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After a long break, a new contribution to the Experts Panel:

Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way

Western journalists have been in the business of dismissing Russian achievements and magnifying Russian failures ever since Putin drove them into a collective derangement syndrome – he even haunts their dreams, as recently revealed by the Guardian’s Shaun Walker – so the preemptive besmirching of the Sochi Olympics can’t have surprised anyone.

What is startling, though, is the unusually low competence of the effort, even by the standards of these people that are sarcastically referred to as “democratic journalists” in Russia.

The first and foremost attack revolved around the supposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In 2010, the Russian magazine Esquire estimated that 48km of roads around Sochi consumed a cool $8 billion of taxpayer money, a sum that implied the asphalt might as well have been made of elite beluga caviar. Julia Ioffe cheerily transmitted these sophomoric calculations to the Anglosphere. The only problem with these actuarial wisecracks? Said road also included a railway, 50 bridges, and 27km worth of tunnels over mountainous terrain… which presumably made it something more than just a road. What was intended as a metaphor for Sochi corruption turned out to be, ironically, a metaphor for unfounded attacks against it.

There are incessant comparisons to the $8 billion spent during the 2010 Olympics in Canada. But this sidesteps the fact that Whistler was already a world-class ski resort, whereas Sochi’s infrastructure had to be built from scratch and at relatively short notice. The actual event-related costs of the Sochi Olympics are $7 billion, of which only half was directly drawn from the state budget. This is not to say that there was no stealing – of course there was, as corruption is a real problem in Russia, and is especially endemic in the construction industry. Navalny has created an entire website about it, and coordinated a campaign against Sochi with Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what’s striking is that far from the pharaonic levels of misappropriation we might expected from the tone of the coverage, in most cases the markup was in the order of 50%-100% relative to “comparable” Western projects (and that’s after selecting the most egregious cases). This isn’t “good,” needless to say, but it’s hardly unprecedented in Western experience. In any case, a number of criminal cases have been opened up, so impunity is not guaranteed. (The most prominent “victim,” Akhmed Bilalov, has fled the country and claimed he was poisoned – all true to the form of emigre oligarch thieves from the ex-Sovie Union).

The lion’s share of the $50 billion investment in Sochi – some 80% of it or so – consists of infrastructure projects to make Sochi into a world-class ski resort that will provide employment in the restive North Caucasus, kickstart the development of a Russian snowsports culture, and draw at least some of the more patriotic elites away from Courcheval.

The second major angle of attack is Russia’s “persecution” of gays. This, presumably, refers to Russia’s new laws against the propaganda of homosexuality to children – no matter that very similar laws, in the form of Section 28, existed in the UK until 2003, and that sodomy remained illegal in some American states up until the same year. I bring these up not so much to engage in “whataboutism” as to point out that the moral standards that the West proselytizes so zealously have only been adopted (or dropped?) within the past decade. Furthermore, much of the rest of the world rejects those standards to a significantly greater extent than does Russia itself. As such, this campaign strikes such an absurd and nauseatingly self-righteous note that one cannot but suspect a cynical motive behind it. Snowden and Syria, in particular, come to mind.

The third, and by far the most repulsive, category of Western concern trolling about Sochi revolves around terrorism. After every successful terrorist attack in Russia, “experts” rush in to proclaim that it is an example of “Putin’s autocracy not working for ordinary Russians” (Kathryn Stoner-Weiss), that they “cannot rely on the protection of their government” (David Satter), etc. By extension, the IOC is wildly irresponsible for “jeopardizing the safety of fans and athletes” by awarding the games to Russia (Sally Jenkins). In reality, according to the world’s most comprehensive database on terrorism, the number of casualties in terrorist attacks in Russia has plummeted in the past decade, even as the jihadist movement has been reduced to a shadow of its former self; suffice to say that suicide bombing a bus in a second-tier city like Volgograd is now considered a great success among their ranks. I do not wish to tempt fate by ruling it out entirely, but with the “ring of steel,” pervasive telecommunications monitoring, and cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies that characterize Sochi security, the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack is surely low.

Consequent criticisms become increasingly deranged and unhinged from reality, much like the murderous HAL supercomputer fading away into childish gibberishness after it gets turned off. Thousands of people got evicted, their land stolen from them… except that the average compensation per person was $100,000. Sochi is apparently built on the bones of Circassians… well, if it’s a graveyard, I wonder what that makes the North American continent – a death world? The assertion that Sochi is an “unsuitable subtropical resort” with no snow… an assessment that would surely surprise the denizens of California’s Bay Area, who go skiing in Tahoe up until late April, and where average February temperatures are significantly higher than around Sochi. If anything, conditions are looking downright steezy. The metaphorical rock-bottom was attained by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, who made a photograph of a pair of side-by-side toilets that were then splashed around the media – up to and including The New York Times – as evidence of the graft and imbecility that characterized the Sochi preparations. The only problem being that the photograph was taken in the middle of a renovation. But, hey, we wouldn’t want to deny the Brits their toilet humor, now would we…

All this is not to say that the Sochi Olympics are some kind of pure monument to virtuous sportsmanship and international friendship. Of course not. From their origins in ancient Greece, they were always about money, competition, and prestige. Putin himself openly states that one of its goals is to showcase a new Russia. There are no rules preventing Western states from waging a media campaign against Sochi, and refusing to send their top leaders to the opening ceremonies – petty and unseemly, such actions only reflect badly on their authors. So be it… gapers won’t be missed.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for VoR/US-Russia Experts panel. Hope you like the title. :)

The political fragmentation of the Soviet Union was one of the major contributing factors to the “hyper-depression” that afflicted not only Russia but all the other constituent republics in the 1990′s. The Soviet economy had been an integrated whole; an aircraft might have its engines sourced from Ukraine, its aluminium body from Russia, and its navigational ball-bearings from Latvia. Suddenly, border restrictions and tariffs appeared overnight – adding even more complexity and headaches to a chaotic economic situation. Although the region was in for a world of hurt either way, as economies made their screeching transitions to capitalism, disintegration only served to further accentuate the economic and social pain. In this respect, Putin was correct to call the dissolution of the Soviet Union one of the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical tragedies.

It is no longer possible – and in some cases, even desirable – to restore much of the productive capacity lost in that period. Nonetheless, renewed economic integration across the Eurasian space – with its attendant promise of less red tape (and hence lower opportunities for corruption), significantly bigger markets offering economies of scale, and the streamlining of legal and regulatory standards – is clearly a good deal for all the countries concerned from an economic perspective. There is overwhelming public support for the Common Economic Space in all member and potential member states: Kazakhstan (76%), Tajikistan (72%), Russia (70%), Kyrgyzstan (63%), Belarus (62%), and Ukraine (56%). The percentage of citizens opposed doesn’t exceed 10% in any of those countries. A solid 60%-70% of Ukrainians consistently approve of open borders with Russia, without tariffs or visas, while a further 20% want their countries to unite outright; incidentally, both figures are lower in Russia itself, making a mockery of widespread claims that Russians harbor imperialistic, “neo-Soviet,” and revanchist feelings towards “their” erstwhile domains.

