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Saudi Arabia

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Though presented as an anti-corruption campaign, there’s no real doubt that it is politically motivated (at any rate MbS sure enjoys the sweet life himself).

I agree with Alexander Mercouris (read his excellent article) that the intent is to transform Saudi Arabia from the nepotistic monarchy it is today to a modernizing autocracy centered around MbS.

saudi-oil-dependence

CNN: Saudi oil dependence.

Saudi Arabia faces very big problems in coming decades. It is highly reliant on oil – it pumps out five times as much per capita as that “gas station of a country,” Russia. But the technological revolution in this industry of the past decade has dashed any hopes such oil exporters might had had off living off the resource rent indefinitely. Meanwhile, the population is growing by more than 2% per annum, and the rentier class of Saudi princes – who now number around 15,000 – is growing even faster (“elite overproduction,” as Peter Turchin would say).

This political transformation, if successful, will help Saudi Arabia avoid collapse as oil revenues per capita dry up in the coming decades. But will it be successful?

Positives

1. The anti-corruption “raid” has netted a lot of money in the most direct sense. Eric Margolis in today’s featured column on this webzine mentions $800 billion. That sounds off by an order of magnitude, but very useful nonetheless.

A much more important effect is that this constitutes a signal that there there could be limits on the amount of resources that the royal family will be allowed to hoard. This offers a way out from the Saudi elite overproduction trap.

national-transformation-program

3. MbS has shown a healthy apetite for economic reform. In the National Transformation Programme announced in 2016, there are plans to partially privatize oil giant Aramco, diversify from oil (easier said than done), and cut subsidies and welfare.

Famous Twitter satirist menaquinone4 jokes that Saudi Arabia has been taken over by a TED Talk. But hey, TED Talks are a fixture of the well-educated SWPLs who attend Davos, and Riyadh has mastered their language:

In a 2006 paper, the cliodynamicist Peter Turchin – who had, incidentally, also predicted the rise of Islamic State – proposed the following two futures for Saudi Arabia: “The model predicts that the sovereign debt of Saudi Arabia will eventually reach unmanageable proportions; the fiscal collapse will be followed by a state collapse in short order. The timing of the collapse is affected by exogenous events (primarily, fluctuations in world oil prices) and by parameter uncertainty (certain parameters of the model can be estimated only very approximately)… A major theoretical alternative is provided by a set of ideas and specific recom­mendations suggesting how Saudi Arabia can avoid crisis by reforming its economy and liberalizing its political system (the “IMF scenario”).

The IMF scenario, in this interpretation, consists of opening up the economy to external competition, balancing the budget and cutting social spending, and liberalizing politics. To date, MbS has taken at least tentative steps on the first two parts.

4. This is accompanied by social reform that sits well with younger people – the most publicized example would be allowing women to drive. Labor participation rates should increase. Cinemas have been reopened. And MbS has at least spoken of a much more stringent commitment to fighting extremism.

5. Bold scenario: Invade and annex Qatar, which has four times more oil production per capita than even Saudi Arabia. The Saudi military isn’t anything to write home about, but this should be quite doable, if the US is okay with it (which it probably is under Trump).

This might extend the feasibility of the current model by a decade just by itself (barring any major geopolitical fallout).

Negatives

1. Existing power centers have been alienated.

First, other factions of the Saudi family, who will not be happy with the purges – and henceforth, will have just one obvious, central person (MbS) to blame for any future failures.

And there likely will be failures, given the scope of his geopolitical ambitions (Syria, Yemen, Qatar, now Lebanon).

Second, the mullahs, whose authority he has undercut. Wahhabism and the House of Saud have always been joined at the hip, and the relationship hasn’t always been a smooth one. Though it is now backpeddling, the Saudis thirty years worth of financing Wahhabi extremists abroad may well come to boomerang back against them.

Both of these are more important than any “cool points”, probably ephemeral ones, that MbS is gaining with young progressive Saudis.

2. Though MbS is cutting the ties between Court and business, there is no guarantee that the new elites who will form around him will be any less rapacious or corrupt than the current ones. Maybe even the contrary. An acquaintance with experience of Saudi Arabia tells me that the royal family are “rooted” in society; they feel a certain sense of noblesse oblige that you don’t get with modern, post-traditionalist bureaucracies. An Arab who had fallen on hard times can come and petition a prince for help, and not infrequently said prince would provide alms or other aid. This perhaps explains why the Saudi nobility, despite their sorry reputation in the highly formal and rules-based West, are not particularly resented for their legal immunities and other privileges in their own homeland. This system may not survive MbS’s modernizing centralization.

3. Military spending is soaring out of control – the Saudi total now rival’s Russia’s (on paper). In reality, it gets much less bang for the buck, since the Saudis obscenely overpay for foreign (mostly American) military equipment, with the recent $300 billion deal agreed upon during Trump’s visit – of which $110 billion is to be paid upfront – being just the latest and grandest example.

But like most Arab militaries, the Saudis do not have the military culture or human capital to properly use their high-end equipment.

This is important because MbS is a hawk. King Salman (his father) was one of the most hardline princes in supporting intervention in Syria, which is now winding down into failure. MbS was instrumental in the invasion of Yemen in 2015, embroiling Saudi Arabia in an unwinnable partisan war, and in the diplomatic spat with and blockade of Qatar, which has only served to move it closer to Iran and Russia. Most recently, they have taken the extraordinary step of effectively kidnapping of Saad Hariri, the PM of Lebanon, perhaps as part of a prelude to bombing Lebanon.

