation here is of a longer version at my Russian language blog.

A version of it also appears on Voice of Russia: Press freedom – on both sides of the Information Curtain.


Thanks to Alexei Pankin (who is a regular at Komsomolskaya) for making it happen – and for the title!, and to Alexander Mercouris for proving a couple of ideas and nice turns of phrase.

Up and down the freedom index

Recently the French human rights organization Reporters Without Borders unveiled new press freedom ratings, which showed Russia sinking to 148th place globally. This finding is consistent with the yearly ratings of the American organization Freedom House, which deems the Russian media to be “not free.” In contrast, Western countries, as we might expect, are the world’s freest and most democratic and ahead of everyone else.

Does this correlate to reality? As a regular reader of the mass media from both sides of the Information Curtain, I have long been under the strong impression that the Western public intelligentsia – including the creators of all these ratings – often consider that the only “free” and “independent” media outlets in Russia are those which support their own ideas and prejudices. At the same time, those Russian media outlets that take a pro-Kremlin or even neutral position are inevitably painted as Kremlin stooges – disregarding that the majority of the Russian mass media audience approve of Putin.

(By the way, those approval ratings are created by polling ordinary Russians, whereas the ratings of organizations such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders are compiled using opaque methodologies by anonymous “experts.”)

As evidence of their position, their argue that Russia apparently has no freedom of speech, and that the “bloody regime” crushes the voices of “democratic journalists.” Yes, these things sometimes happen. For instance, after the Presidential elections, Kommersant Vlast printed a photograph of a election ballot saying, “Putin, go fuck yourself.” The paper’s editors cheekily captioned it thus: “Correctly filled out ballot, ruled spoiled.” The paper’s owner Alisher Usmanov quickly fired them.

Harsh? Maybe, but there is a wealth of similar examples in the West. For insulting Romney, accidentally caught on open mic, the journalist David Chalian was fired from Yahoo News. One can compile an entire list of journalists who were fired for criticizing the state of Israel: Sunni Khalid, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, etc. Likewise there is another substantial list of journalists fired for attending Occupy Wall Street protests. The most famous journalist-whistleblower in the world, Julian Assange, today lives in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to avoid arrest the moment he walks out onto the street.

Regardless of all this, “professors of democracy” continue to harangue us with the idea that the Russian media are controlled and toe the Kremlin line. These claims would seem absurd to any Russian who cares to leaf through the pages of Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, or an array of other publications. If you wish to find a glaring example of mass media parroting a single narrative, one need look no further than Western coverage of the 2008 war in South Ossetia. In that fairytale, evil Russian orcs cravenly attacked flourishing, democratic Georgia, ushering in all kinds of savagery and destruction in their wake. At the same time, the American news channel FOX interrupted its interview with an Ossetian-American schoolgirl, at the time resident in Tskhinvali, when it became clear that her account did not square with Washington’s party line. The Polish journalist Wiktor Bater was fired after he started saying “politically incorrect” facts about the Georgian bombing of Tskhinvali and Saakashvili’s lies. Needless to say, these episodes did not in the slightest impact the press freedom ratings of either the US or Poland.

This is not to idealize the state of Russian press freedoms, which has a huge number of its own problems. For instance, writing about Putin’s private life (but not his policies!) is something of a taboo in Russia, just as is criticism of Israel in the US. And the situation as regards unsolved murders of journalists is far worse than in the West, albeit in statistical terms it is comparable to or even better than in many widely acknowledged democracies such as Brazil, Mexico, India, Colombia, and Turkey.

That said, there are some things Russia can be “proud” of. American “dissidents” such as Hearst Newspapers journalist Helen Thomas and former professor Normal Finkelstein are not only fired, but also put on blacklists which complicate their chances of finding another job and getting access to high-ranking officials. Meanwhile, in stupid and naive Russia, the American journalist Masha Gessen can publish a book about Putin titled “The Man Without a Face” and get a personal interview with the Russian President as a reward. She is then free to repay his consideration by practically calling him an idiot in an account of their meeting in the journal Bolshoi Gorod – and to then go on to head the Russian service of Radio Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, headquartered minutes away from the walls of the Kremlin.

So in some sense Russia still has many, many steps still to climb up the stairs of the press freedom ratings…

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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At least if you take Michael Bohm’s arguments in his latest Moscow Times missive on how Russia Is Turning Into Iran to its logical conclusion.

Look, I’m not a fan of blasphemy laws. The First Amendment is a wonderful thing and something that makes the US truly great… even exceptional, to an extent. Although it should be noted that there are limits even in the US: Some quite appropriate in my opinion, others ridiculous such as the taboo on boobs on TV.

Still, if Russia’s moves to criminalize blasphemy brings it “another step closer to becoming like Iran and other Muslim theocracies”, then we have to admit that the likes of Germany, Poland, Israel, and Ireland are already long there – and contrary to what Bohm claims, it doesn’t seem that any of those countries have ended up in “chronic economic stagnation, decline and high poverty rates.”

Just look at the Wikipedia article. About half the Western world has blasphemy laws on the books. In Germany, a man was sentenced to one year in prison (suspended) in 2006 for insulting Islam. In Poland, the singer Doda was fined 5,000 złoty for the fairly innocuous comment, made well outside church, that the Bible was written by “people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes.”

Also back in 2006 in Germany, a Berlin man was imprisoned for 9 months for disrupting a church service – but unlike the case with Pussy Riot, nobody nominated the poor bloke for the Sakharov Peace Prize. Nor did The Guardian hire a German journalist to write an oped about how Germany was becoming a “Protestant Iran” (as did Oleg Kashin).

Yet no Western commentator thinks to compare those countries to Islamic societies where apostasy is punishable by death and mobs demand the deaths of 12 year old girls who (supposedly) burn the Koran. And quite rightly so. Regardless of one’s view on the precisely where the boundaries between free speech and protecting religious feelings and social order are, it is intuitively obvious there are stark and clear lines separating today’s Christian civilization from a large chunk of the Dar al-Islam.

Russia on the other hand has yet to even sign the blasphemy bills into law, but shills like Michael Bohm are already rushing in to bracket it in with Iran. If this isn’t double standards then I really don’t know what is.

PS. I am not even going to comment on Bohm’s bizarre and absolutely illiterate musings regarding GDP.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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From what I generally knew of contemporary Eastern European attitudes towards Jews (in two words “not good”) I expected that the Russian public’s attitude towards Israel would be decidely frosty, if not outright hostile… But what seems noteworthy to me is not the downward blip in 2006 but the generally high level of Russian support for Israel over the past 9 years and the generally small number of Russians who will outright say they relate poorly towards it (the balance being made up by people who said they have a hard time answering).Mark Adomanis.

There are several reasons as far as I can see, some of them obvious, some of them not so obvious because they are clouded over by noxious PC fumes.

* There are now simply a lot fewer Jews in Russia. There were 1.4mn in 1989 in the USSR, and 550,000 in the RSFSR; as of 2010, only 158,000. Jews typically occupy positions in the economy, culture, etc. out of all proportion to their population size. This is typically ascribed to conspiracies whereas in fact it is a simple function of their IQ’s which are about one S.D. above the white European average. This typically causes resentment in places where Jews settle with a few major exceptions like the Anglo-Saxon world. In fact much of Tsarist and Soviet “discrimination” against Jews was (in modern US terms) an affirmative action plan for the indigenous population.

* While Jews in the late Soviet era were heavily associated with dissidence, a function of their relative exclusion from mainstream politics, now they range all over the spectrum. While a majority are still probably more liberal than not you now have Jews like the TV games star and Stalinist blogger Anatoly Wasserman not to mention Zhirinovsky (aka Eidelstein) who is a half-Jew as well as the head of the biggest nationalist party.


* Migrants from the South Caucasus who are seen as more criminalized and dependent on welfare (“Stop feeding the Caucasus!”) – and not mistakenly so, regardless of what the PC brigade wants to claim – are far more of a everyday concern than ZOG conspiracies. For a typical Muscovite there is simply far more reason to fear the Chechen who will beat up his nerdy son in school than the besuited Jewish IT professional who would hire him.

* While the USSR supported the Arabs, today’s Russia balances between them. There is military cooperation between Russia and Israel, e.g. on drones, and there exists a visa-free travel regime between them. Something on which the EU not to even mention the US has long dragged its feet on.

* Critically Israel does not criticize Russia for HR abuses, illiberalism, etc. as most Western countries love doing. This makes sense because Israel is hardly a very liberal state itself and besides it is not in its interests to make additional enemies if it can possibly help it. Even on a site like Inosmi where commentators tend to be pretty nationalist Israel does not get bad rap. Whenever “Gayropean” do-gooders sail a “freedom flotilla” to Israel, the good people of Inosmi sympathize with the Israelis, and wish Russia could retaliate in similarly uncompromising fashion against foreign liberal interventionists who undermine its sovereignty.

* As Mark Adomanis correctly noticed, both Russia and Israel have problems with Islamist terrorists. Who happen to be supported by liberal forces abroad.

* Jews and Israelis are seen as distinct. Jews are the rootless cosmopolitans, more loyal to their in-group than their country of residence. Israelis on the other hand are a nation of blood and soil.

