Daily Archives: June 11, 2007

EDITORIAL: Exploding the Fundamental Neo-Soviet Myth


On Saturday, Reuters reported (as noted by commenter “Simmons”) that Kommersant claims, based on his statements to reporters at the G-8 summit meeting, that “Vladimir Putin, whose term as Russian president ends next year, does not rule out running again in 2012.” Earlier in the week, Putin had spoken “in favor of giving presidents five- or seven-year terms instead of the existing four years.” So in other words, the most likely apparent option for Putin is to return as “president” in 2012 with a Constitutional change allowing 7-year terms, and thus to rule Russia until 2026 or a total of 22 out of the 30 years between 2000 and 2030. The remaining time would be filled by “a handpicked transitional figure whose main mission would be to allow Putin to reset his political counter and stage a comeback.” By proceeding in this way, Putin could cut the legs out from under criticism of his anti-democratic nature, keeping his power technically within the bounds of the law. In fact, he’d be a neo-Soviet dictator, of course.

On Sunday, the Times of London reported an analysis of Russia which contains the following paragraph, neatly summarizing the central Russophile-sponsored myth which must be dispelled before any real progress can be made in Russia:

Most people in the West expected the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to usher in a new Russia, one that would become free, democratic and capitalist, just like them. Instead, robber oligarchs seized assets and power without much care for democracy’s foundation, the rule of law. The result has been deep disillusion and suspicion of the West, reflected last week in the views of Maxim Andreyev, 59, who lives in a tiny, crowded flat in St Petersburg. “When communism fell there was a sense of euphoria,” said Andreyev, a former factory manager who now survives on odd jobs and a pension of £50 a month. “Fifteen years ago we thought democracy meant that soon we’d live better. And we looked at the West in awe. “But for people like me life only became harder. I don’t crave the repression of the Soviet Union, but democracy and freedom are luxuries when you have to worry about surviving amid rampant corruption, crime and injustice.” The physical hardships have had a deep psychological impact, says Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia’s most respected political commentators. “Many people lost everything and they thought the West would help,” he said. “But there was much talk and little action.” Putin became president in 2000 and responded to the chaos by centralising power, both economic and political.

The central organizing myth of modern Russian life is that (1) Russia tried democracy and (2) it was harder on them than Communism. There is not one iota of truth in this statement. It’s pure neo-Soviet propaganda, exactly the same kind that destroyed the USSR. Those who care about Russia’s future must do everything in their power to lay this mythology in its grave.

First, Russia didn’t try democracy. At no time since Communism ended has Russia held a true contested election for president. At no time has a “president” been elected after participating in televised debates and who was not previously a significant functionary of the Communist party, and in all four of Russia’s elections the chief rival to the winner was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Even if a real democrat had ever been elected, the Communist system was given a “trial” of nearly 75 years. Giving democracy less than ten before anointing a proud KGB spy as dictator hardly constitutes a fair “trial.”

Second, trying democracy involves more than having elections. Russia’s presidency has been invested with far too much power, and the leaders of its legislative and judicial branches have been far too pusillanimous, for there to be anything like a proper democratic division of powers in Russia. Not one judge or legislator has stepped forward to assert themselves effectively, and those who have made partial efforts, like Galina Starovoitova, have been summarily killed with no public backlash of any kind.

Third, Russia isn’t suffering more now than it was during the Communist dictatorship. The Soviet government was the number one civilian murderer in all of human history, brutally killing at least 60 million of its own citizens. China is a poor second at 35 million. Josef Stalin murdered more Russians than Adolf Hitler’s armies. What’s more, under the Soviet regime, Russians lived on the brink of total eradication through global thermonuclear exchange with the United States, and they were clearly suffering massive public health issues that only became apparent to the West when the Iron Curtain collapsed (how could it be otherwise, when the USSR was devoting such a huge share of its GDP to weapons, a share perhaps four or five times greater than what the U.S. was shouldering).