Teddy Roosevelt said you should speak softly but carry a big stick. The Saudis are doing the opposite.

4. It’s important not to overdo the importance of the Saudi reforms. Since 2010, it is one of the few countries to have regressed in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings not just relatively, but in the absolute value of the Distance to Frontier (to best practices) indicator. Along with Qatar, it has the least transparent budget in the world. In all fairness, King Salman has only been in power since 2015. Even so, its position in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business has fallen from 82nd to 92nd in the two years since.

It also remains to be seen whether MbS has the capacity for more painful reform, such as ending the dollar peg and allowing the Saudi riyal to devalue.

4. Foreign Policy: Saudi Arabia Is Betting Its Future on a Desert Megacity

In theory, the desert ecopolis of Rabi’ah Neom will be run by advanced AI systems and will provide humanity with cutting-edge breakthroughts in digital technology, biotechnologies, and clean energy.

My prediction: It will look less like this…

machine-city

… and more like this (presumably minus the cyborg).

deus-ex-dubai

However, the $500 billion projected for this white elephant are sure to provide kickbacks more than sufficient to consolidate a new clique of oligarchs around MbS.

It’s just unrealistic to expect anything else in a country of 85 average IQ rent-seekers.

Many of these problems have strong parallels with 1780s France.

Even as its debt payments mounted, the ancien regime lavished money on the military (including a failed military harbor at Cherbourg – the SDI program of that time) and pursued bold and generally successful but fiscally ruinous geopolitical adventures aimed at checking its eternal rival, Britain (Iran).

It also engaged in profligate construction spending – the Finance Minister, Calonne, called it “useful splendor,” on the dubious theory that it would inspire confidence and attract more credit. Didn’t really end up working that way. But at least the Court got to enjoy nicer palaces for a short time, and perhaps their modern equivalents, the globalist Davosites, will likewise get to partake of VR tours of Neom for another decade or two.

Which is not to say that an Arabian Revolution is at all inevitable in the next quarter century. I would say that it is unlikely, but quite conceivable.

Even though the budget is deeply in the red, and the currency is hugely overvalued, the Saudis still have massive foreign currency reserves, little debt, and huge oil reserves. The security forces are well fed, the military has always been kept defanged (even if incompetence is a side effect), and after the purge, the National Guard is now under the control of MbS.

On the other hand, substantial percentages of the two most important social groups, the mullahs and the oligarch princes, have been alienated. And is it well known, revolutionary apetites are provoked as often as they are sated by reform. Maybe aspiring Saudi bobos will be happy that women are now allowed into football stadiums. Or maybe they will be even angrier that they remain segregated from men there. We will have to wait and see.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia 
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lenin-was-right

Communist Russophilia in all its glory.

I have some important work non-blog related tasks to do up until Nov 16 so there’ll be a temporary halt to my posts deconstructing the Red ideology, but rest assured that this important mission will be resumed.

Speaking of that. Recently met up with a couple of elderly relatives, the centenary of the Revolution came up. One is a Soviet nostalgic and pro-Leninist/Stalinist, as are most people of that generation, the other – a person in his 60s, blue-collar engineer background, even has the engineer’s trademark disdain for humanities education – started opining about the Brusilov offensive, that Russia should have won WW1, that Lenin was a traitorous scumbag, etc. This was shocking to the latter, though pleasantly surprising for myself. I should also stress that there was absolutely no prompting on my part (personally I try to avoid discussing the USSR with old people in Russia and the West alike), though as the debate got going, I did back him up .

What is the point of this anecdote? First, that there are people with all strongly anti-Bolshevik opinions in Russia, including in demographic groups you’d hardly expect it from. Second, that there are some people in my comments threads who are full of shit.

Moderation Note

Whining from certain quarters regardless, you really have to work pretty hard to get banned from my blog.

There have been a total of about a dozen such cases. Here’s a representative sample:

  • The person who keeps on spamming that shitty Holocaust denial forum
  • The person who believes that literally every Islamic terrorist attack is a CIA/Mossad/reptilian Illuminati false flag
  • The spammy Islamist
  • The Stalinist nutjob who made implicit legal threats against me

Anyhow, I am taking the possibly misguided decision of a total amnesty, and have temporarily scoured the entire list.

This doesn’t mean its going to be a free for all. I reserve the right to hide stupid/spammy comments under a <more> divider. I reserve the right to outright delete extremely stupid and/or spammy comments. And if necessary, I will start populating the ban list again.

Comment rules are here, to be enforced at my discretion – http://akarlin.com/comments/

Main

* Alexander Mercouris: Destabilising Saudi Arabia? Crown Prince consolidates control; eliminates rivals

I’ll write about Saudi Arabia in a separate post.

* Andrew Griffin, Max Benwell (Independent): Rogues of The Resistance: The liberal activists and conspiracy theorists who want to take down Trump

There’s that joke about the Jew who enjoyed reading Der Stürmer because it was so positive about Jewish achievements such as their control of all the banks and media. I admit I enjoy reading Louise Mensch and /r/politics for the same reason. It’s nice to fantasize about a world where ROG is real.

* Jose Ricon: Links (13)

* Ruin value. I suppose this makes it the architectural equivalent of the “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse” philosophy.

Russia

chomsky-on-persecution-of-rt

Noam Chomsky interview from April 2015.

* RT forced to register as foreign agent by Monday.

