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I’m not a big fan of analyzing Russian politics via “Kremlin clans”. Estimating their relative power seems to involve mostly tea leaf reading, and in any case the entire exercise is of dubious predictive value. Even the exact compositions and identities of the various clans differ from analyst to analyst! Besides, clans are hardly unique to Russia; every US President seems to bring over some of his friends and cronies, but do we spend much time going over their histories and connections? For the most part, no.

That said, the investigative magazine Russian Reporter (which, by and by, happened to be Assange’s Russian partner in Cablegate) has compiled what is easily the most impressive research – at least visually and methodologically – on the Kremlin clans. Their efforts are translated below.

The Anti-Clan Revolution

Viktar Dziatlikovich, Kristina Khutsishvili, Philip Chapkovsky

The new Cabinet has been rid of clannishness, but at the same time it no longer has competing centers of influence. These are the main conclusions that can be drawn after studying its composition using a special technique developed by “Russian Reporter”, which takes into account officials’ personal ties before their assumption of one or another post.

A detailed study of the Kremlin clans was published by “Russian Reporter” in Issue 35 of 2011. Back then the study of these “social connections” between Russian bureaucrats allowed us, essentially, to prove that Russia is governed by a more or less wide circle of centered around Vladimir Putin, the so-called St.-Petersburg clan – a close group of people, who have long been close friends with each other. Applying the same method to the Dmitry Medvedev government, we find striking differences. One can now say, that the principles by which the Cabinet is formed have changed cardinally.

The Clan is Compressed

The government of 2011 formed a maximally interconnected network. Generally speaking, even before their appointment, everyone was already linked to each other (studied or worked together, were friends, interacted with each other). On the one hand, this consolidation worked to strengthen the power structure; on the other hand, it blocked the process of elites renewal. An analogous network for the new government would be substantially thinner, in fact it would not be a network at all but its relics. Neutral figures, who were not tied to any of their current colleagues before their work in government, are now in the vast majority. The old schematics are compressed by new forces. There has been a renewal and a rejuvenation (the youngest Minister is 29 years old) of the elites, albeit a shell of the old network still remains. But the size of this shell no longer allowed us to talk of the clannish characteristic of government. Consequently, it is hard to criticize the new government: It is indeed relatively young, there was in fact a rotation of the elites, and that it has “many respectable people” say both politologists, and businessmen.

The Dissipation of Centers of Power

In the past year, in comparing the governments of the years 2011 and 2000, we noted that the Cabinet of the early Noughties had many more centers of power.

In the government of Vladimir Putin, which has now receded into history, there remained only two such centers of power: Putin’s own group, and the “reforming” group of Kudrin and Chubais. After Alexey Kudrin’s firing, there was no point in expecting the formation of an alternative center of power within the new Cabinet. And so it wasn’t.

Now there is only one center of influence – Dmitry Medvedev, and there can be no alternatives by definition. But on our graph Medvedev isn’t in the center. Why? According to our methodology, the person at the center of the graph, is the one with the maximum quantity of connections. And that person remains Putin. He still has more connections than Medvedev, even despite the fact that we didn’t include in our study those people who no longer nominally hold high positions either in government nor in the Presidential Administration, but who will clearly continue to exercise influence over Putin, and thus too over the policies of the Cabinet – e.g., Tatyana Golikova and Andrey Fursenko.

That is, the second center of influence is located outside the government. His strength doesn’t only accrue from those people we named, but also those who are not even formally connected with the Presidential Administration and government. So, Igor Sechin, stepping down as director of Rosneft, will almost certainly retain influence over policy making on the national energy industry.

It is in this kind of sense that the current power schematics make trigger a low-intensity conflict. It may be assumed that the “clan” will try to continue influencing decision making, and the main question consists of the extent to which Medvedev’s government will be able to establish itself as an independent center of decision making.

***

A few of my own observations and opinions.

(1) This network based approach to analyzing Kremlin clans is definitely a lot more “scientific” than the seemingly unsystematic, ad hoc approach favored by Pribylovsky and the others (eXile, Stratfor). Most importantly, it makes sense (face validity). In the early Noughties, there were many jostling clans; a carry-over from the 1990′s, redolent of Ukraine; patently clientelistic, and no doubt fostering a lot of corruption. 2011 then could be seen as the peak of the so-called Power Vertical, in which all the clans got centered around Putin. 2012 represents a cardinally new phase that is technocratic, an assessment a person with such polarly opposite views to mine such as Anders Aslund can agree with.

(2) Ironically, judging by RR’s model, President Putin in 2012 is nowhere near as clearly dominant as PM Putin in 2011. Is this part of the modernization agenda? A mistake? A compromise with Medvedev for his agreeing not to run for a second term? Or is this “over analysis”? Another interesting thing of note is that whereas Kudrin was second dog in 2011 (as opposed to Sechin, in Pribylovsky’s version) while Medvedev was nothing special, as of 2012 Medvedev is rather dominantly second. I wonder to what extent this could account for Kudrin’s scandalous spat with Medvedev once Putin endorse the latter for the Presidency. Also interesting to notice that very few of the people tied to Kudrin survived into the 2012 government relative to Putin’s and Medvedev’s.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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One thing that an observer of Russian politics can’t help noticing is the sheer impossibility of appeasing the Russian liberals. Here are two recent exhibits from the Moscow Times.

First, coming to the end of his Presidency, Medvedev pardoned some people in a list of political prisoners presented by the non-systemic opposition a few months ago. The choice of pardons seem justified on grounds of reason and proportionality although it is unclear to what extent, say, someone convicted to three years in prison for selling 70g of marijuana qualifies as a political prisoner (if that was a criterion for political repression, I wonder how many “political prisoners” are currently rotting in US jails?).

But predictably enough the liberals are far more concerned with Medvedev’s refusal to pardon Khodorkovsky without at least first receiving a petition requesting a pardon from the imprisoned. Of course one would also think that withholding many billions of dollars from the tax authorities and defrauding minority shareholders – as repeatedly established by not only the Russian justice system, but the ECHR – are far more serious crimes than selling weed even in a country as regressive in its attitudes to drugs freedoms as Russia. Not that Russia’s so-called “liberals” see it that way.

The second case concerns the liberalization of party registration laws and the return of direct gubernatorial elections. One would think that after years of demanding these reforms, the liberals would welcome these developments. You’d be wrong. The liberals have condemned the eased registration requirements for providing “unlimited opportunities to multiply fake, pro-Kremlin parties.” The Kremlin can literally do no right. If requirements are tough (40,000+ signatures), it is a ploy to bar access to liberals from the political arena. If the requirements are easy (500+ signatures), it is a ploy to drown out the liberals with fake parties.

Both accusations are, of course, preemptive rationalizations of the liberals never-ending failure to attract support. Never mind that they already have two parties, neither of which ever gets more than a tiny fraction of the vote. The possibility that this could be due to the fact that many Russians simply dislike the liberals – for their lies, self-pitying whining, “Rashka” bashing, and proud association with the 1990′s and foreign interests – most likely never enters their puffed up heads.

Just a few moments of thought would reveal this critique for the sham it really is. Contrary to conspiracy theories, keeping control of fake parties is exceedingly hard, indeed practically impossible. If they are small, they are (electorally) ineffectual anyway. If they gain broad-based popular support, then they de facto break loose of any remaining ties that bind. Case in point is the Fair Russia party, which started off as a Kremlin project but which no even minimally informed observer can now deny is as oppositional as any other, being the driving force between the protests over the mayoral elections in Astrakhan.

Then there is the brouhaha over some fairly minor restrictions over eligibility to participate in gubernatorial elections. Rather than being appointed by the President as before – or in numerous acknowledged democracies like France or India to this day – they will have to have the support of 5%-10% of local legislatures. This sounds like a very modest and not unreasonable requirement.

The real reason that the liberals protest the very “liberalization” they’ve endlessly harped on about is that protest is all there ultimately is to them; the only way they can keep themselves heard, and somewhat relevant. They will not be getting votes from people they regularly insult and dismiss as unthinking, primitive masses. This makes them all the angrier and more vitriolic.

EDIT: This article was translated into Russian at Inosmi (Либералам не угодишь).

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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In the wake of Putin’s article on national security for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, there has been renewed interest in Russia’s ambitious military modernization plans for the next decade. I am not a specialist in this (unlike Dmitry Gorenberg and Mark Galeotti, whom I highly recommend), but I do think I can bring much-needed facts and good sources to the discussion.

1. This is not a new development. In fact, the massive rearmament program was revealed back in 2010 (I wrote about it then). Russia’s armed forces were neglected in during the 1990′s and early 2000′s, and enjoyed only modest funding until now; relative to Soviet levels, they are now far degraded. The main goal is to create a mobile, professional army equipped with modern, high-tech gear by 2020.

2. To recap. With oil prices high and Russia’s fiscal situation secure, it IS affordable; it’s not like the old USSR (or today’s US for that matter) spending money it doesn’t have. I also don’t necessarily buy the argument that most of the additional funds will be swallowed up by corruption or inefficiency. Massive new procurement can create temporary bottlenecks, which raises prices, but on the other hand it also allows for economies of scale. The real question is whether Russia absolutely needs to retain the hallowed One Million Man Army, which would appear far too big for the modest anti-insurgency or local wars it may be called to fight in the Caucasus or Central Asia. (There is no possibility of matching NATO or Chinese conventional strength in principle, so that consideration is a moot point).

3. Putin argues for 700,000 professional soldiers by 2017, with the numbers of conscripts reduced to 145,000. This is a huge change, as today – with the failure of the attempt to attract more contract soldiers under Medvedev – conscripts still make up the bulk of the Russian Armed Forces. Many are ill-trained; even things like dedovschina aside, it is impossible to create a good soldier capable of fighting in modern wars in one year’s time. So if successful this will undoubtedly be a change for the better.

4. Will this effort be successful? Based on the results of the previous attempt, Streetwise Professor argues not. I disagree. The previous attempt was marred by the inconvenient fact that salaries were ridiculously low; few reasonably bright and successful people would want to make a career of the military. But since January 1, 2012 military salaries have been radically increased, so that whereas before they were below the average national wage, they are now about twice as big. According to this article this is how the new salaries look like in international comparison.

Lieutenant salaries (pre-bonus)
Russia (2011) $500
NATO East-Central Europe $800-$1400
Russia (post-2011) $1600
France $2300
US $2800
Germany $3000
UK $3500

When one also bears in mind that living expenses in Russia tend to be lower than in most developed countries, it emerges that the new pay scale is only slightly below West European standards. Furthermore, whereas the West European rates are similar to their prevailing national average salaries, the average salary of the Russian lieutenant will be twice higher than the average national salary, which was $800 as of 2011. Remarkable as it may seem based on current culture*, but it’s quite possible that the military will come to be seen as an attractive career choice in Russia.

Below is an infographic from Vzglyad which gives you some idea of the extent of the increases. There are three rows of figures for each rank. The third one represents the average salary (including bonuses). The dark column represents 2011, the lighter column represents post-Jan 1st, 2012.

5. The total cost of the program to 2022 is 23 trillion rubles: 20 trillion for modernization, 3 trillion for defense plants.

According to Vesti, 1.7 trillion rubles will accrue to the additional costs of higher salaries and military pensions in 2012-14 alone. Extending this to 2022 gives a figure of 4.2 trillion rubles. However, we can expect the costs after 2014 to increase further, because of the growing share of contract soldiers and probable further increases in military salaries. So in practice that would probably be something like 7-10 trillion rubles on personnel costs.

So while the rearmament program which focuses on “hardware” is gargantuan, the increases in spending on “software” are very substantial as well.

6. Another myth is that the increased military spending will bite hard into social spending, education, and healthcare. After all, the projected federal budgets show declines in the share of education and healthcare spending, while military spending increases. I bought into it, until I found this article by Sergey Zhuravlev, a noted Russian economist.

This is because of the changing structure of government spending. First, under Medvedev there was a big increase in spending on anti-crisis measures (which are temporary and have now ebbed away), then on big increases on social spending in the run-up to the elections. So naturally, as revenues grow, there will develop room to increase military spending without decreasing social spending, e.g. on pensions. The sum total of the increase in military (and general security, police) spending is not going to be more than 1.5% points of GDP.

In practice, most of the increased spending will accrue at the expense of declines in spending on the national economy and (a very modest) amount of new debt. The former is substantially associated with the end of spending on the Sochi Olympics. So the picture, as Zhuravlev argues, isn’t so much “guns instead of butter”, as “guns instead of Sochi.” As for the debt, it will only constitute an additional 3.5% points of GDP to 2014, which is an insubstantial sum, especially considering Russia’s minimal aggregate levels of sovereign debt.

It is true that as a share of GDP, spending on education and healthcare will fall; this isn’t too desirable, since – especially on the latter sector – they aren’t high in the first place. But it is important to note that this refers to the federal budget, and that the total GDP is projected to increase substantially to 2014; in practical terms, federal spending on education and healthcare will remain flat. But most healthcare and education spending occurs at the regional level. Regional spending in turn will not be under the constraints imposed on the federal budget by rearmament, so in real terms aggregate total education and healthcare spending will continue increasing.**

* Even here I need to make a caveat. Whereas the Army is very unpopular in intelligentsia, Moscow, and emigre circles (of which I am, admittedly, a part) this isn’t quite the case at the all-Russia level where opinions are on balance ambiguous, NOT negative. A majority consistently approves of the Army, and as shown in this Levada poll, even opinion on conscription is typically split 50/50. Only 21% think that Army service is “a waste of time.” The lesson is not to make general extrapolations from unrepresentative samples.

** This is assuming that the whole military spending thing isn’t just pre-elections braggadocio that will be quietly dropped in favor of boring, useful stuff like transport, education, and healthcare as argued in a recent Vedomosti article citing anonymous government sources. I guess that’s a possibility, but I doubt it will happen; the big military spending rises have been in the works far too long to be just dismissed this May.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Courtesy of Evgeny‘s comment at Mark Adomanis’ blog, I found a very interesting piece by Sergey Lukyanenko – the bestselling Russian sci-fi writer best known for his Night Watch series, which was later converted into Russia’s first blockbuster film in 2004 – on the recent turmoil in Russian politics. It is a bit dated, from January 3, and originating as a blog post the language is highly colloquial and informal. But I think it worthy of translation for two main reasons.

First, there is the distinct (but wrong) impression that the mass of the literary “intelligentsia” is behind the anti-Putin protests, because of the visibility of high-profile writers like Boris Akunin, who recently wrote a rather rambling op-ed for the NYT. Lukyanenko demonstrates that this is not the case.

Second, I personally agree with almost all of it, save for a few parts like citing Switzerland or the UK as a good democracies. But on the whole I can vouch for practically every word. And as a science fiction writer in whose worlds the lines between good and evil are frequently blurred – if they exist at all – he brings a much needed “middle ground” position to the rigidly pro-Kremlin/anti-Kremlin binary that dominates this discourse.