* According to (Russian Jewish-American) historian Yuri Slezkine the history of the 20th century is one of peoples around the world “becoming Jewish” in terms of values. This has been especially true in post-Soviet Russia. Case in point: While most of the oligarchs were Jewish, most Russians would still rather emulate than dispossess them. Among Europeans, Russians and Israelis are the two peoples who most agree that “it is important to be rich, have money and expensive things.” This is no longer a picture of peasant, honest Russians vs. urban, mercantile Jews as it was a century ago. There are no longer any irreducible value differences between the two peoples. (The same of course cannot be said for urban Russians vs. clannish Chechens, Avars, etc., from the mountains).

Hope that goes some way to explaining things.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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At least according to Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is hilariously a Sephardi Jew, i.e. closer to Arabs than Europeans.

Well, all countries have a right to sovereignty over their own borders, and stemming the inflow of illegal African immigrants is perfectly justifiable in Israel’s case. To this end they are ramping up legal sanctions against them.

However, what’s striking is how little flak Yishai got for his White Nationalist-like outburst. When a Russian Federal Migration Services spokesman said immigration was putting the “future of white race under threat” in a BBC interview, he was promptly fired (which was, BTW, the correct thing to do). However, the incident was plastered all over the Western media. But in Israel’s case, in which an actual Minister was involved, the incident was only mentioned on Haaretz and a few blogs.

And in general, Israel gets away with a lot of things that would draw huge opprobrium if done by any other country. E.g., you can be convicted of rape for falsely claiming to be a Jew in a seduction. It imprisons several journalists (unlike, say, Russia) but organizations like Freedom House consider it to be perfectly democratic. Palestinians in the West Bank arguably have it worse than South African blacks under apartheid. At least the latter were left to themselves (“apart”) whereas Israeli right-wing settlers gobble up the best land and sources of water in Palestine.

Of course, begrudging Israel for this is stupid. As is blaming it on an imaginary Zionist conspiracy, as the guys at Stormfront would (for a start, Jews in the US and Israel are very, very different). No, it just speaks to the importance of having a powerful lobby in Washington DC.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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One of the most common tropes against Russia is that critical (independent, democratic, etc) journalists there are dying like flies, presumably because of the “culture of impunity” created by Putin or even on his express orders. It is rarely mentioned that the statistical chances of a Russian journalist dying by homicide is an order of magnitude lower than in several countries widely recognized to be “democratic” such as Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, and the Philippines, or that – unlike Turkey or Israel (!) – Russia does not imprison any journalists on account of their professional work. To this end, I compiled a “Journalism Security Index” to get a more objective picture than the politicized rankings produced by outfits like Freedom House that put Russia on par with Zimbabwe.

As usual in these situations, a few graphs are worth thousands of words.

The graph above shows the numbers of journalists killed in Russia for every year since 1992 as compared with other “democratic” countries like Brazil, Mexico, India, and Colombia. As one can see, the situation has improved greatly in the past three years, with only one journalist (in Dagestan) getting killed in 2011; meanwhile, the situation in Mexico has deteriorated to levels unseen in Russia since the early 1990′s. Does this mean that Felipe Calderón is the next Stalin? Or is it that he is just faced with a drugs war that is rapidly spiraling out of control?

However, even this likely overstates the risks to Russian journalists, because there are simply a great many of them. According to the latest UN data, there were 102,300 newspaper journalists in Russia, far more than in Brazil (6,914) or India (16,079), and while data for the other two does not exist, I will assume that there are as many journalists per capita in Colombia (so 1,670) and three times as many in Mexico (13,027) as in Brazil. You can adjust the latter two figures within the bounds of plausibility but as you will see, this would not make a cardinal difference. So let’s start calculating annual homicides per 100,000 newspaper journalists (latest figure) – a rough but valid proxy for the general level of journalistic peril in any given country.

Wow! You can’t see anything past Colombia! Let’s remove it.

So once you make some necessary adjustments for respective journalist populations, it emerges that Russian journalists have been relatively safe compared to other democratic countries throughout virtually its entire post-Soviet history. They are now safer by orders of magnitude. (The dip in Brazil’s and Mexico’s rates in 2012 are artificial as only half the year has passed).

Finally, homicides per 100,000 journalists are compared with the population as a whole. As one can see from the above graph, Russian journalists were always safer than the average Russian citizen, and are now safer by an order of magnitude. Only one Russian journalist was killed in 2010 and 2011 for a rate of about 0.5/100,000 per year, relative to an overall homicide rate of slightly less than 10/100,000. The average journalist is far less likely to have criminal or binge drinking proclivities than the average citizen (factors that account for the overwhelming bulk of homicides in Russia) so it is right and proper that their homicide rate should also be well below the national average.

The same cannot be said of the other countries we are comparing Russian journalists to. In 2010, the homicide rate in Mexico was 18/100,000 (vs. 77/100,000 for journalists), in Brazil it was 25/100,000 (vs. 14/100,000 for journalists in 2010, but soaring to 87/100,000 in 2011), and in India it was 3.4/100,000 (vs. 12/100,000 for journalists).

It need hardly be mentioned at this point that for most of the “democratic” Yeltsin period, life was riskier for Russian journalists than under “authoritarian” Putin and his “stooge” Medvedev. There were 41 journalists killed in Russia from 1992-1999, compared to 30 from 2000-2008, and 6 from 2009-today (of which 5 occurred in 2009). Does this then mean that Yeltsin, not Putin, was the real Stalin? Of course not. The journalist killings in the 1990′s were a product of the chaos and lawlessness of that time, much like the narco-related killings decimating the ranks of Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican journalists today. As one can see from the graph above, killings of Russian journalists have always been substantially correlated with the overall homicide rate; the latter began to sustainably decline from the mid-2000′s, and from 2009, journalist killings appear to have followed suit.

Why then does Russia have one of the lousiest reputations for journalist killings in the world, whereas a purely statistical analysis implies that it is in fact now extremely safe relative to several other “democratic” countries like Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, India, and Colombia, and does not imprison any journalists unlike Turkey or Israel?

Ultimately, I think it has much to do with the unhinged hostility of the Western media to Russia. Case in point, let’s look at The Guardian’s coverage.

When a journalist is killed in Mexico or Brazil, it is reported placidly and matter of factly, the newspaper restricting itself to: Names and identities (four journos from Veracruz; Mario Randolfo Marques Lopes); possible culprits (“the work of the cartels”; “accusing local officials of corruption”); some basic context, e.g. quantity of other journalist killings in the recent past. And apart from a final sentence or two noting that “corruption means it is often difficult to define where the authorities stop and organised crime begins”, that is pretty much the harshest judgment they make.

Now turn to the Guardian’s coverage of the sole Russian journalist killed in the past three years – Khadzhimurad Kamalov, in Dagestan, 2011. The difference begins with the titles. What used to be “Four Mexican journalists murdered in last week” or Brazilian journalist and girlfriend kidnapped and murdered” now becomes “Truth is being murdered in Putin’s bloody Russia.” And it continues in the same vein, with rhetoric being substituted for facts: “Crimes against freedom bathed in slothful impunity”; “Inside Moscow, rulers who pay lip service to human rights parade only an indifference that makes them complicit in these crimes” (is Calderón or Dilma Rousseff complicit in journalist killings in their countries?); “How many more, Mr Putin? How long are we supposed to mourn fellow journalists who died trying to tell us, and their fellow Russians, what a slack, slimy, savage state you run?”

No further comment is necessary.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
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Just in case you thought the correlation between human capital and economic development was an artifice of the post-socialist world, here is a similar graph (R2=0.4273) for all the world’s countries that have participated in the Math and Science portions of the PISA or TIMMS (8th grade) international standardized student assessments.


The methodology is the same as described in the previous post. As you can see, the relation is every bit as strong at the global level. However, you may point to a few outliers. How to explain them?

Corruption, institutions and “governance”, “ease of business” indicators, etc. are all next to useless; in fact, it has even been found that some corruption is better for growth than no corrupt at all (though there is a critical point of extreme corruption at which it becomes deeply harmful).

But these are minor technical discussions. As far as I can see, there are only three major factors that explain why some countries diverge from the close correlation (R2=0.8393) between human capital and economic development observed in normal countries with a long history of capitalist development: (1) Major exporters and mineral exporters, relative to their total GDP; (2) Countries with a legacy of socialism and central planning; and (3) Countries with small populations that are also major financial, tax haven, or tourism centers.


As you can see from the graph below, the conventional countries would form a nice best fit exponential curve (R2=0.8393). So would the countries with socialist legacies (R2=0.4908), albeit with greater dispersion and at a systemically lower level than the normal capitalist ones – especially once you remove those among them with substantial resource endowments. The same in reverse applies considering those countries that have managed to occupy niches in tourism, providing tax havens, and above all in financial services (R2=0.6014) – they do systemically better than the normal capitalist countries. The only countries to defy this iron correlation between are those whose oil production enables their populations to live off the rents from it (R2=0.0002); but these Rich Oilmen countries are very few in number, and concentrated in the Gulf.

The Capitalist Normals

The Capitalist Normals (blue) have long histories of capitalist development, and while some – like Australia or Argentina – may have large primary resource endowments, they cannot be said to dominate the economy. They have a very close correlation (at least by social science standards) between levels of human capital and economic development. The developed countries in this band occupy the global technological frontier. As usual, the outliers tend to be exceptions that prove the rule, so I’ll focus on them.