Russia has promised retaliation, though it hasn’t specified what. It is possible that it will be something completely retarded, like blocking CNN and RFERL (which practically nobody in Russia visits anyway – and those few who do, are familiar with VPN).

Roskomnadzor says it’s also designed an extrajudicial system for blocking the websites of organizations labeled “undesirable” by the Justice Ministry.

If Russia was run by smart people, it would start denying visas to the more hostile Western journalists, like China does. This is effective, and deniable (can’t prove its on purpose). But I don’t expect that to start happening anytime soon.

* Paul Robinson: Interview with Mikhail Remizov

* This year’s Russian March in Moscow was broken up by OMON. What was a major spectacle regularly drawing ~10,000 vigorous right-wingers 5-10 years ago is now a rather sad affair with no more than ~500 people, most of whom belong to Maltev/Demushkin’s marginal pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO faction.

vishnevsky-russia-demographics-no-ussr

* Anatoly Vishnevsky: A demographic projection of Russia’s population in the 20th century (within current borders!) if no Bolshevism + WW2 [in Russian].

Around 280 million people (instead of 145 million), plus maybe 120 million Ukrainians and Belorussians = 400 million strong East Slavic superpower.

orwell-sovok

* Brilliant “Orwellization” of Lenin’s most slogan (via Оскал Империализма)

Bread is Prodrazverstka
Land is Collectivization
Peace is Civil War

World

* genby: A list of all (all 28) of North Korea’s websites. Another Communist success story.

Other

* YouGov poll: Germany tolerates men staring at breasts more than most

* Azeri success story:

 
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This is an argument that is doing the rounds on the Internet after Iran’s condemnation of the Saudi execution of 47 people (including at least 4 “politicals”) to mark the New Year and the ensuing breakdown in Iranian-Saudi diplomatic ties.

After all, they say, Iran executes a lot more people than the Saudis.

saudi-iran-executions

 

One example is Peter Tatchell, the British LGBT campaigner, whose ideas of promoting gay rights in the Middle East center around the toppling of its secular autocrats (the only significant political forces there who aren’t much interested in throwing homosexuals off the top of high buildings).

There are more than a few problems with such simplistic soundbytes.

The most obvious one is the difference in population: Iran – 77 million; Saudi Arabia – 29 million. Adjustment for capita values alone narrows the execution disparity from sixfold to just a bit more than twofold.

Second, and even more significantly, Iran is a considerably more criminalized society than Saudi Arabia. Its homicide rate of 3.9/100,000 is 5 times bigger than Saudi Arabia’s homicide rate of 0.8/100,000. Ipso facto, as states that both prescribe the death penalty for murder, Iran will have many more executions just on that account, by an order of magnitude or so. Since the world’s two largest developed democracies – the US and Japan – both have the death penalty for murder on the books, you can’t view this as uniquely barbaric.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran also has a massive heroin epidemic; by some measures, the world’s largest. By far the largest share of Iran’s executions are in fact related to drug trafficking. To be sure executing people for drug traficking might be viewed as overly draconian in liberal Western societies, but it is still not exceptional by developed world standards – as a matter of fact, Singapore’s drug traficking laws are if anything more hardline than Iran’s. In any case it is not political.

Here is a breakdown of Iranian executions in 2015 by type of crime according to a resource that tries to tally unregistered executions and is not friendly to Iran by any stretch of the imagination.

iran-executions-2015

The vast majority of executions are for “normal” capital crimes like murder, armed robbery, rape, and drug traficking that are not atypical for tough law & order-type states. One guy was executed for corruption (“peculation”).

Of the 22 Iranian executions that touched on political matters, six of them were for “assassination,” and one was for “kidnapping,” so they can be reasonably excluded. Of the remaining 15 cases, one was marked “political,” and 14 were marked Moharebeh (“war against God”) of which 5 were for belonging to armed separatist groups. These are also the specific cases which make Iran truly distinct in a human rights sense from typical liberal democracies, which it shares in common with Saudi Arabia, and with which the figure of 47 executed in Saudi Arabia several days ago should actually legitimately be compared to.

This is not to imply that Iran is awesome, but it is important to keep things in perspective – no, Iran is not worse than Saudi Arabia from a human rights perspective when adjusted for demographic and criminological factors, and probably significantly better. And far more importantly, it has now largely ceased trying to export its deranged ideology to more civilized parts of the world, while Saudi funded madrassas and mosques promote hate from Luton to Lahore. It is necessary to repeat these things so long as they help to subvert the propaganda efforts of Western neocon elites who will be happy to grasp at any straw if it helps them bring down Assad.

 
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Repost of Alexander Mercouris’ comments at Mark Chapman’s blog and The Russia Debate forum. The original compilation is posted at Mercouris’ blog.

PS. Originally, this space hosted just one of Mercouris’ comments. Now that he has taken the trouble to gather up his output, the least I could do is update it and try to ensure it gets maximum publicity.

Syria – An Illegal Attack Intended to Prevent a UN Investigation

No one should be under any illusions that the attack on Syria which will take place shortly is illegal and is intended to prevent an impartial investigation by the UN inspectors of what actually happened near Damascus. In the light of the forthcoming attack on Syria and in view of the forthcoming meeting of the Security Council later today (Wednesday 28th August 2013) and of the parliamentary debate in Britain tomorrow (Thursday 29th August 2013) I have decided to post a number of comments I have made on various threads discussing this crisis on the Russia Debate and on Kremlin Stooge that explain this and which set out my views. I have also published a comment by Anatoly Karlin to which I have responded.