But most important, even if Russians did become worse off when the Soviet dictatorship fell, the idea that life for Russians was supposed to become immediately, magically, “easier” after the fall of Communism is sheer unadulterated garbage of a kind that could only be generated by Russophile propagandists, the lowest form of human existence. Life didn’t become much easier for the American or Indian colonists after they undertook their successful revolutions against Britain seeking freedom. To the contrary, life became much, much harder. One should properly see this suffering as necessary to earning the privileges and benefits of freedom. The Russosphile attitude the life should have become instantly, magically better once Communism fell is simply childish and ignorant, and it’s doubtful that it reflects the true beliefs of most Russians, who are far more intelligent than that. Did Russians think life would get instantly better when they decided to fight the invading Germans rather than surrendering as the French did? Of course not. But they believed fighting and suffering would gain them something, just as the Americans did in their revolution. Russians seem to have forgotten this lesson, and they are paying dire consequences for that forgetfulness.

The Russian people took no active steps to bring down the USSR, they simply watched it fall (much in the same way that most of them simply watched it rise). They did not demand accountability on the part of Soviet criminals, nor did they make a public acceptance of their own guilt as the German people did concerning Hitler. Instead, they lapsed into denial and sought to blame their troubles, caused by Communism, on the institution of democracy. That’s blasphemy, and shows that the people of Russia fully and richly deserved the suffering they experienced after Communism fell.

It’s an even more outrageous form of blasphemy to compare what Russians suffered in the 1990s to what they suffered, say, during the invasion of Napoleon or Hitler. If Russians of the past had adopted the same childish, cowardly attitude towards suffering that today’s Russians have embraced, Russians would now be speaking French or German.

Yet, one can’t blame modern Russians entirely. The fact is that while Russians stood up to Hitler and Napoleon bravely, those very same Russians showed exactly the same kind of pathetic, reprehensible cowardice towards Stalin that they now reveal in regard to Putin, and Stalin’s uncontrolled barbarism brought the USSR to ruin, giving rise to the so-called “suffering” of the 1990s.

The fact that a single person in Russia, much less a majority, can imagine there is any hope for a decent future to be found in being ruled by a malignant little troll who spent his entire life serving Stalin’s KGB in secret proves conclusively that Russians are simply not prepared to take responsibility for their own actions, their own futures. Their impulse when confronted with such accountability is to spurn it, and to place their lives in the hands of others so that someone else can be blamed when suffering and failure comes.

Russia is a house divided against itself, and as such cannot stand. Time is quickly running out for Russians to rectify this situation before dissolving into the mists of history. Those who care about them should tell them so at every opportunity.

Annals of Neo-Soviet "Success" — Part I

Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Alexei Bayer exposes the utter sham that is the neo-Soviet economy:

The web site of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum proclaims, without any false modesty, that the city will be the world’s economic capital from June 8 to June 10.

With growing frequency and a waning sense of reality, Russian leaders have been demanding that it be accorded its proper place in the global pecking order — as a military power, a historic victor over Nazism, an energy superpower, a hockey powerhouse and even a cradle of democracy. That St. Petersburg has merely assumed the title of economic capital of the world should not be a big surprise.

In fact, it wouldn’t have even deserved mention, had not Russia been turning into exactly the opposite — a weak link in the global financial system. Although Russia’s economy has very different underpinnings from that of mainland China, the Moscow stock market has been quick to follow — and even exceed — the recent dramatic ups and downs of the Shanghai and Shenzhen bourses.

Even though the bull market in global equities continues, it is starting to fray around its most vulnerable fringes. Russia, along with Turkey and other exotic markets, is starting to feel investor jitters. The dollar-based RTS index in Moscow — although it set a record above 2,000 this year — has actually been range-bound and has now declined by nearly 10 percent from its early-April peaks.


Being a weak link is nothing new for Russia over the past century. In 1905, it became the first European power to take a licking from an Asian nation when it lost a naval war to Japan. During World War I, Russia suffered the most calamitous social, political and economic collapse of all the warring parties. It was the first to blink in the Cold War, too.