Argentina does slightly better than its PISA scores might otherwise indicate, but here there may be a few explanations: (1) Older Argentinians are far better educated than their counterparts in most of the rest of Latin America; (2) Low school-leaver human capital may be in part compensated by having the continent’s highest tertiary enrollment ratio.

UPDATE: The Argentina outlier is solved. According to Steve Sailer, Argentina’s low score is thanks to the scrupulousness of its school administrators, who – unlike most other countries – took the effort to track down the truants and drop-outs, who constituted 39% of its school-age population. Without this effect, Argentina’s score would have been about 40 points higher, i.e. above Mexico, and similar to Chile and Bulgaria, that is to say right where it should be. Sailer also makes the observation that since truancy tends to be more prevalent in poorer countries – a factor that is only rare adjusted for in the PISA tests – the gap in the human capital of older schoolchildren between the high-scoring developed world and the low-scoring developing world are, if anything, even higher than recorded in these tests.

Syria and Jordan both do a bit worse than their potential. Perhaps the influx of poor Palestinian refugees depresses Jordanian per capita wealth, while Syria is hampered by an extremely statist economy.

Israel is a major positive outlier. One explanation is that there is a lot of math and scientific aptitude diversity within Israel, with Arabs and Sephardi Jews performing badly and Ashkenazi Jews doing much better and perhaps a great deal of variation within the higher-IQ Ashkenazi group in particular; however, this is not borne out in the statistics, with the standard deviation for Israeli scores no higher than in many other countries. So why is it richer than, say, Turkey? No idea. Maybe because of US financial help, which is not inconsiderable. Maybe because the entrepreneurial Jew stereotype is correct even if the clever Jew stereotype isn’t.

Greece is a minor positive outlier, but their debt crisis is cutting it down to where it should be; as with Ireland a few years ago (it used to be an outlier in 2007 but is no longer). I guess the invisible hand has a sense of justice.

The United States is the most significant positive outlier, getting almost $10,000 more GDP than would be warranted by its human capital levels, which are comparable to Sweden or Australia. One major factor is surely that Americans simply work much longer than Europeans; their productivity levels, output per hour worked is, in fact, virtually equal to that of Germans or Swedes. It also helps that it has plentiful land per capita with the world’s best natural riverine transport system – and useful land, not permafrost like in much of Russia or Canada – and controls the world’s reserve currency.

Korea is a major negative outlier, one of the world’s cleverest countries but one that hasn’t yet even fully caught up with Italy. However its case – as is, to a lesser extent, that of Finland and Taiwan – is explainable by the simple fact that for them, “convergence” isn’t a finished process; they continue to grow relatively rapidly by already-developed country standards, they do not have any debt or fiscal crises, and they can expect to continue moving in the direction of ultra-rich countries like Switzerland and Singapore in the next decades. That said, Japan – also a minor negative outlier – indicates there may be diminishing returns to ever more impressively educated populaces.

It is important to emphasize, also, which countries in this category are NOT outliers: Brazil, Mexico (despite a substantial oil endowment), Indonesia, India, and Turkey. Also South Africa, which is not in this database, but can be inferred to have very low human capital based on its still prevalent illiteracy and very low TIMMS (4th grade) results. Now Brazil and India are regarded in the Davos press as superior to Russia, and in the long-term superior to China also (by virtue, so their argue, of their democracy and “demographic dividends”); the other nations cited here have all at one time or another been suggested as replacements for Russia in the BRIC’s.

If we are however to regard human capital as the main determinant of the natural level of economic development, and the “potential gap” between the two to be the most reliable determinant of future growth prospects, then the best BRIC by far is China, followed by Russia; to the contrary, India and Brazil (and any prospective BRIC’s members) are unremarkable.

The Red Tigers

The Red Tigers (green) are countries with major legacies of socialism and often central planning. It is interesting to observe that countries where reforms started earlier (e.g. ex-Yugoslavia, East Central Europe) and where markets played a greater role under socialism are much closer to the “equilibrium level” indicated by their levels of human capital. That said, despite their relative affluence, their “potential gaps” are still substantial; for instance, the Czech Republic and Poland have human capital basically equivalent to that of Germany or the US, but are still up to twice as poor in terms of GDP (PPP) per capita. This implies that this group will continue converging to advanced developed countries in the years ahead.

Practically all outliers in this group are negative, and were already covered in the previous post. But to recap:

China is the mother of all outliers, and no doubt a very significant one – it has 1.3 billion people living at lower middle income levels (although a few provinces remain distinctly Third World) but their high-school students now outperform the US and most of the EU. In my opinion this is the result of a very special situation.

The Maoist state suppressed economic growth to a degree unprecedented in virtually any other state in the socialist camp; it also started from a very, very low base. But despite its ruinous economic views, its social policies – including basic education – were implemented far better than in almost any other low income country, and that on top of (a) their reverence for scholarship that only had its equivalent in the Protestant emphasis on literacy and (b) the observed high IQ of Chinese overseas communities which may have a genetic component. This means that when China introduced market reforms, the “potential gap” between its human capital and existing level of economic development was vast to a degree probably unprecedented anywhere else in the world and in all history. Hence thirty years’ worth of 10% GDP growth that shows no sign of stopping (in fact, China’s relative performance exceeds that of any other Asian tiger in their stage of rapid development). And barring a major and unexpected discontinuity is should NOT stop until China reaches the level of per capita wealth Korea, Taiwan, or even Switzerland.

One minor caveat is that rapid development means that this “potential gap”, while vast, may no longer be quite as vast as indicated by the graph. Note that according to some estimates, China’s PPP GDP is now larger than America’s, which would give a GDP (PPP) per capita of $10,000-$12,000 or so.

Armenia, and to a lesser extent Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, are negative outliers. Their cases are clear; they suffered from destructive wars in the 1990′s, and in Armenia’s case it remains surrounded by neighbors from hell.

The ex-Soviet countries without oil, such as Ukraine and Moldova, tend to be deeply negative outliers. One reason is that they reformed slowly (while the Soviet-era system crumbled about them), and late; and have suffered from particularly incompetent and avaricious governance; as I argued in a prior post, Ukraine never left the period of “anarchic stasis” that characterized Russia in the 1990′s. However, Ukraine’s perspectives aren’t looking good, at least in the short-term. Perhaps it’s because corruption, etc. are still so high that – while they normally don’t have much of an effect – reach such critical levels that they significantly stymie growth; an alternate, and more benign, explanation is that Ukraine’s GDP (PPP) is underestimated – it was not adjusted upwards like Russia’s in the recent OECD and World Bank recalculation of relative prices – meaning that Ukrainians already live better than the statistics indicate, their “potential gap” is smaller, and thus understandably there is less room for fast GDP growth.

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia are curious creatures in that in their case, the resource windfall boon works against the socialist legacy curse. This means that, despite that they are ex-Soviet – i.e., the economy was more deeply distorted and reforms started later than in much of the rest of the socialist camp – they are nonetheless on the upper part of the human capital and economic development curve, along with countries like the Czech Republic or Romania, and are not outliers like Ukraine or even Latvia.

At this point I would also like to demolish the myth of Georgia as a shining beacon of unimpeded economic progress in the Caucasus. It will not transform into Switzerland or Singapore, or even Estonia, any time soon, i.e. the next few decades. Its human capital is very low and it is already fairly close to the maximum economic potential enabled by it; this may be an achievement on Saakashvili’s part, who massively – one might say recklessly – liberalized the Georgian economy, which caused (or accompanied) a big growth spurt in the mid to late 2000′s. But it is unsustainable, first because Georgia is now far nearer the limits imposed by its low level of human capital; second, because if anything human capital has declined under Saakashvili (e.g. tertiary enrollment has nearly halved as university fees exploded, making post-school study much less affordable for ordinary Georgians).

The Oilmen

The Oilmen (red) are those very lucky countries with lots of oil and small populations. It is almost always oil; the sole exception in my sample is Botswana (diamonds and minerals).

Unlike either the Capitalist Normals or the Red Tigers, there is no correlation between levels of human capital and economic development among the Oil Guzzlers. That is because the oil production per capita effect, which relies on geological luck of the draw, overpowers all others. That said, they could be divided into a few distinct groupings.

(1) The Rich Oilmen. Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman, are all fabulously rich thanks almost exclusively to their resource endowments. Their human capital is unimpressive and would not otherwise come anywhere near supporting their oil-enabled luxurious lifestyles. Their attempts at diversification are to be lauded, e.g. finance and tourism in Dubai, or journalism in Qatar, but these efforts are critically reliant on attracting foreign specialists with (oil) money so they are not sustainable.

(2) The Casual Oilmen. Norway and Russia benefit greatly from their oil windfalls; for a start, they largely rule out fiscal worries. Benefiting from uninterrupted capitalist development, Norway has transformed itself into one of the world’s wealthiest nations; even if it didn’t have oil, it would still be as rich as Sweden. Russia will probably never reach Norway’s level because the latter has far more oil per capita; nonetheless, it has a decent manufacturing base (e.g. capable of making stuff like GLONASS and advanced fighters) and a moderately growing economy that has no reason not to converge to Italy by 2020 and perhaps Sweden by 2025 or 2030. Tight supply and growing demand means that it is very unlikely that oil prices will fall and remain low in the foreseeable future, but even on the off chance that they do, Sergey Zhuravlev has calculated that the effects on Russia’s economy are going to be modest in the medium-term and negligible in the long-term.