I Will Vote For Putin

I didn’t want to, but in the end I had to make a comment. For every so often agitated young people would run into my LJ blog, asking me the following types of question: “Where were you during the Meetings [for Free Elections]? At home? That means you voted for the swindlers and thieves! Are you not ashamed of yourself? Your friends Kaganov, Eksler, Bykov were out there, making rhetorical history and laughing and waving placards… How could you look them in the eyes now? If everything in your life is fine, you’d be for Putin, right? You consider this regime to be ideal? What, you mean to say, that we don’t have anyone else qualified to be President?”

So an explanation is warranted.

I voted for the Communists. I did it with a pinched nose, for today’s Communist Party has no relation to communists, to the people, and unfortunately, even to politics in general. In the past I voted for the Union of Right Forces, but with equal amounts of horror and aversion. But the defining weirdness of my thoroughly anti-democratic and anti-liberal conscience consists of my belief in everyone’s right to think differently. And I want the Parliament to have representatives of the right, and the left, and centrists, and swindlers and thieves too, as they too make up a considerable share of our society – why bother denying this? As our most ardent supporters of democracy insist on denying others the right to their own opinion, I will sing my own song and do everything I can to make “a thousand flowers bloom.” I am mostly satisfied with the result – yes, of course there were violations (yeah, as if they didn’t exist earlier… You remember how Yeltsin won? Nothing bothered you back then?), but the Duma did become more diverse. (And I, by the way, don’t call for my political opponents to be hanged in the squares, stripped of their rights and exiled to Magadan. Unlike you, my dear liberals…)

And the fact that Leo, Alex, and Dima went to the Meetings does not in the slightest interfere with my appreciation of their books. More power to them. And I consider them sane people too.

I am always touched by the argument: “Well, life is good for you – so that’s why you support the current regime?” This is usually said in an outraged and pressured tone. I mean, how could this be – why are those people, who aren’t bothered by the government, why are they of all things not protesting against it? The binomial theory! The great mystery of the universe! The great Russian pastime – cutting off the nose to spite the face! Yes, I will actually vote for the current government, as long as I believe that it is right for me. And you will vote against it, as long as you believe that it is bad for you. And this is all right and proper. Is this not the very democracy that you want?

So moving on, does this mean I consider the current regime ideal?

What a profoundly intellectual conclusion! I do not consider the sausage that I buy in a supermarket to be ideal. I don’t consider my books to be ideal. I consider our entire world to be far from ideal. So what should I do then – refrain from eating, from writing books, and from living in general? If you are not the Dark Lord, you will always find mistakes in the universe. We have no shortage of fools both in power and under their power. We have many swindlers, thieves, idlers, and rascals. But here is one crucial elaboration – these people are everywhere, in all spheres of life. And their percentage shares among construction workers, medics, and politicians are all broadly similar. The world isn’t perfect, you know? People too. Have you forgotten how thirty years ago, the entire country voted in unison for the Block of Communists and Non-Party Members. I remember. Have you forgotten, how twenty years ago schoolboys dreamed of becoming hitmen, and schoolgirls – whores? Better by far that they dream of becoming bureaucrats! Satellites are falling, the Bulava can’t take off? And did you know how many satellites burned up on their way to orbit under the USSR, and how many unsuccessful missile launches there were before things got righted? So the country is dying out? Look at the charts – at how life expectancy has changed in the past few years. Few births? Look at the figures for Europe. Problems with immigrants? Take a walk in London or Paris (which, by the way, is now possible, as was not the case under the USSR).

Do you want the level of democracy they have in Switzerland or the UK? Learn a bit of history, people. How many years did they spend building their modern democracies and modern relations of people to the state? How many people perished in the process? Yes, it would be wonderful to wave a magic wand and… but I don’t have one. I’m afraid Putin doesn’t have one either. There, in Tajikistan yesterday they killed… Father Frost! As a socially and religiously alien element. Do you assume we aren’t Tajikistan? In some respects, we completely are. At least with respect to our attitudes towards differing viewpoints. The entire LJ blogosphere continually demonstrates this.

Not long ago, I was still wondering who to vote for in the Presidential elections. And, you know what, you guys helped me make my choice – with your meetings, provocative placards and loud slogans. I will vote for Putin.

Because we really do NOT have another politician, capable of leading the country.

Because the slogans of everyone else are either naked populism, or facsimiles of Putin’s slogans, or unorganized set of contradictory promises.

Because the “opposition leaders” plaster each other with obscenities, and would tear each other apart if the current government were to fall apart. Do you expect Krylov to get along with Yavlinsky? That liberals will make friends with Communists and nationalists? My friends, this isn’t even funny… All the current protesting opposition marches under the banner of destruction and mutual hatred… Yes, and you they also hold cheap

Because Zyuganov would flee to Switzerland in panic if you were to vote him in.
Because Mironov, though a good man, is not a national leader.
Because Nemtsov – well, that’s not even funny.
Because Zhirinovsky – ‘twould be fun, if the country had a “Save Game” button.
Because Prokhorov is a businessman, and a country can’t be managed like a mining company.
Because Navalny is a person, who works for another country. Not for ours.
Because there is no other. Hasn’t appeared yet.

So is Putin responsible for all that? That he hasn’t raised a successor?

But you didn’t like Medvedev either. “Too liberal”; “too scheming”; “iPhone President”; “innovation”, this and that…

Putin, by the way, was put forwards by Yeltsin. You don’t like the result? So what do you want, that Putin himself could put forward someone, whom you consider worthy? Well then it would be but a continuation of Putin’s policies.

The opposition, in your opinion, should be raised by the acting regime? Don’t take the mickey… Politics aren’t the Olympic Games. Politicians grow notwithstanding the current government. And let them grow, and good luck to them. Let Navalny and Chirikova organize a party, write a program and come to power.

What, they wouldn’t be allowed in? LOL. United Russia had its share of the vote inflated, but probably by not more than 5 percent. United Russia is the party off the majority, that is a fact. So what if they got a few percentage points less – they’d have joined a coalition with Fair Russia. And as if that’d have made a great difference to the political picture in Russia…

Here are transparent ballot boxes, web cams at the elections, parties of 500 people… the mass media are controlled? Again, LOL. There are opposition media everywhere. Do you want to have the first word on TV? Then work for it, fight for it. If you get the majority – you’ll have this all. And if not – well, my apologies…

You have the right to vote. And to monitor the vote. And it’s entirely possible, that on that day – I too will go have a look. So that you, my passionate and fiery friends, don’t flood the streets will your bulletins. Because whenever one side says, that it’s all pure and white, that side I don’t trust in advance.

… And about what is happening now in the world, how one country after another is ruined in the name of democracy and maintaining the status quo, I won’t even talk about that. Either you see it and understand it, or you are naive beyond all measure. And over the next several years, while the world is undergoing this HUGE crisis, I want to see a leader in power who is capable of bold moves. And ready to defend our country.

So I will go and vote for Putin. For the next six years he has my trust on credit. And you go and vote for your candidates. This is what is called democracy.

But magic wands and a free lunch don’t exist in this world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

А как же? Обязательно.

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

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The King returns. As this is breaking news, please feel free to discuss this breaking news while I write up a more substantive post. In summary:

(1) I was 75% wrong. (I gave Putin a 25% of returning to the PM; I thought the likeliest scenario would be for DAM to continue).

(2) That said, being an unrepentant Putinista, I’m very happy I was wrong – even if I lost $20 to a gambling site and a bottle of Georgian wine to a friend.

(3) In general terms, I hope this represents a left turn (VVP has come out in support of more progressive taxation), more social liberalism, and an end to DAM-style dithering and capitulation to Western interests and finance capital.

CONTINUATION. So here are my 2 cents. As you may recall, I thought Medvedev would continue in office. I gave it as a set of probabilities: DAM – 70%, Putin – 25%, Other – 5%). I’d have a lost at the casino, and in fact I did a bit, as well as a bottle of Georgian wine to a friend likewise interested in Russian politics (that said in terms of expectations I still think I made a good bet). So obviously this came as a surprise to me along with A Good Treaty, Mark Adomanis, Joera Mulders, etc. Of what I’d read on Putin, it sggested that he was becoming tired of Presidential trappings by the 2006-08 period, which I imagine implied he’d be happy in a more “hands on” job with fewer formalities than the Presidency, e.g. staying on as PM, or even (my whimsical scenario) becoming a Minister of Sports in charge of the Sochi Olympics and World Cup, or something. That said, as a Putin supporter who was wary and concerned about Medvedev’s neoliberal tendencies, his dithering and aimless style of rule, and his excessive capitulations to Western interests, unlike many of my Russia-watching acquaintances I welcome a second Putin Presidency.

There are many objections and criticisms of this decision, of course, and I’m going to reply to the biggest ones.

Foreign investors will flee, due to the bad PR. The bad PR will continue and even intensify, at least in the short-term, but let’s face, that will be happening as long as Russia refuses to submit to the whims of the “international community” (aka the West and international finance capital). In the end analysis, as long as investors feel they are going to make money, they will continue investing in Russia. That is all they’re interested in. If not, then no amount of good PR and pro-Western credentials are going to convince them (see the Baltics or Georgia).

Besides, there are a great many other flaws with this reasoning. First, the Russian President is beholden to the Russian electorate. Putin is the most popular and trusted Russian politician. So he is an eminently logical choice once the constitutional barrier to two consecutive terms has been sidestepped. This is the whole point of democracy according to our democratists anyway, right? As Mark Chapman colorfully put it, “Putin couldn’t make the west happy unless he accidentally hanged himself in his closet while dressed in his grandmother’s clothes and titillating himself with naked pictures of Khodorkovsky.” But the fact that many foreigners suffer from Putin Derangement Syndrome shouldn’t factor into the equation.

Second, haven’t the narrative-spinning pundits and “experts” been telling us that it was the lack of certitude in Russia’s political future that was keeping all the investors away anyway? This, at least, has been removed. On the same note, I don’t see how predicting a future lack of foreign investment just because to the return of Putin makes any sense. You can argue that they will be put off by the negative perceptions made by Putin’s return. But in that case how can you demonstrate that this will be more damaging than, say, DAM constantly lambasting his own country’s business climate and corruption, and openly dissing its economy at conferences of international investors. So despite the real anti-corruption efforts, if anything Russia’s reputational capital has actually declined under DAM. Take the Corruption Perceptions Index. We can argue, and have, about the extent to which it actually reflects corruption in Russia, but there’s no question that its a very good estimate of dominant corruption PERCEPTIONS in Russia – and under Medvedev the Glorious Reformer, it has actually slipped even deeper into the gutter from 2.3/10 to 2.1/10. I have written an entire post on the damaging effects DAM has inflicted on Russia with his condemnatory rhetoric. Good national leaders seek to present their nation in a positive light, and to acknowledge problems while toning down their significance while trying to solve them; I acknowledge that DAM has made not inconsiderable progress on the latter, but has no respect for the former whatsoever.

PS. If anything, he’s even harsher on Russia than many foreigners. He sweepingly calls Russia’s judicial landscape one of “legal nihilism”, and suggests amnesties for economic crimes. At the same time, the European Court of Human Rights – not exactly known for their Russophilia – ruled that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was not politically motivated, that it wasn’t “unfairly” singled out, and that YUKOS truly was involved in large-scale tax fraud and basically identified no problems apart from some procedural violations. Now that latter part isn’t great, but happens in all judicial systems. Case in point – the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, USA, despite 7 of the original witnesses having recanted their testimonies and no direct evidence linking him to the crime ever having been found. Though I’m sure that in the warped logic of Russophic and pro-capitalist journalists procedural violations that lead a billionaire crook to jail are far worse than those that lead a possibly innocent black dude to the execution room.

It was to improve United Russia’s poll numbers. Again, have to agree with Mark Chapman: “Putin, who is supposedly falling in popularity himself, is selected for coronation in order to boost his party’s popularity? How does that work?” Besides, as I pointed out on several occasions, the demise of the so-called “party of crooks and thieves” are greatly exaggerated; according to polls, the percentage of Russians willing to vote for them was 54% in August 2011, just a shade down from 59% from August 2007. Hardly the sort of figure that would necessitate Batman Putin coming to Robin’s rescue. Chapman continues: “The fact is, some Russia watchers who were sure the candidate would be Medvedev are now trying to make it look like they were tricked by a storyline of surpassing cleverness. You can decide for yourself if you want to buy it.” I don’t. I’m okay with admitting I misread the tea leaves and fucked up a prediction.

Putting executive power in the hands of one guy for long periods of power tends not to work out so well”, as mentioned by Doug. And Joera, who speaks of Putin risking losing his legacy. I actually agree with them the most. Shades of it were already seen during the 2007-2008 period – obviously, another six years of the Presidency, or even twelve, magnifies the danger. And if Putin decides to retreat into an increasingly authoritarian crust while the economy stagnates in relative terms, the ground may be paved for the sorts of protests that toppled De Gaulle in 1968. (Which would be very ironic, given the vast array of resemblances between the two statesmen).

That said, I do think that Putin has some interesting new ideas. First, there seems to be something of a left turn in his politics. He talks a lot about raising pensions, student subsidies, etc (and these are gradually coming about). Social spending has increased rapidly. The United People’s Front. During the United Russia conference where the announcement of his return was made, Putin promised to introduce more progressive taxation in order to make the wealthy pay more and ease the high levels of inequality. This is in considerable contrast to the motley of neoliberal ideologues like Yurgens and Co. that surround Medvedev, with their one-sided focus on privatization, austerity, etc. Second, it has never been absolutely clear that Medvedev is actually more “liberal” in social and even political terms than Putin. For instance, Medvedev recently labeled Marxism (and consequently teaching, discussing it, etc) as extremism, while Putin once served as President in a coalition that included the Communists. How liberal of him. When talking with defense industry leaders about contracts being delayed and rising in cost, Medvedev thuggishly noted that people were shot for that in Stalin’s days. How liberal of him. He supports a brutal US style war on drugs, which Putin opposes. How liberal of him. Medvedev thinks it is acceptable for the imperialists to drop bombs to sow the seeds of democracy. Putin thinks it’s ridiculous and calls a spade a spade, and Western interventions a resumption of the crusades. Overall, I think Putin may overall even be the more progressive of the tandem in terms of humanism and social liberalism.

As such, I can only applaud Putin’s imminent return. Слава Путину! Слава России!

EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.ru (Герой всегда возвращается).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Иn the wake of the 2009 recession, declinist rhetoric has come to dominate discussion of Russia’s economic prospects. Jim O’Neill, the founder of the BRIC’s concept, has his work cut out defending Russia’s expulsion from the group in favor of Indonesia, Mexico, or some other random middle-sized country. Journalists in the Western media claim its economy is “not growing”, as do liberal Russian newspapers such as Vedomosti. Comparisons between Putin and Brezhnev (who presided over the Soviet Union’s period of stagnation, or zastoi) are piling up. Even President Medvedev isn’t helping the situation, telling a forum of international businesspeople that Russia’s “slow growth” hides stagnation (good job promoting your country, DAM! not….).