This I suppose brings us to Ariel Cohen, neocon think-tanks, Hillary “Putin has no soul” Clinton, and John “I see the letters KGB in Putin’s eyes” McCain. They studiously ignore the fact that the Eurasian Union is primarily an economic association, and not even one that insists on being exclusionary to the EU. They prefer not to mention that the integration project has strong support in all the countries involved, with Russia not even being the most enthusiastic about it – which is quite understandable, considering that as its richest member it would also be expected to provide the lion’s bulk of any transfer payments. In this respect, it is the direct opposite of the way the Soviet Union was built – through military occupation, and against the will of the vast majority of the Russian Empire’s inhabitants. Though expecting someone like McCain, who one suspects views the “Tsars” and Stalin and Putin as matryoshka dolls nestled within each other, to appreciate any of that is unrealistic and a waste of time.

Enough with entertaining the senile ramblings from those quarters. Integration makes patent economic sense; it enjoys broad popular support throughout the CIS; and there are no global opponents to it – official China, for instance, is supportive – barring a small clique of prevaricating, anti-democratic, and perennially Russophobic ideologues centered in the US and Britain. Neither the West nor any other bloc has any business dictating how the sovereign nations of Eurasia choose to coordinate their economic and political activities.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for Experts Panel/Voice of Russia:

The Panel states, “On future occasions, Russia might well require Washington to cooperate in similar circumstances; and if such is the case, its handling of the Snowden affair could prove decisive as to how Washington chooses to respond.”

Well, let’s imagine this scenario. One fine day, an FSB contractor named Eduard Snegirev takes a flight out to Dulles International Airport and proceeds to spill the beans – though as with PRISM and Boundless Informant, it’s pretty much an open secret anyway – on SORM-2 and how the Russian state spies on its hapless citizens. Would Immigration and Customs Enforcement turn him away? Would the FBI rush to honor a Russian extradition request on the basis of his violating Article 275 of the Criminal Code “On State Treason”? It is impossible to even ask this question without a smirk on one’s face.

Don’t get me wrong. It is entirely reasonable to agree to and honor extradition treaties covering “universal” crimes such as murder, rape, or – shock horror! – financial fraud (even if official London would beg to differ). But this approach breaks down when we get to “crimes” such as those of the real Snowden or the hypothetical Snegirev because it is not universal, but asymmetric and relational: Asymmetric because a traitor in one country is a hero (or at least a useful asset) in another, and relational because a traitor to some people is a whistle-blower to others.

Sergey Tretyakov, otherwise known as “Comrade J,” betrayed his sources and fellow agents in the SVR when he defected to the US in 2000. Yet on his death, many of the people discussing his life at the blog of Pete Early, his official biographer, called him a “patriot.” Not just an American patriot, mind you, but a Russian one as well – as if he had done his motherland a favor. They are free to think that but it will not change the fact that in his homeland about 98% of the population really would think of him as a traitor through and through. Or take Vasily Mitrokhin. In the West, he is overwhelmingly considered as a heroic whistle-blower, risking his life to chronicle the crimes committed by the KGB abroad. But he neither concealed the identities of Soviet sources and existing agents – unlike Snowden or Assange, nor did he reveal his documents to the entire world – opting instead to give them wholemeal to MI6. Nonetheless, demanding the repatriation of either one would be inherently ridiculous and only make Russia into a laughing stock – which is why it never even thought of doing so. No use crying over spilt (or should that be leaked?) milk.

The US, too, was usually reasonable about such matters, quietly accepting that their espionage laws have no weight outside their own territory and the territory of their closest allies – as has always been the case in all times and for all states since times immemorial. This is why the hysterics this time round are so… strange. While John “I see the letters K-G-B in Putin’s eyes” McCain is a clinical case, it’s considerably more puzzling to see similar fiery rhetoric from the likes of Chuck Schumer or John Kerry (although the latter soon moderated his tone). Such attitudes probably proceed from official America’s tendency to view itself as a global empire, not beholden to the normal laws and conventions of international politics. Now while its closest allies (or clients) might humor it in such delusions, even its “third-class” allies like Germany do not* – not to mention sovereign Great Powers such as China and, yes, Russia.

In any case, as far as the Kremlin concerned, it is now almost politically impossible to extradite Snowden even if it so wishes. Though they have been no official opinion polls on the matter, online surveys indicate that Russians are overwhelmingly against expelling Snowden. 98% of the readers of Vzglyad (a pro-Putin resource), and even 50% of Echo of Moscow’s readers and listeners (one of the shrillest anti-Putin outlets), support giving him political asylum. Apart from that, it would also destroy Russia’s incipient reputation as a sanctuary for Western dissidents – a great propaganda boon against the legions of Western commentators who vilify it every day as a ruthless autocracy.

To his credit, Obama seems to more or less realize this: He knows that he can’t issue orders to Russia or even Ecuador, and that it is not worth threatening sanctions or “scrambling jets” just to “get a 29-year-old hacker.” While the neocons and “American exceptionalists” will get their 15 minutes of blowing hard on TV and the op-ed pages, the episode is – and has been from the get go – likely to end in just one way: A quiet and untrumpeted retirement for Snowden in Quito, Caracas, or Barvikha.

* So what on Earth’s up with that anyway? Here is the most worrying theory I’ve been able to come up with:They actually take George Friedman seriously.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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I will be going on a “working vacation” this Sunday, so I’m publishing my weekly contribution to VoR/US-Russia experts panel early:

Okay, let’s get one thing clear from the get go: The Russian law requiring NGOs to declare themselves “foreign agents” if they engage in political activities and receive financing from abroad, is not illegitimate. At least, not unless you also consider the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – which does practically the same thing – to be also illegitimate.

Which is just fine, mind you! But only as a universal value judgment, and not as a tool to selectively beat Russia over the head with.

Or you can shrug it off as paranoia. But bear in mind that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to topple you. The color revolutions were in significant part funded from abroad, and there has recently appeared witness testimony (backed up by video footage) of Udaltsov, one of the most prominent leaders of the street opposition, receiving money from a Georgian politician. So there is a case to be made that a certain amount of paranoia is necessary to preserve Russia’s sovereign democracy.

As such, a foreign agents law is not a bad idea per se, at least assuming it is applied rigorously but fairly. That may be too much to expect of Russians, though.

Problem is that said paranoia, while healthy in modest doses, may end up impinging on the “democracy” part of sovereign democracy. While labeling a crane reserve as a foreign agent might be more farce than substance (if so then what would that make the “alpha crane,” that is, Putin? – as the Runet jibes go), the same cannot be said of the pressure applied to the Levada Center.

Foreign financing only accounts for 1.5-3% of its total, according to its director, Lev Gudkov. Furthermore, he argues, the political and sociological research that Levada does is not politics, period. Certainly that would appear to be the case in the US, where it is virtually impossible to imagine the Department of Justice going after PEW, Gallup, or Rasmussen if they happened to take a few contacts for foreigners.

So while the laws might be similar on paper, the Investigative Committee is taking a much, much wider interpretation of what falls under the rubric of politics. And I would say that this is not only unjust but ultimately, stupid.

Levada does not fudge its results. They typically fall in line exactly with those of FOM and VCIOM, the two state-owned pollsters – including on the most politically significant indicator, Putin’s approval rating, which was an entirely respectable 64% as of this May. And while Levada does have an undeniably anti-Putin editorial slant, this is arguably all the better – from the Kremlin’s perspective – since it makes it seem to be “independent” and hence reliable in the West. FOM and VCIOM, as state-owned entities, would never be able to muster the same degree of credibility no matter the integrity with which they conduct their surveys.