(3) The Poor Oilmen. Oil is likewise of help for plugging budget holes to Algeria, Kazakhstan, Iran, Venezuela, Mexico, and Azerbaijan. However, unlike the case for the Rich Oilmen, their populations are too numerous to live off in sumptuous comfort off the rents; oil production per capita is too low. This means they can’t fly off into the stratosphere like the Rich Oilmen. They need non-oil based growth to become rich. But unlike the Casual Oilmen they are unlikely to achieve much of that because their human capital levels are very modest. If there is an oil crash, past experience – e.g., Venezuela in the 1980′s and 1990′s – suggests that they will be in for many years of stagnation and fiscal crises.

The Bankster Nations

The Bankster Nations (crosses) tend to be small countries which have managed to become major financial, tax haven, or tourism centers. Their GDP (PPP) per capita tends to be higher than the level suggested by their human capital, but not to anywhere near the same extent as the Rich Oilmen.

Liechtenstein is the biggest outlier in my database; its human capital is respectable, but its GDP (PPP) per capita at $141,000 is literally off the chart. No wonder when their population is a mere 30,000 souls. Luxembourg, Singapore, and Hong Kong have all carved themselves out very profitable niches as financial centers serving neighboring economies that are much bigger but also more regulated. Macao is Asia’s gambling center (and unofficial a conduit for Chinese money laundering). Cyprus serves a similar money laundering and reinvestment function for Russian nouveux riches, to the extent that the Russian government recently bailed out the island. Mauritius is a tax haven, and is also – along with Malta and Trinidad & Tobago – a popular vacation spot.

Switzerland is an entire nation that has devoted itself to financial services (including the more shady, secretive ones) as well as other very high added-value stuff like precision engineering and pharmaceuticals. And it has become extremely rich.

Without exception all these places are doing better or far better than the average Capitalist Normal country. That said, even here there is a definite correlation between human capital and GDP (PPP) per capita. These activities may require less hard work and scruples than is typical for other industries but they still require brains – especially for the high-end finance stuff. Not so surprising then that it is the highest human capital countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Switzerland that have become so prominent in it.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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The Press Freedom Index issues by Reporters Without Borders is a good starting point for assessing journalistic freedoms in global comparative perspective. However, much like all attempts to measure democracy or Transparency International’s assessment of corruption perception, their methodology relies on tallying a number of intangibles that cannot be objectively estimated: Censorship, self-censorship, legal framework, independence. These can barely be quantified and are in any case subject to a wide degree of interpretation based on one’s ideological proclivities; for instance, just how do you go about estimating the degree of self-censorship?

I have decided to strip out these elements and focus only on indicators that can be objectively measured, i.e. the numbers of killed and imprisoned journalists set against the size of the national journalistic pool. Using figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists, I tally the numbers of journalist murders from the past three years – to reflect the fact that journalist killings can have a chilling effect years into the future – and the numbers of imprisoned journalists imprisoned now multiplied by six, so that their aggregate weighting is twice that of journalist killings. The reason I do that is because truly authoritarian regimes typically have a tight clampdown on monopoly violence, including on the various independent criminal elements (e.g. drug cartels, rogue intelligence officers); as such, direct killings of journalists tends to be rare. On the other hand, due to the threat of imprisonment and other harassment, independent journalism is severely circumscribed if at all existent. But instead of just going with this figure, I further adjust it to the size of the national journalist pool, because – for obvious reasons – a few journalist killings in a country the size of India is tragic, but nonetheless qualitatively different from the same number of killings in a country with a far smaller population like Honduras where there is a far bigger chance those journalists would know each other. The resulting figure is the Journalism Security Index; a narrower (but far more objective) measure than the Press Freedom Index, which – by necessity – relies on fallible expert judgments on unquantifiable measures such as self-censorship and journalistic independence.

Scroll down to the bottom to see the full results of the Journalism Security Index 2012.

Some of the rankings will come as a surprise to many people, so let me address those. First, we see a few countries where press freedoms are certainly heavily circumscribed, such as Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Vietnam, get perfect scores. This reveals the major weakness of the index – it measures not so much press freedom as journalistic security (hence its name). Second, and tied in with this, it only measures the most severe things that can happen to a journalism, i.e. killing or imprisonment. It has no way of accounting for things such as Hungary’s new media laws, the rumored weekly meetings of Russia’s federal TV channel heads with Kremlin officials, or the 42 journalists and counting arrested at Occupy events in the US. Suffice to say that a score of zero on the JSI most certainly does not mean said country is an oasis of press freedom.

This is also not to mention that the CPJ has a fairly rigorous methodology for listing a journalist as imprisoned – it has to be political. For instance, while Turkey “only” has 7 journalists listed as imprisoned, other estimates put the number at more than 70. However, according to Yavuz Baydar, a similar methodology may give a figure of 17 imprisoned journalists in the UK for their part in the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Obviously, a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Third, there may be surprise that Russia is ranked somewhere in the middle, whereas it is near the bottom on most other indices of press freedom. The explanation is fairly simple. Russia does not currently have any imprisoned journalists by the CPJ’s reckoning, and whereas a total of four journalist deaths are recorded for the years 2009-2011, this is both a significant decrease on earlier years and not a catastrophic situation when set against its 143 million strong population (see Gordon Hahn’s Repression of Journalism in Russia in Comparative Perspective from December 2009) or – to be even fairer – the vast size of its journalistic pool, which at 102,300 newspaper journalists is the largest in the world.

On the converse, countries such as Bahrain, Syria, and Afghanistan do really badly because even a small number of journalist killings and imprisonments translate into very high scores because of the hugely circumscribed size of the journalistic pools in those countries. Some may dispute that Israel’s ranking is absurdly low. If so, please take it up with the CPJ. It lists 7 imprisoned journalists; now of them, 3 are under Hamas arrest, so I subtracted them from the Israeli total and gave them to Palestine. Nonetheless, that still leaves 4 Palestinian journalists that are under Israeli imprisonment, all of them without charge.

(In contrast, the sole Russian journalist listed as imprisoned in recent years was one Boris Stomakhin for “inciting hatred” and “making public calls for extremist activity”, writing things such as, “Let tens of new Chechen snipers take their positions in the mountain ridges and the city ruins and let hundreds, thousands of aggressors fall under righteous bullets! No mercy! Death to the Russian occupiers! … The Chechens have the full moral right to bomb everything they want in Russia.” One may dispute the ethics of imprisoning someone for what is, in the end, still an opinion; but one has to note that prosecutions take place in the UK (Samina Malik) and the US (Jubair Ahmad) for essentially equivalent activities).

Whereas countries like Brazil and Mexico have essentially free media, they are – as are Russia and much of the rest of the former Soviet republics – terrorized by the generally high background violence of their societies. In the former, this issue is particularly problematic, as Brazil has a much lower aggregate press pool than Russia; therefore, its three murders in the past three years exert more of a relative effect than Russia’s four.

Please make sure to note the caveats and methodological clarifications that follow below the following table.

Journalism Security Index 2012

Country Impr. Kill. #pop. JSI(p) #journ. JSI
1= Algeria 0 0 37.1 0.0 2,041 0.0
1= Argentina 0 0 40.1 0.0 1,444 0.0
1= Armenia 0 0 3.3 0.0 2,363 0.0
1= Australia 0 0 22.8 0.0 5,416 0.0
1= Bangladesh 0 0 142.3 0.0 2,846 0.0
1= Canada 0 0 34.6 0.0 5,000 0.0
1= Cuba 0 0 11.2 0.0 3,425 0.0
1= France 0 0 65.4 0.0 5,441 0.0
1= Georgia 0 0 4.5 0.0 3,222 0.0
1= Germany 0 0 81.8 0.0 26,000 0.0
1= Hungary 0 0 10.0 0.0 8,661 0.0
1= Italy 0 0 60.8 0.0 8,866 0.0
1= Japan 0 0 127.7 0.0 20,315 0.0
1= Korea 0 0 48.6 0.0 4,034 0.0
1= Poland 0 0 38.1 0.0 32,995 0.0
1= Portugal 0 0 10.6 0.0 4,071 0.0
1= Qatar 0 0 1.7 0.0 136 0.0
1= Saudi Arabia 0 0 27.1 0.0 2,168 0.0
1= Spain 0 0 46.2 0.0 6,745 0.0
1= Sweden 0 0 9.5 0.0 5,392 0.0
1= Ukraine 0 0 45.7 0.0 32,721 0.0
1= UK 0 0 62.3 0.0 13,437 0.0
1= USA 0 0 312.9 0.0 54,134 0.0
1= Vietnam 0 0 87.8 0.0 5,444 0.0
25 Russia 0 4 142.9 0.3 102,300 0.4
26 India 0 1 1,210.2 0.0 16,079 0.6
27 Belarus 0 1 9.5 1.1 6,802 1.5
28 Kazakhstan 1 1 16.7 4.2 11,957 1.7
29 Indonesia 0 4 237.6 0.2 13,634 2.9
30 Azerbaijan 1 1 9.1 7.7 6,516 3.1
31 China 27 0 1,339.7 1.2 82,849 3.3
32 Brazil 0 3 192.4 0.2 6,914 4.3
33 Thailand 1 3 65.9 1.4 7,644 5.2
34 Greece 0 1 10.8 0.9 1,577 6.3
35 Nigeria 0 4 48.3 0.8 6,148 6.5
36 Mexico 0 9 112.3 0.8 13,027 6.9
37 Uzbekistan 5 0 28.0 10.7 6,580 7.6
38 Kyrgyzstan 1 0 5.5 10.9 1,295 7.7
39 Israel 4 1 7.8 32.1 5,585 9.0
40 Peru 0 1 29.8 0.3 1,073 9.3
41 Venezuela 0 1 26.8 0.4 965 10.4
42 Turkey 8 1 74.7 6.6 8,652 10.4
43 Morocco 2 0 32.5 3.7 1,782 11.2
44 Colombia 0 2 46.4 0.4 1,670 12.0
45 Sudan 4 0 30.9 7.8 3,064 13.1
46 Egypt 2 2 81.5 1.7 2,608 15.3
47 Tunisia 0 1 10.7 0.9 589 17.0
48 Myanmar 12 0 48.3 14.9 2,898 41.4
49 Pakistan 0 15 178.6 0.8 3,572 42.0
50 Ethiopia 7 0 82.1 5.1 1,642 42.6
51 Palestine 3 0 4.2 42.9 700 42.9
52 Iran 42 1 76.1 33.2 8,828 48.7
53 Yemen 2 2 23.8 5.9 476 84.0
54 Philippines 0 37 94.0 3.9 4,000 92.5
55 Afghanistan 0 6 24.5 2.4 490 122.4
56 Iraq 0 14 32.1 4.4 1,027 136.3
57 Syria 8 2 21.4 23.4 685 146.0
58 Libya 1 5 6.4 17.2 205 293.0
59 Bahrain 1 2 1.2 66.7 96 312.5
60 Eritrea 28 0 5.4 311.1 108 2592.6