I don’t want to exchange rhetorical barbs in this post (which you may note is not tagged as a “rant“), and my skills at mockery and picking apart tropes aren’t nearly as well developed as those of Mark Adomanis or Kremlin Stooge, so I’ll do what I do best and go straight to the statistics. And so we have Fact #1: what is described as stagnation for Russia is a growth rate of 4%. It grew 4.0% for 2010. It was 4.1% in Q1 2011, and the government predicts it will be 4.2% for the whole year. The World Bank predicts 4.4% in 2011, 4.0% in 2012; the OECD expects 4.9% in 2011 and 4.5% in 2012; and the IMF forecasts 4.8% in 2011, 4.5% in 2012, tapering off to less than 4.0% in the “medium-term.”

This does not strike me as being particularly bad by global standards. This is obviously no miracle economy of Chinese-like 10% growth rates, but Russia (4.4%; 4.0%) does not compare badly to the World Bank’s projected growth for other typical middle-income countries such as Turkey (4.1%; 4.3%), Thailand (3.2%; 4.2%), Brazil (4.4%; 4.3%), Mexico (3.6%; 3.8%), or South Africa (3.5%; 4.1%). Facing real stagnation, many countries in the developed world such as the UK could only wish for Russia’s growth rate; though this is an unfair comparison, because Russia is poorer and can therefore find it easier to grow faster (see economic convergence), it is not less unfair comparing Russia to countries such as India (8.4%; 8.7%) or Indonesia (6.2%; 6.5%) because the latter are so much poorer than Russia in their turn.

This discussion suggests that CONTEXT is vital when discussing the degree of stagnation in a country. One of the two major factors here is the current GDP of the country in question; real GDP, that is, because that is what growth refers to (i.e. if a country devalues its currency by half but output remains constant, then nominal GDP will fall by half but real GDP will remain constant; as such, real GDP per capita is also the better proxy for living standards and economic sophistication). Now there are two major estimates by international organizations of Russia’s real GDP. The IMF estimates it at $15,800 as of 2010, whereas the World Bank believes it is $19,800 (relying on recent joint research by OECD-Eurostat-Rosstat). There are grounds to believe that the latter is more accurate because the international price comparison data that goes into real GDP estimates is much more recent for the World Bank*. But regardless of which one you use, Russia’s GDP is still much higher than the other emerging markets or BRIC’s with which it is so frequently compared to – Brazil has $11,100, China has $7,500, Indonesia has $4,400, and India has $3,600.

This is extremely important for two reasons. First, it is much harder to grow quickly when you are already a mostly developed country (like Russia, Poland, Korea) than when you are a mid-level developing country (China, Brazil) or a poor developing country (India, Indonesia). The most important reasons are: (1) The potential to achieve rapid growth by transferring your population from rural agriculture to urban industry and services becomes exhausted; (2) the services sector, where productivity can’t be improved as fast as in industry, assumes a bigger share of GDP; (3) most importantly, those countries are far closer to the technological frontier or “best practice”, and hence must increasingly innovate their way to growth instead of reaping low-hanging fruit by adopting and copying from elsewhere. All this isn’t debatable – there is a ton of economic literature on this, it passes the common sense test, and it is basically a given.

Second, when your starting base is low, fast economic growth is far more necessary to achieve real improvements in living standards and catching up to the West. 5% growth in the US would be remarkable and unprecedented for decades. 5% growth in a country like Egypt, with a GDP per capita of $6,000, will not transform it into a developed or even mostly developed country for the foreseeable future. Not only that, but it will be significantly swallowed up by a population growing at nearly 2%. This is no different from the growth rates in most fiscally healthy developed nations and so in effect virtually no “catch up” happens whatsoever.

This brings us to a second point, the importance of accounting of adjusting for population growth. India’s 8% growth rate in the last decade seems remarkable, prompting talk of “Shining India” and how it is the next big superpower. But considering its very low starting base, and the fact that its population was growing by nearly 2% per year, and you have the far less impressive figure of 6% per capita growth. This is still respectable, but it is barely higher than (much wealthier) Russia, and probably doesn’t warrant the glowing accolades heaped on its “tiger” economy.

At this point, I think it will be a good idea to consolidate all these statistics into a single graph that illustrates the arguments. GDP figures are taken from the World Bank’s 2010 estimates (there is reason to believe China’s GDP is underestimated, hence it has two estimates). GDP growth refers to the mainstream consensus on how fast these countries will be growing in the medium term (e.g. Russia “stagnating” at 4% a year; China following in the historical footsteps of Korea; India growing at the realistically highest rates projected by its proponents; Brazil and Mexico continuing to conform to both their historical rates and medium-term predictions; etc). Population growth is subtracted from the GDP growth to give a per capita figure. The last column are the projected totals for 2020. Figures are rounded off.

2010 GDP /c GDP % gr. Pop % gr. 2020 GDP /c
Brazil $11,000 4% 1% $15,000
China (1) $7,500 8% 0.5% $16,000
China (2) $12,000 7.5% 0.5% $25,000
France $34,000 2% 0.5% $39,000
India $3,600 8.5% 1.5% $7,000
Indonesia $4,400 6.5% 1% $7,500
Korea $29,000 3% 0% $39,000
Mexico $15,000 3% 1% $18,000
Russia $20,000 4% 0% $30,000

The results, as you can see, are fairly stunning. A low population growth and relatively high base – Russia’s GDP per capita of $20,000 is equivalent to that of Poland, Hungary, and Estonia – means that as soon as 2020 Russia will be where Italy is today, with a GDP per capita of $31,500. Now granted Italy may have grown as well, but given its dismal record for the past decade and the growing financial tremors in the Eurozone even this is far from certain. In other words, even at “stagnant” growth rates of 4% per year Russia will have converged to the lower ranks of Western Europe’s rich countries (having overtaken Greece and Portugal outright).

But this isn’t that surprising when you consider that 4% is equivalent to the trend rate at which Korea has grown from 2003, when its GDP reached Russia’s today; the IMF predicts that by 2013, a decade later, it will hit $35,000.

(Excuse the minor digression from the main topic of this post, but the graph also convincingly demonstrates why my Sino Triumphalism is not misplaced. Even under fairly rosy assumptions for India, it will have have barely converged to China’s 2010 level in a decade’s time – and that assuming that China’s GDP isn’t underestimated. The real question isn’t why Russia isn’t growing as fast as China, but why is China growing so damn fast? See other posts for answers).

Now what about unexpected downsides? Objectively, Russia has solid macro fundamentals – far better than the over-indebted, over-leveraged Western economies (with the partial exceptions of Canada and Scandinavia). This is a trait it shares with the other BRIC’s and many other emerging markets in what is truly an amazing and perhaps unprecedented reversal of places in the last decade. This isn’t grounds for complacency – the 2009 recession is argument enough for that.

Nonetheless, the main facts remain intact: (1) It is growing from a relatively high base; (2) In an environment of approximately zero population growth; (3) The strength of state finances preclude any fundamental economic cataclysm as happened/is happening in Ireland, Greece, Latvia, etc. Taking into account these adjustments, a growth rate of 4% is entirely respectable and better than many if not most countries in the same general income bracket.

* Those interested in the details can read here and here.

EDIT: This article has been translated into Russian at Inosmi.Ru (Российская экономическая «стагнация» в глобальной перспективе).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Following on from my last post in which I revealed the neoliberal, anti-Russian inclinations of Dmitry Medvedev (pictured left, sporting his new Hitler mustache), let us know consider another question – what to make of his much vaunted liberalism, his humaneness, his consciousness? The Western media as with their liberal Russian running dogs have traditionally presented DAM as the polar opposite of the evil statist Putin, who we are told worships the authoritarian values of the KGB and seeks to turn Russia into a neo-Soviet Union. Now look at the following comments.

1. “Talking of mandatory treatment – one can talk about anything. But mandatory treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction is ultimately worse for ourselves. We have to convince that person, encourage an internal motivation, and understanding of the necessity to conquer these ills. It is important that that person doesn’t feel himself alone, so that he understands and feels that if he fell into this trap, he should feel that he hasn’t been abandoned, that he isn’t alone, that his family and friends, relatives, parents won’t abandon him to the winds, nor will his school, his work collective, wherever he may be studying or working, the state won’t abandon him.”

2. “Concerning testing schoolchildren for drugs, I would be satisfied with any manner in which it is carried out. Practically continuous testing. A situation should be created where not testing becomes inconvenient for the schools… Drugs influence the demographic situation and destroy our nation’s gene pool, people’s health… Everyone, be they young or old, getting a job, should have to think that even if he consumes drugs even just once it will be discovered, and this will stop him from further drugs consumption… I think this idea should be developed. I instruct the Minister of Education* to look at this in the sense of updating the policy documents of state and private universities… The popularization of drugs consumption is simply a crime, not only legally but morally. I am simply shocked by the degree of this popularization on certain Internet information portals.”

One of these statements belongs to a Dostoevskian appreciation of humanity’s universal brotherhood and respect for true liberal values. The other belongs to the world of the Soviet Union, of modern-day GULAG’s (such as the US prison-industrial complex) locking up 1% of their citizenry, of moral hysteria and populist threats against things like the Internet or night clubs which the speaker doesn’t understand. Dear reader, care to guess which statement is whose?

Putin is the nuanced humanitarianism. And it is, of course, the Medvedev Abomination which has moralistic authoritarianism oozing out of every one of its slimey pores.

All those ideas go against the growing consensus of global researchers on the drug problem. They are also deeply illiberal and socially unjust, values which DAM pretends to champion. Just what is he smoking???

For Medvedev is the type of “liberal” who believes dropping bombs can bring democracy. He is the type of person who wants to lock up poor people – say, drug users, or homeless people who steal $100 – while letting billionaire crooks go free; granted Medvedev hasn’t outright admitted to wanting to pardon Khodorkovsky, but his language on the matter – one of “neutral” legalese mumbo jumbo that no normal person cares about – as well as calls for MBK’s pardons from his circles (by their friends shall ye know them) reveal his true standing for what it is – a stooge of finance capital.

In other words, he is a neoliberal Stalinist.

If Medvedev gets a second term in the Presidency, then Russia will evidently not be long for this world. That is why Russians have to take their country back. Get him out of the Kremlin, or burn him out!!!

* The Education Minister Andrei Fursenko (as is Putin, is against mandatory drugs testing in schools. Thankfully not everyone there is insane like Medvedev.

PS. In the latest news, Medvedev embarks on his latest campaign to destroy the Russian defense industry.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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A recent study by Laura Bottazzi et al. at the University of Bologna, Italy confirmed a pretty obvious fact of international business. Far from being the rational agents of standard economics, objectively focusing on those countries offering the best return on their investments, international financiers are in fact heavily influenced by national stereotypes. A Dutch venture capital fund, for instance, is far likelier to invest in a German company than a Spanish one. This is due in large part to the greater trust and cultural affinity that exists between the Dutch and Germans, rather than any specifically economic reason.

As a country suffering from a severe reputational deficit, even relative to most other major emerging markets, these findings should be of great interest to Russia’s leaders – whose lack of PR finesse is simply astounding (any number of specific examples can be given, but suffice to say that there is still no effective Russia lobby in Washington DC). Medvedev seems to be operating under the delusion that publicly lambasting Russia’s institutions – e.g. his famous dismissal of the entire judicial system by portraying Russia’s environment as one of “legal nihilism” – will somehow help resolve those problems that do exist, enhance Russia’s image, and woo foreign investors. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Progress in institutional improvement has been rapid the past few years. A third of the most senior police officers were recently dismissed; international anti-corruption agreements have been signed up to; according to a recent government report, the incidence of bribes has fallen, while their average size has grown (which indicates corruption has become riskier, e.g. thanks to measures such as greater fines for bribery). This is reflected in Russia’s score on the Global Integrity Report, which attempts to measure objective levels of corruption, rose from 63/100 in 2006 to 69/100 in 2008 and 71/100 in 2010. The latest figures aren’t much worse than what is found for East-Central European countries now commonly regarded as “civilized”, such as Hungary or the Czech Republic.

However, on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which is (by definition) a very subjective measure of corruption, Russia continues to plummet relentlessly, from 2.5/10 in 2007 to just 2.1/10 by 2010, putting it below Third World failed states like Zimbabwe or Yemen. So under Medvedev the international perception (in the media, think-tanks, etc) is that corruption and institutional failure have proceeded apace even as most objective indicators hinted that developments were moving in the opposite direction. This widening gap between perception and reality isn’t only a vast and growing PR failure, but it also hurts the Russian economy and is one that in large part Medvedev is responsible for on account of his intemperate rhetoric.

Speaking in black and white terms of “legal nihilism” is easy (but just a bit questionable, given that Russian citizens win the majority of cases against the state) but doesn’t solve any problems that do exist. In the process, instead of lauding Russia for its openness and willingness to acknowledge problems, the exact opposite effect is created in which the Western media and other opinion-makers quote the President’s own words to reinforce its stereotype as a lawless jungle that out be shunned by investors. And they seem to be listening; capital outflow from Russia has been accelerating in recent months, despite a recovery in economic output and if anything a further acceleration in reforms.

Of course, even if we accept that Russia is full of legal nihilism, would it be in its interests to propagandize that fact to the world? Of course not. Only an idealist or an idiot would think otherwise.

Apart from all that Medvedev has done very little to promote Russia, and a lot to undermine it. I’m not just speaking of stunts like his child-like adoration of an iPhone from Steve Jobs (thus earning him the name Dima iPhonechik on Runet), or attacking Putin’s germane criticism of the West for their crusader aggression against Libya (thus losing it many billions of dollars in economic contracts with Gadaffi for no gain, as the rebels have made it clear that once they take power everything will be re-awarded to French and British firms), or ordering European planes for his Presidential fleet at a time when the indigenous Russian Sukhoi Superjet is coming into service, or asking the government to draft a program for the support of education of Russian students in leading international universities (how many of them will actually return to Russia and repay the state? why subsidize Oxbridge or the Ivy League when RUSSIAN universities could do with a bit more funding themselves???), or his ridiculous prancing to American Boy (in stark contrast to Putin who sticks with patriotic songs like Where Does the Motherland Begin? and of good taste like Blueberry Hill).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVpqiRD_fCA?rel=0]

DAM, why don’t you go back to being a high school DJ?

He is in thrall to the Russian liberal worldview that hates Russia and worships Western ideas taken to extremes not seen in their own countries. For instance, take DAM’s bizarre recent campaign to transform economic criminality into a respectable profession.

  1. Amnesty for economic crimes – No doubt with Khodorkovsky specifically in mind (pardoning whom is morally repugnant by itself). Not only will this be interpreted as an admission that the Kremlin was wrong to dare to defend its sovereignty from an oligarchic coup, but it will also demonstrate to other economic criminals that fraud, tax avoidance, buying political influence, etc. are all now smiled upon. (Do you see even the US, otherwise notorious for not prosecuting bankster criminals, working overtime for an economic crimes amnesty in which the likes of Bernie Madoff go free? Thought not.)
  2. The proposed abolition of pre-trial detention means that economic criminals will now simply be able to take an extended holiday in London, even in those cases the state still has the backbone to prosecute.