From the meaningless police confiscations of Nemtsov’s “white papers” (which are only ever read on the Internet) to the harassment that frightened the economist Sergey Guriev into exile in Paris, petty authoritarianism on the part of lower level police and investigators is one of the most reliable manufactories of the ammunition that the “anti-Russian lobby” in the West uses to take potshots at Putin.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for VoR/US-Russia Experts panel:

I think we have to make a distinction here between “soft” soft power and “hard” soft power.

The US’ “soft” soft power is, of course, overwhelming. By “soft” soft power, I mean its accumulated cultural capital: The popularity of the English language, Hollywood, the Ivy League, Apple and American Pie, and so forth. If this were a Civilization game, the Americans would be maxing out the “culture” meter. There is no feasible way for Russia to ever overtake the US in this respect, if only because its limited population constrains the ultimate scope of its civilization (China is another matter).

What is of greater interest, and CAN be influenced relatively cheaply, is “hard” soft power. By “hard” soft power, I mean the ability to harness support for a sovereign internal and foreign policy line. “Hard” soft power is promoted by media and cultural organizations catering to foreign audiences, and can be measured by indicators such as a country’s international approval rating, which the BBC World Service measures every year. This rating can, in turn, affect diplomatic influence, investment attractiveness, and promulgate a general sense of moral vindication among the citizenry.

Lavishing resources into raising international approval ratings – that is, building up “hard” soft power – can produce vast returns on investment. There are several ways this can be done:

(1) Avoiding embarrassing situations so far as possible, and responding to them in a timely and comprehensive way AS SOON AS they arise. The entire Magnitsky debacle is a case study in how NOT to manage a genuine screw-up followed up by an oligarchic PR attack. Khodorkovsky is an earlier example. The ECHR eventually concluded that the case was NOT politically motivated, but so far as everyone and their dog is concerned the Menatep bandits are martyrs for democracy. The scope of the PR failure here is astounding. But the Russian government just doesn’t seem to care, leaving the heavy lifting to bloggers (!) like PoliTrash.

(2) Countering negative “hard” soft power. As one of the few countries to pursue a truly sovereign foreign policy – China is another example; so is Venezuela and Iran – it is not surprising that Russia would come under intensive information attack. One need do little more than recall Western coverage of the 2008 South Ossetian War, in which the victim was literally presented as the aggressor. Even institutions like the EU were later forced to acknowledge the truth, but no matter – the first week of coverage permanently implanted the perception it was big bad Russia that attacked plucky democratic Georgia, and neocons continue to push the lie even though a 5 minute perusal of Wikipedia would totally discredit it.

Information attacks are an inescapable price of sovereignty. However, the effects of such attacks can be minimized by establishing a special office that could coordinate the writing of press complaints to combat factually wrong and/or defamatory coverage; working with non-Western countries to reduce Western dominance in various international financial and regulatory bodies; promoting the integration of the Russian media space into the global media space, first and foremost via the Internet; creating and popularizing alternate, more objective indices of freedom and corruption than the politicized Transparency International and Freedom House ratings.

(3) Building up the keystone institutions of “hard” soft power. Every self-respecting country needs a channel or two to promote its views abroad (The BBC, France 24, RFERL/Voice of America, CNBC, Al Jazeera) and Russia, through RT, RIA, the Voice of Russia, and RBTH, performs solidly in this respect. But other aspects need touching up. For instance, the main vector of Russian cultural influence abroad is Rossotrudnichestvo, which no foreigner can even pronounce properly; compare and contrast with the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, or the Confucius Academies. It definitely has to step up its game here: Rebrand (Pushkin Schools?), and expand.

“Hard” soft power is fairly easy to increase with targeted investments (unlike “soft” soft power), and it is comparatively very cheap (unlike “hard” military-industrial power). There are no Great Power wars on the horizon, which makes the vast spending on military modernization rather questionable; while the task of building up “soft” soft power isn’t a matter of years, but of decades or even centuries. In contrast, “hard” soft power can be maximized relatively cheaply and quickly. Although Russia is much better in this respect than it was even a decade ago, there are still many low-hanging fruits left to picked.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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The latest US-Russia.org Experts Panel discussion was about Russia’s burgeoning partnership with China. I especially recommend Mercouris’ contribution which – although unfortunately titled by VoR’s editorial staff)) – is otherwise quite brilliant. My own effort follows below:

First of all, let me preface that I’m one of the biggest China bulls around. Its economy in real terms will overtake that of the US by the mid-2010’s, if it hasn’t already. It’s already bigger in a range of industries, from traditional heavy industry (steel, coal) to consumption (car sales, e-commerce). Its manufacturing wages have caught up with Mexico’s, which is a quintessential middle-income country. If the average Chinese is now about as prosperous as the average Mexican, then the PRC’s total GDP – taking into account its vast population – is now well ahead of America’s.

Nor is it a house build on sand, as many Sino pessimists would have you believe, but on solid, steel-reinforced concrete. Its economic growth is NOT dependent on cheap exports. And fantasies about its “exploited” cheap labor force, which will become increasingly uncompetitive as it develops, belie the fact that the average Chinese now scores higher in international standardized tests than the OECD rich country average. Given the centrality of human capital to economic growth, China’s rise to the top tables of world power is all but assured.

It would be very worrying if China’s ascent was accompanied by the bellicose rhetoric and militaristic posturing adopted by other rising Powers of the past, like the Kaiser’s Germany. But “yellow peril”-type hysteria aside, this does not seem to be the case. China spends a mere 2% of its GDP on its military, i.e. about twice less in proportional terms than both Russia and the US. This is a most fortunate confluence of events, especially for Russia, as competing with China is unrealistic in the long-term – not when its economy is an order of magnitude bigger. On the other hand, deep engagement with China hold out a number of benefits.

First, China gets access to Russian energy resources, bypassing the vulnerable routes past the Strait of Malacca (either overland via Siberia, or across the top of the world via the thawing Northern Sea Route), while Russia gets access to Chinese capital and technologies – much of the latter purloined from the West, true, but so what? Second, both countries secure their frontiers, allowing them to focus on more troubling security threats: The Islamic south and possibly NATO in Russia’s case, and disputes with Vietnam, Japan, and a USA that is “pivoting” to the Pacific in China’s case. Third, resources can be pooled to invest in Central Asia and root out Islamist militants and the drug trade – an issue that will assume greater pertinence as the US withdraws from Afghanistan.

Frankly, the West is too late to the party. It had an excellent chance to draw Russia into the Western economic and security orbit in the 1990’s, but instead it chose the road of alienation by pointedly welcoming in only the so-called “captive” nations of East-Central Europe. Putin’s reward for his post-9/11 outreach to the US was a series of foreign-sponsored “colored revolutions” in his own backyard. While in rhetoric both he and Medvedev continue to affirm that Russia is a European country, in practice attitudes towards them have come to be based on practicalities, not lofty “values” that they don’t even share. So it is only natural that with time Russia came to be more interested in pursuing a relation with the BRICS (“The Rest”) in general, and China in particular.