Methodological clarifications: Impr. figures taken from CPJ‘s 2011 Prison Census; Kill. figures taken from CPJ’s numbers of killed journalists from 2009 to 2011; #pop. taken from Wikipedia’s list of official statistics on national populations; #journ. taken from UN data on the numbers of journalists per country.

JSI(p) is the Journalism Security Index calculated only relative to the population; it is more accurate, in narrow terms, than the JSI calculated relative to numbers of journalists (see below why), but suffers from the fact that it underestimates the risks of working in very populous and poor countries where journalists are low as a share of the population and even a few killings can have a chilling effect on their general community.

JSI is the official Journalism Security Index, calculated by (1) tallying the numbers of journalist murders from 2009-2011 and the numbers of imprisoned journalists imprisoned in 2011 multiplied by six so that the aggregate weighting of every imprisoned journalist is twice that of a killed journalist, (2) dividing by the numbers of newspaper journalists in that country, and (3) multiplying that figure by 10,000 to get convenient numbers for the index.

There are two very important caveats to be made about the UN data on journalists. First, it only measures the numbers of newspaper journalists, not the total number of journalists and media workers. As such, it should be viewed as a rough proxy. In some regions, newspapers have a much higher profile relative to TV (e.g. East-Central Europe, Russia, Scandinavia); in others, it is the opposite (e.g. Latin America). Adjusting for this would, for example, narrow the gap between in the JSI between Russia and Brazil. Second, far from all countries have data; many of them are fairly important ones in terms of press freedom issues (e.g. Iran, Israel, Mexico, Bahrain). To fix this, I just extrapolated the per capita figures from other countries with similar literacy and socio-cultural profiles, e.g. I equalized Iran and Mexico with Turkey; Israel and Belarus with Russia; Bahrain with Qatar, and calculated their numbers of journalists by multiplying their population by their estimated journalists per capita figures. Needless to say, this is an extremely inexact method, and may be off by several factors. For that reason, countries with no concrete data from the UN source are marked in italics; note that for them, the JSI may be off by several factors (though most likely not by an order of magnitude).

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

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

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

The Magical Beard (16% fraud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About Limey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reichstag Is Burning Since 2002!

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

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

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

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

Trust Me On Arabs In Israel

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

Revealing The Real Israel

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous Curves (5%-6% fraud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churov’s Defense (minimal fraud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Percent of the vote

Percent without high-turnout polling stations

United Russia



Communist Party



A Just Russia









Patriots of Russia



Right Cause



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meteors of Mendacity (11% fraud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Size Matters, Baby

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

Questioning Russian Behavior

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

So Is It Time To Get The Barber?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Everything’s going badly in Russia. Medvedev’s reforms are failing. The economy isn’t growing. It is moving from authoritarianism to totalitarianism (in stark contrast to civilized Western countries), and the motto “We cannot live like this any longer!” once again becomes an article of faith in the land – or well, at least among “the blogs on LiveJournal” and “the sites of the top independent and opposition groups” (who are of course totally representative of Russian public opinion). Citizens are fleeing the country like rats from a sinking ship.

Anyhow, unlike Eugene Ivanov who argues that media coverage of Russia has improved of late, I think the Western punditocracy remains every bit as wrong, idiotic and venal on Russia as it always was, and in this post I’ll use the recent WSJ article “Why Are They Leaving?” by Julian Evans as my foil (it’s illustrated with soc-realist posters of the worker and collective farm girl harkening back to the Soviet era; excusez-moi for crashing the party, but WTF do they have to do with anything in a story about Russian emigration of all things???).

“Russia’s small but educated middle-class is deserting the mother country in search of opportunities and freedoms elsewhere…” Thus from the get go the author makes the strong impression – and one that is decisively reinforced throughout the rest of the article – that Russia has a big emigration problem that is draining it of brains and talent. But let’s consult the statistics (as opposed to anecdotal evidence and online polls at Novaya Gazeta asking Russians whether they want to emigrate; yes, Mr. Evans cites the online readership of a paper written by liberal ideologues in support of his argument). Too bad for Mr. Evans, the statistics reveal his article for the sham it really is.

First off the bat, it is worth pointing out that Russia has a positive net migration rate. Far more people are going in than going out. This I’m sure will come as a shock to mindless consumers of Western media – conditioned as they are to think of Russia as a bleak wasteland full of starving nuclear scientists, hot girls wanting to score with rich British guys, and crooks desperate to park their ill-gotten assets into a Swiss bank account and get a second citizenship – but it is true nonetheless. Now granted this very minor factoid isn’t of direct relevance to the article, which is after all concerned about the disillusionment of Russia’s middle class and its growing flight abroad; nonetheless, failing to mention this inconvenient fact that many people in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Ukraine are willing to go Russia not even once is misleading and hints at an agenda.

But the far more damning evidence is that even as regards those “civilized” countries that Russians have traditionally been emigrating to – the biggest recipient nations of Russians post-1991 were Germany, the US, and Israel – the flow of Russian emigrants had all but dried up by 2008. The overall net numbers of Russian emigrants to the world outside the post-Soviet space has been shrinking steadily from 1999, when it was at -72,000, falling to -26,000 in 2005 and just a few thousands by the late 2000′s. According to the Rosstat figures, from 2000 to 2010, the migration balance improved as follows for the five biggest host countries for Russian emigrants during that decade: Germany from -38,700 to -1,100; the US from -4,300 to -807; Israel from -7,900 to -133; Finland from -1,100 to -339; and Canada from -800 to -387. In the first four months of 2011, the migration balance actually turned positive relative to Germany and Israel (as it has already been for several years with another developed country, Greece). The graph below illustrates these trends.

[Click to enlarge. Stats for 2011 are annualized based on Jan-Apr.]

Julian Evans can cite any number of anecdotes he wants about how Russian businessmen are fleeing to Venezuela because “there are more opportunities to develop there”, or about the “young educated people” (because, of course, youth and education are synonymous with wanting to leave Russia) and “strongest and most gifted people” (quoting liberal ideologue Dmitry Oreshkin at Novaya Gazeta, 62.5% of whose online readership want to leave Russia) who can’t wait to set off for Notting Hill because of the “insecurity of property rights” in Russia. But his elitist fetish with the middle classes (that supposedly hate Putin’s Russia) blinds him and by extension his readers to the larger reality, which is that emigration is very small and continues to decrease into this year. The actual statistics flatly contradict his ramblings, and as such Julian Evans remains about as credible as… well, the same hack who six years ago was expounding on the “green Stalinist light” in Gleb Pavlovsky’s office.

Now you may at this point want to rejoinder… but AK, aren’t you a big fan of opinion polls? Didn’t you just a few days ago try to use them to argue that Russian elections aren’t rigged? And don’t Levada’s opinion polls indicate that quite a lot of Russians really do want to emigrate – 22% of them as of May 2011, up from 13% in 2009 – thus confirming Evans’ and Oreshkin’s arguments? Well, just as there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, there are opinion polls, and then there are opinion polls. Some signify more than others. For instance, in the aftermath of Bush’s election win in 2004, some Americans loudly declared they were fed up with it all and were ready to hop over the border to Canada… but when the time came to walk the walk (as opposed to talk the talk), the migration flows to Canada didn’t change in any perceptible way. That’s because just being fed up with domestic politics – that is what Evans alleges is the main reason for the “educated middle-class deserting the mother country” – is, in most cases, a frivolous reason for making a life-changing decision such as emigration, and while many might think about it in their idle moments very few follow through on it.