Friday 24th August 2013

The reality is that (NB: contrary at that time to claims by the US government and western media reports – AM) Russia has asked the Syrian government to allow an inspection of the area where the attack was committed and the Syrian government according to the Russian Foreign Ministry and from the tone of the reports carried by Syrian government’s news agency Sana seems to have agreed to this (1, 2).

A point that western media demands for the Syrian government to “allow” the UN inspectors into the area of the gas attack wilfully ignore is that the area where the attack seems to have taken place is rebel controlled. It is therefore the rebels not the government who control access to it. The onus should therefore be on them and not just the government to allow the UN inspectors in.

I do not know who carried out these attacks but as many have pointed out if it was the Syrian government then the timing – a year apparently to the day after Obama’s “red lines” speech and just after the UN inspectors arrived in Damascus – would in that case be incredibly stupid to the point of being bizarre. As has also been correctly pointed out, an attack of this sort now when the government seems to be winning on the battlefield also appears to make little sense. By contrast one can see why the rebels at a time when they are coming under pressure might want to stage an incident of this sort that they can blame on the government. I would add that they might also feel a need to shift the spotlight back on them and away from what has been happening in Egypt.

What many people don’t of course know is that if one follows the accounts of the Syrian conflict provided by Sana then one would know that the Syrian government has been alleging incidents of use of chemical weapons by the rebels practically every week for the last few months. Obviously I have no idea how true these claims are. However I do find it depressing that the government’s claims of use of chemical weapons by the rebels get no attention whilst rebel claims (such as this one) get saturation coverage. There is no reason to give greater credence to any side in this war but there is at least some corroboration of rebel use of chemical weapons: not just the famous comments of Carla del Ponte but also an incident when some rebels were discovered in Turkey in possession of a sarin gas canister a few months ago. News of that incident was suppressed even though it was accompanied by stories that a gas attack on a Turkish town that would be blamed on the Syrian government was planned.

It also puzzles me why western commentators like Shashank Joshi (NB: In this article in the Daily Telegraph – AM) seem so unwilling to accept that the Syrian rebels are capable of carrying out false flag operations even when these kill their own people. This is after all a rebel movement amongst whose commanders is a cannibal who still commands his unit and who has come in for barely any criticism from the rebel leadership even after his activities were broadcast in a film shown internationally, which uses suicide bombers and whose members cheerfully behead children if they discover them committing blasphemy. Given how utterly ruthless this movement is why assume they would stop at false flag operations involving sarin gas?

Given that the US and its allies have been “demanding” that Syria allow the UN inspectors into the area of the alleged gas attack (something which as I have said Syria has always said it would do) one might presume that they would welcome the announcement yesterday of an agreement between the Syrian authorities and the UN inspectors for the UN inspectors to inspect the area of the gas attack. Nothing of the sort. Instead the ether last night and this morning is full of statements about how this is “too little and too late” and how a strike can now be made against Syria with UN Security Council authorisation and how such a strike will now happen within the next 2 weeks.

My conclusions? Far from being happy that the UN inspectors are going to visit the area in Syria of the alleged gas attack, the US and its allies are alarmed about it precisely because Syria’s consent to such an inspection most likely means that the Syrian authorities were NOT responsible for the gas attack. The very last thing the US and its allies want in this situation is for the US inspectors to turn round and say that it was the rebels who were responsible for the gas attack. The result is that having called for the UN inspectors to visit the scene the US and its allies are now determined to prevent a proper investigation at all costs (no investigation of a crime scene can be completed within 2 weeks. Any investigators knows that is impossible). That is why plans for an attack are being brought forward and declarations are being made by people like Hague that the agreement of the Security Council is not needed before such an attack takes place.

Does this remind anyone of Iraq and of Hans Blix and the UN inspectors begging to be given more time? Truly history sometimes repeats itself and not always as farce but sometimes as still greater tragedy.

PS: One thing I would say is that Ban Kyi Moon has rushed out a very strong statement this morning calling for the inspection to do its work without delay and without obstruction. The British media spin is that this is a criticism of the Syrian government. To me it reads more like criticism of the US and its allies. Ban Kyi Moon has been a loyal servant of the US up to now. Could this be the moment he has found his dignity?

PPS: It is very striking that one key US ally, Germany, is staying aloof from all the war talk. It is becoming a consistent pattern that Germany under any government is increasingly distancing itself from US policy and is quietly aligning with Russia and China on major international issues.

Sunday 25th August 2013

Amid all the fire and thunder of war preparations the Syrian government and the UN inspectors have now agreed the terms of the UN inspection of the site of the alleged gas attack.

What needs to be made clear is that as I said in the comment I posted on Friday 23rd August 2013 the Syrian authorities agreed to allow the inspectors access to the area several days ago. Demands that the Syrian authorities allow such access, which have been noisy on the ether over the last few days, are therefore completely misplaced. The reason the inspectors have not visited the site is because the area is rebel controlled and it is the rebels who therefore control access to it. I gather that the UN inspectors have themselves been unwilling to enter an area that is under rebel control and the sight of fighting and where they may be unsafe. What the agreement announced today suggests is that they have now been provided with the safeguards they feel they need.