This is accompanied by a renewed ideological drive of the Medvedev liberals to privatize Russian state companies, in a quest – conscious or not – to transform Russia into a full-fledged oligarchy where the moneyed call all the shots. Thus, going from a situation in which the state – at least minimally beholden to its electorate – heavily influences the oligarchs, to one where the oligarchs (unaccountable to anyone whatsoever, as evidenced by Medvedev-friendly Prokhorov’s push for a 60-hour workweek) control the state and oppress everyone else with their sick neoliberal ideology.

Things are now clear. Medvedev is a naive fool at best, or simply an enemy of Russia. In any case, he is patently unfit for the Presidential office. One way or another, through Putin’s intervention or the ballot box or the pitchfork, he has to be ousted from the Kremlin if the Russian people value their sovereignty. While I did (and still do) predict the likeliest outcome is a continuation of the DAM Presidency from 2012, there has rarely been a time when I more earnestly wished to be proven wrong.

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

The Kremlin Stooge: In His Own Words…

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

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

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

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

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARD Talk with The Kremlin Stooge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your plans for The Kremlin Stooge?

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

Thanks to The Kremlin Stooge for an excellent interview!

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

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The notion that Russian elections are systemically rigged to keep the “party of power” in, well, power is so prevalent and accepted in journalistic, political, and academic discourse in the West that it has little need of supporting documentation. Taking the 2007 Duma elections as an example, they were described as “not fair” by OSCE, “managed” by the head of the PACE observer team, and (possibly) “neither free nor fair” by the British Foreign Office. A German government spokesperson flatly stated that “Russia is not a democracy.”

The storm of condemnation in the media, unrestrained by any need to respect even a bare minimum of diplomatic protocol, was all the more shrill (e.g., The Economist claimed there was “[no] doubt that the poll was rigged”). As for established academia, suffice to say that a standard cornerstone of recent Kremlinology was an article titled “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model: How Putin’s Crackdown Holds Russia Back”, published immediately after that election. Its author, Michael McFaul, was recently appointed to be US Ambassador to Russia.

All in all fairly damning, no? But statistics speak louder than rhetoric. As I show in this post, the results of opinion polls have historically closely tracked actual Russian election results. This is a powerful argument against elections fraud. If the Kremlin does falsify elections, it is uniquely incompetent at it. Let’s take a closer look at the last four elections.

Russian presidential election, March 2008

OSCE refused to monitor this election in advance, ostensibly because of “severe restrictions” on its observers (the Russian Foreign Ministry denied it). The Economist said the “figures were massaged.”

Now let’s take a look at the opinion polls. According to Levada, Medvedev’s 71% mandate was exactly the same as the percentage of Russians who voted and later recalled casting a ballot for him. Zyuganov, of the Communists, got slightly less than those post-elections poll results indicated; Zhirinovsky, of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, got slightly more. Turnout was exactly the same: 69.7% according to the Central Electoral Commission, 71% according to Levada (with a further 2% who didn’t remember).

Furthermore, as of 8-11 February a huge majority of 80% intended to vote for Medvedev, which is significantly higher than the 71.3% who actually did so. Zhirinovsky’s rating of 9% translated into a straightforward 9.5% in the elections, as did the liberal Bogdanov’s <1% into 1.3%. Zyuganov’s 18.0% result was almost double that of his 11% rating. What kind of fraud is it when the “establishment” candidate gets fewer votes in real life than in opinion polls while his competitors get more?

Russian legislative election, December 2007

As mentioned above, many people – at least outside Russia – were unhappy with the Duma elections of 2007 (or maybe with their results, as no “real” opposition parties got in; “real” in their case being defined as anti-Putin, liberal, and not Communist). But look at the graph below, where the results of Levada voting intentions polls are graphed from May 2004 to the eve of the elections in November 2007 (the data points for December 2007 represent the actual results). Does the December point look wildly out of place, as one might expect if the elections were widely falsified?

[Click to enlarge. NOTES: Rodina Aug-Dec04 adds Glazyev & Rogozin factions; Rodina from Sept06 is with Fair Russia; Apr06 is for combined bloc of SPS+Yabloko so each one's rating is divided in half; Nov07 is average of two polls.]

Thought not. As of November 2007, taking the average of two polls, voting intentions were 67% for United Russia, 13% for the Communists, 7% for Liberal Democrats, and 5% for (social-democratic) Fair Russia. The actual results, respectively, were 64.3%, 11.6%, 8.1%, and 7.8%. The “true” opposition, i.e. the Russian liberals, also got results that closely tallied with their popularity (in Russia, that is, not Washington DC think-tanks). Yabloko got 1.6% (voting intentions: 2%) and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) got 1.0% (voting intentions: 1%); both were beaten out by the Agrarian Party. Sour losers don’t “dissidents” make.

Russian presidential election, March 2004

In early December 2003, 52% of Russians were ready to vote for Putin; this rose to 61% by mid-month. The two other main candidates, Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky, experienced tanking approval ratings: the former to 7%, the latter to 5% by mid-December. In the event, neither of them decided to run. By January, some 71% of Russians said they would vote for Putin. This compared with 3% for Glazyev (of the Rodina party, which would later evolve into Fair Russia), 1% for Kharitonov (of the Communist Party, in Zyuganov’s stead) and 1% for the liberal Khakamada. Everybody else scored 0%, with 8% saying they wouldn’t vote and 11% undecided. Putin had dominant support from the constituencies of all parties, with even 49% of the Communists and 67% of (liberal) Yabloko and SPS members saying they’d vote for him.

According to the final elections poll in February 2004, of Russians who intended to vote some 69.3% of Russians said they would vote for Putin (real result: 71.3%); 5.4% for Kharitonov (real result: 13.7%); 3.5% for Glazyev (real result: 4.1%); and 2.2% for Khakamada (real result: 3.8%). As in 2008, the “establishment” candidate actually lost votes relative to his competitors from what the opinion polls indicated!

Russian legislative election, December 2003

This election was (supposedly) “fundamentally distorted” and “failed in meeting many OSCE and international standards.” (A reminder of the political context: a growing rift in Russia – West relations over the Iraq War and Khodorkovsky’s arrest).

[Click to enlarge. NOTES: Oct03 is average of 2 polls].

As with the 2007 Duma elections, the data point at the end of the series represents the actual election results. United Russia got 37.6%, the Communists got 12.6%, the Liberal Democrats got 11.5%, Rodina got 9.0%, (left-liberal) Yabloko got 4.3%, and (right-liberal) Union of Right Forces (SPS) got 4.0%. A month previously voting intentions had been, respectively, 29%, 23%, 8%, 3%, 6%, and 6%.

The jump in support for United Russia does seem a bit suspicious, but may be explained by a popularity boost in the wake of Khodorkovsky’s arrest (at least for a time, this appeared to void the Communist trope that United Russia was a slave of the oligarchs). The fast rise of social-democratic Rodina, with its nationalist bent, may also explain why the KPRF plummeted. Nonetheless, of all the elections in the 2000′s, this one seems to be the least in line with what might have been expected based on the opinion polls: the only parties to see more votes than the last opinion polls had indicated – United Russia, Fair Russia, and Rodina – were all pro-Kremlin.

Russian Elections In 2000 And Earlier

Russia’s elections in the 1990′s probably weren’t any cleaner than under Putin. In particular, the 1996 election – featuring a tense runoff between Yeltsin and Zyuganov – was marred by campaign funding scandals and one-sided television coverage (though the consensus is that Yeltsin would have won in any case). Allegations of similar misuse of administrative resources would become ubiquitous only under Putin. The eXile has a good account of this mendacity in How do you spell Hypocrisy? O-S-C-E in its trademark shrill and outraged style.

Obviously, you wouldn’t learn much about this by listening to the Western MSM. In the 1990′s, Yeltsin was the man who stood against Communism’s return, and thus deserved their unconditional support. Western criticism only began in earnest from around 2003, when there appeared a growing rift between Russia and the West; and the accusations of electoral fraud reached a crescendo in 2007-8, by which time the so-called “New Cold War” was in full swing (despite that the results of those elections very closely mirrored opinion polls, unlike in 2003).

Opinion Polls Speak Louder Than Western Rhetoric

The inescapable conclusion is that election results in Russia, by and large, mirror public opinion; in all elections but the 2003 Duma elections, the “establishment” party or candidate had garnered fewer votes than was indicated by polls of Russians’ voting intentions a few weeks beforehand.

There are several possibilities for why that is the case. First, we could accept that the Russian electoral process is essentially free and honest (otherwise, far bigger gaps between the results of opinion polls and the ruling party’s election results would have been expected). Second, we can assume that it isn’t free and honest, but that United Russia’s fraud is counterbalanced by fraud on behalf of other parties (this isn’t as absurd as it sounds, as the Communists have also been accused of using “administrative resources” to skew votes in areas under their control). Third, we may posit that the opinion polling organizations themselves are compromised by the Kremlin, churning out results that don’t reflect Russian public opinion.

The third possibility can be dismissed pretty much out of hand. I will remind readers that Lev Gudkov, the current director of the independent Levada Center, writes stuff like this: “Putinism is a system of decentralized use of the institutional instruments of coercion… hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.” Doesn’t exactly sound like the biggest fan of the regime, right?

Use Occam’s Razor. Russia’s elections might be far from Scandinavian standards, and in a few regions – Ingushetia and Chechnya foremost among them – they are, in fact, blatantly fixed. But they are the exception, not the rule – which is that Russian elections are largely free.

(This is not to say that they are fair, because of unequal TV access to the candidates, restrictions such as the 7% threshold for entry into the Duma, etc.; to varying degrees, all democracies suffer from these or similar factors. To what extent Russia’s elections are unfair relative to other democracies – e.g. the gerrymandered US; first-past-the-post Britain; the thirty or so other democracies without elections of governors, etc – should be the real object of discussion. But engaging in rhetoric about the neo-Soviet Putin dictatorship is far more fun, supports Western foreign policy objectives, and most importantly, sells more copies.)

Russian legislative election, December 2011

Current trends in opinion polls reflect just how much the priorities of the media are out of sync with public opinion. In recent months, the liberal commentariat has seized on Navalny’s characterization of United Russia as a “party of thieves and swindlers,” and hopeful editorials such as Miriam Elder’s Russians uniting against United Russia are blossoming. A lot of ink is spent on the emergence of the People’s Freedom Party (a more compact name for Russia Without Corruption And Lawlessness, a recent coalition of 1990′s-vintage liberals) and Right Cause (basically, a re-branded Union of Right Forces (SPS); the oligarch Prokhorov, who supports Medvedev’s modernization agenda, is expected to play a prominent part in it).

But back in the real world, attitudes remain distinctly unchanged. As you can see in the graph below, United Russia is now slightly less popular than it was a year ago, but it is still far more attractive to voters than the other parties by a huge margin (or even itself in the 2003 elections).

[Click to enlarge.]

As for the new kids on the block, only 2% of Russians intend to vote for People’s Freedom, and Right Cause is so unknown that it is lumped into the “Other” category which has a total of 2% voting intentions (perhaps not that surprising when you consider that Prokhorov once advocated a 60-hour workweek). Nonetheless, I’m sure that the almost certain failure of these two liberal parties, both darlings of the Western media, to achieve any success whatsoever will be blamed on the machinations of the Kremlin.

My prediction? Nothing comes out of Right Cause or People’s Freedom (or Putin’s Popular Front for that matter). Communists get 10-15%, and the Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia just make the 7% cut. United Russia ekes out more than 50%, but less than the 2/3 constitutional majority. Various journalists, democracy watchdogs, etc. will have a field day, but criticism will be more muted than in 2007 because of the new political atmosphere of “Reset.”

You can read my thoughts on the 2012 Presidential elections in my post On The Necessity Of Subjecting Kremlinologists (And Social Scientists) To Market Discipline.

PS. In the graphs, I incorrectly labelled the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia as LPDR. It should, of course, be L DPR.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I have gone on record with the following odds on Russia’s next President: Medvedev – 70%, Putin – 25%, Other – 5%. The first betting site to offer odds on the Russian Presidential election has other ideas. As of June 2011, the British online gambling site Stan James is offering the following odds: Putin 4/7, Medvedev 11/8, Zyuganov 66/1, Zhirinovsky 80/1, Bogdanov 100/1*.

Converted into non-gambler terminology, this means that they view VVP as the clear favorite. Whereas a $100 investment into Putin will yield just $56, betting right on a second Medvedev Presidency will net you $138. All the other candidates are (rightly) considered to be insignificant fry – e.g., correctly betting $1 on a Zyuganov win will get you $66 (with the additional EV-lowering risk that it may be promptly confiscated as a product of speculation if you’re in Russia))). Or from the viewpoint of implied odds, you need to have >63.64% confidence that Putin will win OR >42.11% confidence that Medvedev will win to profitably bet on the respective candidates**. So if I had the opportunity I’d totally bet on DAM, but unfortunately that site is closed to US-based political gamblers.

Bookies structure their odds in such a way that they win most of the time; note that the total implied odds add up to nearly 110%. But you can still win despite the handicap, by having special insight or knowledge of the topic. Needless to say, most “Russia watchers” will no doubt claim they have those, at least implicitly (otherwise, what right do they have to their editorials, salaries, etc?). I have previously exposed the self-appointed Kremlinogist priesthood for being full of cranks hiding their fundamental ignorance behind credentials, citations, post hoc narratives, etc. Here is their chance to prove me wrong, all ye Leon Arons and Ariel Cohens and Loco Lucases of the world! And get fabulously rich into the bargain!!!

All social (so-called) scientists should be subjected to this “trial by casino.” As the price of holding publicly funded positions, economists should be forced into investing their money into their own predictions of GDP growth or unemployment; political scientists should use their unique insights to bet on political candidates, parties, and revolutions; etc. Think of this as an idea for an institutional safeguard against fraud, an antidote to the snake oil and two-bit experts polluting economic, social, and political discussions. Because when these “experts” fail, they experience no accountability – largely, by conjuring explanations for why they were wrong, or sweeping their old claims under the carpet altogether – while the common folks who pay for their sated and comfortable upkeep suffer the repercussions of their failed predictions. By subjecting the “experts” to the market discipline of the casino, the quacks will be exposed and bankrupted in a Darwinian struggle for (reputational, pecuniary, etc) survival, and thus cleaning up social sciences and benefiting productive society.

But for now I’ll limit this challenge to Kremlinologists, an especially odious, malign and mendacious strain even by social “science” standards. Come on, bet some of that money you leech off your readers and/or taxpayers. If you don’t, like the pathetic quackacademic you probably are, then consider yourself lower than the meanest bookie on the planet. He at least puts his money where his mouth is.