The West’s response hasn’t been enthusiastic. The BRICS are written off as a bunch of corrupt posers with divergent geopolitical ambitions that will stymie their ability to act as a coherent bloc. Russia and China come in for special opprobrium. While there’s a nugget of truth in this, it misses the main point: The BRICS might be poorer but by the same token they are growing faster and converging with the West, or at least China and Russia are; and while they don’t see eye to eye on all things, they agree on some fundamentals like multi-polarity, a greater say for developing nations in the IMF and World Bank, and the primacy of state sovereignty.

Here is a telling anecdote from an online acquaintance of his recent experiences with the European news channel, Euronews: “A feature of this site is that there’s a world map with happy and sad smileys on it to indicate good news and bad news. And there on Moscow I spotted a sad smiley, so I focused on it, thinking there would be a report on the already day-old and forecast to last another day blizzard that is raging right now across the Ukraine and European Russia… And the “bad news” that I read? The meeting between the Russian president and his Chinese counterpart together with a report and an analysis of the increase in trade between those two states. That’s really bad news, it seems, for some folk.”

And this is not so much an isolated incident, but a metaphor for the general state of West – Russia relations: While the former expects a certain degree of respect and even submission from the latter, it doesn’t tend to make reciprocal gestures, and then acts like a jilted lover when Russia gives up and goes to someone else’s bed. But that’s the reality of a globalized world, in which the West isn’t the be all and end all, and countries have choices. It is high time that the West mustered the humility to finally accept that it has been dumped.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for VoR’s Experts Panel. (Incidentally, good to see that site getting revamped, and entering the Web 2.0 era).

London has a reputation as a “safe sanctuary” for shady people of means from the ex-USSR and other less-developed places, and I think it’s loath to lose it – as it would by extraditing the likes of Borodin – in return for the chance of improving its relations with Russia.

In general, I think we should treat the idea that Western countries give political asylum out of genuine humanitarian concerns with skepticism. See the Dutch refusal to give Alexander Dolmatov, wanted in Russia in connection with the May 6th riots, political asylum. Was it because of their respect for Russian judicial sovereignty? Or did it have something to do with his work at military factory – and possibly, his preference for suicide over spilling military secrets?

In short, it’s a very cynical game they play. London calls Russia a “mafia state” while sheltering those very mafiosi in Mayfair. The Europeans lecture Moscow about rule of law, but then see it fit to grab 7-10% of the value of all deposits in Cypriot (where many Russians bank, far from all of whom are money launderers).

From Russia’s perspective, we have to note that concessions and a pacifistic attitude have never brought much in the way of benefits from the West. For instance, Ukraine has allowed in Europeans visa-free for years now, but it is Russia – which insists on mutual reciprocity in relations – that is far more advanced in negotiations to institute visa-free travel with the EU.

As North Korean diplomat Jon Yong Ryong said, “a high-handed policy should be countered by a tough-fist policy.” In other words, nobody will respect you if you don’t first respect yourself. Instead of piteously whining about British “hypocrisy” and “double standards” and other moralistic claptrap, Russia should take a cue from the DPRK and retaliate in kind. In this particular case, it could make it clear that big-time British financial fraudsters and tax evaders (no need to bother with little fishes) are welcome in Moscow provided they make the requisite “investments.” Not only will it feel good to give the “doctor” some of his own medicine, but it actually stands a chance of incentivizing future British cooperation on financial crimes by hitting their Exchequer. As an added bonus, it also wouldn’t hurt Moscow’s quest to become a global financial center.

It’s all nice, civilized, and pathologically passive-aggressive. In other words, if Russia were to follow my advice, it would be all the closer to “convergence” with true Western standards. And I’ve been told that’s a good thing.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for VoR and US-Russia.org on Russia’s recent Foreign Policy Concept:

The new foreign-policy concept is a long-overdue adjustment to international realities. There can be no meaningful “strategic partnership” between Russia and the US or indeed Russia and the West in general, when their respective core values have diverged from each other so much.

Ironically, this divergence has occurred at a period in history when Russia has retreated from ideology; it now embraces a doctrine of national sovereignty and moderate social conservatism that a generation ago would have made it part of the European mainstream. But today it has been “left behind” as the West has moved on to democracy fetishism and pushing concepts such as gender feminism and criticisms of “heteronormativity” that sound alien to most Russians. Hence the disconnect between Russia and the West on a whole host of issues, from the Arab Spring to the Pussy Riot affair.

So even as Russia converged with Western civilization of the 1970′s, the West – in particular its Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Gallic constituent parts – has “transcended” itself, and we are again left with a gulf of mutual incomprehension as deep as in Soviet times. As such, the best that can be realistically hoped for, at least in the medium term, is mutually beneficial economic relations (i.e., oil and gas in exchange for machines and modernization). Anything “deeper” or more heart-felt will require cultural concessions on the part of either Russia or the West, and it is unclear how that could be made to happen even were it to be acknowledged as desirable in and of itself.

Given these cultural clashes, it is probably a good thing for relations to become more defined by markets, which peace theorists believe have a moderating effect on animosity and inter-state conflict. Fortunately, prospects in this sphere are good, the specter of the Great Recession notwithstanding. Russia’s GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms is now well above half the EU average and close to convergence with the likes of Portugal and Greece. Russia has joined the WTO, and will probably join the OECD in another year or two. De Gaulle’s vision of a unified space – at least in the economic sphere – from Lisbon to Vladivostok has a real chance of coming into being within the next decade.

China doesn’t see eye to eye with the West either culturally or geo-politically, but it too is rapidly converging with the developed world; wages in its manufacturing sector have recently surpassed Mexico’s. It is now for all intents and purposes a middle-income country, and its GDP in terms of PPP may already have overtaken America’s. Opting for a closer relation with China is a wise play on Russia’s part. Its economic dominance in one or two more decades is all but assured, and with an (economistic, non-ideological) exploitation of high-speed trains and the melting Northern Sea Route, Russia can make a fair bit of money by being a “bridge” to the Orient.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for the US-Russia Experts Panel and VoR.

In this latest Panel, Vlad Sobell asks us supposed Russia “experts” whether Freedom House’s “alarmist stance” towards Russia is justified. Well, what do YOU think? I don’t think you need to be an expert to answer this; it’s an elementary issue of common sense and face validity. Consider the following:

Freedom House gives Russia a 5.5/7 on its “freedom” score, in which 7 is totalitarianism (e.g. North Korea) and 1 is complete freedom (e.g. the post-NDAA US).

This would make Putin’s Russia about as “unfree” as the following polities, as we learn from Freedom House:

  • The United Arab Emirates, a “federation of seven absolute dynastic monarchs whose appointees make all legislative and executive decisions”… where there are “no political parties” and court rulings are “subject to review by the political leadership” (quoting Daniel Treisman and Freedom House itself);
  • Bahrain, which recently shot up a ton of Shia demonstrators, and indefinitely arrested doctors for having the temerity to follow the Hippocratic oath and treat wounded protesters;
  • Any of the 1980’s “death-squad democracies” of Central America, in which tens of thousands of Communist sympathizers or just democracy supporters were forcibly disappeared;
  • The Argentinian junta, which “disappeared” tens of thousands of undesirables, some of whom were dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean;
  • Yemen, which lives under a strict interpretation of sharia law and where the sole candidate to the Presidency was elected with 100% of the vote in 2012 (which Hillary Clinton described as “another important step forward in their democratic transition process”).