It suffered an economic crash in 1998, and its default and devaluation triggered a chain reaction that nearly brought down the world financial system. Back then, however, Russia was not a weak link. It actually held out for a year after the onset of the Asian financial crisis. Moreover, Russia’s subsequent recovery was remarkably swift, taking most observers by surprise.

This occurred because by the late 1990s, Russia had become largely integrated into the global economy . This fact is often ignored by modern Russian politicians and official economists, who tend to dismiss the Yeltsin era as a period of asset theft by money-hungry oligarchs — and who are usually well represented at the St. Petersburg forum.

Integration into the world economy was a painful process, which required a root-and-branch restructuring of the vicious-cycle Soviet economy that used all the coal and iron ore it mined to build machines to mine more coal and iron ore. It also entailed bringing the ruble down to its market value — which took the exchange rate from 90 kopeks per dollar to over 6,000 old rubles over the 10-year period ending in 1998.

There is no question that record prices for oil, gas and other commodities have provided Russia’s current wealth. But Russia earned plenty of hard currency in the early 1980s too. Integration into the world economy explains the difference in the level of prosperity then and now and the wide availability of food and consumer goods.

Russia has now begun to extricate itself from the world economy once more, and this alarming process is accelerating and broadening. Its political and economic system, instead of becoming more institutional and predictable, are growing more “voluntarist”– as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s style of government was labeled after his ouster. President Vladimir Putin is becoming more and more pivotal in making managerial decisions, and his statements and deeds appear increasingly erratic.

Clandestinely or not, most rich Russian entrepreneurs and bureaucrats hold foreign passports or residency permits and have family members residing abroad. Is it hard to understand why investors with money in Russian financial markets are starting to put one foot on the sidelines as well?

Annals of Neo-Soviet "Success" — Part II

Writing in the Moscow Times Margareta Drzeniek, senior economist at the World Economic Forum, lays out the reforms that would be necessary to transform the appearence of economic success in Russia into actual prosperity. Anyone vaguely familiar with Vladimir Putin’s government knows full well not one of these measures will ever actually be taken, because the natural restult would be to invigorate moribund centers of power that could then challenge the Kremlin’s supremacy. Rather than let that happen, the Kremlin would prefer to let the whole country go right down the toilet.

Russia’s economic history over the past decade and a half has been characterized by erratic reform progress and some important setbacks, such as the 1998 crisis. Lacking a clear policy anchor, as European Union enlargement was for the East European countries, for example, efforts have been more dispersed. Despite the country’s undeniable potential, economic development has not kept up with expectations, as gross domestic product even declined in the earlier phase of transition and has recovered only slowly. Despite the country’s enormous wealth in natural resources, the standard of living has fallen for much of the population, leaving the country with worse human development indicators, such as primary education levels, average life expectancy and infant mortality rates, than witnessed toward the end of the Soviet era.

Over the past few years, with rising demand for energy resources, Russia has benefited from robust growth. And as in many other energy-exporting countries, policymakers are faced with the challenge of providing this growth with a sound footing to make it sustainable should energy prices fall in the future. This requires the establishment of solid foundations for the domestic economy that will allow businesses to prosper and attract investment in areas other than energy. Current conditions of high growth can help provide a cushion during reforms, but the state reforms aimed at creating and maintain broader competitiveness are still an important question.

A country’s level of competitiveness, understood as the ability to put in place policies and institutions that contribute to economic growth, is an indicator of how prepared it is for the future. In the most recent Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum, Russia ranks 62nd out of 125 countries, nine spots lower than in the last report, for 2005. Although it finished ahead of Brazil and all of the other CIS countries, with the exception of Kazakhstan, it trails India, China, Turkey and the EU members in Central and Eastern Europe.