If you don’t believe me, let’s return to the opinion polls again. Back in 2006, The Daily Mail reported that 13% of Britons wanted to leave the UK in the near future (as you may know there has NOT been a massive flood of British hordes out of the island since, my own case and that of random drunken revelers in Prague regardless). By 2010 this figure had leaped up to 33% – higher than the percentage of Russians saying they want to leave now, BTW (and that’s despite those awesome “rule of law” and “civilized values” things that Russian liberals like to harp on about when it comes to any Anglo-Saxon country) – but nonetheless, we still see no mass exodus from Albion. Why the discrepancy? Return to that Levada poll and look at the breakdown of answers more closely. 22% of Russians may be thinking of leaving, but only 1% are actually packing their bags.

And this brings us into what should be the main starting point of any discussion about the future of Russian emigration: why would they want to? All this currently fashionable twaddle about property rights or rule of law being a major driver isn’t convincing; it’s certainly no worse than it was in previous years, and if anything is showing signs of improvement. Why would the middle-class (which is as happy as any other social group with Putin) decide to take a hike right now? Let’s be serious. In previous years, there were only two main groups of emigrants: (1) the vast majority were ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Volga Germans, returning to their national homelands; (2) educated professionals from academia who were earning breadcrumbs from Russian academic institutions with no opportunities for original research. Almost all those who would ever emigrate from the first group have already done so (see the vast decrease in emigration to Israel and Germany). Meanwhile, anybody who has been following the issue will know that the salaries of state workers have been increasing at rapid rates in recent years, including those of academics; true, the increases were from a very low base and absolute salaries remain far lower than in fully developed countries, however if the emigration statistics are anything to go by (and with the help of Russia’s lower relative prices) salaries have now reached a level that allows for a rough balance between immigrants and emigrants. In other words, the situation with Russian academia vis-à-vis the world now largely resembles that those prevailing between developed nations – scientists are free to have scientific exchanges, but with the vast majority of researchers returning to their home countries after a stay of several months or years.

PS. More details here: Гуд бай, Америка: Эмиграция из России в США достигла минимума.

Also see Nikolai Starikov’s Как создаются либеральные мифы for an account of how liberals used misquotes to create the impression that Russia is facing a second emigration wave.

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

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

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

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

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

Should we wait for radical change in Afghanistan?

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

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

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

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

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

The Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz.

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

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

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

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

Should we expect a further strengthening of sanctions against Iran?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Map of Iran’s ethnicities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Marat Kunaev.

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

Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARD Talk* with Peter Lavelle

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


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?


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”?


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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As was inevitable, the commentary on Israel’s raid / high seas piracy / legal blockade enforcement / call-it-what-you-will has degenerated into a polarized flame-war between the blind and the deaf, which although very entertaining is also pretty useless*. By far the best analytical article on this issue I’ve found that really cuts through the partisan BS is The Limits of Public Opinion: Arabs, Israelis and the Strategic Balance, a free Stratfor article by George Friedman**.

The most fundamental point is that the current situation suits everyone just fine. The Arab regimes (and the Palestinians themselves) are weak and disunited and no longer represent the strategic threat to Israel that they did during the Cold War. Israel’s actions give them a chance to vent their fury to satiate the “Arab street”, but it is not in their interests to push the envelope any further. In turn, Israel is big enough to accept the verbal lashing in return for keeping its enforcement of the Gaza blockade credible. However, this Flotilla Affair may also presage much more significant long-term developments.

Last week’s events off the coast of Israel continue to resonate. Turkish-Israeli relations have not quite collapsed since then but are at their lowest level since Israel’s founding. U.S.-Israeli tensions have emerged, and European hostility toward Israel continues to intensify. The question has now become whether substantial consequences will follow from the incident. …

The most significant threat to Israel would, of course, be military. International criticism is not without significance, but nations do not change direction absent direct threats to their interests. But powers outside the region are unlikely to exert military power against Israel, and even significant economic or political sanctions are unlikely to happen. Apart from the desire of outside powers to limit their involvement, this is rooted in the fact that significant actions are unlikely from inside the region either.

The first generations of Israelis lived under the threat of conventional military defeat by neighboring countries. More recent generations still faced threats, but not this one. Israel is operating in an advantageous strategic context save for the arena of public opinion and diplomatic relations and the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. All of these issues are significant, but none is as immediate a threat as the specter of a defeat in conventional warfare had been. Israel’s regional enemies are so profoundly divided among themselves and have such divergent relations with Israel that an effective coalition against Israel does not exist — and is unlikely to arise in the near future.

Given this, the probability of an effective, as opposed to rhetorical, shift in the behavior of powers outside the region is unlikely. At every level, Israel’s Arab neighbors are incapable of forming even a partial coalition against Israel. Israel is not forced to calibrate its actions with an eye toward regional consequences, explaining Israel’s willingness to accept broad international condemnation.

Now for more detail on the internal Palestinian divisions between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

To begin to understand how deeply the Arabs are split, simply consider the split among the Palestinians themselves. They are currently divided between two very different and hostile factions. On one side is Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. On the other side is Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip. Aside from the geographic division of the Palestinian territories — which causes the Palestinians to behave almost as if they comprised two separate and hostile countries — the two groups have profoundly different ideologies.

Fatah arose from the secular, socialist, Arab-nationalist and militarist movement of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s. … Hamas arose from the Islamist movement. It was driven by religious motivations quite alien from Fatah and hostile to it.

Hamas and Fatah are playing a zero-sum game. Given their inability to form a coalition and their mutual desire for the other to fail, a victory for one is a defeat for the other. … Though revolutionary movements frequently are torn by sectarianism, these divisions are so deep that even without Israeli manipulation, the threat the Palestinians pose to the Israelis is diminished. With manipulation, the Israelis can pit Fatah against Hamas.

And on why the Arab elites don’t really care that much for Palestinians, despite their rhetoric.

The split within the Palestinians is also reflected in divergent opinions among what used to be called the confrontation states surrounding Israel — Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Egypt, for example, is directly hostile to Hamas, a religious movement amid a sea of essentially secular Arab states. Hamas’ roots are in Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian state has historically considered its main domestic threat. … For this and other reasons, Egypt has maintained its own blockade of Gaza. Egypt is much closer to Fatah, whose ideology derives from Egyptian secularism, and for this reason, Hamas deeply distrusts Cairo.

Jordan views Fatah with deep distrust. In 1970, Fatah under Arafat tried to stage a revolution against the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. … The idea of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank unsettles the Hashemite regime, as Jordan’s population is mostly Palestinian. Meanwhile, Hamas with its Islamist ideology worries Jordan, which has had its own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. …

Syria is far more interested in Lebanon than it is in the Palestinians. Its co-sponsorship (along with Iran) of Hezbollah has more to do with Syria’s desire to dominate Lebanon than it does with Hezbollah as an anti-Israeli force. Indeed, whenever fighting breaks out between Hezbollah and Israel, the Syrians get nervous and their tensions with Iran increase. And of course, while Hezbollah is anti-Israeli, it is not a Palestinian movement. It is a Lebanese Shiite movement. … So Syria is playing a side game with an anti-Israeli movement that isn’t Palestinian, while also maintaining relations with both factions of the Palestinian movement.

… the Saudis and other Arabian Peninsula regimes remember the threat that Nasser and the PLO posed to their regimes. … And while the Iranians would love to have influence over the Palestinians, Tehran is more than 1,000 miles away. … But Fatah doesn’t trust the Iranians, and Hamas, though a religious movement, is Sunni while Iran is Shiite. Hamas and the Iranians may cooperate on some tactical issues, but they do not share the same vision.

And now on why Israel feels it has a free hand in the short-term to carry out what it views as its optimal security policy.

Given this environment, it is extremely difficult to translate hostility to Israeli policies in Europe and other areas into meaningful levers against Israel. Under these circumstances, the Israelis see the consequences of actions that excite hostility toward Israel from the Arabs and the rest of the world as less dangerous than losing control of Gaza. The more independent Gaza becomes, the greater the threat it poses to Israel. The suppression of Gaza is much safer and is something Fatah ultimately supports, Egypt participates in, Jordan is relieved by and Syria is ultimately indifferent to.

Nations base their actions on risks and rewards. The configuration of the Palestinians and Arabs rewards Israeli assertiveness and provides few rewards for caution. The Israelis do not see global hostility toward Israel translating into a meaningful threat because the Arab reality cancels it out. Therefore, relieving pressure on Hamas makes no sense to the Israelis. Doing so would be as likely to alienate Fatah and Egypt as it would to satisfy the Swedes, for example. As Israel has less interest in the Swedes than in Egypt and Fatah, it proceeds as it has.