All of this fuss over the UN inspection gives anyone with any memory of the Iraq conflict a dreary sense of deja vu. Then as now the US and its allies were shrill in their demands that the regime “cooperate” with the UN inspectors. Then as now the US and its allies nonetheless forthrightly anticipated what the UN inspectors would say before the UN inspectors had any chance to do their work. Then as one suspects now the failure of the UN inspectors to come up with any “evidence” implicating the regime in WMD activity was construed not as a sign that the regime was not undertaking WMD activity but instead as “proof” that the regime was “not cooperating” with the UN inspectors.

In the case of Iraq when it was all over it turned out that the regime had been cooperating with the UN inspectors after all and that its protestations that it was not engaged in WMD activity were true. One wonders what will now happen in Syria?

Sunday 25th August 2013

The latest news from Syria is that “unidentified snipers” opened fire on the convoy carrying the UN inspectors to the area where the gas attack is supposed to have happened. The convoy had to turn back to the safety of the government’s lines. Apparently a further attempt will be made to reach the area later today.

Though no one is saying so, this was clearly an attempt to prevent the UN inspectors from doing their work. Since it was the government that arranged to send the UN inspectors to the area the snipers were almost certainly rebels. That is exactly as one would expect. The Syrian government’s agreement to cooperate in full with the UN inspectors has caused panic amongst the rebels and their western and Arab backers because they know or guess that a proper, impartial investigation is likely to prove that what happened was indeed a false flag event staged by the rebels themselves. Thus everything is now being done to obstruct the UN inspectors so as to prevent an investigation from taking place whilst ridiculing the investigation (eg. by saying that the UN inspectors will be unable to say who carried out the attack – why not?- or that the crime scene has been “degraded by artillery fire” – really?) before it’s even started. This of course is the same investigation by the UN inspectors that the US and its allies pretended they were calling for.

As I think is fairly obvious, what the Syrian government’s agreement to cooperate with the UN inspectors has done, is actually hasten western preparations to attack Syria, this being ultimately the only way to prevent the UN inspectors from their doing their work.

Monday 27th August 2013

Before we discuss the implications of the attack that is now surely coming, it seems to me that it is important to clarify what is happening.

As I said in my comment on the specific thread about the alleged Syrian gas attack, it is simply untrue that the Syrian government refused the UN inspectors access to the site of the alleged gas attack. The area in question is controlled by the Syrian rebels and it is they and they alone who can grant or deny access to it. What has triggered the war talk of the last two days is (1) the discovery by the Syrian army of physical evidence that appears to link the gas attack to Saudi Arabia and the rebels and (2) the agreement on Saturday between the UN inspectors and the Syrian government for a full inspection and investigation of the relevant area to determine what actually happened.

In other words the purpose of the coming attack is not to punish or deter the Syrian authorities from using chemical weapons. It is to prevent a proper investigation by the UN inspectors that might find out what did actually happen.

That this is so is confirmed by the events of the last few days. When news of the attack first appeared Obama gave an interview to CNN in which he appeared to say that there would have to be an investigation of what happened. The US supported a decision by the UN Security Council that supported the Secretary General’s decision to carry out an investigation of the incident to obtain “clarity” about what happened. Concurrently Lavrov and Kerry both released a joint statement saying that there needed to be an “impartial investigation” to determine what happened. Contrast that with Kerry’s statement of yesterday in which, just as the investigation is about to start, he declares that it is “undisputable” that there was a chemical attack and that the Syrian authorities were behind it. What is the point of the UN and the US calling for an investigation if the US government has already declared in advance what the “truth” is? The UN inspectors might just as well pack their bags and go home.

What has clearly happened is that the US initially called for an investigation because it assumed that the Syrian authorities were responsible for the gas attack. The US accordingly assumed that either the UN investigation would confirm this or that the Syrian authorities to conceal their guilt would prevent the investigation from taking place. When it became clear that the Syrian authorities on the contrary were willing to cooperate with the investigation and when evidence started to come to light that if there was a gas attack it was most likely the rebels who were responsible, the priority abruptly shifted to stopping the investigation at all costs. That is why Kerry has declared the Syrian authorities’ guilt “undisputable”, why the US has cancelled its meeting to discuss Syria with the Russians and why an attack will now take place.

For the rest, let us also be clear that the attack that is now coming is a gross violation of international law. That this is so is clearly confirmed by the wording of the UN Charter. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter says

“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.

Article 39 of the UN Charter further says

“The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Article 51 of the UN Charter further says

“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the prese nt Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In other words the only body competent in international law to authorise military action is the UN Security Council except for the purpose of self defence. The so called “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine does not affect or limit the UN Security Council’s exclusive right to authorise the use of force in any way. Rather it simply set out certain criteria and procedures that need to be followed before the UN Security Council may authorise military intervention in the internal affairs of a Member State.

Not only will the pending attack be made without the authority of the UN Security Council, which renders it illegal under international law, but in this case the violation of international law and of the prerogatives of the UN Security Council is especially gross because the UN Security Council is already involved, having called just 5 days ago for “clarity” on this question by supporting the UN Secretary General’s intention to undertake an investigation, which is now underway. The attack is therefore being prepared in order to subvert a purpose authorised by the UN Security Council, namely to obtain “clarity” about what actually happened through an impartial investigation of the incident by the UN Secretary General’s inspectors.

Tuesday 28th August 2013

Anatoly Karlin said: “According to this article, it really was the Syrian Arab Army that launched the chemical weapons attack. The information is based on an American interception of a panicked call from a Baath bureaucrat to the officer in charge of the CW batallion purportedly responsible.