Putin’s Russia is also, we are to believe, a lot more repressive than these polities:

  • South Korea in the 1980’s, a military dictatorship which carried out a massacre in Gwangju on the same scale as that of Tiananmen Square, for which China would be endlessly condemned;
  • Turkey, which bans YouTube from time to time, and today carries the dubious distinction of hosting more imprisoned journalists – 49 of them, according to the CPJ – than any other country, including Syria, Iran, and China. (Russia imprisons none).
  • Mexico under the PRI, which falsified elections throughout the years of its dominance to at least the same extent as United Russia.
  • Singapore, whose parliament makes the Duma look like a vibrant multiparty democracy and uses libel law to sue political opponents into bankruptcy. (In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds about Putin’s yachts and Swiss bank accounts).
  • Kuwait, where women only got the vote in 2005.

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that Freedom House has a definite bias which looks something like this: +1 points for being friendly with the West, -1 if not, and -2 if you also happen to have oil, and are thus in special urgent need of a color revolution. Then again, some call me a Kremlin troll, so you might be wiser to trust an organization that was until recently chaired by a former director of the CIA, an avowed neocon given to ranting about Russia’s backsliding into “fascism” among other things. If that’s the case you’re probably also the type who believes Iraq was 45 minutes away from launching WMD’s and that Islamist terrorists “hate us for our freedom.”

PS. If you want a reasonably accurate and well-researched political freedoms rating, check out the Polity IV series. Unfortunately, while it’s a thousand times better than Freedom House, it’s also about a thousand times less well-known.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest for the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel. Also as usual it appears at Voice of Russia. The version printed here is a slightly longer one:

There are already a lot of opinions on the topic of Russian corruption, and I see no pressing need to add more to that morass. I do however think it will be useful to ground the scale and trajectory of Russian corruption in quantifiable facts and statistics.

There are three major ways of measuring corruption: (1) Subjective assessments; (2) Objective assessments; and (3) Opinion polls.

The most famous subjective assessment is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Russia might go up and down this index across the years, as per the businesspeople and “experts” it queries, but overall it remains consistently stuck somewhere in between Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. Bearing in mind that they also believe Italy is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia – a country that is owned by its royal family even in name – one must ask to what extent this PERCEPTIONS index reflects actual corruption in any particular country, as opposed to the generosity of the expat packages it offers and its friendliness to the international business community. Is it a complete coincidence that Russia’s already low CPI score started plummeting to new depths about the exact same time it jailed Khodorkovsky?

russia-corruption-subjective

(1) CPI = Corruption Perceptions Index.
(2) WBGI = World Bank Governance Indicators.

Russia does much better on assessments that include precise methodologies for calculating scores, i.e. a particular anti-corruption law either exists – or it doesn’t. On the Global Integrity Index, it scores 71/100, which is comparable to many other middle-income countries like Lithuania (74), Hungary (73), and Mexico (68). On the Open Budget Index, which measures fiscal transparency, Russia improved drastically from 47/100 in 2006 to 74/1000 by 2012, and is now ahead of all the other BRICs, all of East-Central Europe barring the Czech Republic, and even ahead of Germany.

Likewise, widespread tropes of shady siloviki appropriating all the proceeds from the Russian oil industry – typically accompanied by terms such as “Muscovite patrimonialism” or “rent-seeking clans” by those seeking to project an aura of learnedness – to the contrary, Russia is second only to Brazil and Norway in the transparency of its oil and gas accounts, as measured by the Revenue Watch Index.

Now all of this is not, of course, to say that the Germans steal more from their budget than the Russians; that would be ridiculous. These indices try to tally laws that promote integrity and institutional transparency, not corruption per se. It does however mean that Russia releases more information about its budget than a wide array of other middle-income and even developed countries, which – all else being equal – should make any thefts and shady dealings easier to detect. For instance, Navalny’s work to expose corrupt state tenders is hailed in the press – and rightly so! – but had not the kleptocratic Kremlin made those tenders publicly accessible on the Internet, his activities wouldn’t have even been possible in the first place! If Russia truly were the “mafia state” it is frequently painted as by the Western chattering classes, why on earth would it want to shine more light onto its own rotten essence by steadily increasing its integrity and transparency indicators?

russia-corruption-objective

(1) OBI = Open Budget Indicators.
(2) GII = Global Integrity Index.
(3) RW = Revenue Watch Index.

The final method of measuring corruption is both the most direct and democratic – asking ordinary Russians how often they experience it in their everyday lives, as opposed to the musings of ivory tower “experts” and limousine expats. Unfortunately, opinion polls on the matter – most of which come from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, the Levada Center, and FOM (The Foundation for Public Opinion) – are too irregular and differently worded to confidently discern any decadal trend. On average, as we can see from the graph below, about 20%-25% of Russians tend to say they or their families have experienced corruption in the past year or two.

russia-incidence-of-bribery

(1) GCB = Global Corruption Barometer (“In the past 12 months, have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe in any form?”)
(2) Levada – “Did you have to pay a bribe anywhere in the past 12 months?”
(3) FOM 1 – “In the past year or two, have you personally met any state servant who asked or expected an unofficial payment or service from you for doing his/her work?”
(4) FOM 2 – “Have you ever given a bribe to a state official or not?”

In the most comprehensive international survey, that of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, some 26% of Russians said they or a member of their household paid a bribe in the past year. This is directly analogous to countries like Hungary (24%), Romania (31%), and Mexico (33%) – and not far below the worst-performing “old European” country, Greece (18%). This is, of course, nothing to write home about; but neither is this comparable to India (54%), let alone aforementioned Honduras or Equatorial Guinea. Bear this in mind the next time you read some opinion columnist pontificating about Russia as “Zaire with permafrost” or “Nigeria with snow” (for the record, more than 60% of the respondents from those two countries said they or a member of their household paid a bribe in the past year).

If ordinary corruption is difficult to quantify, it is doubly so for elite corruption. And rumors about Putin’s $40 billion dollar Swiss bank accounts – especially if they are sourced from his political opponents like Stanislav Belkovsky and Boris Nemtsov – aren’t going to get us very far. We need concrete sums and figures – say, the total of $100 million or so that appears to have been stolen in the recent Oboronservis scandals. This is an order of magnitude or so higher than the largest corruption scandals in developed Western countries, but on the other hand, it’s unfortunately quite typical of major corruption scandals in places like China, India, and Latin America. (The overall sums are smaller in truly deprived regions of the world because there is far less to steal in the first place).

Case in point. In a Twitter argument about whether it was better to live in Russia or India, the Swedish diplomat Mats Staffansson wrote to me, “India has enormous poverty but has one big advantage. A functioning noncorrupt legal system. Good British heritage… Corruption in India is definitely a problem but on a much smaller scale than in Russia.” In response, I challenged him to find a single Russian corruption case from the past decade that is remotely comparable to the theft of food worth $14.5 billion in India that was supposed to have been sold at subsidized prices to the poor – and the poor in India are really poor, as half of India’s children are chronically malnourished – but was instead looted by “corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates.”