UPDATE 6/11: Two further things I want to mention. Patrick Armstrong kindly pointed me to this site, which is based on punters’ estimates (as opposed to bookies). There, as of today, the traded odds are that there is a 75% chance that Vladimir Putin will “announce he intends to run for Pres. of Russia before midnight ET 31 Aug 2011.” So betting here – i.e. selling shares – is even more profitable. Not only does it cut out the bookie and get one even better odds that from Stan James above, but that prediction also flies against the Kremlin tradition of announcing their candidate within a half-year of the elections (Yeltsin announced Putin as his preferred successor on Jan 1st, 2000; Putin did the same for Medvedev on Dec 10th, 2008).

Why on Earth could the odds be so tilted? First, this trade isn’t enjoying a lot of volume so lots of potential for skew. Second, the Western media coverage, which focuses on how DAM is a puppet of VVP and on how the master wants his old job back to reassert dictatorship or some such. As with the Russian stock market in the past decade, it offers an excellent opportunity, paraphrasing Eric Kraus, to profit off the difference between the media’s perceptions of Russia and reality.

PS. Speaking of prior elections… I noted that Sean Guillory posted about the Presidential odds in August 2007. Back then, the bookie consensus was that Sergey Ivanov – presumably because of his silovik background – was the favored successor with odds of 2.2/1 (45%), as opposed to DAM with 3.75/1 (27%).

PPS. Track the intrade.com odds below:

 

* I’d also be willing to take odds of c. 200/1 on figures like Igor Shuvalov or Sergey Naryshkin. They’re very unlikely, of course, but they are dark horse candidates and the payoff, in the event that they are nominated by the Kremlin – after which the chances of theirs winning will skyrocket to near 100% – would be huge.

** That is the reason I took 7/4 odds to bet on a Republican Presidency in 2012. The implied odds for that are 36.36%. My own assessment is that it’s basically a coin flip, because everything hinges on where the economy goes, which in turn depends on whether oil prices spike again between now and summer 2012. I view the odds of that as being significant, about break-even actually. Hence my bet.

EDIT: I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEW: Anatoly Karlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LA RUSSOPHOBE: Same question for Alexei Navalny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, that’s a no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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One thing that strikes you, as you wander the shops of any Russian city, is the sheer cheapness of booze and cigs. As little as 3 years ago, one could buy a pint-sized bottle of beer or a pack of cigarettes for just $1, while a 0.5l bottle of vodka cost as little as $3. Prices have since risen, but they remain very low in comparison to incomes.

This happy era was due to come to an end. The Finance Ministry planned to raise excise duties on ethanol products by a factor of 4.3 and by a factor of 15 on tobacco products, in a graduated way through to 2015. The result would have quadrupled the minimum price of lower-range vodkas (105 rules, to 410 rubles) and of the average cigarette pack (24 rubles, to 100 rubles). The practice of selling beer in large, plastic containers is to be forbidden from January 2013. Given that alcohol was found to cause 32% of aggregate mortality amongst middle-aged Russians in 2005, and the high prevalence of smoking among Russian men, these measures are surely long overdue. The plans will help Russia to consolidate the reductions in alcohol-related mortality of recent years.

The main driving force behind this seemed to be Finance Minister Kudrin, if for reasons that have little to do with public health (the taxes are estimated to bring in a further $11 billion in revenues, in addition to the $3 billion garnered through existing ones). Though these sums are very small relative to Russia’s total budget, they will nonetheless help to appreciably narrow the budget deficit. However, these ambitious plans may have received a setback following Putin’s criticism of the plans in late March; namely, that such rapid price rises would encourage more Russians to take to moonshine alternatives. The alcohol and tobacco lobbies also raised objections.

According to a Finance Ministry source who contacted Russian Reuters, the revised plans call for a smaller increase in excise tax on vodka, by a factor of 2.2 instead of the previous 4.3 by 2015. The result will be a mere doubling of lower-end vodka prices (105 rules, to 180 rubles); and, given rising incomes and substantial inflation, only a modest decrease in its relative affordability. Likewise, smokers are in for good news: the former quadrupling is now little more than a doubling by 2014. It is still unclear which plan will ultimately be favored. For instance, the pro-Communist Trud speculates that the revised plan will be adhered to until after the 2012 elections – after which there is a chance that the rate of excise tax increases will be stepped up.

The fear amongst Putin, lobbyists, most Russian regions, and about 50% of Russians as per a VCIOM poll, the main effect of rapid price rises is going to be negative, as many people will supposedly only switch to “dangerous and unregulated homebrews, as well as poisonous surrogates like eau de cologne, shoe polish and even jet fuel”, according to Mark Schrad of the NYT. The Gorbachev experience, in which alcohol laws were made stricter from 1985, is continuously cited as evidence.

I remain to be convinced. First, according to that same VCIOM poll, 30% of Russians say they will continue drinking the same alcohol and another 20% say they will drink less; only 15% say they will start drinking homebrews and 4% will look for bootlegged vodka.

Second, for all that maligned Soviet experience of restricting vodka, life expectancy increased from 67.7 years in 1984 to more than 69 years for the rest of its existence (peaking at 70.0 years in 1986-87); and only fell below the late Soviet-era low in 1993, when the state’s vodka monopoly was dissolved and the country was in the midst of a rapid socio-economic collapse. Now given the differences between the Soviet Union and modern Russia, namely that there are far more alternatives to hard spirits, e.g. beer and wine, increasing prices will probably be even more effective now.

Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign: now maligned, but more or less successful while it lasted.

Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign: now maligned, but more or less successful while it lasted.

So while I don’t usually agree with Boris Nemtsov, I can only support him in his condemnation of the regime for reducing the scope of vodka and tobacco excise tax increases.

EDIT 5/18/2011: Synopsis of final FinMin plans from Kommersant. The growth in excise taxes will be minimal until after the 2012 elections. From July 1st, 2012, they will start increasing at a faster rate, reaching 500 rubles per 0.5l of spirits (prev. 901 rubles) and 1040 rubles per 1000 cigarettes (prev. 874 rubles) – with the possibility of going higher if the action is coordinated with neighboring Belarus and Kazakhstan. The result is that the typical price of a lower-range 0.5l vodka bottle will rise from 125 rubles now, to 175 rubles in H2 2012, 220 rubles in 2013, and 260 rubles in 2014. The minimal price of a pack of cigarettes will rise from 16 rubles now, to 22 rubles in 2012, 29 rubles in 2013, and up to 38 rubles rubles in 2014.

As expected, this is a substantially watered down version, under which the price of vodka and tobacco will remain well under Western norms through to 2015. Cynical electoral populism, and the influence of the alcohol and tobacco lobbies, are working to limit the potential public health gains that could have resulted from a more aggressive plan for raising excise taxes on spirits and tobacco.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Refused residency in Austria and Latvia, we know learn that the disgraced former mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov has been granted an entrance visa to the UK. According to an ITAR-TASS source, it was granted on the basis of “reunifying the family.”

His daughters have already been transferred to a London university. His wife Baturina has also taken to Albion’s shores. Apart from owning a luxurious 18th century palace in the capital, her massive investments in the British economy entitle her to a business visa, and the right to apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship.

Coinciding with these developments are stunning revelations in the Russian media about the extent of corruption on Luzhkov’s watch. The Audit Chamber, called in to inspect Moscow’s finances by its new mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, uncovered as much as 230 billion rubles ($8 billion) in financial irregularities over the past two years. More details are to be made public on February 4th.

Back on October 8th, I predicted that “within the next 3 months Luzhkov is going to get hit with corruption charges and will either go on trial or seek political asylum in the West.” It appears my forecast is coming to fruition just a bit late.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Can you tell your siloviki from your civiliki? MVD, FSB or GRU? The breeds of dog underneath those Churchillian carpets? If not, maybe this will help.

In August 2010, I translated the introduction to political pundit Vladimir Pribylovsky’s recent book ВЛАСТЬ-2010: 60 биографий (Power in 2010: 60 biographies). The resulting Phantom Tandem, Real Triumvirate and the Kremlin Clan Wars is a useful, if a tad obdurate, primer on “who’s who” in today’s Kremlin.

In collaboration with A Good Treaty, we have created three tables listing the biggest players in the “Kremlin clans” according to Pribylovsky (to the extent they exist: see my comments to the original translation). There have been few changes until today, January 2011. The biggest was the replacement of Sergey Bogdanchikov by Eduard Khudaynatov as President of Rosneft.

We hope that it will be of use to all Russia watchers, amateur and expert alike.

Pribylovsky (2010)

The Sechin Clan (“siloviki”)

sechin-clan

The Medvedev Coalition (“civiliki”)

medvedev-clan

“Putin’s People”

putin-group

 

 

These classifications aren’t the only ones in existence: of particular note

Stratfor (2010)

kremlin-clans-stratfor

eXile (2007)

kremlin-clans-exile

 

But do take all this Byzantinism with a grain of salt. ;)

 

UPDATE, May 31st, 2012:

Russian Reporter (2011, 2012)

According to a graph analysis by Russian Reporter, the Putin era saw a diminution of alternate centers of power within the power elites. However, 2012 saw an Anti-Clan Revolution, as the Putin – Medvedev clan got compressed in on itself by unconnected newcomers.

2000 Social Net

russia-clans-2000

2011 Social Net

russia-clans-2011

2012 Social Net – The Anti-Clan Revolution

russia-clans-2012

 

Is this then the end of the Kremlin clans?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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As you may have noticed, posting has slowed down in the past few days, mostly thanks to a combination of (1) Kindle, (2) 中文 and (3) the natural periods of apathy that afflict most non-pro bloggers. I don’t really see that changing until the end of the year…

1. Sayonara, Luzhkov. Props to Jesse Heath for predicting it, Patrick Armstrong for IMO the best summary, and STRATFOR for the most bizarre interpretation (they think Luzhkov was dismissed because the Kremlin no longer needs him to control the Moscow Mob). The best way of viewing this is not as a struggle between the tandem, or even Medvedev asserting himself, but as the latest stage in the campaign to replace entrenched regional barons with civiliki that are closer to the Kremlin. This appears to be part of the overall Kremlin drive towards greater centralization and technocratic management.

2. Structural Remilitarization? Of far greater long term import than the political scuffles around the Moscow mayoralty is the gigantic, even prodigal, plans and figures are being bandied around by senior members of the Russian leadership for the 2011-2020 rearmament program (1, 2, 3). The main points of the program are to spend 22 trillion rubles (c. $700bn) over the next decade to modernize Russia’s increasingly obsolete military hardware, complementing domestic items with imports from foreign countries like Israel, France and the US*.

These are huge sums for an economy with a nominal GDP of $1230bn in 2009 (the US has $14.3tn). To put this into perspective, taking into account changes in relative prices, $700bn of dollar spending in Russia would translate into about $1200-1500bn in the USA (e.g. just compare the unit costs of equivalent fighters, the higher salaries of researchers, etc). That’s $120-150bn in procurement and R&D per year. For comparison, in 2009 the US spent $219bn, and this figure is likely to decrease in the years ahead due to fiscal constraints and withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. As Steven Rosefielde speculated back in 2004, we may see the start of a “full-spectrum, fifth-generation rearmament” next year. If so, the wisdom of this course must be questioned:

  • Thanks to peak oil and growing demand for natural resources, this is now fiscally feasible (unlike in 2000, or even 1990 for that matter). But Medvedev’s absurd claims that military modernization is going to be “a generator of innovation” to the contrary, these investments are more likely to distortive and misallocative.
  • The move towards professionalization has been a flop and it is now evident that the conscription system will be retained for the foreseeable future (with minor adjustments, such as stricter controls on waivers, to make up for the coming 40% reduction in the pool of conscript-aged men due to the fertility collapse of the 1990′s). This is unfortunate, not only because dedovschina remains as prevalent as ever (the cutdown in military service to one year has altered the pattern of hazing, from age-based hierarchy to alpha/beta-male in/out-group dynamics), but because Russia has no discernible need for a million-strong military.
  • What exactly is the use of so many soldiers with 5th-gen hardware? Countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan are already walkovers. In the South Ossetia War of 2008, the main problem wasn’t with the weaponry, but with “softer” factors such as unit coordination. There is a vast range of non-military levers that can be used against Belarus or Ukraine. War with NATO is almost entirely theoretical, and as with China, will probably have a nuclear endgame.
  • Another factor that is often overlooked is the danger of over-investing into the 5-th gen paradigm, and in doing so becoming locked into it (e.g. much like the USSR build thousands of tanks in the early 1930′s that were obsolete by the time 1941 rolled by). In reality, it is just a transitional step towards the real face of future war: drone fighters; all-electric ships with railguns and laser weapons; massively networked forces with a plethora of robotic platforms, etc.

* I suspect that the reason why Russia finally disallowed weapons sales to Iran, including of the S-300, was because of an informal deal with the US allowing it market access to some of its military technologies.

3. Heatwave Toll. The demographic stats are showing a big mortality spike in July-August 2010 due to the Great Russian Heatwave, especially in the central and Volga regions. The overall excess mortality during the period is now at around 55,000 – almost twice as much per capita as during the 2003 European heatwave in France. Detailed info on Rosstat’s demography page.

4. Russia’s GDP up 30% this year!!! That is, unless (1) the World Bank made a clerical error or (2) the IMF and CIA are more reliable. ;)

I was looking through Wikipedia’s latest GDP lists and observed that the World Bank’s estimate for Russia’s real GDP in 2009 was $2.7tn, which is $18,900 per capita. (The IMF and CIA estimates are unchanged at the usual $2.1tn.)

IF accurate, the World Bank revision would indicate Russia is the world’s sixth largest economy and within spitting distance of Germany’s $3tn economy. In per capita terms, it would put it in the same league as Poland, Estonia and Hungary or nearly 60% of the EU average.

So what gives? In your opinion, are the newer estimates more accurate? Were there any political motivations behind it, e.g. the reset?*

* The IMF and WB are not unknown to sometimes make drastic changes in
GDP estimates. For instance, two years back China’s real GDP suffered
a 40% cut. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, China was within spitting distance of overtaking the US at the time of the revision!

5. Is Russia really more corrupt than Greece, let alone Pakistan? Stay tuned for the Karlin Corruption Index, a sequel to the Karlin Freedom Index.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This is a reprint of my article for the Sep/Oct 2010 issue of Russian Life magazine. It is a condensed version of Rosstat and Levada are Russophobia’s Bane. Enjoy!

There is a Catechism that dominates American discourse on Russia today. Just flip through The Washington Post’s editorials, peruse American political science journals or listen (cringe) to a Joe Biden interview. It goes something like this:

In the past decade, Putin’s Russia has forsaken Western values and returned to its authoritarian past. Ordinary Russians, bribed by the Kremlim’s oil largesse and misled by its controlled media, expressed only apathy at this development. Granted, the regime may enjoy superficial support (given Putin’s strangely stratospheric approval ratings), but the accelerating population decline proves that Russians are discounting the nation’s future with their loins. And so should we, for what’s the point of taking a “Potemkin country” ruled by a “kleptocratic thugocracy” seriously?