If true, this changes things substantially. If it really was the SAA that was responsible, then public opposition in the West to a strike against Syria would not be so overwhelming than if it were unclear or a false flag (done either with or without the connivance of the US/UK/France). The Iraq comparisons would likewise fall away.

That said, it is rather sad that just as Assad was about to win he will be dealt a major setback, thus necessitating a further few months of fighting than would have otherwise been the case – assuming that it’s a limited strike, that doesn’t overspill into an outright drive for regime change on the Libya model.

My response:

If it does turn out that the Syrian army was indeed responsible for the gas attack then I agree. I would also add that the stupidity of this would be extraordinary.

However, I would again add a word of caution. If this telephone intercept is the only evidence that the Syrian army was responsible for the attack, then it is interesting that the US intelligence agencies that are undoubtedly responsible for planting this story have not yet told us what was actually said. All we are told is that on the day of the attack a panicked official in the Defence Ministry telephoned a Syrian army officer to question him about what happened. This might show:

1. That there was a planned use of chemical weapons, which however went horribly wrong thus eliciting the enquiries from the Defence Ministry official. If so then the international consequences would be as you say; or

2. That chemical weapons were used but without the authorisation of the civilian leadership. If so this would be important information and might actually sway opinion against an attack here in Britain; or

3. It might be that someone in the Defence Ministry was worried that there had been an unauthorised use of chemical weapons and urgently telephoned to find out what was happening and to ensure that this was not the case. If so, then that is not inconsistent with subsequent enquiries ascertaining that this was a false flag incident. Bear in mind that in that case an inquiry of some sort by the Syrian authorities on the day of the incident to find out in the aftermath of the attack what had happened is bound to have taken place. This telephone call might just be part of that.

The other point to make is that this information has undoubtedly been shared with two people who have not been convinced by it. They are:

1. Ban Kyi Moon. It is really very interesting that for the first time in his tenure as Secretary General Ban Kyi Moon has stood up to the Americans. He came under intense pressure from the Americans over the weekend to withdraw the inspectors but categorically refused to do so. He came under more pressure from them yesterday to do the same thing. Yesterday Carney the White House spokesman said that since Syrian government complicity in the gas attack was “undeniable” an investigation of the incident by the UN inspectors had become “redundant”. It is a virtual certainty that over the course of their discussions with Ban Kyi Moon the US will have told him about the telephone call which they say makes the case against the Syrian authorities “undeniable”. Notwithstanding these comments and this information a clearly furious Ban Kyi Moon has issued a further statement today making it clear that he is not going to withdraw the UN inspectors and that the UN Security Council cannot be by passed but must be involved. Incidentally as a result of Ban Kyi Moon’s comments I understand that a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis will take place later today.

2. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour opposition here in Britain. He had a meeting with Cameron last night in advance of the parliamentary debate tomorrow at which Cameron tried to obtain his support. Again it is a certainty that over the course of their discussions Cameron would have shown Miliband such intelligence information as exists and that would have been bound to include the telephone call. There are provisions for this in the British system whereby ministers can exchange information with senior opposition leaders under what are known as “Privy Council rules”, and this would be certain to have happened in this case. Miliband was however obviously unimpressed by this information because he made it clear this morning that he wants the UN inspectors to be given time to finish their work.

My own guess is that the US did think when they intercepted the call on Wednesday that they had got themselves the “smoking gun”. That is why they were happy up till Saturday to demand an investigation by the UN inspectors. They naturally anticipated that because the Syrian authorities were responsible for the attack they would either obstruct the investigation or would be found out by the investigation. When on Saturday the Syrian authorities on the contrary agreed to the investigation doubts set in, which is why we have seen such furious attempts to stop the investigation from taking place.

The way to establish the truth in this case is to let the UN investigation take its course. If necessary the remit of the UN investigators can be extended either by the Security Council or by Ban Kyi Moon himself. What is wholly wrong is for one party in this matter to try to impose its version of the truth on all others before the investigation has taken place and to use or threaten force in order to do that. That is clearly both legally and ethically wrong. If it turns out following a full and proper investigation that the Syrian authorities are indeed the guilty party then they will have to bear the consequences. Until then unilateral action is both illegal and unwarranted.

PS: Since writing the above, I have learnt from the British media that all this intelligence including importantly this intercepted telephone conversation comes from Israel. Obviously the mere fact that intelligence originates with Israel doesn’t mean it is untrue. However given that the Israelis undoubtedly have an interest in this conflict the fact that they are the source of this information means that it must be treated with caution. As I said, the only party competent to carry out a proper impartial enquiry are the UN inspectors and they must be given time to carry out their work.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
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So apparently an Ambassadorship costs $1.8 million per post in the US.

In virtually any other country, even where the situation with corruption is quite dismal, such arrangements would be seen as unquestionably corrupt. And yet the US scores an entirely respectable 73/100 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), leagues above say Italy which gets 42/100.

The reason I mention Italy is that I was once discussing the question of corruption in different countries with an Italian. He said that what in the US is known as “political lobbying” would be treated as a criminal activity in Italy, and indeed in most of the rest of Europe. Hence why in the Med countries you get far more cases of corruption in the form of cash in envelopes. In the US that’s against the law, but that’s not such a big deal, because the law – or rather the absence of it – allows for the same thing, just in indirect formats (expensive dinners, contributions, astronomic speaking fees, stock performances superior to those of corporate insiders, etc). But that kind of corruption is “deniable” and hence respectable, whereas the direct kind is crude and distasteful, a defining feature of disorganized Third World countries.