A closer look at the results reveals both strengths and weaknesses. Given high oil prices, it is not surprising that Russia ranks 33rd in terms of macroeconomic stability. Labor markets are also relatively efficient and flexible, and transport, energy and telecommunications infrastructure is improving gradually. The country also continues its tradition of scoring well on educational indicators, and in particular with regard to higher education. Russia still benefits from the capacity for innovation built up during the Soviet period and from cultural factors that support strong activity in this direction.

Despite these competitive advantages, however, the index points to other areas in which enormous potential for growth remains unrealized. The most important leap toward improving competitiveness involves a thorough reform of the institutional environment, and particularly in the public sector, which lacks transparency and is still ill adapted to the functioning of a market economy. The comprehensive public sector reform program adopted in October 2005 represents progress toward realizing where the institutional difficulties lie. But although the issues to be addressed are well known, implementation of these reforms is progressing too slowly and too erratically to result in real progress. Not surprisingly, the worsening institutional environment was one of the main reasons for the fall in Russia’s competitiveness ratings over the past year.

At the same time, the past year shows that Russia’s particular strength, the capacity for innovation, is being undermined by deteriorating higher education and human development indicators. Although the institutional environment is clearly the most important weakness, business leaders view the economy as overregulated and markets as highly concentrated. The country’s financial markets, although developing slowly, clearly do not yet serve as efficient financial intermediaries, and the penetration of most advanced technologies, such as the use of computers and Internet, is not on par with other countries that are at the same level of development.

The question is why progress on reforms has slowed when high growth rates and increasing budget revenues from oil and gas exports should be providing an ideal setting for putting them in place. The problem is that periods of high growth tend to relieve the pressure to institute reforms, creating the danger that progress will stall. In Russia, as in many other energy-exporting countries, this has contributed to a slowing down in the implementation of painful reforms instead of facilitating a reorganization of the economy. Even though Russia has seen improvement in some indicators relative to its own history, other countries have made better use of current conditions to improve at a greater pace, thus moving ahead of Russia in the rankings.

The political will to continue and speed up current reforms, therefore, is going to be crucial for future development. In particular, efforts related to the institutional environment and the health and deregulation of markets will allow the country to develop the small enterprise sector — something that has become an important engine of growth in most post-communist countries. Improvements in the overall business environment will also contribute to the attraction of foreign investment to sectors not related to energy, and thereby to the diversification of the economy. A continuation of the reform of the banking sector will be equally beneficial.

While upgrading these basics, Russia should also continue to develop its already strong system of higher education and enhance its competitive strengths in the field of innovation. Both areas are going to be increasingly important in both current development and as the country moves toward the next stage.

Trial in Absentia: Precedent Established!

Helpfully, the Kremlin has decided to try Boris Berezovsky in absentia for theft:

Self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky will be tried in absentia in Moscow and could be jailed for up to 10 years if found guilty of theft from flagship carrier Aeroflot, prosecutors said Friday. Once part of the country’s business and political elite, Berezovsky is now a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin and a political emigre sheltered by Britain. London has rejected Moscow’s requests to extradite him. “Berezovsky is charged with large-scale theft of company funds worth a total of 214 million rubles [$8.3 million] … and laundering part of the sum stolen from Aeroflot worth over 16 million rubles [$620,000],” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement. Berezovsky’s lawyers said the case was a sham. “We have lodged a request to close the case because it contains no evidence of his guilt,” lawyer Andrei Borovkov was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying. The Prosecutor General’s Office said the investigation into the theft had been completed and, after Berezovsky’s lawyers had finished reading his criminal case, it would be sent to one of Moscow’s district courts and heard there. “The articles of the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code with which Berezovsky is charged call for a maximum jail term of 10 years,” it added.

This means, of course, that the precedent has now been established so that Andrei Lugovoi can be tried in absentia by Britain, and Vladimir Putin by the International Court of Human Rights, and the Kremlin can’t say a word about it.

Nice move, Russia! We couldn’t have done better ourselves!