There’s only one problem – many of the underlying assumptions of this Catechism are unsupported by any facts, figures or statistics.

A major cornerstone of the Catechism is that electoral manipulation under Putin has become so egregious that the regime has lost the political legitimacy that many Westerners believe only stems from democracy. But opinion polls from the Levada Center strongly belie these concerns. In the 2008 Presidential elections, Medvedev’s 71% mandate was exactly the same as the percentage of voters who later recalled casting a ballot for him (and significantly lower than the 80% who intended to vote for him three weeks prior). [see poll 1 & 2] Obviously, this is not the Soviet-scale fraud of Kremlinologist fantasy.

There are two main rejoinders to this argument. First, doesn’t the Kremlin make ample use of its “administrative resources” – unfair media access, illicit campaign financing, etc. – to skew election results to its liking? True. As a “plebiscitary regime,” it not only relies on but revels in popular approval. But it’s genuine approval for all that – because if it weren’t, one would expect most Putinistas to be old, sour-mouthed “sovoks” who are fed news from state TV, right? But that’s not the case. Though pro-Kremlin, West-skeptical views are prevalent across all major social groups, they run highest among young, university-educated Muscovites – the very Russians most exposed to the West through the internet and foreign travel.

But that’s heresy! Don’t these inconvenient results imply that the Kremlin has coopted the polling agencies? Sorry, false cause fallacy. Furthermore, Lev Gudkov, the current director of the Levada Center, writes stuff like this: “Putinism is a system of decentralized use of the institutional instruments of coercion… hijacked by the powers that be for the fulfillment of their private, clan-group interests.” Doesn’t exactly sound like a raging, pro-Kremlin fanatic, does he?!

A second major theme of the Catechism is that Russia’s plethora of economic and social ills – best manifested in its demograpthic “free-fall,” “death spiral” (insert your own appropriately apocalyptic term here), etc. – doom it to decline and eventual irrelevance. Yet according to the state statistics service, Rosstat, the population stopped falling in 2009, as part of an ongoing recovery from the “lowest-low” fertility and “hyper” mortality rates of the post-Soviet transition period. True, its long-term sustainability is uncertain, and Russia’s demography is still nothing to write home about; for instance, death rates for today’s middle-aged men are unchanged from those of late tsarism (also according to Rosstat). That said, considering today’s Russia has an above-European average fertility rate and a stabilized population, there is no point in flogging this “death of a nation” meme any further.

Locked within their larger Meta-Catechism of Western universalism, the Commissars of Kremlinology are oceans separated from the lives of ordinary Russians, who by and large like their country, consider Putinism a fair balance between order and freedom, and are relatively optimistic about Russia’s future. One does not have to be a useful idiot, Kremlin stooge or “whataboutist” apologist for “Chekist dictatorship” to point this out – all it takes is a few minutes and a few mouse-clicks online.

So, until the Western commentariat can provide evidence that the claws of the Kremlin extend to Rosstat and Levada – as opposed to relying on generalized claims, hearsay and tea leaves – its Catechism of a secret police dictatorship leading brainwashed Russians to a national pyre is best appreciated as dystopian fantasy.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In the post with A Good Treaty’s interview, the commentator peter recommended this book, ВЛАСТЬ-2010: 60 биографий (Power in 2010: 60 biographies) by Vladimir Pribylovsky, as a “useful primer on who’s who in the Kremlin”. I happen to agree – with many qualifications, which are discussed below – which is why I translated its introductory summary “Phantom Tandem, Real Triumvirate and the Kremlin Clan Wars“.

The Triumvirate and the First Ten

According to the official version, Russia is a democratic country, consensually governed by the “tandem” of lawfully elected President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. The semi-official version says that the two halves of the “tandem” are in fact equal: since Putin is older and more experienced, he is also more “equal” and more important than his protégé in the Presidency.

The second account is closer to the real state of affairs, but it’s inaccurate even so. The pinnacle of power isn’t occupied by a “tandem” or duumvirate, but by a triumvirate composed of Putin, Sechin and Medvedev. The President isn’t even the second man in the hierarchy, but only the third. Although some politogists rank Medvedev fourth (after Viktor Ivanov) or even fifth (after Sergey Naryshkin, or Aleksandr Bortnikov, or Vladislav Surkov, or even Roman Abramovich), these are sensationalist exaggerations.

The real hierarchy and functions of Russia’s highest bureaucrats have no relation to their nominal positions. Vladimir Putin is called Prime Minister, but in reality he’s the Sovereign, our Tsar-Batyushka – while not a sole autocrat or absolute monarch, his power is unconstitutional; and though constrained, it is not by the constitution or the laws, but by corporate-clique traditions (not dissimilar from mafia “understandings”), backstage agreements with shadowy lobbies, and family, friend and administrative connections. Furthermore, not only is Putin a Tsar, he is also his own Minister of Foreign Affairs (the nominal minister, Sergey Lavrov, is nothing more than an advisor on foreign policy).

Though Igor Sechin is called the Deputy Prime Minister, it is he who is in fact the “First Minister”. He’s not quite the head of government (as not all Ministers are subject to him – several answer directly to the Sovereign), but he’s a first amongst equals nonetheless. He holds sway over vast swathes of the Russian economy (with the exception of finance) and the security organs answer to him.

On paper, Dmitry Medvedev is the President and head of stat, but in reality he’s sooner a sort of Deputy Prime Minister on a wide range of issues. Though preeminent in his domain, the legislative sector, he is but an advisor to the Sovereign on cadre questions, and not even the most influential – that honor goes to Viktor Ivanov, and maybe even Sergey Sobyanin has more influence on the appointments of governors than the President who signs to confirm them.

The responsibilities of FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov are similar to his job description. Though he is formally subordinated to President Medvedev, his real managers are Putin and Sechin.

Although Viktor Ivanov is officially the director of the Federal Anti-Narcotics Agency, no matter the name of his official position in the last 15 years, he was and remains Putin’s main advisor on cadre selection. Furthermore, the Federal Anti-Narcotics Agency is really the “second KGB” (the “first KGB” is Bortnikov’s FSB). This “second KGB” became necessary after the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which had balanced the KGB during the Soviet era, fell under FSB control during Putin’s reign. Control of the MVD is exercised by the Petersburg – Karelia clan of Patrushev and Nurgaliev.

Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Presidential Administration, should theoretically work to fulfill the President’s will. However, Naryshkin, Putin’s classmate in the KGB Higher School, is actually Medvedev’s “supervisor” on behalf of the Sovereign, Putin.

Vladislav Surkov is officially the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, but is also informally responsible for the regime’s ideology. He holds an unofficial position that is impossible in a democratic state – Minister of Parliament and Political Parties.

The Minister of Finance Aleksey Kudrin, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov (answers on foreign economic policy) and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Sobyanin (head of the Administration of the Russian President) also figure in the first ten of the administrative-economic oligarchy that rules Russia.

A Note on Oligarchy

An oligarchy is the collective authoritarianism of the propertied class. The single most propertied class in Russia is the higher bureaucracy, the nomenklatura. Directly (through management of state property) or indirectly (through front men, wives, children, cousins, nephews, etc) the oligarchic nomenklatura controls virtually the entire Russian economy. Their leading members are magnates of global stature – Putin in oil/gas and finance, Medvedev in paper and pulp, Sechin in oil, Sobyanin in natural gas, Shuvalov in finance, Surkov in food products, etc. This pattern is reproduced amidst the wider ranks of the regional oligarchies.

Clans, Clienteles and Coalitions

An oligarchy is never united – it is always fragmented into clans, groupings and clienteles waging civil war, as parts of temporary or more-or-less continuous coalitions. Today the main struggle is between two coalitions of administrative-economic clans, Sechin’s and Medvedev’s. The coalition centered around Sechin wants to remove Medvedev and his supporters from power and supports a third term for Putin after the 2012 elections.

In direct opposition, the Medvedev coalition aims to displace Sechin and his allies, reelect Medvedev in 2012, and transform the triumvirate into a duumvirate with Medvedev playing a more equal role in it. However, they are not much interested in Putin’s dismissal, though it is possible that for some of them it is a distant goal.

The foundation of the Sechin coalition is the union of two groups of St.-Petersburg Chekists: Sechin’s own clan and the group of Viktor Ivanov and Nikolay Patrushev (secretary of the Security Council and former head of the FSB), reinforced by a smattering of smaller clans and clienteles. Prominent figures in the Sechin clan include his protégé in the FSB Aleksandr Bortnikov, the Presidential Envoy to the Southern Federal District Vladimir Ustinov (Sechin’s son-in-law), former Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov (current First Deputy Prime Minister) and Mikhail Fradkov (current head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR), Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov, the President of Rosneft Sergey Bogdanchikov and the CEO of Vneshtorgbank Andrey Kostin.

The Ivanov – Patrushev group includes Speaker of the State Duma Boris Gryzlov, deputy head of the Federal Anti-Narcotics Agency Oleg Safonov and Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliev. This group splits further into several sub-groups and clienteles, the more noticeable of which include the Petersburg – Karelia Chekists (Patrushev – Nurgaliev) and the Petersburg – Afghan Chekists of Viktor Ivanov (his fellow servicemen on Afghanistan). The Sechin coalition also draws in the clienteles of Sergey Naryshkin and Aleksandr Bastrykin (Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General and Putin’s classmate from the Law Department of Leningrad State University). Another of Putin’s friends, Sergey Chemezov, is also part of Sechin’s coalition, with his extensive clientele of enterprise directors within the state corporation Russian Technologies, and several governors.

Medvedev’s coalition is composed of the so-called “Petersburg lawyers” (mostly Medvedev’s classmates from the Law Faculty of Leningrad State University), the “Petersburg economists”, the “Petersburg communicationists”, as well as Viktor Cherkesov’s group. The most influential of the “Petersburg lawyers” is Medvedev’s friend and former classmate, head of the Control Department of the Presidential Administration Konstantin Chuychenko. This group also includes the chairman of the Supreme Court of Arbitration and Medvedev’s lifelong friend Anton Ivanov, the Presidential Envoy to the Urals Federal District Nikolai Vinichenko, a few other lower-ranked classmates, Deputy Prime Minister and head of preparations for the Sochi Olympics Dmitry Kozak, Minister of Justice Aleksandr Konovalov, and Prosecutor General Yury Chaika (also a lawyer, though of Siberian origins).

Aleksey Kudrin leads the “Petersburg economists”, which also include Central Bank chairman Sergey Ignatyev, his first deputy Aleksey Ulyukaev, Minister of State Property Elvira Nabiullina, Director General of the state corporation Rosnano Anatoly Chubais, and advisor to the President Arkadiy Dvorkovich.

The “Petersburg communicationists” are led by Presidential advisor Leonid Reiman and his clientele (in contrast to a clan or group, which have some relatively equal personages, a clientele exhibits a more “vertical” nature: a master and his servants, the manager and his subordinates). Cherkesov’s group is also a clientele, though less so than Reiman’s because it includes the head of the President’s personal security service Viktor Zolotov and, perhaps, Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov.

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov (“Igor Ivanovich Not Really” – as opposed to Sechin, who’s “Igor Ivanovich The Real Deal”) and head of Medvedev’s Press Service Natalia Timakova are also part of Medvedev’s coalition. Its other supporters include the moneybags Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, as well as former Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Norilsk Nickel Aleksandr Voloshin. It is possible to consider these figures as another grouping in Medvedev’s coalition, “Voloshin’s group”. Of the newly appointed regional leaders, Nikita Belykh and Dmitry Mezentsev are supporters of Medvedev and his modernization initiative.

In addition to the two main coalitions there exist individuals and groups which haven’t chosen sides, support a neutral position, or prefer to deal with Putin directly. These include the group of “Petersburg physicists” (the Kovalchuk family and the brothers Fursenko) and the “Petersburg Orthodox Chekists” (President of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, the Presidential Envoy to the Central Federal District Georgiy Poltavchenko, and the Head of the Presidential Property Management Department Vladimir Kozhin). These groups are historically closely tied both with each other (through the St.-Petersburg Association of Joint Ventures and “Russia” Bank) and with Putin (through the “Ozero” dacha co-op).

Vladislav Surkov and his clientele also orientate themselves directly to Putin, feeding off the management of the Presidential Administration’s internal policy. Most governors – both old hands and new appointees (e.g., the new Governor of Pskov Oblast Andrey Turchak and the new President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov) – prefer to simultaneously show fealty to Putin, loyalty to Medvedev and boundless respect for Sechin.

Though there undoubtedly exist ideological differences between the Kremlin clans, they are not the building blocks of their coalitions. It is usually considered that Medvedev’s people (especially Kudrin’s group) profess economic liberalism, whereas Sechin’s clan are proponents of dirigisme. However, the disagreement seems more theoretical than anything. In practice, and regardless of their economic views, bureaucrats support “liberalism” towards companies under their thumb, while arguing for “dirigisme” towards enterprises connected to their opponents within the apparatus.

The majority of Medvedev’s clan are relative Westernizers and moderate imperialists. In contrast, Sechin favors an alliance with China against the West, and the majority of his supporters are hawkish imperialists in their attitudes towards the former Soviet republics. That said, the views of Cherkesov, especially in foreign policy, are little different from those of his bitter enemies amongst the Sechin clan (e.g., the news group Rosbalt, which they control, beat the war drum for a march on Tbilisi in August 2008).

Though he is a relative Westernizer and fairly liberal in his internal convictions, Surkov is adamantly opposed to even the minimal modernizing reforms in the sphere of ideology and politics suggested by Medvedev’s liberal advisors from the Institute of Contemporary Development, INSOR, patronized by Timakova and financed by Reiman. Though the “Orthodox Chekists” Yakunin and Poltavchenko might sing the Cross and Russian power to the skies, and advocate a strategic blockade of America in conjunction with the Arabs-Muslims, this does not stop them from maintaining a close alliance with the Kovalchuks (moderate Westernizers, and rather indifferent to both Orthodoxy and the Arabs-Muslims) in the interests of remaining competitive in economic and internal political intrigues.

Putin is Above the Fray

Putin remains above the struggle between the two oligarchic-nomenklatura coalitions (the rivalry between which he partly organized himself) and exploits all the political advantages of this state of affairs. Historically, he is closer to the Sechin clan, especially since one of the leaders of this coalition, Viktor Ivanov, is one of his closest friends. However, on economic questions (and personally) Putin completely trusts in Kudrin, and maintains friendly relations with him; furthermore, the appointment of Medvedev as a successor would have been impossible without a certain degree of trust – greater, in any case, than towards any of his former colleagues in the KGB. No doubt Putin was afraid of bestowing the Presidential mantle onto any of them even for a short time – regardless of all the vaunted “friendship” and “brotherhood” in the intelligence services.

In his cultural and civilizational views, Putin is a Westernizer (like Kudrin or Medvedev), but has only distaste for Western-style democracy (like Sechin, Patrushev, Viktor Ivanov). In matters of foreign policy he usually occupies a middle line between Kremlin Westernizers and anti-Westernizers, hawks and moderates, but it remains unclear whether his middle of the road attitude comes from listening to opposing sides of the foreign policy debate or is a product of his own quirks and oscillations.

