Annals of the Gontmakher Saga

A few days ago, we republished a translation from the Russian press by Robert Amsterdam by economist Yevgeny Gontmakher, an article which got the author in very hot water with the Kremlin.  Now the Moscow Times has a two-part op-ed series on the article.

First it offers a column by the author himself:

The shelf life of most newspaper articles is usually one or two days. After that, readers tend to forget whatever the article said. That is why I am so surprised by the continuing debate over my article, “Novocherkassk-2009,” published on Nov. 6 in Vedomosti. In that comment, I described a typical city with a workforce dependent on a single major factory or industry (Russia has about 700 such cities) and the social problems that could result if the economic crisis were to worsen.

I suggested that first, the central factory or industry would shut down, causing widespread unemployment. This, in turn, would lead to spontaneous demonstrations and public disorder. The local authorities would be at a loss as to how to respond and would either freeze up or panic. That is the type of system that the “power vertical” has created over the past eight years. The only way out of this predicament is to modernize the whole country, and this must include switching to a truly competitive economy and creating an open political system.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s White House responded the same day the article came out. I received a telephone call from a high-ranking bureaucrat thanking me for the timely warning and saying that the government would be using the information as part of its crisis-management planning.

With that, my article’s shelf life should have ended. But on Nov. 21, Vedomosti received a letter from the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service that was signed by the agency’s deputy head. The letter said my article “could be considered an attempt to incite extremist activities.”

From that point on, my colleagues and acquaintances began calling me to express solidarity with my position. A stormy debate ensued on the Internet, with the text of the article popping up on one web site after another. Radio and television stations asked me to comment on the situation. I told everyone that the government’s “warning” was a direct attack against the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

What part of my piece hit such a raw nerve with the minor officials charged with monitoring freedom of speech? Was it the rioters in the hypothetical scenario who shouted out, “Make those fat-cat bureaucrats accountable for their actions!”? Recall what President Dmitry Medvedev said on the issue in his state-of-the-nation address on Nov. 5. “The state bureaucracy is governed by the same distrust of personal freedoms as it was 20 years ago. That logic is pushing it toward dangerous conclusions and dangerous actions. The bureaucracy periodically ‘nightmarizes’ businesses — so that they won’t do anything ‘wrong.’ It takes over control of the media — so that they won’t say the ‘wrong’ things. It interferes with the electoral process — so that the ‘wrong’ person isn’t elected. It puts pressure on the courts — so that they don’t sentence the ‘wrong’ person. … The result is that our state apparatus has become the largest employer, the biggest publisher … it has become its own court of law with jurisdiction over itself … That kind of system is absolutely ineffective and creates only one thing — corruption. It gives rise to legal nihilism on a massive scale, it stands in opposition to the Constitution and slows the development of innovate economic and democratic institutions.”

What bothers me most about these events? I don’t like the fact that a precedent has been set. If an analyst or journalist in a particular city publishes something the local authorities don’t want to hear, those officials can — and with the law fully backing them — bring pressure on both the author and the publication.

That is why I wrote to the Glasnost Defense Foundation asking them to explain the legal basis for determining that my article was “an attempt to incite extremist activities.” On Dec. 8, Foundation president Alexei Simonov sent a request for an explanation to the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service and to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika. We will have to wait a bit for the answer because state agencies usually respond within one month.

Meanwhile, last week I learned that the media oversight agency would be reorganized. Already, as Interfax reported Dec. 10, the head of the watchdog, Boris Boyarskov, has been dismissed by Medvedev after four years in the post. I hope the new staff will have a little better attitude toward freedom of speech.

Regardless of how the legal dispute regarding the accusations of “inciting extremism” turns out, the incident has confirmed the conclusions I made in the “Novocherkassk-2009” article. Without a radical modernization of the leaders’ vision of democracy and the market economy, Russian society and the country itself are ultimately headed toward self-destruction.

To avoid that unhappy scenario, we must change the direction of Russia’s political development. We must switch from the current top-down vertical power model of ruling the country to one that includes an active dialogue with all sectors of society — including the opposition.

I recently met with some people from the Netherlands, and they asked me what I thought would happen in Russia in 2009. I told them that the people of Utrecht would certainly be riding bicycles as they have for decades. As for the question of what will happen in Russia, I don’t know. And I am not the only one who doesn’t know exactly what upheavals await us in the near term. Perhaps this is the biggest problem in our long-suffering country.

Second, a column about the controversy by Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst:

Yevgeny Gontmakher, who served in Boris Yeltsin’s administration as deputy social protection minister, is one of Russia’s most respected sociologists and economists. He published an article on Nov. 6 in Vedomosti that described what could happen to the Russian city of “N” during a financial and economic crisis. “N” represented a one-factory city that employed most of the local population, either directly or indirectly. There are hundreds of these small cities in Russia.