In Italy, regulations against corruption and weaselly dealings in general are stringent. Now because Italians tend to corruption in general, either by nature or nurture, this means that the high incidence of such endlessly knocks against their corruption ratings. In the US, however, the factual “legalization” of much of what passes for corruption in Europe allows it to remain relatively unscathed in such international assessments.

There are many other such examples. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is insanely corrupt if you think rulers siphoning off billions of dollars off the oil budget is fundamentally illegitimate (as is alleged but never evidenced for Russia’s “mafia state” and Putin’s Swiss bank accounts). But it’s all quite legal there, which is why – hard as it is to believe – Saudi Arabia scores higher than not only Russia, but even Italy in the CPI.

So the solution is simple. Just legalize your corruption, and move up to the top in both the World Bank’s Doing Business ratings and soon enough in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Don’t forget to be slavishly pro-American in your foreign policy. Investors will love you for it. Well, maybe not, at least once said investors get to know you a bit better, but at least you’ll get glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal and Transparency International. That’s how you become a made country in Davos World.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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This is the Karlin Freedom Index for 2012, a political classification system I formulated more than a year ago in response to systemic bias on the part of traditional “freedom indices” such as Freedom House and The Economist Democracy Index (hint: they give massive bonus points for neoliberalism and pro-Western foreign policy orientations).

The explanation: Reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993, or the US and Hungary around 2011). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful). Totalitarianism extends the political realm over all spheres of life, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

Liberal Democracy

  • Iceland – In the wake of its post-financial crisis constitutional reforms, this small country may claim to have the most direct democracy on Earth.
  • Netherlands
  • California (state government)
  • Germany
  • Finland
  • Sweden – Not as high as it might have been due to the politically-motivated prosecution of Assange.
  • Spain
  • Czech Republic


Semi-Liberal Democracy (tends to be corrupted by moneyed interests and/or other influential interest groups)

  • Canada – A good democracy, but a whiff of a downwards trend under Harper. ↓
  • Belgium
  • Italy – Not a personalistic regime once Berlusconi left, but not helped by the fact that an appointed technocrat now runs it.
  • Portugal
  • Australia
  • Brazil – Arbitrary power structures; extra-judicial murders.
  • France – Paternalistic; corporatist surveillance state; discrimination against minorities. ↓
  • Chile
  • Estonia – Has excellent Internet democracy ideas, but is hampered by discrimination against Russophone minorities.
  • Japan – Paternalistic; ultra-high conviction rates; no gun rights; but ceased being an (effectively) one-party state with recent election of DJP. ↑
  • Bulgaria
  • Mexico – Drug cartels challenge to the state may lead to curtailment of freedom. ↓
  • Switzerland – The last canton only gave women the right to vote in the early 1990′s, and the banning of minarets restricts religious freedom.
  • UK – Corporatist surveillance state; repressive libel & PC laws, regulations; no gun rights; strongly trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓↓
  • India – Strong tradition of debate & power diffusion, marred by caste inequalities, privilege, political cliquishness, bottom-up free speech restrictions.
  • South Korea – Paternalistic; surveillance state; restrictive regulations, freedom of speech restrictions.
  • Poland
  • Indonesia
  • Latvia
  • Colombia – Pursued illiberal policies vs. FARC, but transitioned to a Semi-Liberal Democracy with recent transfer of power. ↑
  • Romania ↓
  • Argentina – New sweeping media laws bring Argentina close to the bottom of the Semi-Liberal Democracy rankings. ↓
  • Ukraine – In “anarchic stasis” since independence; arbitrary power structures; recently trending to Illiberal Democracy. ↓

Illiberal Democracy (tends to feature oligarchies and personalism)

  • USA – Highest prison population; corporatist surveillance state; runs transnational Gulag; increasingly arbitrary power structures; despite strong freedom of speech protections and surviving separation of powers, it can no longer be considered a Semi-Liberal Democracy after its formal legalization of indefinite detention under the NDAA 2012. ↓
  • Armenia
  • Israel – Severe national security-related civil liberties restrictions; growing influence of settler & fundamentalist agendas over the traditional Zionist foundation; severe new NGO laws, and discrimination against Palestinians makes Israel a downwards-trending Illiberal Democracy. ↓
  • Hungary – The recent Constitutional reforms in Hungary have effectively ended separation of powers, constrained the media, and established a basis for indefinite one-party dominance. It is now the only EU member to qualify as an Illiberal Democracy. ↓↓
  • Russia – Super-presidentialism with no real separation of powers; arbitrary power structures; surveillance state; and as recently shown, elections are subject to moderate fraud. However, new reforms (e.g. opening up of the political space), technical measures (e.g. web cameras at polling stations) and permits for opposition protests at the end of 2011 portend an upwards trend. ↑
  • Venezuela – Increasingly illiberal, especially as regards media laws. ↓
  • Thailand
  • Georgia – Arbitrary power structures; opposition protests broken up; main opposition candidate to Saakashvili stripped of Georgian citizenship.
  • Algeria
  • Turkey – Maintains severe restrictions on free speech (a country that has the world’s largest number of imprisoned journalists, many under bizarre conspiracy charges, can’t really be any kind of liberal democracy); ethnic discrimination; arbitrary power structures; paradoxically, both authoritarian & liberal principles strengthening under influence of Gulenists & AKP. ↓