A single point sums up the story of Israel and the Gaza blockade-runners: Not one Egyptian aircraft threatened the Israeli naval vessels, nor did any Syrian warship approach the intercept point. The Israelis could be certain of complete command of the sea and air without challenge. And this underscores how the Arab countries no longer have a military force that can challenge the Israelis, nor the will nor interest to acquire one. Where Egyptian and Syrian forces posed a profound threat to Israeli forces in 1973, no such threat exists now. Israel has a completely free hand in the region militarily; it does not have to take into account military counteraction. The threat posed by intifada, suicide bombers, rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, and Hezbollah fighters is real, but it does not threaten the survival of Israel the way the threat from Egypt and Syria once did (and the Israelis see actions like the Gaza blockade as actually reducing the threat of intifada, suicide bombers and rockets). Non-state actors simply lack the force needed to reach this threshold. When we search for the reasons behind Israeli actions, it is this singular military fact that explains Israeli decision-making.

And while the break between Turkey and Israel is real, Turkey alone cannot bring significant pressure to bear on Israel beyond the sphere of public opinion and diplomacy because of the profound divisions in the region. Turkey has the option to reduce or end cooperation with Israel, but it does not have potential allies in the Arab world it would need against Israel. Israel therefore feels buffered against the Turkish reaction. Though its relationship with Turkey is significant to Israel, it is clearly not significant enough for Israel to give in on the blockade and accept the risks from Gaza.

At present, Israel takes the same view of the United States. While the United States became essential to Israeli security after 1967, Israel is far less dependent on the United States today. The quantity of aid the United States supplies Israel has shrunk in significance as the Israeli economy has grown. In the long run, a split with the United States would be significant, but interestingly, in the short run, the Israelis would be able to function quite effectively.

This is my major quibble with this article. I wouldn’t be so sanguine about the longer term consequences of this Israeli-Turkish spat. While Douglas Muir would interpret Erdogan’s grandiose theatrics as a function of internal Turkish politics, this does not mean it is not part of a larger “declaration of what Turkish identity has become”, as suggested by commentator Yigit Karabak. Mubarak might be risk-averse and friendly with Israel, but he is getting old and his successors will probably be more adventurous and in sync with Egyptian national sentiment (which is anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian).

In the meantime, the Turkish economy is growing, its military is rapidly modernizing and it is expanding its influence in the Near East. Turkey is now (arguably) already conventionally superior to Israel. It is also a de facto nuclear power. There are 90 US nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, of which 40 are slated to pass unto Turkish control if it is ever attacked by non-NATO nukes. Though it is true that the US has recently began to make noises about withdrawing its nukes from Turkey and Europe, the Turks have also recently – and perhaps not entirely coincidentally – made deals with Russia about massively expanding its nuclear power capacity. Now I’m not saying that Turkey’s sole or even main goal here is to provide a justification for pursuit of nuclear weapons, as argued in The Real Israeli Raid Fallout: Turkey with a Bomb? by Thomas Barnett***. Nonetheless, in a region with a nuclearizing Iran and intense all-round rivalries, it is a possibility that should not be immediately dismissed.

What emerges is a disquieting prospect for Israeli strategists, one in which Turks throw them down the river in their quest for regional dominance while successfully staying the moral high ground and mobilizing the Arab states in their support.

Israel does, however, face this strategic problem: In the short run, it has freedom of action, but its actions could change the strategic framework in which it operates over the long run. The most significant threat to Israel is not world opinion; though not trivial, world opinion is not decisive. The threat to Israel is that its actions will generate forces in the Arab world that eventually change the balance of power. The politico-military consequences of public opinion is the key question, and it is in this context that Israel must evaluate its split with Turkey.

The most important change for Israel would not be unity among the Palestinians, but a shift in Egyptian policy back toward the position it held prior to Camp David. Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab world, the largest country and formerly the driving force behind Arab unity. It was the power Israel feared above all others. But Egypt under Mubarak has shifted its stance versus the Palestinians, and far more important, allowed Egypt’s military capability to atrophy.

Should Mubarak’s successor choose to align with these forces and move to rebuild Egypt’s military capability, however, Israel would face a very different regional equation. A hostile Turkey aligned with Egypt could speed Egyptian military recovery and create a significant threat to Israel. Turkish sponsorship of Syrian military expansion would increase the pressure further. Imagine a world in which the Egyptians, Syrians and Turks formed a coalition that revived the Arab threat to Israel and the United States returned to its position of the 1950s when it did not materially support Israel, and it becomes clear that Turkey’s emerging power combined with a political shift in the Arab world could represent a profound danger to Israel.

… The Israelis can’t dismiss the threat that its actions could trigger political processes that cause these countries to revert to prior behavior. … It is remarkable how rapidly military capabilities can revive: Recall that the Egyptian army was shattered in 1967, but by 1973 was able to mount an offensive that frightened Israel quite a bit.

The Israelis have the upper hand in the short term. What they must calculate is whether they will retain the upper hand if they continue on their course. Division in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians, cannot disappear overnight, nor can it quickly generate a strategic military threat. But the current configuration of the Arab world is not fixed. Therefore, defusing the current crisis would seem to be a long-term strategic necessity for Israel. [AK: But defusing the crisis is not in the Turks' interests].

Israel’s actions have generated shifts in public opinion and diplomacy regionally and globally. The Israelis are calculating that these actions will not generate a long-term shift in the strategic posture of the Arab world. If they are wrong about this, recent actions will have been a significant strategic error. If they are right, then this is simply another passing incident. …

* I’ve also gotten some pretty hilarious email feedback about my post on The Geopolitics of Israel vs. Flotilla in which I got called both a “antisimite in objectivist [you mean objective?] apeasement cloth” [sic] and a Zionist extremist. I guess that’s what you get for stepping into this debate, it is every bit as binaried as the Russophile vs. Russophobe one and ten times as vitriolic.

** Yes, I know, Stratfor is a varied quality. Some of their analyses are downright loony, like the nonsense about Poland or Mexico becoming superpowers. But occasionally they are right on the ball (see 1, 2). This time it is one of those latter cases.

*** I would also note that in recent weeks Turkey, along with Brazil, announced a deal with Iran under which it would send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad and voted against the sanctions against Iran on offensive weaponry. In practice this amounts to tacit acceptance of Iran’s right to have nuclear weapons (since even if Iran sent some of its LEU abroad it still thought to have enough to build at least one nuclear weapon). Now Brazil is far away… but why on Earth would Turkey accept a nuclear Iran? (Haven’t the civilizations on the Anatolian and Persian plateaus been in almost permanent conflict with each other from ancient times through the struggles between the Ottomans and the Sassanids?)

Here is my wacky theory. Turkey believes that Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran. The Israelis have said as much. Eventually it could come to an Israeli or US-Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear capabilities, followed by incredibly damaging fallout. The US and Israel will become completely delegitimized in the lands of Islam. The ground will be cleared for Turkey to fill in this space, the Arab rulers either following in its wake or being marginalized or overthrown. Three birds with one stone. Iran out as a regional power – its military will have been decimated should Israel and the US launch serious strikes against its nuclear capabilities and its regime internally discredited – bringing to the fore Azeri (Turkish) separatism. The US influence sidelined out of the region as the resulting oil shock ripples through its debt-loaded economy. Third, this shock and resulting siege mentality may finally spur on the Arabs to recover a united front towards Israel, at which point a Turkey (with latent nuclear capabilities) may offer Israel a deal in which it accepts becoming a client state in exchange for security guarantees.

(Of course, causal chains work in various ways. Fear of exactly this scenario may explain why Israel will not attack Iran after all; perhaps the Israelis consider it better to manage their way though a deteriorated balance of power in the Middle East rather than face the specter of a far superior hegemon in Turkey. And this also, in turn, may explain why the Iranians in turn can feel so confident in getting away with the provocations they do. And why the Americans may be, contrary to all conventional wisdom, secretly seeking some kind of grand bargain with Iran).

PS. This footnote is almost becoming a post in its own right. I’ll probably expand on it a later post.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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So given that it’s the only game in town, let’s start provocative? The only group who behaved rationally are the Israeli commandos and the Americans. And perhaps the Turkish government.

The Israeli position on the Gaza blockade is understandable (which is not to say optimal). The Palestinians elected Hamas, a militant group to Israel that lobs rockets at them and talks of driving it into the sea – as well as being seen as a defender of and social services provider to the Palestinian people, which accounts for its domestic popularity. Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place. How to dislodge Hamas from power? And how to appease the settler and nationalist lobbies? And do it without attracting (too much) international opprobrium. Some kind of blockade begins to seem like an eminently reasonable idea.

Maintaining this blockade required that it be credibly enforced. By international conventions on the laws of the seas, Israel was well within her rights to conduct a stop and search on the flotilla prior to its embarkation to Gaza. But how stupid do you have to be to do this as an armed boarding in international waters? Now even lawyers can’t defend you, only ideologues are left.

Some of the peace activists and so forth on the ship were idealists, but a large number were clearly fanatics. Sorry, but if you bring knives and iron bars to a gunfight with IDF commandos, you richly deserve your Darwin’s Award. The reaction of the commandos was understandable – it was fire or be lynched. But the blowback, in this age of live Internet feeds and Facebook and Twitter, was both inevitable and inevitably against Israel’s interests. Europeans already hold negative opinions on Israel and need little cause to be reinforced in their views of its badness, and even sentiment in the US may shift towards a plague-on-both-your-houses position.

So Israel screwed up from the get go. Real story – bunch of angry young men attacked IDF soldiers who were reluctant to fire, but eventually had to in order to avoid getting killed. Media story – Israeli pirates assaulted and murdered 9 good-meaning civilians and confiscated their property. Mission accomplished for the anti-Israel propagandists. Total fail for the IDF.