I am still waiting for an answer from him

As for Vlad Sobell’s question of whether corruption in Russia can ever becom e “the exception rather than the rule”… Well, where precisely is this threshold? Corruption is part of a continuum, not a set of discrete states. I will venture to say that with the correct incentives and cultural propaganda, it is certainly plausible for Russia to reduce its levels of corruption from the levels of Romania or Mexico today… to the somewhat better levels of Italy or Poland. I do not know if improvements beyond that are possible. Whether it was due to Protestantism, or the out-breeding fertility patterns specific to family life within the Hajnal Line (which according to some theories promoted altruism), the peoples of north-west Europe seem to have reached a level of very low corruption that has been equaled by very few other societies. In Russia’s case, just converging with Mediterranean and Visegrad corruption norms would be an adequate achievement.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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I am back to writing for the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel, which since my hiatus has found an additional home at Voice of Russia. The latest topic was on whether Russia, China, and the West could find a common approach to the challenges of the Arab Spring. My response is pessimistic, as in my view Western actions are driven by a combination of ideological “democracy fetishism” and the imperative of improving their own geopolitical positions vis-à-vis Iran, Russia, and China. This makes it difficult to find any middle ground:

It is true that many Muslims in the Middle East want their aging strongman rulers out, and democracy in. Even Osama bin Laden, who purportedly “hates us for our freedom”, once mused that the reason Spain has a bigger economy than the entire Arab world combined was because “the ruler there is accountable.”

And this is also part of the reason why we should refrain from fetishizing “democracy” as the solution to all the region’s ills.

That is because liberal democracy as we know it in the West, with its separation of powers – in particular, that of the Church and state – isn’t at the top of most locals’ priority lists. It only really concerns the liberal youth who initially headed the revolt, while the other 95% of the population is concerned with more trivial things, like unemployment and food prices. As per the historical pattern with the French and Russian revolutions, the Arab Spring happened during a period of record high grain prices. And now as then, a revolution won’t magically create jobs or fill bellies.

In today’s Egypt, it is not foreign-residing technocrats like El Baradei, with his 2% approval ratings, who become President; nor is the cultural discourse set by young Cairo women who strip nude against patriarchy. Remove a secular, modernizing dictator from a country where 75% of the populations supports stoning for adultery, and sooner rather than later you get restrictive dress codes for women (de facto if not de jure), attacks against Christian minorities, and bearded Islamists worming their way into power.

As for Syria, the biggest practical difference is that the liberal minority in the opposition was sidelined even before the fall of the dictator, as it is the Islamists who are now taking the lead in the fighting against Assad.

Will the new regimes that emerge out of the Arab Spring be anywhere near as accommodating with the West as were the likes of Mubarak, or even Assad – who, as Putin reminded us, visited Paris more times that he did Moscow? Will religious fundamentalists be able, or even willing, to build up the (educational) human capital that is the most important component of sustained economic growth?wahh Will they even be able to regain control of their borders, or will they end up like Libya, an anarchic zone disgorging Wahhabi mujahedeen into neighboring countries that don’t really want them?

Western policy-makers do not seem all that eager to consider these questions. Maybe they think they can manipulate the Arab Spring to serve their own interests – after all, Assad’s Syria is an ally of Iran, supplies Hezbollah, and has security relations with Russia and China. They may be calculating that the geopolitical boon from removing the Alawites from power outweighs the costs of Islamists taking over in Damascus. Certainly there are grounds to doubt that genuine concern for democracy explains French, British, and American actions: After all, the two dictatorships friendliest to the West, Bahrain and Yemen, were actively supported in their crackdowns.

If the above interpretation is anywhere near true, there can be little hope for Russia and China finding common ground with the West. It would imply that the Middle East is a chessboard for Great Power games – and chess isn’t a game that you typically play to draw. The one thing everyone should bear in mind, though, is that no matter a man’s ideological leaning, he resents being a pawn. This is a life truism that was demonstrated in the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, that is being played out today in Mali, and that will continue to reverberate so long as the crusaders – for they are widely seen as such – remain in Dar Al-Islam.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Latest contribution to the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel on the question of which US Presidential candidate is best able to meet the challenges ahead:

When predicting election outcomes, I prefer to listen to those who put their money where their mouths are. As of the time of writing, the Intrade predictions market gives a 66% implied probability of an Obama win. The major betting websites are even more optimistic about Obama’s chances, with most of them giving him implied odds of about 80%. He is even considered more likely than not to win the popular vote, though because of the peculiarities of the US electoral system, it is also quite possible for him to lose the popular vote but still win the Presidency (about a 25% chance of this, according to Intrade). I will now most likely lose the symbolic $10 I placed on a Republican candidate win back in May 2010, when a sharp but unsustainable spike in favor of Obama accruing from Osama bin Laden’s assassination created very good odds for the contrarian gambler. Still, I don’t regret the investment. Always bet against your preferred candidate – that way, you will never be wholly disappointed.

We know that Obama is phlegmatic on the ill-thought out Magnitsky Act, and is likewise lukewarm about missile defense in East-Central Europe – to the extent that he pledged “more flexibility” on this issue to Medvedev in an unfortunate open mic moment that the Republicans later spun for all it was worth. (The Poles seem to have come to terms with this, and are now preparing to spend $4 billion of their own money to modernize their AA systems in the next decade). This is probably driven not so much by a desire to enlist Russia as an ally, as to give the US room to deal with the more pressing issues that will dominate Obama’s second term: The withdrawal from Afghanistan; the military pivot to Asia; a sluggish economy plagued by chronically high budget deficits; the accelerating climate crisis. Another alternative is that Obama’s people take seriously the CIA/Stratfor theory, hinted at by Biden in 2009, that Russia’s “shrinking population base” will nullify it as a Great Power in a couple of decades; hence, it is no longer worth aggressively confronting it as natural trends will doom it to eventual irrelevance anyway. But whatever the true motivations, we can reasonably expect the Reset to survive under a new Obama Presidency.

The GOP position is rather less compromising:

… we urge the leaders of their [Russia] to reconsider the path they have been following: suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society; unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Georgia, alignment with tyrants in the Middle East; and bullying their neighbors while protecting the last Stalinist regime in Belarus. The Russian people deserve better, as we look to their full participation in the ranks of modern democracies.

Needless to say, the only part of “the Russian people” who would look on these urgings with sympathy are the small gaggle of pro-Western liberals like Lilia Shevtsova (who brought this to my attention). They slavishly side with America against their own country on every issue they disagree on, so long as it helps undermine Putin. While she is right that such policies would “send a strong signal of support to Russian liberals that America does care about the values and principles it preaches”, it would also likewise alienate not only the Russian government but ordinary Russians too (41% of whom prefer Obama to 8% for Romney in a recent Levada poll). Coupled with his equally confrontational attitudes to China, and the aggressive neocon foreign policy advisers he has surrounded himself with, Romney would appear to be dead-set on provoking into existence that nightmare of Cold War planners – a Russian-Chinese alliance. This would be first and foremost a disaster for America itself.

