Just when I thought the paper of Luke “I Plagiarize Off The eXile” Harding and Miriam “Putin Stole My Dry Cleaning Ticket” Elder could get no more incompetent, vindictive, and mendacious in its Russia coverage, it did. I present: Putin calls in Darth Vader to tighten his grip on Russia’s energy assets by Alex Dryden, who seems to be the Guardian’s new Moscow correspondent. How many tropes and outright lies can you, dear reader, identify in that 800-word diatribe? I could find at least a dozen or so.
Manichaeism: Apparently Sechin is “Darth Vader” and “the scariest man in Russia”, according to Russians. That’s certainly news to me. I have never heard Sechin called any of that. The blogger Mark Galeotti did alert me to the fact that he’d used the moniker in a blog post, but did say that “joking aside, I haven’t seen Russians call Sechin Vader.” I searched on Russian Google for these associations and all I could find was references to Dryden’s own article, an article from Forbes a few years back that also called Sechin a Darth Vader, and a few bloggers. However I doubt that a majority of Russians even know who Sechin is let alone think of him as Emperor Palpatine’s Putin’s enforcer.
Inconsistency. Sechin is apparently the “greyest of his éminences grises”. I always thought that title belonged to Surkov? Make up your minds already! But this isn’t all. Not only will Darth Vader help Putin “tighten his grip on Russia’s energy assets”, he is at the same time – according to the subtitle – to “begin a potentially tycoon-terrifying reprivatisation programme.” This is a logical consequence of the traditional view of the Western media that Putin / Russia can do nothing good: If he increases restrictions on party registrations, it is authoritarianism, if he loosens them, it is a Kremlin plot to crowd out genuine liberals with fake Kremlin parties, etc. But at least up till now Putin’s inevitably evil and mercenary choices were at least mutually exclusive. Alex Dryden goes one step further, adopting a kind of multi-universe perspective in which Putin both “tightens state control” and “reprivatizes” at the same time, with both serving to reinforce his dominance and enrich his corrupt cronies.
Outright lies: What IS actually being discussed is privatization of state controlled companies, however there is debate over the pace (it is likely to be slow and gradual) and final extent of this privatization. How that amounts to tightening “state control of the economy” must remain a Schrödingerian mystery.
Tinpot Russia: “But the “r” in the Bric nations looks increasingly vulnerable… Should Russia even be included as one of the Brics? As the American economist, Nouriel Roubini, says, Russia is “more sick than Bric”.” And Jim O’Neill, the inventor of the BRIC’s concept, is a consistent defender of Russia’s place in the BRIC’s. Indeed on most indicators Russia is at least as good as the BRIC’s average or better. It has the highest human capital and the highest GDP per capita (both in nominal and PPP terms). Its per capita growth over the past decade lags only China and is about equal to India (which is many times poorer), and its present growth trajectory is likewise superior to Brazil and about equal to India’s. It is also the fiscally strongest of the BRIC’s, despite the relatively high dependence of its budget on minerals revenue (which is not a sin: See Australia, Norway, etc).
Anonymous sourcing: “Oleg says”, “Oleg’s wife Veronika says”, “Oleg and Veronika are just two of the many young people in Russia considering leaving”, “Sources close to Putin”, “An officer in the economic department of the FSB, the KGB’s successor organisation”, “the head of a small Moscow oil company”, “A partner in AAR”. All of whom conveniently back the Guardian line on Russia, from its economy being a cash machine for the ominously anonymous “them” (that is, the siloviki, as Dryden helpfully clarifies for us) to “mafiosi methods” being the only possible way to do business there. I wonder why Dryden didn’t cite the voices in his head. It would at the very least be more credible for its honesty.
Dying Russia: “Russia’s population is in drastic decline. Much of this is due to emigration, nearly all of which is of the younger and smarter elements of the population. The rest is caused by a falling life expectancy and birth rate.” Four lies in three sentences. First, the population has been stable since about 2008, and has started to appreciably increase since 2011. In the first four months of 2012, the time of the year when it was usually declining the fastest, the population INCREASED by 42,000 people. This was helped by a 90,000 POSITIVE migration balance; a migration balance that remains positive even when just countries in the Far Abroad, i.e. the destinations of the “younger and smarter” emigrations, are considered (and this balance will remain positive EVEN if we assume that Russian statistics underestimate emigration by 50%). The life expectancy and birth rates aren’t decreasing; to the contrary, they are increasing at unprecedented rates, and in fact the former broke the Soviet-era record in 2011. Where does the Guardian get its fact-checkers? Do they even bother with them?
Mafia state: “…however, if you were one of the few who made outlandish amounts of money and commanded influence within the siloviki elites, life has been good in the past 10 years”. Unable to deny the truly undeniably realities of improving across the board statistics on everything from GDP per capita to automobile ownership, the Guardian goes back to the old anti-Putin cliche of ascribing all the benefits of this prodigal economic growth to a small coterie of (inevitably corrupt and slimey) pro-Putinist apparatchiks. Statistics that show massive gains in real median wages, as reflected in broad surveys of consumer power or the number of Big Macs a McDonald’s worker can afford per hour of labor, is of course unmentioned.
Lack of context: Russia is the weakest and most pathetic of the BRIC’s. It should be kicked out. It’s 120th on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking for goodness’ sake! Except that Brazil is 126th, and India is 132nd.
If a freshman handed in this dross excuse for an op-ed to a journalism or political science in any halfway respectable institution, he would get an F. (For his own sake I hope this is something Dryden wrote up on a tight deadline, maybe while hungover from partying with Ioffe and Shawn Walker and their likes, to keep his paychecks flowing). But as it’s a Guardian journalist writing about Russia all is par for the course.
PS. I am not on good terms with the Guardianistas, them having mostly banned me from commenting on their pages like the upstanding democraticians they are, so I would appreciate it if one of my readers could write a complaint to them about Alex Dryden’s post, feeling free to cite this post as evidence.
PSS. I noticed towards the end of writing this post that Mark Adomanis had already done a similar rebuttal, making most of the same criticisms. In fact even Alexey Kovalev, a hardcore liberal who occasionally writes for The Guardian, says that Dryden is “spectacularly clueless” and a “total ignoramus” not to mention anecdotally confirming my points on demography and emigration.
PSSS. A few corrections from Kovalev. (1) “Fine, but calling me a ‘hardcore liberal’ is a bit far-fetched. The fact that I wrote for G doesn’t make me one.” (2) “Also I said that one is entitled to an opinion that makes them look like an ignoramus, not called Dryden one.”