The Sacred Cow

There are several reasons preventing the Medvedev clan from moving against Putin (and its anti-Putin minority from speaking out against Putin openly). First, it’s simply dangerous – for the future, for business, even life and limb. Second, many members of Medvedev’s coalition feel themselves quite comfortable with Putin – some of them are even closer to Putin, than they are to Medvedev (e.g. Kudrin): it is Sechin who makes their lives hard, not Putin. Third, they aren’t sure that they would be able to keep the Chekists and other assorted siloviks in check without Putin (as of now the Army is quiet and the generals don’t stick their noses into politics, but this will not necessarily be the case forever). Fourth, they are all either unknown to ordinary Russians (from Chuychenko to Shuvalov), or unpopular (Chubais, to a lesser extent Kudrin), and they fear that without Putin, not only would they be unable to control the Chekists, but also the Russian people.

Fifth, and finally, some of them (e.g., Chubais, Kudrin, Shuvalov) understand, that they have no long-term interests binding them to Medvedev, and rightly fear that if there were neither Sechin nor Putin, nothing would stop Medvedev from scapegoating them should the need arise. Nonetheless, in Medvedev’s circle – and especially in that “circle’s circles” – there does exist a dissatisfaction with Putin and a hidden desire to deprive him of power. This dissatisfaction is more or less evidenced in the writings of Medvedev’s experts in INSOR, the speeches of official human rights activists from the Presidential Council on Developing Civil Society, and in the publications of paper and electronic media under the control of Voloshin and Usmanov.

That said, however, it isn’t clear what Medvedev himself wants: to defeat Sechin and ascend to second place in a duumvirate, or to one day become the first and only Tsar himself. It’s possible that Medvedev himself doesn’t quite know yet; in any case, he is still far from successful in his struggle for second place in the real Kremlin hierarchy.

End of translation.

Comments on “Clan War” Kremlinology

1. A bit of history. Unless I’m mistaken, this clan-based view of Russian politics gained prominence around the time Mark Ames published The Kremlin’s Clan Warfare: The Putin Era Ends in the eXile in October 2007 (at any rate its pattern was widely reproduced). According to his view, the main clans were centered around Putin, Sechin and Cherkesov.

The main differences with Pribylovsky’s (2010) version is that Putin’s guys are now Sechin’s. The “civiliki” clan around Medvedev isn’t even mentioned yet.

Then earlier this year STRATFOR came out with its own interpretation in The Kremlin Wars series.

STRATFOR is more focused around which individual is aligned with the interests of which security agency (GRU vs FSB) clan.

Now one question we need to ask is: how much of the popular commentary on the Kremlin clans is based on Pribylovsky’s work (his site anticompromat.org has painstakingly detailed biographies on Russia’s major political figures)?

2. A few notes about Pribylovsky from Wikipedia. First, his professional work is in Byzantology – very appropriate for transfering to Kremlinology, though, of course, there’s always the possibility of its special stress on conspiracy, on insiderism and byzantism, overspilling. Second, he is a Soviet era dissident: he certainly doesn’t much like the siloviks, supported Vladimir Bukovsky (who doesn’t even live in Russia) for President in 2007, and signed the (somewhat ridiculous) “Putin Must Go” petition. Third, collaborated with Yuri Felshtinsky on the book Operation Successor; the same guy also collaborated with Litvinenko on the infamous conspiracy book Blowing Up Russia, and got funded by Berezovsky (the Family oligarch who lost out to the gebenishki and really hates Putin). Fourth, the book this translation is from, Power in 2010, was “издано при поддержке National Endowment for Democracy”. This democracy/freedom promoting organization openly admits to continuing work once done by the CIA.

This is not an argument for or against. It’s context. All political analysis is colored by one’s own political biases, and in Pribylovsky’s case it is undeniably very slanted in a particular direction. This has to be taken into account when deconstructing his work.

3. Now on to the article itself:

A) There are recognizable clans, though I very much doubt they are as rigid as Pribylovsky makes them out to be. Furthermore, these internal corporate structures are not specific to the Russian state. While corporatism is certainly very overt in Russia, it’s not as if it doesn’t exist (and in a big way) in the Western democracies (e.g. in the US the elites are mostly drawn from one class and greasy palms propel them from politics to business to thinktanks and academia and back). In general, like most Russian “dissidents”, he appears to have a rather warped and rose-tinged view of how politics really works in so-called “real democracies”.

B) I don’t think Putin (let alone Sechin) is more powerful than Medvedev for the very simple reason that Medvedev can fire Putin any day of the week, while Putin can’t do the same to Medvedev.

Now as the author pointed out, it is not really in Medvedev’s interest to do so. It is believable, if not inevitable or even likely, that doing so would be the political equivalent of nuclear war in the MAD era. But even in that case, it’s a balance of terror at the pinnacle of the power vertical, not Putin as Tsar / Godfather.

Furthermore, I think Pribylovsky over-stresses the competitive element of the clan system, and bellites the capacity for cohesion and effective action that is present in all feudal-type vertical systems. What is perhaps more logical is that Putin and Medvedev do trust and respect each other, and – as they say themselves – make their decisions in concert (even though it is sometimes advantageous for them to be at odds in public, especially their whole good cop / bad cop play on foreign observers).

D) Medvedev is just not that interested in personal glory. This is my impression, but his pose and mannerisms are so overly-”Presidential”, so cringingly imperious, that they appear utterly artificial, unbelonging to the alpha male-type that has Napoleonic complexes in politics. IMO, he will not seriously try to emerge as a Tsar figure – of his own volition.

E) One very good service Pribylovsky does is expose the Medvedev the Liberal vs Putin the Bad narrative so beloved of the Western media for the sham it really is. The people you attract reflect on you. Nobody who has the likes of people like Alisher Usmanov (a rapist and maybe worse) or Viktor Cherkesov (a thuggish secret policeman) in their retinue can be an liberal “angel”, nor can someone whom Chubais supports have impeccable respect for transparency. Likewise, no-one who protects Kudrin could be an economic populist and statist, just as no-one who appointed “Medvedev the Liberal” to the Presidency can entirely be an illiberal autocrat. The game is almost never black and white, just multiple shades of gray.

4. Commentator Lazy Glossophiliac gives us his thoughts on Reading up on Russia. I agree with him that Putin is probably better than Medvedev for Russia.

Addendum: In a joint effort with Kevin Rothrock of A Good Treaty, we have summarized Pribylovsky’s networks into three convenient tables. Check it out!

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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putmarck Kicking off the Watching the Russia Watchers interview series at S/O is the promising new blogger A Good Treaty. He is a DC-based foreign policy analyst who prefers a “good treaty with Russia” to only treating with a good Russia: as a foreign policy realist, he is averse to neocon (and neoliberal / liberal interventionist) tropes alike. A Good Treaty has a graduate degree in Soviet history and has lived in Moscow several times. His blog references Russian newspapers and makes original translations, and constitutes an excellent resource for any Anglophone seriously interested in Russian politics and Russian-American relations. You can follow Putmarck on Twitter.

A Good Treaty: In His Own Words…

Before answering any questions, let me take a second to thank Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion for taking the time to draft some very challenging questions that were very fun to (try to) answer. I tried to invent responses that were equally thought-provoking, and while I may have failed in that enterprise, I do hope to explain a little bit about the way I approach this work, which occupies a startling amount of my time.

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

I’ve been studying and working on Russia for about nine years now. Russia = bizarre, alluring, etc. I figure anyone reading my blog shares my interest in the Motherland.

I don’t expect this blog to have any impact on public policy or academic debate, but I do personally benefit a great deal from having a forum through which I can better synthesize my own ideas and listen to the responses of others.

The specific angle of AGT (the whole ‘realist’ POV) was a conscious decision I made after working in Washington for about a year. Democracy promotion, I soon discovered, has really supplanted all other approaches to foreign policy. Speaking outside this framework is the easiest way to get oneself painted as un-American and pro-dictatorship. This is largely a sham, since the United States has hardly stopped cooperating with nasty foreign states, but the dialog carried out in DC makes it very difficult for anyone to acknowledge this. Basically, I set out to avoid the old, tired normative analysis.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The most fun I’ve had so far is writing direct responses to articles that appear in the press. Doing this, I’ve managed to gain the attention of other bloggers and journalists, which has produced some stimulating private email exchanges and led InoSMI to translate a few of my posts (three, so far) into Russian.

The worst thing about blogging is an inverse of one of its best aspects: I’m regularly reminded how many talented, bright people there are out there with my exact specialty, who are regularly producing fascinating original work, and living abroad in Moscow, which I think of as a sort of bittersweet adventure.

What are the best blogs about Russia and the Eurasian space? What are the worst?

Some of my favorite Russia blogs (in no particular order): Julia Ioffe’s Moscow Diaries, Mark Adomanis’ On Russia, Sean’s Russia Blog, poemless (RIP — just kidding), this blog — Sublime Oblivion, The Russia Monitor, and Scraps of Moscow. I’ve recently started following Democratist, Dividing My Time, The Kremlin Stooge, and Neeka’s Backlog (which posts the loveliest photographs of Eastern Europe). In Russian, Maxim Kononenko at Idiot.fm and Oleg Kashin’s LiveJournal provide regular amusement. Evgeny Gontmakher, Medvedev’s “man on the outside,” has some amusing op-eds on his ‘blog’ at Ekho Moskvy. For military affairs, I regularly turn to the following three blogs: Russian Defense Policy, Russian Military Reform (Dmitry Gorenburg), and Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Pavel Podvig).

The Russia blogs with which I torture myself by reading are some of the following: the LJ blogs of Vladimir Milov, Vasily Yakemenko, and Andrey Illarionov. Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia reliably produces some of the longest, most rambling posts you’ll find online. Oleg Kozlovsky’s blogs (WordPress for English and LJ for Russian) are both as boring as they are terrible. Since Oleg decided to integrate his Tweets with his LJ account, there has been five times as much garbage. Ilya Yashin’s LJ blog, modestly titled in Spanish “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (A People United Will Never Be Defeated), is full of the same D-list self-promotion, but he sometimes includes photography and multimedia that makes reading his PR slightly more fun. (Also, he volunteered sordid details about an alleged threesome sex scandal that never got any corroboration beyond his own ranting. So, it can be entertaining on occasion, without a doubt.) And finally, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s blog, Spotlight on Russia, is another publication I love to hate for its unwavering commitment to recycling the most vapid, useless tropes about the ills of Russia.

I don’t even bother reading La Russophobe, which seems to just scrape the bottom of the Window on Eurasia barrel — another blog I skim but lack the stomach to honestly read. I think LR is too much opinion without enough style. Mark Adomanis (On Russia) and Mark Chapman (The Kremlin Stooge) are also very opionated and often openly insulting, but I’m able to enjoy their stuff mainly because (a) I don’t find their opinions to be so crazy (sorry, what can I say — I love to affirm my biases), and (b) their writing is immensely better.

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

I haven’t traveled Russia nearly enough. The farthest east I’ve been was a brief visit to Kazan’, which I thought was fascinating and beautiful. The local Kremlin there, which hosts both an Orthodox church and a mosque, has a marvelous statue out front dedicated to the world’s proletariat. Though I’m not a Marxist, the monument is awesome. Imagine Atlas breaking Ghostrider’s fire-chain in slow motion, and perhaps then you’ll understand how cool this thing is. Hell, just look at it here.

I’d love to see just about anywhere else in Russia I haven’t already been, which is most places.

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

I wouldn’t trouble anyone with a whole book. To understand Russia’s transitional conundrum, one should begin by reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1994 article “The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism“.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 1988? 1980? 2000? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

My impressions from talking to Russians is that life is better now that it’s been before. It’s still pretty lousy for most people, though. (I don’t think Russia is alone in this.) Whatever the benefits of modern living, Soviet nostalgia (for geopolitical status, for scientific respect, for athletic greatness, etc.) is also a patently real political force. Material realities are important, but it’s public perceptions that ultimately make the world.

How would you classify Russia’s political system? Is it a liberal democracy, an authoritarian regime, or a hybrid crossroads? Which current or historical political economies does it most resemble, if any?

Every polity is at a crossroads all the time. Every society in every nation in history is also a hybrid of various trends and persuasions. Russian politicians tend to have a more statist leaning in their way of conducting affairs, but this isn’t to say Western officials aren’t entangled in comparable webs of intervention, assistance, and power brokering. I honestly find very little to be gained by pursuing any classifications like those you suggest. If we call Russia ‘authoritarian,’ there are a thousand examples of information freedom and public debate to debunk this label. On the other hand, there are countless instances of repression to suggest that the Kremlin is indeed an authoritarian menace. Take your pick, but please leave me out of this errand.

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

First of all, I don’t like the term “Putinism.” I think it gives too much ideological credit to the Putin administration, which has never bothered much with a real intellectual architecture for either the Power Vertical or United Russia. (Sorry, Surkov, but I’m just not seeing the big picture when you tell the Nashi kids to ‘innovate’ the way to tomorrowland.) Putin consolidated power during a time of political and economic anarchy. Was that a good thing? Of course it was. Russians were deeply unhappy with Boris Yeltsin’s second term (which they were scared into granting thanks to the a spectacular PR scheme by the oligarchs), and Putin brought more than just stability to the country — he managed a period of genuine prosperity that, at the very least, benefited enough of the country’s elites that they ceased open, internecine warfare.

The new focus on modernization and innovation under Dmitri Medvedev, whom I believe to be a political ally and proponent of “Putinism,” is just the next phase of a process begun ten years ago. Perhaps it’s thanks to Putin’s flexible non-ideology, but I believe that he’s capable of adapting tactics to the needs of the moment. If his financial team is telling him that foreign investment is a must, it’s no shock that the Kremlin is now pursuing FDI with all its might.

It’s not all roses with the Putin years. In 2001, Russia was 79th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last year it was tied for 146th. (Hint: higher is worse.) While we shouldn’t attach apocalyptic significance to the designation of a number by a single NGO, the general consensus is definitely that corruption has been on the rise. This is a serious problem — it’s the serious problem. An optimistic take might be that, as the Kremlin begins to crack down on bribes and dodgy deals, the wrongdoers are trying to exact maximum rents as long-term insurance.

Or maybe Putin’s own web of rent distribution is the backbone of the ‘legal nihilism’ behind Russia’s Africa-level corruption. If that’s the case, then perhaps that way of doing business is no longer optimal. Recent overtures from Medvedev (presumably acting in agreement with Putin) suggest that the authorities are, at the very least, considering new priorities. It’s Russian politics in action.