Of course, LR can’t help but notice that it’s rather odd for the Kremlin to claim that the Russian Constitution allows the trial of a Russian in absentia but doesn’t allow the extradition of a Russian. Something is definitely wrong somewhere . . .

Zaxi on the Azerbaijan Missile System Proposal

The bilingulal Zaxi blog offers the following analysis of “President” Putin’s ridiculous, offensive proposal to station a missile defense system in Azerbaijan rather than Eastern Europe. Again we ask: Who does this cretin think he is kidding?

G8 summits have long resembled 18th century royal balls. Pompously ceremonial dinners fill great palaces while mobs waving beer bottles block the horizon. Champagne flutes clink behind the barricades at the plotting of the new millennium’s course.

This year’s German court jester was to have been President Vladimir Putin – cast in goblin’s clothing for threatening to train his guns on Europe and treating home demonstrations like pesky peasant revolts.

But Putin played a cunning trick on his hosts. He went home leaving US President George W. Bush with an upset stomach and the media with no time to lament the recent state of Russian affairs.

Instead the world buzzed about Putin’s “surprise” and “stunning” offer to lend Bush a military base in Azerbaijan for the mooted US missile defense shield. It turns out the proposal was not entirely new. It was however unwelcome – the far more fitting headline word.

Putin’s pitch is simple on paper. Bush appeases Russia and abandons plans to install interceptor missiles in the Czech Republic and a radar base in Poland. Putin in return grants US access to a Soviet-era radar in Azerbaijan to jointly track missiles from North Korea and Iran. He would then presumably also quit badgering Europe and leave Bush with no arguments for expanding US missile defenses into Eastern Europe.

Russia’s media portrayed the proposal as jaw-dropping in its elegance and guile. One London daily came closest by describing Bush as getting “wrong-footed.” He would have much preferred to see Putin keep quiet about his little scheme because it was inherently unworkable and only added to Bush’s diplomatic headaches.

US intelligence reports that Putin first raised the idea by telephone on March 28. The two sides’ experts have since been discussing its merits even while Putin rattled nerves by testing new missiles and honing his rhetoric.

Bush came out of his talks with Putin on the Baltic shores Thursday with few options. He told the cameras that Russia had made “some interesting suggestions” and prayed for the best. Then Putin happily let the other shoe drop by revealing the Azeri offer.

“I noticed how Mister Bush, while still wearing his welcoming smile, shook his head slightly in irritation,” an intrepid Kommersant reporter wrote from the spot. This may have been a bit of wishful thinking – zaxi saw no shaking of the head – but the sentiment still stands. Bush was now facing a far more difficult return trip through Poland.

Indeed so many problems hound Putin’s plan that it is hard to treat it as sincere.

For starters – Azerbaijan’s Gabala-2 base sits within spitting distance of Iranian short-range missiles that Russia itself peddles to the Islamic state. One can safely presume that if Iran were willing to strike Israel or Europe it would first take a second to wipe out the Azeri site.

Another is that all Gabala has is a radio radar that went online in the mid 1980s. The base is not even able to process the information on site. All of that is sent in code to bunkered headquarters outside Moscow. And it is obviously not linked up to any potential interceptor missiles – not even Russian ones. Putin’s plan would thus require the US system to somehow receive already processed data about an ongoing attack from Russian commanders sitting in the capital of Iran’s chief ally. zaxi would love to see that go up for a Congressional vote.

But the problems do not end there – serious doubts exist about whether Gabala actually works at all. The radar is supposed to track launches stretching from the Middle East and North Africa to China and over the Indian Ocean to Australia. There have been only two important launches from that region over the past year. Moscow seems to have missed both.

Sergei Ivanov said in January when he was still defense minister that reports of a Chinese test launch against its own weather satellite were “great exaggerations” because it never came up on Russian radar. Moscow also was blind to July’s missile barrage from North Korea and eventually reported nearly double the number of launches actually made by Pyongyang.

One Russian military analyst wrote after China’s successful test that “it was already obvious last summer … that Russia’s space missile launch warning system practically does not work.”