Then again, as many have already pointed out, Romney is a flip flopper, and his bellicose rhetoric may well dissipate should he somehow find himself in the White House. Though Romney might describe Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe”, that did not prevent his son Matt from recently flying to the evil empire to promote his real-estate company and purportedly assure influential Kremlin advisers that his dad does want good relations between their two countries. If money and the practical exigencies of Presidential office trump his campaign rhetoric, there is good reason to hope that the Reset can survive even under a Romney Presidency.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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My latest contribution to the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel this one focusing on whether the West foregoes “incalculable benefits” by continuing the Cold War. Unlike previous Panels, on which I aimed for balance, here I make no apologies at pointing a finger straight to where I believe the blame belongs:

I recently began reading Martin Malia’s Russia under Western Eyes. One of the key points he makes early on is that the Western view of Russia has rarely corresponded well with its objective strength or the actual threat it posed. To the contrary, it is when “institutions and culture” converge that the West’s “evaluation of Russia tends toward the positive”; when they diverge, the reverse. So by that theory, relations should be pleasant: After all, not only is it no longer a military threat, but in terms of political systems and values, the West and Russia are far closer now than they have even been in history.

This makes it all the more puzzling that half the US foreign policy establishment remains entrenched in Cold War thinking. Romney belongs to them. A man who now has a 39% chance of becoming President, according to Intrade, declared Russia to be a “our number one geopolitical foe.” But unlike the case in the Cold War, it is a divergence that now most afflicts the US and its satellites – namely, the idée fixe that it is globally “exceptional”, and thus called forth to express global “leadership.” This translates into the belief that it can dictate its terms – from support for the Iraq War to the pursuit of Wikileaks – to other powers without negotiation (anything else is appeasement!), and woe unto the VIRUS’s that oppose it (a cute neocon acronym standing for Venezuela, Iran, Russia).

Needless to say, such attitudes make mockeries of any genuine democracy promotion. As long as you pay the requisite cultural tribute, you get off scot free – “Bahrain’s bosses understand modern symbolism about minorities so well that the Arab kingdom’s ambassador to Washington is a Jewish woman.” They might not understand the Hippocratic Oath near so well, imprisoning doctors for treating wounded protesters, but that is of little consequence next to anti-Iranian orientations and the US naval base there. Meanwhile, Venezuela is demonized by the Cold Warriors for daring to elect a socialist to power in Latin America, even though it has some of the structurally freest and fairest elections in the world. Their hatred of Russia ultimately boils down to the same roots: It resists.

There are three ways this impasse can end. The first, and most incredible way, would be for the residual Cold Warriors to stop thinking of the world in Manichean terms, with themselves playing God’s role. The second would be for Russia to become a client state of the US. This is not going to happen short of the likes of Gary Kasparov and Lilia Shevtsova coming to power.

The third possibility is by far the likeliest, as it is already occurring. Back in the 1990’s, Western Diktat politics in relation to Russia typically worked because it was in crisis, and had no other powers to work with. They believe this is still the case, and not only the neocons: In 2009, Biden said Russia had a “shrinking population base… a withering economy”, and a banking system unlikely to “withstand the next 15 years.”). This would presumably give Russia no choice but to fall in line. They are wrong. In real terms, the Chinese economy may have overtaken the US as early as in 2010; a constellation of other sovereign, non-Western powers such as Brazil, Turkey, India, and South Africa are attaining new prominence. With the EU in permaslump, the US and Japan under accumulating mountains of debt, and oil futures now permanently sloped upwards, a new world is arising in which modernization is no longer synonymous with Westernization. Russia is one of its key players, just like the other BRIC’s.

One can’t resist gravity forever. Once the requisite relative political, economic, and cultural mass is no longer there, ideological Cold Wars will become as unsustainable as Western hegemony itself.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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The latest US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel focused on an assessment of Putin’s historical legacy, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Here I try to answer whether history will see Putin as the “founder of a modern and successful Russia”, or as a tragic figure who threw away his chance of greatness to the “delusion of indispensability”:

While there are several criticisms one can make of Putin’s practice of democracy, his prolonged stay in power isn’t one of them.

As Evgeny Minchenko pointed out, there are many Western examples of very long, but non-authoritarian rule. Canadian PM Jean Chrétien ruled for 20 years, the Federal Chancellor of the FRG Helmut Kohl – for 16 years. Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been in power from 1996 to the present day (nobody even bothered challenging him in 2000 and 2008). Charles de Gaulle, one of the figures Putin quotes as his inspiration, ruled for 11 years; the student protests against him in 1968, ironically, only ended up increasing support for him. Another of Putin’s heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was US President from 1933 until his death in 1945, and remains a political colossus in the American imagination.

Nor is there anything particularly anti-Constitutional about what Putin did. Unlike in Georgia, where Saakashvili planned to retain power by moving powers to the Prime Ministership (but was foiled in this by an oligarchic coup), or for that matter in the “new democracy” of Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz Party headed by Viktor Orbán recently rewrote electoral law to cement its dominance for what may be many decades to come, Putin has strictly abided by the letter of the Constitution. United Russia did not use its Constitutional majority to extend the number of allowed Presidential terms, transform Russia into a parliamentary republic, or tweaking electoral law away from proportional representation towards majoritarianism (this would have a far bigger effect in consolidating United Russia’s power than low-level electoral fraud – and be much less politically damaging besides).

While one might argue that Putin went against the “spirit of the Constitution” by seeking a third term, that is an inescapably vague and ambiguous concept, one suited only for rhetoric. If we are going to consider the “spirit” of things, would it not then be against the “spirit of democracy” to condemn Putin for returning to the Presidency when he remains by far Russia’s most popular politician, enjoying a 10% lead over Medvedev even during the latter’s heyday?

In 2004, Putin said, “Our aims are absolutely clear: They are a high living standard in the country and a secure, free and comfortable life.” This is not the place to cite reams of statistics, but on practically any socio-economic indicator one cares to mention – economic, demographic, crime, etc. – the Russia of 2012 is unrecognizable from the Russia of 1999. It’s simply another world. To find historical precedents, one needs to look far, far back. To another Putin hero, Stolypin? But the saplings he planted didn’t survive the Bolshevik winter. Both Peter the Great and Stalin transformed Russia, but in ways that were many orders of magnitude crueller and more bloodthirsty than all but the most deranged of Putin’s critics would accuse him of. Alien ideologies were impressed on Russia in these “revolutions from above”, leading to social stresses and upheaval; Putin, to the contrary, is profoundly a-ideological (and that is surely for the better, no matter the hand-wringing by some over Russia’s no longer having a “national idea” – fact of the matter is, “national ideas” have rarely led it to anywhere good).

Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is to Catherine the Great, who expanded Russia’s borders, made legal reforms, and removed internal barriers to trade. But serfdom was also further entrenched, and Russia kept slipping backwards relative to the developed world; in contrast, under Putin, Russia has gone from being the poor man of Europe to being a country where salaries and personal consumption are now converging with those of the poorer (original) EU members like Greece or Portugal. Maybe his true predecessor is none other than Yaroslavl the Wise, under whom Kievan Rus’ became unified, established links with Western Europe (which is today East Asia), formally codified Russian laws, and ushered in a golden age of culture and civilization. Although one should be careful of making parallels with developments a millennium ago, there are undeniable similarities between Yaroslavl’s achievements and Putin’s project: Consolidating the state, and now moving towards a Eurasian Union; legal reforms that supplanted late-Soviet “understandings” and Yeltsinite chaos; and the ongoing (re)integration into the world economy.