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

Harassing the liberal opposition by denying them rally sites with fake counterprotests (for example, blood drives, and so on) seems to me to be a completely pointless exercise. It’s exactly this negative publicity that the opposition needs to survive, and the authorities continue to feed them this sustanance. Putin’s response, delivered to Shevchuk at the infamous luncheon exchange, was that these decisions aren’t up to him, but lie with local officials. Very well, Vladimir Vladimirovich, but why the hell don’t you get off your ass and exercise a little of that characteristic paternalism to steer your ship to calmer shores? I can only guess that the Kremlin is either unconcerned or desperately afraid — either of which seems like a stupid mindset for the leaders of the Russian Federation.

Additionally, I don’t see the point in squashing mayoral elections in cities across Russia. A few opposition victories by the communists or the SRs in buttfucknowhere cities is desirable! When Kondrashov won the Irkutsk spot recently, I thought ‘Wonderful!’ A few more such incidents will not even dent United Russia’s juggernaut, and it both injects some alternative voices into national politics and serves as excellent PR for Moscow to use in the faces of people who moan about attacks on democracy. And then I heard about Kondrashov switching affiliations to register with the ruling party. And then it turned out that the regional duma was seeking to abolish mayoral elections altogether in favor of an opaque ‘city manager’ appointment system. Again, the Kremlin and the authorities demonstrate an entirely unnecessary panic about the threat of opposition parties. If I had Putin’s or Medvedev’s ear, I’d scream into it that they need to display a bit more confidence — even if it’s in their own puppet political theater.

HARD Talk with A Good Treaty

ANATOLY KARLIN: As I understand, you are not the biggest fan of the Russian liberal opposition. You believe their leaders kowtow to the West and couldn’t care less about the everyday concerns of ordinary Russians. But consider the case of a patriotic Russian who detests the corruption and proizvol (arbitrariness) of state institutions and genuinely wants to improve human rights – not just those of Khodorkovsky, but of prison inmates, conscripts, minorities, etc. What can she realistically do about it, apart from ranting about the return of neo-Soviet totalitarianism in front of foreign TV cameras?

A GOOD TREATY: People “do” all kinds of things. Thirty-six parents and teachers in Ulyanovsk went on a week-long group hunger strike to successfully protest the closure of several local schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of youths in the Far East, fed up with local law enforcement and inspired by a particularly trigger-happy version of nationalism, decided to arm itself and start attacking police officers. Some people make it their profession to work in the line of danger — people like Natalia Estemirova and Sergey Magnitsky. Others lead scholarly human rights organizations like Oleg Orlov of Memorial, dedicated to unearthing a Soviet past they believe is forgotten at Russia’s peril.

All of these people are patriots in their own heads, and who am I to disagree?

I don’t begrudge the liberal opposition for ranting hyperbolisms in front of foreign TV cameras. This is half the business of being in the Russian liberal opposition, after all: (a) they need to provoke/tempt the authorities into cracking down on their rallies, otherwise nobody would ever care, and (b) they need to attract the attention of the West — for financial aid, for international connections, and for status. The liberal literati are frequent visitors to the United States — even the younger, student-”employed’ members like Ilya Yashin (who recently concluded a cross-country tour of the U.S.) and Oleg Kozlovsky (who’s been Stateside for weeks and is currently attending some kind of not-at-all-propagandistic-sounding democracy workshop at Stanford University).

These boys are more than welcome to globetrot wherever they like, but I personally can’t help but see them as a bunch of spoiled brats, partying to their own celebrity and hopelessly out of touch with the needs of ordinary Russians. (I’ve made it a point on AGT to focus on their endless infighting in order to highlight how self-centered and oblivious they really are.)

ANATOLY KARLIN: You noted that Oleg Kozlovsky’s rush to disassociate Solidarnost’ from the gay rights movement, or “radical LGBT activists” as he calls them, is remarkably similar to the Kremlin’s own arguments for dismissing the Russian liberal movement: neither minority enjoys much approval from ordinary Russians (see On “Minor & Non-Critical” Issues: Oleg Kozlovsky vs. Gay Rights). This is an inconsistency at best; a less charitable explanation is that many Russian liberals are themselves hypocrites and homophobes.

But consider this from another perspective – though claiming to be “a fan of free societies”, you insist the current Russian liberal movement is morally bankrupt and should moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric to be accepted by ordinary Russians. But if compromise is the key to political breakout, why should Russian liberals embrace the LGBT movement, an act that is sure to “alienate the vast majority of the population”, as Kozlovsky says, but improve neither rights of assembly nor LGBT rights? Are you not guilty of the same double standards as both Kozlovsky and the Kremlin?

A GOOD TREATY: The leaders of the liberal opposition may be a band of egotistical creeps, but I don’t think the principles of the movement itself are necessarily bankrupt. Like with the communists, there’s an unhealthy degree of backward-looking thinking, in their case consumed primarily with nostalgia for and white-washing of the ‘troubled 1990s.’

I don’t think the opposition needs to “moderate its anti-Kremlin rhetoric.” Plenty of Russians are more than responsive to criticisms aimed at the authorities, and liberals from Eduard Limonov to Liudmila Alexeeva could remain prolific dissidents without abandoning their principles. Remember that even at 70% approval ratings, almost one-third of all Russians still disapproves of the political status quo.

What liberals would benefit from is a reappraisal of their goals. Over the last few years, they’ve moved from one fad to another. ‘Other Russia’ to ‘Solidarity.’ ‘Marchy nesoglasnikh’ to ‘Days of Rage.’ The newest campaign, ‘Strategy-31,’ is catchy, but it likely maxed out its publicity potential with the blowup at the end of May. (We’ll see if the next one in three days proves me wrong.) As Vladimir Milov pointed out in a radio debate with Ilya Yashin, Solidarity and its various rally projects have peaked. More people just aren’t coming anymore (in fact, many seem to be leaving, he claims).

This, I think, has more to do with the focus (or lack thereof) of the professional liberal protesters. Everywhere they look for concrete platform ideas, they’re terrified of casting the net too narrowly. Hence, they mustn’t support the gays for fear of alienating the masses. Certain environmental causes are taken up (such as the movement to protect Lake Baikal), but it’s usually in response to local initiatives elsewhere, and it’s after the real hubbub has ended. What Moscow’s protesting “elites” typically trumpet is an unattractive medley of ad hominem attacks on national figures. So it’s “Putin v ostavku” or “Luzhkov v tiur’mu” — the Russian equivalent of Bush-era peacenik demonstrators demanding the president’s impeachment or today’s Tea Party comparing Obama’s healthcare plan to National Socialism.

For the individuals involved in this movement, I’ve no doubt that they think they’re speaking ‘truth to power.’ On a superficial level, it’s certainly a pretty daring person who delights in taunting Russian OMON troops, essentially begging them for a beating and an arrest. But it’s that photogenic rush that seems to fool these folks into believing that they’re soldiers on the 21st century front against totalitarianism. When I met Oleg Kozlovsky earlier this year, he was asked if people feared for their jobs when attending rallies. His answer? Nope. Nobody gets fired for coming to these circuses. Come one, come all, to the political pageant.

If people like Yashin and Kozlovsky (and Milov and, I’m sure, nearly all the high profile lib leadership) want to ignore the gay rights movement for fear of endangering their popular appeal, I wonder why they can’t apply that same political sense to the rest of their activism. Either they are purists proudly pontificating from the periphery, or they’re cutthroat and calculating, and presumably seeking a way to speak to the interests and tastes of society at large. Right now, they seem to be occupying a sort of idiot’s limbo, where just about everyone has a reason to dislike them. And — what a shock — most Russians do.

ANATOLY KARLIN: When the Feds rolled up the “extremely undangerous” Russian spy ring, you argued that they managed to “jeopardize” an important relationship with the world’s second nuclear superpower. But STRATFOR would argue that you missed the point (see Russian Spies and Strategic Intelligence). Though Boris and Natasha failed to steal anything important, that wasn’t their goal to begin with! The traditional modus operandi of Russia’s intelligence services is to recruit young, promising Americans with potential careers in organizations like Lockheed Martin or the CIA (think Robert Hanssen or Aldrich Ames). Unless you want foreign moles infiltrating the Homeland’s national security agencies and military-industrial complex, why would you criticize the FBI for doing its job?

anna_chapman_facebook13.jpg A GOOD TREATY: It’s funny that you mention Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames as examples of people at risk of being ‘turned’ but Russian secret agents, as both these men initiated their work as spies by themselves. Hanssen and Ames each lived beyond their means, and apparently approached Russian embassy personnel to sell U.S. state secrets in order to cover their debts and subsidize the high life. No unregistered foreign employees were required to flip these Americans, whose volunteered treachery led in turn to the deaths of Soviet and Russian traitors working for us. If Anna Chapman or anyone from her team of ‘Illegals’ was in a position to ‘flip’ an important American source, it would have marked a departure from the history of U.S. sellouts, who typically defect of their own accord to registered Russian officials.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You describe yourself as a foreign policy realist and admire Otto von Bismarck for his political acumen. But what if American geopolitical imperatives and “a good treaty with Russia” are incompatible? Let me expound. The foundations of geopolitics are Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History. According to this view of the world, the Russian Empire seeks hegemony over the Eurasian Heartland; in direct opposition, the United States tries to prevent its emergence through geopolitical balancing, economic constriction and amphibious interventions (in what Aleksandr Dugin calls the “Anaconda Strategy”). These geopolitical dynamics colored the Cold War and are once again coming into play: even as Russia reasserts its influence over the post-Soviet world, the US is preparing to withdraw from Iraq and is building forward bases in the Balkans and expanding defense ties with Poland.

Two questions follow from the above. First, one of America’s great strengths is the abiding attraction of its purported democratic model. Why then isn’t then the US export its “freedom” to check Russian expansionism, and if possible undermine the Kremlin itself? (After all, if guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power, they can be expected to participate in the “international community” / serve Western interests). Second, as a realist, why would you disagree with Mearsheimer’s argument for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent?

A GOOD TREATY: The U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq … and doubling-down in Afghanistan. Being overstretched and unable to seriously deliver on open-ended defense pacts with Eastern European states, the White House’s rhetoric about missile defense and security investments along Russia’s western periphery is worrying, to say the least. The decision to militarize what could have functioned as a peaceful buffer zone between Russia and Europe seems to me to have been an extremely unwise decision by U.S. decision-makers. Even at the height of the Cold War, American buildup in Western Europe was met by (or in response to) Soviet maneuvers within the Warsaw Pact. It was certainly competition, but spheres of influence were generally agreed upon, and — even during the various uprisings that led to Soviet troops being deployed in 1953, 1956, and 1968 — the U.S. never threatened intervention, and any direct confrontation remained a nonfactor. In the 2008 Ossetian war, however, George W. Bush’s advisers apparently lobbied for an attack on the Roki Tunnel — an act of war that would have engaged American soldiers directly against Russian troops. That the U.S. has reached a stage where it even contemplates initiating military strikes against the Russian army indicates the frightening recklessness behind any worldview built upon a foundation of “America’s great strengths.”

Any conversation about realism is incompatible with a question that opens, “If guys like Kasparov or Khodorkovsky come to power.” That being said, Vladimir Milov compares Kasparov to the early Bolsheviks, indicating that he might not be the friendliest candidate for a job in America’s global utopia. As for Khodorkovsky, installing him in the Kremlin would theoretically only put in his hands yet more power to buy or bump off his enemies and competitors. Even in this scenario, there’s reason to assume the U.S. would not find its ideal Slavic partner.

In living memory, it seems Washington has really only been happy when it’s been free to call all the shots — i.e., under the administration of Boris Yeltsin. If that’s really true, American spooks should look not to the liberal elite (who likely would only use more power to fight amongst themselves), but to institutional fissures in the Russian state. Yeltsin was in large part such a swell pal because he was all too happy to sell off the kitchen sink, as long as it meant the Soviet cooking space was left without running water. “Take all the sovereignty you can swallow” he commanded initially. It was only later, after he consolidated his own authority and raked the USSR’s ashes into the garbage chute, that national determination transformed into an all-out war for territorial integrity.

A weak Russian state will be less assertive on the international level, but destabilizing Russia itself can and would pose devastating risks to the human beings actually living there or nearby. (Luckily for Uncle Sam, I guess, his primary constituents are well across the pond.)

Regarding a nuclear Ukraine: great idea, but they surrendered the last of their bombs in 1996. Moreover: not a great, but a lousy idea. Russia would never have bought the concept that an unaligned Ukrainian state could exist with or without atomic weapons. Aside from the crippled era of Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin has never been comfortable with the premise that Ukraine exists outside its “privileged sphere.” The attraction of a buffer zone does not apply to Ukraine. If Washington had insisted on maintaining a nuclear Kiev, Moscow would have interpreted it as a direct existential threat. In other words, it would have been extremely destabilizing in an already topsy-turvy decade.

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.

Medvedev will be reelected in 2012. Putin will continue on as Prime Minister. There will be some staff reshuffling, but nothing will really change. By 2012, the Russian economy should be doing much better. (I expect the same to be true in the U.S., where Obama will likely ride an ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ mantra to a second term.)

The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games will not produce any major international embarrassments for Russia. Investigative reporters will have no trouble turning up horror stories about the waste that went into the project and the poverty it ignored alleviating in the surrounding areas, but I don’t expect any Dagestani terrorist attacks or roof collapses to indict the Kremlin for lousy management. As for Russia’s medal count: better than it was in Canada, but still low enough to trigger another slew of articles about the collapse of Soviet sports training.

Sooner or later, Alexei Kudrin will be ousted from his position in the Ministry of Finance. This guy’s name is attached to too many revenue-saving, unpopular budgetary measures for him not become a political liability eventually. I don’t expect him to go the route of Andrei Illarionov, however. He’ll be honorably discharged and put to use in some less public capacity.

The Solidarity Movement will fizzle out within the next few years, to be replaced by the next ‘it’ conglomeration of the very same individuals. Maybe they’ll call it the ‘March of the Raging 31 Dissidents.”

What are you plans for A Good Treaty?

I intend to simply keep posting 1-2 pieces every week on topics of my choosing. I like to alternate between big-headlines-grabbers (like the Russian spy ring) and stuff that requires me to be a bit more inventive and take time to research (like previous posts on Russian defamation law, the recent FSB law, the ‘Clean Water’ program, and so on). Unfortunately, based on the WordPress statistics to which I have access, it’s these latter posts that generate substantially fewer readers. I can’t blame the interwebs for sending me less traffic when I’m not writing about hot topics, but it is a little disappointing to know that some of the stuff that takes to most work to write is also the least popular.

The biggest thing I’ve started doing in connection with the blog recently is actively using Twitter. I include a snapshot stream of my tweets in the lefthand column on the blog, but I hope users will actually subscribe to my feed on Twitter itself, as this allows me to better track my followers, and allows for opportunities to interact with readers/users — which is something I love about the service.

There is a possible Russia blogging collaboration project in the works with Mark Adomanis, but I really can’t say anymore because I don’t know anything more than that. He contacted me recently about the idea, and we tentatively agreed to make something happen. As I said above, Mark is a very talented writer, and I’m pretty excited about the idea of mooching shamelessly off his celebrity. Thanks, Marco!

And thank you, A Good Treaty, for an excellent interview!

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

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