Yet some US and NATO commanders find that too remarkable to believe and point to other “technical” hurdles. The first is the mentioned problem of Gabala only being able to read and not guide missiles. NATO also fears that the radar – if it sees anything – is farsighted and too close to spot Iranian missiles before they are high up in space. Another worry is that US interceptors would still remain too far off to react in time. Putin’s suggestion that Bush base them in Iraq since “there must be some sort of use” from the US war there hardly merits more than a snicker.

Finally there are issues with Azerbaijan itself. Russia leases the base from the autocratic regime and the contract runs out in 2012. Putin announced that the Azeris are glad to share the site with the Americans. But Azeri official have since only said they were open to negotiations – a clear hint that the landlord is about to hike up the rent.

Washington cares little about the seven million dollar a year radar lease. It cares more that its security could rest with someone as short on scruples as Azeri President Ilham Aliyev – in a country where public sympathies for its Iranian neighbor run high.

Of course what Putin actually did in Heiligendamm was try and drive a wedge between Bush and his new European friends. The Czech and Polish voters understandably fear their countries turning into Kremlin targets for shielding US interests. They want US security assurances and possibly even its missiles before Washington unfolds an umbrella in space.

Putin’s bluff has thus far failed. Poland’s president greeted Bush with open arms and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Associate Press quite frankly that “we will do what is best from the point of view of actually dealing with the problem” and continue negotiations with Warsaw and Prague.

But Putin’s offer will ratchet up anti-American sentiments at home as Washington proceeds with its shield – leaving Russian politicians feeling ever more justified to rattle off new abuses as the voting season sets in. A Kremlin full of bitter rivals needs a common enemy before the vote. Perhaps Putin was even thinking ahead to his own potential return for the presidency in 2012. [“It is theoretically possible,” Putin said of his second coming Friday.] He would certainly look like Russia’s last stand again a project that could be up and running by that point.

His Azeri card worked best however at sabotaging a summit at which the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair were unsheathing swords in preparation for “frank” private talks with Putin.

Alexander Litvinenko? Blair told the BBC he brought up Russia’s refusal to extradite his likely killer to London. But Blair – derided at the summit by a top Russian minister as “that ex-prime minister” who dared mention future business ties and human rights in one phrase – said only that none of the issue he raised with Putin “had been resolved.”

So Putin did well. And his KGB training keeps coming in handy.

Who do Russians Need?

Russian uber-blogger Anton Nossik recently directed his readers to an online poll aimed at the Russian blogosphere on another blog, supposedly operated by a Russian doing dissertation research at Cambridge, and asked his readers to participate. Here it is (staff translation, our professional translators cannot be blamed). Here it is as of last Saturday:

Which strategic partner is essential to Russian interests at the current time?

#1 — The European Union — 377 (41.2%)

#2 — The People’s Republic of China — 265 (29.0%)

#3 — The United States of America 150 (16.4%)

#4 — None 122 (13.3%)

One can conclude from this poll what should already have been obvious, that the Kremlin is directly flouting the will of the Russian people by antagonizing Europe with its relentless barrage of human rights abuses and support to European enemies like Iran. At the same time, it’s pretty telling that Russians prefer to make an alliance with communist China, by a margin of nearly two-to-one, over an alliance with the United States, and that they are essentially polarized between alliance with the East versus alliance with the West. Only a truly benighted people could possibly think that China, which is gobbling up Russian territory in the Far East as fast as it can swallow and which is populated by a different race held in contempt by the vast majority of Russians, could possibly make a more useful ally for Russia than the U.S. (to say nothing of ignoring the fact that the U.S. is a far more powerful and dangerous enemy). Do Russians really think the Chinese are unaware of Russian racism? Yet, more Russians prefer an alliance with the U.S. than with nobody, which may be some limited grounds for optimism. Of course, since the vast majority of Russians have no access to the blogosphere, a poll of this kind is basically meaningless except as a measure of the intelligentsia.