True, they’re somewhat responsive – the IDF spokesperson is busy on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, disseminating material like this video. But even their efforts seem to be subpar, even ham-fisted. Said video purports to show “Weapons Found on the Flotilla Ship Mavi Marmara Used by Activists Against IDF Soldiers”. But if you have a look at it, the only weapons there seem appear to be things like hammers and knifes and machetes and the like – not exactly national security threats to Israel. I mean really, Israel, you’ve seized the boats. What’s so hard about simply “discovering” crates packed full of assault weapons and explosives on the ship? The “Freedom Flotilla” propagandists aren’t afraid to play dirty with information; why can’t you be at least equally ruthless about it?

The United States is stuck in a bind. Israel is a vital geopolitical ally, its bridgehead to the oil-rich Middle East. It can’t throw it down the river. But nor can it really defend it too vigorously, since other allies and semi-allies – the Europeans and Turks – have condemned the action. Hence Obama’s position of ambiguity on the issue is understandable, and the least politically damaging of all possible actions. (It also happens to be the most truthful position).

Finally, the one clear winner in this mess is Turkey. First, using the people on the flotilla as its pawns, Turkey massively raised its prestige in the Muslim world by portraying itself as a defender of the Palestinians (and taking this mantle from regional competitor Iran). Of course, the Turkish state couldn’t care less for the Palestinians or human rights – as is true of every single other Middle East state – but it does care for its image amongst the Arabs, especially given that European rejection and Russian reassertion in the Caucasus has left the Fertile Crescent as its only remaining path for expansion in the near future.

Second, this has given Turkey a convenient excuse to freeze relations with Israel, with loud proclamations about Israeli barbarism, the ordering of Israelis out of Turkey, the cancelling of joint military exercises, and talk of providing the next aid with a military escort. But beneath the surface, things remain more placid – for instance, Turkey still expects Israel to deliver drones. And this attitude is not surprising, since the balance of power between Turkey and Israel has shifted to the former since the end of the Cold War.

During the 1960′s-70′s, Turkey had to contend with a powerful Soviet Union and its high armed client regimes in Syria and Iraq; a close relationship with Israel made manifest sense for both. But the Syrian military is now a shadow of its former self; Iraq is a non-player; and Turkey has reached a temporary accommodation with Russia, freeing itself to pursue its interests in a neo-Ottoman direction. Hence, unshackling itself from being associated to the West or to Israel is important to the success of Turkey’s larger geopolitical ambitions to becoming a hegemon in the Near East (a trend which must bring some disquiet to Israeli strategists).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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War is the ultimate crucible where ideas, theories, etc, prove their worth based on outcomes. Russia’s brilliant performance in Georgia, documented by uncompromisable UPI military analyst Martin Seiff, demolished the grounds for the pessimism espoused by the likes of Pavel Felgenhauer or Aleksandr Golts regarding Russia’s real military strength.

The mini-war between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia is less than six days old at the time of writing, but many tactical weapons system and strategic lessons are already emerging from it.

First, the Russians have not repeated the mistake the Israelis made in their abortive attempts to expel Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God, from southern Lebanon in July 2006. They did not rely on air power alone to rout their enemies, even though the Georgian army was not dug in with anything like the preparation that Hezbollah had invested in its underground positions to withstand the Israeli air force.

And where the Israelis sent just a few thousand ground troops into southern Lebanon, the Russians boldly sent in a far larger ground force into Georgia: the 58th Russian Army of the North Caucasus Military District backed by the formidable 76th Airborne “Pskov” Division. Unlike hapless Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2006, the Russians applied the classic Carl von Clausewitz principle of concentration of force against their enemy.

The Russians, like the Israelis in southern Lebanon in 2006, did not hesitate to bomb and shell inhabited areas when they felt the tactical conditions required it, but they proved far more aggressive and successful in their incursions by tank columns.

Second, although the Georgian army had quite a formidable force on paper, it could not stand up against major military formations of one of the world’s leading armies.

Third, this reinforces a broader lesson that has been taught repeatedly in the conflicts of the past 17 years since the 1991 First Gulf War: Postage-stamp-size countries like Georgia or even small but supposedly more formidable ones like Iraq are usually no match for a superpower or a major regional nation. The U.S. armed forces blasted the Iraqi army to smithereens in about a week of combat when it was numerically the fourth- or fifth-largest manned force in the world in 1991 and rolled all the way to Baghdad with only around 150,000 troops in 2003.

Fourth, any major power like the United States, India, China or Russia will always be far more formidable militarily when its political leaders and tactical commanders are not afraid to sustain significant levels of casualties to achieve their tactical objectives…

Fifth, the remarkably widespread anti-Russian prejudice by many American pundits and supposed military experts proved to be simplistic ignorance: In any war, no army performs with 100 percent efficiency and brilliance. Most armies and commanders are pleased to get the job done at all, however messily. What matters is being at least marginally better trained, motivated and rapidly moving than the enemy.

The Russian forces in the current conflict have been a lot better than that. They have been up against a weak opponent, but like the U.S. army in both Gulf wars, they are proving themselves vastly superior to their opposition.

Sixth, the Russian army is far better than the forces that bungled their initial drive into Chechnya in 1994, or even that started the Second Chechen War in 1999. The vast investments that current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poured into the Russian armed forces during his two four-year terms as president did not vanish down a black hole. In terms of training, tactical coordination, boosting morale and overall efficiency, they clearly made a significant impact.

None of these factors, however, explains why the Georgian armed forces, which have enjoyed significant U.S. investment over the past year and more, have performed so badly.

While the Russian Army’s performance in the Georgia peacekeeping mission was laudable, the Navy has received less attention. One naval blogger is determined to set the record straight.

While most of the world has focused primarily on the ground conflict in Georgia, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has been active off the coast. By now, you may have heard some isolated reports — 4000 troops landed by sea at Ochamchire, a battle resulting in a Georgian coast guard ship sunk, and even claims by Georgia of minefields laid off the Georgian coast. Details have been hard to come by. But, piecing together the analysis and reporting, one can get a picture of some of these events.

While the speed of the Russian Army’s response grabbed the attention of western observers, the fast response by the Russian Navy has been quite remarkable, too. The war started on Friday August 8th; the Black Sea Fleet was reported to arrive off the coast of Georgia on Saturday August 9th. That’s pretty impressive, considering it is about 400 nautical miles from Sevastopol to Ochamchire. While the Moskva, Smetlivy, Muromets, and Aleksandrovets can make good speed and make the trip quickly, those ships sailed from Sevastopol with an assortment of support vessels that could only make 12-16 knots, at best. Simple math reveals that would make it a 25 hour trip, meaning the ships would have had to put to sea almost immediately after the fighting began. For any fleet to deploy that quickly is extraordinary readiness.

Then, on the early morning of August 10th, there was a battle at sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was engaged by four Georgian coast guard vessels, while conducting landing operations in Ochamchire. The Russians claimed to sink one ship, and the day after the battle the Moskva was reported to be in the Russian port of Novorossiysk.

New details have emerged that shed a bit of light on the action. A sailor interviewed in the Sevastopol on Wednesday gave the local press his recollection of the action. Here’s my amateur translation:

“We took up station guarding the opposed landing on the Abkhaz shore when all of a sudden four high speed targets were detected. We sent out an IFF signal and the targets didn’t react. Receiving a command from the flagship, we got into formation and right at that moment the unidentified targets opened fire on the ship formation and flagship. The cruiser was damaged and a small fire broke out aboard. Then, fearing for seaworthiness, the flagship withdrew from the firing area.” – the sailor said.

“Right then the small missile boats clearly fired,” the participant continued. “Taking up position, our MRK launched a “Malakhit” (SS-N-9) anti-surface missile, which literally cut the lead ship, the Tbilisi, to ribbons. After that, fire was shifted to the rest of the Georgian ships. Another ship was damaged, we couldn’t finish it off, allowing it to leave the scene under its own power.”

It’s a bit of a questionable story. However, the sailor interviewed was appraently from the MRK Mirazh (617, project 12341, NATO – Nanuchka III). Why does that matter? Because the MRK Mirazh is the ship Russia has credited with the attack. Her Captain, Ivan Dubik, was reported to be in the Kremlin on Thursday accepting congratulations.

Some of the details of the sailor’s story are slightly inaccurate — call it fog of war. The Georgian ship sunk was not the Tbilisi, as the sailor suggests. Rather it was the Georgian patrol boat P-21 Georgy Toreli. A night battle in the littoral, the Georgians armed only with guns, yet the little flotilla of four was able to get in close to Moskva and start a little fire. Covering its withdraw, the Mirazh missile boat is reported to have sunk the ship in only 90 seconds in what was reported as 300 meters of water.

According to Al Jazeera, the Coast Guard base in Poti was attacked with artillery on Wednesday after the cease-fire, destroying the rest of the coast guard ships in port. The Tbilisi, which was reported to be in bad condition prior to the war, was sunk in that attack.

As for the 4000 troops? All indications are the Russian Navy reportedly used three amphibious ships to ferry the 4000 paratroopers from Novorossiysk– reportedly without vehicles. Recent analysis tends to imply the vehicles came separately — by rail.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Georgia, Israel, Military 
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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.