Semi-Authoritarianism (tends to feature permanent states of emergency)

  • Egypt – Despite the revolutionary upheaval, the military retains wide influence and shoots at protesters in Cairo; this cannot be a democratic state of affairs. The future is uncertain. ?
  • Libya
  • Pakistan
  • Singapore – Overt political repression; repressive laws (esp. on libel); surveillance state.
  • Kazakhstan – Overt political repression; Nazarbayev is Caesar.
  • Azerbaijan – Overt political repression; Aliyev is Caesar.
  • Belarus – Elections completely falsified; overt political repression, and getting worse. ↓
  • Iraq – ↓
  • Iran – Overt political repression; though Velayat-e faqih has embedded democratic elements (under formal clerical “guardianship), in recent years, the system is strongly trending to Authoritarianism as the IRGC clan tries to wrestle the old clerics out of power. ↓

Authoritarianism

  • Vietnam
  • China – Overt political repression; no national elections (but exist at village level & in some municipalities); the Internet is restricted by the “Great Firewall”, but print & online getting freer to discuss issues unrelated to a few unacceptable topics (e.g. Communist Party hegemony, Tiananmen, etc); may implement new form of political model of “deliberative dictatorship”; trending towards Semi-Authoritarianism. ↑
  • Cuba – Overt political repression; pervasive Internet & media censorship.
  • Uzbekistan
  • Syria
  • Saudi Arabia – Overt political repression; pervasive censorship; very repressive laws; political Islam permeated everyday life, esp. in regard to women’s rights; one law for the Saud family, another for the rest.

Totalitarianism (the realm of metapolitics)

  • North Korea – Not much to say here.
(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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Sorry for not posting on either of my blogs for almost a week now and being slow on responding to the emails. I’ve been rediscovering the pleasures of old-fashioned book reading after purchasing a Kindle. I’m very happy with it. When faced between the choice of surfing the interwebs or reading a paper book, the former has been winning almost all the time in the past two years (see here for why h/t Oscar). The Kindle has somewhat rebalanced the equation.

Never fear. I’ve got a whole lot of post ideas in the chute, which will be forthcoming in the days ahead. But for now, I want to draw attention to an interesting dynamic in the Persian Gulf region. The rich Arab oil states – the UAE, Iraq, and now Saudi Arabia – are buying huge American arms packages. What the media has failed to cover is that the sales are at what are almost certainly massively overinflated prices.

Under the threat of Iranian missile attacks in the event of war, the UAE “concluded a $3.3bn Patriot missiles arms deal with the US” in December 2008 and is now looking for a $9bn deal for more air defense and Black Hawk helicopters. As a major oil export hub, this is much in its interests.

Then, coinciding with the US withdrawal of most troops from Iraq, the country concluded a $13bn deal to purchase American arms and military equipment, including “18 F-16 Falcon fighter jets as part of a $3 billion program that also includes aircraft training and maintenance”. Two years ago, Romania bought 48 F-16s for $4.5bn (half new, half used and modernized). That comes out at $95mn for each plane, whose current unit cost is now about $45mn. Iraq is now buying 18 F-16′s for $3bn, or $170mn for each. Anyone care to guess what percentage of that are kickbacks to Iraqi officials?

But if you think that’s impressive price gouging, take a look at the recent $60bn deal with Saudi Arabia. A modernized F-15 for the USAF costs about $60mn, including spares & support. About double that for export customers. So 84 F-15′s are $10.1bn. 70 upgrades to existing Saudi F-15′s. Let’s be generous and say it costs $80mn per plane, or 2/3 the cost of a new one. That’s $5.6bn. The unit cost of a Black Hawk helicopter is $14mn and of an Apache is $15.4mn. Let’s assume it’s around $30mn for export customers. In that case, 72 Black Hawks and 70 Apaches cost 4.3bn. All together, that’s around $20bn.

Of the $60bn deal, half of that will go just for the 84 F-15′s. That’s a cool $360mn for each one. That’s more than twice the unit cost of the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor! More even than its prospective export cost, which is about $250mn!

(Furthermore, note that the F-15′s are “monkey model” exports: due to Israeli concerns, “advanced sensors on the new Saudi F-15s will have technology built in to prevent them being used against their Israeli equivalents.”)

So in effect, the Saudis are paying $60bn for a package whose stand export price should be about $20bn. Massive profits to the US MIC (which will help it remain in the black despite Gates’ planned procurement cuts for budget reasons). Brilliant!

It’s not as if both Iraq or Saudi Arabia couldn’t have gotten better deals by shopping around elsewhere. A quick Internet search would show that there are plenty of fourth-generation planes available for well under $100mn per unit. For instance, since 2005, Venezuela has bought 24 Sukhoi-30MK’s, modernized 4.5+ generation fighters, for $1.6bn, after the US refused to supply F-16 spares to Chavez. (The whole $4bn package also included 50+ helicopters and missile defense systems). And I very much doubt that the US reputation for good after-sales maintenance can explain this big of a chasm.

So there must be ulterior forces at work, though as in the case of Iceland’s mercenary army, I can’t say which. Simple corruption on the part of Iraqi and Saudi officials? The influence of an occupying power? (The US, with its heavy military and intelligence presence in the Middle East, can easily pressure its client states, and what better way than to get their oil rich members to subsidize its MIC?). Rational calculation of national interests, i.e. maintaining good relations with the US? Discuss.

(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.