Novocherkassk, located in southern Russia near Rostov-on-Don, is a good example of one of these cities. It is best known for the labor unrest and protests in 1962 that led to a violent response from government troops. The problems started in the spring of that year, when production quotas were raised for factory workers but their salaries remained the same.

Then, on June 1, the central planners in Moscow announced a nationwide 30 percent increase in the price of meat and a 25 percent hike in the price of butter. The increases in food prices were the breaking point in an already tense situation. Spontaneous demonstrations broke out in the city, and this led to a ruthless government crackdown to quell the unrest. Soviet troops and secret service agents killed dozens — perhaps hundreds — of people.

Any official reference to the events in Novocherkassk was strictly taboo for the next 30 years because the “people’s state,” lauded by the Kremlin as fair, just and humane, was not supposed to have violent clashes with the people.

Gontmakher’s article was titled “Novocherkassk-2009.” That was the only direct allusion to the 1962 incident. The rest of the text was a purely academic treatment of the closing of a hypothetical major factory in 2009, when the current financial crisis is expected to reach its culmination. Gontmakher wrote about the likely consequences: widespread unemployment, plummeting consumer demand, street protests and the paralysis of municipal and regional governments unwilling to fire on unruly and angry crowds but who see no other recourse.

Can anyone guarantee that something like that won’t happen in dozens of towns and cities across Russia? Does anyone believe that the regional and federal governments will be able to handle the economic, social and political crises effectively and peacefully? Just turn on your television and look at what is happening in Greece right now. Thinking about this makes most people shudder.

But instead of thinking about it seriously, the government’s media watchdog, the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service sent a letter to Vedomosti’s editor-in-chief warning the newspaper against violating the anti-terrorism law since Gontmakher’s article, which appeared in the opinion section, “could be considered an attempt to incite extremist activities.” The letter was signed by the agency’s deputy head, Alexander Romanenkov.

Using this unique interpretation, the authorities could have also put “Little Red Riding Hood” on their blacklist of publications that “attempt to incite extremist activities.” The government’s absurd reaction to Gontmakher’s article demonstrates exactly what the author warned about in his piece — namely, the authorities’ confusion and incompetence when they attempt to manage national crises. And we have yet to see the worse of it since the crisis is only just beginning in Russia.

According to Russian law, the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service has the power to ask a court to revoke a newspaper’s license after issuing two warnings. No publication with the professional reputation that Vedomosti has earned has ever been shut down, and no prominent analyst such as Gontmakher has ever been the subject of censure. The government’s warning was obviously an attempt to muzzle “inconvenient” views, but, as always, the resulting scandal only served to increase the popularity of the article, its author and the newspaper.

Once the authorities saw that the Federal Mass Media Inspection Service had grossly mishandled the situation, they quickly switched tactics. A little-known figure in the service, Mikhail Vorobyov, explained that the notification sent to Vedomosti was not an official warning but simply an admonition carrying no legal status. In other words, the newspaper’s journalists were gently reminded by the strict schoolteacher that good little boys and girls only cross the street on a green light and there is no place for naughty, disobedient children in our progressive country.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s bureaucracy, both under his leadership as president and prime minister, has reverted to old Soviet habits with amazing speed. It is battling the crisis far less fervently than it battles the media that reports on the crisis. After all, the authorities have told us ad nauseum that Russia has finally risen from its knees, and too much bad news in the media about the crisis destroys this rosy picture. Not long ago, Putin personally told his subordinates to use the word “crisis” only when speaking about the U.S. economy and not about the Russian one. This was apparently based on the tried-and-true Soviet logic: If you never mention the devil, he’ll never appear.

According to this twisted logic, Gontmakher really is a dangerous extremist for the Kremlin. At the very least, he would be a slanderer — in the same way that under Stalin’s rule, anyone uttering a “slanderous” complaint about the lack of soap, salt or matches in stores could be sent to the gulag for 10 years.

Thanks to the Soviet Union’s ruthless struggle to suppress all “extremist” voices — including among leading experts and academicians like Gontmakher — it thought it could maintain an image as a progressive state that achieved the highest level of social justice and well-being for its people. Since the “extremists” kept silent about the Novocherkassk executions and the countless other incidents of abuses of power, Soviet tyranny was able to survive for as long as it did.

One of Putin’s biggest mistakes is his desire to revive the Soviet Union’s former greatness. He emulates a country that was the largest “Potemkin village” in history. The incompetent way that Putin’s government is handling the financial crisis is frightfully similar to the convulsions of the Kremlin leaders before and during the economic crises in the 1980s.

It seems that Gontmakher hit the nail on the head with his piece in Vedomosti. The only thing he missed is that his crisis scenario applies not only to the hundreds of small “N” cities in Russia but to the big “M” city as well.

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