Regardless of the historians’ final verdict, it is now hard to see what Putin can possible do now to compromise the “father of the nation” status he has already gained in the popular consciousness – a status that should survive, based on comparable figures like De Gaulle or Park Chung-hee, even as the “dissatisfied urbanites” and “hamsters” – much like the Parisian student protesters against De Gaulle in 1968 – are relegated to the margins of history. The “democratic journalists” and other Putin Derangement Syndrome sufferers who portray this Goethe-quoting patriot and conservative restorer as a mafiosi thug or neo-Stalinist dictator will be in for endless disappointments as future Russians, just as today’s Russians, will continue to reject their bleak, screed-like denunciations of Putin’s legacy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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The latest US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel focuses on whether Russia was correct to expel USAID on the grounds that it interfered in domestic Russian politics to an acceptable degree. Here is my contribution:

I have no connection to USAID, or indeed to any American NGO operating in Russia or anywhere else. I do not pretend to have much of a clue as to what extent the Kremlin’s claims that it interferes in Russian politics to an unacceptable degree are true or not, and likewise for US denials of these allegations.

To a large extent I have to agree with Nicolai Petro, writing in the NYT’s Room for Debate, that foreign democracy assistance has “outlived its usefulness in Russia.” As he points out in his article “Local Groups Must Not Rely on the US“, the Russian government’s own funding of NGO’s now dwarfs US contributions, and contrary to popular belief, this includes Kremlin-critical organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee of Soldier’s Mothers.

Furthermore, Russia is now an increasingly rich and middle-class society, so in most cases, a cutoff in foreign aid should not be a critical issue to the continued operation of the recipient NGO. If anything, shifting to exclusively domestic funding – as Golos once considered doing – would altogether free them from the potential stigma of being labelled “jackals scavenging for funds at foreign embassies”, as Putin described the non-systemic opposition in one his less charitable moments.

Yet with all that said, I doubt that banning USAID is a good move. Speaking of Golos in particular, which has been singled out for using USAID funds, it typically refrained from taking concrete political stands during the last election season and instead focused on the technical standards of the elections and data compilation from its own and other election observers. This is a good thing, because like it or not, there were severe falsifications in those elections, to the sum total of about 4%-5% in the Presidential elections, and up to 10% in the Duma elections. That the former figure however was much lower than the latter may in fact be partly attributed to the efforts of organizations like Golos, which helped increase the prominence of observers and increased demands for clean elections.

This is undoubtedly a good thing for Russian democracy, keeping it from slipping away into complete illegitimacy like in Belarus or Mubarak’s Egypt. It is also a good thing even for Putin himself, even if many of his acolytes don’t realize it; he is genuinely popular, and a truly fair and overwhelming victory (i.e., the c.59% he should have gotten) is surely far superior to a dirtier but only marginally more overwhelming victory (i.e., the 63.6% he actually got).

Should Golos or USAID be blamed for lifting the lid on an electoral system that looks like something from 1950′s Italy or Uganda today?

If it’s true that USAID tried to interfere in Russian politics, or even “ordered” the protests (which to be honest sounds rather far-fetched to me), that still doesn’t mean banning it is a good idea. If its aim is to subvert the Russian political system, then surely it would make more sense to just increase scrutiny of its activities? If undermining the Russian political system is part of America’s goals there, then they can just use other NGO’s… and if Russia bans them too, then there will always be the spies in its Moscow Embassy. What is to do then – take a leaf from North Korea?

Even if the Kremlin’s cynical (realistic? paranoid? – I don’t know, I suppose it depends on your political sympathies) view of USAID’s activities are correct, it would still behove it to listen to Michael Corleone’s advice: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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As I reported in my post unveiling US-Russia.org, there are going to be weekly discussion panels moderated by Vlad Sobell. This is the first one I participated in. It is on the topic of US-Russia Relations Against the Backdrop of Word-wide Muslim Protests. Is this a clash of civilizations? Should the US patch up ties with Russia and forget about New Cold War in order to free resources for the greater challenge from radical Islamists?

I think I will be reposting my contributions to these Panels on this blog for the foreseeable future, with a time delay of a few days so that US-Russia.org maxes out on traffic. Here is my first contribution:

The American democratization agenda for the Middle East appears to be based around two premises: (1) The Arabs want the strongmen out; (2) They desire a Western-style liberal democracy. Consequently, aggressively supporting the transition should ease the US into the Arabs’ good graces – with all its attendant, oily benefits.

The first point is largely true. The second is not. Although large majorities of Arabs support concepts such as “democracy” and “free speech” in opinion polls, they should not be taken at face value. That is because similar majorities also support stoning for adultery and the death penalty for apostasy. In these circumstances the very idea of a “liberal democracy” is a contradiction in terms. To paraphrase a relevant sentence from the Tsarist-era book Vekhi, “Thank God for the prisons and bayonets, which protect us from the people’s fury!”

This is because the “clash of civilizations” isn’t something that is “fomented” by radical Islamists (or Western Islamophobes, for that matter). It is an actually existing state of affairs and “democratization” will only fully disrobe it, not make it go away.

The Europeanized liberals who were the motor of the protests in Egypt only constitute about 5% of that country’s population. While removing the dictator – be he a relatively benign one like Mubarak, or a bloodthirsty one like Gaddafi – liberates not only the intelligentsia, but also the (far more numerous) Islamist opposition. Of the foreign jihadists fighting in Iraq, it was rumored that Benghazi – focal point of resistance against the Jamahiriya – contributed the most per capita. Now Libya is a chaotic jumble of heavily armed gangs and militias, many of them with Islamist sympathies. Despite promises not to field a Presidential candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did precisely that and won the elections; since then, the old-regime generals have been replaced and the Brotherhood has consolidated its political dominance over the country. In the meantime, the economy has ground to a standstill.

Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, Ben Ali, etc. may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but they did foster an adequate, if non-stellar pace of development; protected the rights of minorities such as the Coptic Christians; and typically maintained non-hostile, constructive relations with the West, Russia, and even Israel. It is unclear whether any of this will be preserved in the years ahead. They will certainly become more “democratic” – Iran, after all, is far more democratic now that it was under the Shah – but to what extent they will (or can) truly respect freedom of speech or worship is another question entirely. As strikingly shown in the past few days, there are problems even with honoring basic international norms like diplomatic immunity – and these are not without precedent (Chris Stephen’s ancestor by fate is Alexander Griboyedov, the poet diplomat killed and mutilated by a mullah-provoked Tehran mob in 1829).

But you can’t turn the clock back; we will have to learn to live with the new regimes emerging out of the Middle East unrest. One can hope for two things. First, that the West realizes that in terms of civilizational values, Russia and even China (all part of the “Functioning Core”, to borrow from Thomas P.M. Barnett) are far closer to it than most of the Muslim world, and adjusts policy accordingly. Second, that it takes a more balanced and realistic view towards these developments in the Arab world. For instance, it could recognize the Syrian conflict as a civil war, as opposed to a universal uprising against the dark lord Assad (and as such stop making unrealistic demands for him to step down as a precondition for talks).

Realistically, however, I suspect it will be a winter’s day in hell before the West’s infatuation with the Arab Spring is over.

(Republished from Da Russophile 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.