Archives for March 2008

News 30 March: The Paradoxes of Russophobia

Medvedev gives his first foreign media interview (to the Financial Times), in which he charts the bedrock of his presidency.

  • Will continue to pursue primarily Russia’s, not the West’s, interests.
  • Will work in tandem with Putin, to whom he is neither puppet nor rebel.
  • Will strive to root out “legal nihilism” / proizvol in Russia and corruption, including amongst the siloviki (“power people”) by asserting the law’s supremacy over executive power, cultivating popular respect for the law and improving the courts system, e.g. by raising pay for judges.
  • Will keep trying to demolish Russophobe myths.

Speaking of “legal nihilism”, it seems Medvedev has already started work in this area by forbidding state inspectors from carrying out checks on small businesses in the absence of a court ruling. Hopefully this should help expand the role of small businesses in Russia’s economy, which now make up just 1.1mn small businesses, 3.4mn individual businesspeople and 17% of GDP (typically 40-70% in advanced industrial countries), and expand the middle classes.

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Russophile Core Articles

This is a (continuously expanding) list of the articles that any serious Russia-watcher has to read if they wish to become acquainted with the Russophile worldview. I have hi-lighted the most important ones.

But first, the sources of reality-based, high quality information about Russia. Sublime Oblivion, by yours truly. And now, in no particular order… Eugene Ivanov runs a deeply informed, incisive and humorous political blog on Russia and the US at The Ivanov Report. Another excellent blog is Sean’s Russia Blog written by Sean Guillory – humorous, wide selection and eminently readable. He is an academic currently researching Soviet era youth groups.

Konstantin at Russian Blog and Fedia Krikov at Russia in the Media ran entertaining blogs dedicated to debunking Russophobic drivel, but unfortunately both seem to have died out due to ennui. Investor and published on the Truth and Beauty (…and Russian Finance) newsletter, Eric Kraus, is THE guy at economic and financial ground zero. Timothy Post is an American entrepreneur in Krasnodar, the Russian Riviera.

Nicolai Petro is a very insightful academic who sees evidence that Russia is forging its own democratic culture. Robert Hanh and the other folks who run Russia: Other Points of View make heroic efforts to, well, make other points of view available on Russia in the Western media’s culture of manufactured consent. Peter Lavelle is a highly original and eloquent journalist (not to mention a high paid propaganda master) working for Russia Today. The President of the Russian Federation, or False Dmitri as I like to call him, has a really cool motorcycle on his blog’s header. Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic who is published on numerous blogs.

The eXiled Online is extremely funny and irreverent in a wet fish around the face fashion, but aren’t focused on Russia like the old eXile. In La Russophobe Exposed, Steve J. Nelson explores the murky connections and financing deep within that hate blog’s reptilian layers. Stanislav Mishin’s blog Mat Rodina is a bit too hardcore Orthodox for me, but there is no doubt he is a great Russian-American patriot. Winthrop360 is a fine blog.

That’s it for the blogs. Now for the articles…

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Top 10 Russophobe Myths

EDIT: Check out the updated Top 50 Russophobe Myths.

According to this blog’s philosophy, every thesis needs an antithesis. Hence I present the Top 10 Russophobe Myths, in opposition to La Russophobe’s Top 10 Russophile Myths. (As well as to celebrate our 2000th visit).

10

MYTH: The barbarous state of Muscovy arose in the sixteenth century when Ivan the Terrible climbed out of the trees.

REALITY: The more than 1000-year old civilization of Kievan Rus’ was literate, affluent, governed by a legal code that abhorred cruel and unusual punishments (including the death penalty) and accorded women property and inheritance rights.

9

MYTH: Russians are a pack of uncultured illiterates.

REALITY: Russia leads the world in literacy, level of tertiary attainment and the quality of its mathematicians and programmers. It possesses a world-class literary, musical and artistic heritage and to claim otherwise is in fact to admit oneself ignorant and uncultured.

8

MYTH: Russia has fallen to Tsarist levels of inequality and is plagued by endemic, African-level corruption. Both of these have become much worse under Putin.

REALITY: Russia’s level of income inequality and of corruption is average by world standards. Under Putin, they have registered a slight deterioration and slight improvement, respectively.

7

MYTH: Russia is an aggressive state which is hated by its neighbors.

REALITY: Unlike some superpowers, the Russia Federation has yet to invade another country. Most of its neighbors view Russia favorably and a majority of Ukrainians would be happy to join it.

6

MYTH: Russians are sexists and xenophobic racists who hate the West.

REALITY: Russian women live longer and are better educated than men, enjoy full abortion rights and participate extensively in the economy. Few Russians are predisposed against the US and there are far fewer anti-Semitic incidents in Russia than in France, Germany and the UK.

5

MYTH: Heroic Americans with their British sidekicks won World War Two, while the Russians just threw billions of soldiers without rifles in front of German machine guns.

The vast majority of German soldiers were killed, taken POW or otherwise incapacitated on the Eastern front. The Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1 and the USSR outproduced Germany in every weapons system throughout the war.

4

MYTH: Russia’s economy is one big oil bubble.

REALITY: The extractive industries contribute a negligible amount to Russia’s real GDP growth. Today’s excellent macroeconomic situation combined with its impressive human capital stand Russia in good stead for convergence to First World living standards by 2020-30.

3

MYTH: Life has only improved for a few oligarchs. Russia is in a demographic death spiral that has gotten worse under Putin and which will soon sink its economy.

REALITY: In the last eight years, poverty rates have more than halved and wages have risen by a factor of 2.6, fuelling an on-going consumption boom. The birth rate has increased, the death rate has fallen and mortality from murder, suicide and alcohol poisoning has plummeted. Projections of Russia’s future dependency ratios are no worse than for China or the G7.

2

MYTH: Putin has abused human rights, personally murdered 200 journalists and returned Russia to its totalitarian past.

REALITY: Too bad that only 3% of Russians agree, despite having easy access to such views via the press, cable TV and the Internet. The number of journalists killed under Putin (17) is less than under Yeltsin (30), and only five of them can be definitively linked to their professional work. Elections have been mostly free and fair.

1

MYTH: Russia is Mordor.

REALITY: Scratch a Russophobe, and you find a talentless fantasy writer. Sorry to disappoint you folks, but there aren’t billions of orcs beneath the Ural Mountains preparing the final phase of their assault on the West. Not as far as I know, anyway.

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I Appear on Al-Jazeera

Here‘s the video. My section begins at 8:02.

Why was my speech not exactly on-topic?

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The People Speak: Poll #1 Results, US Presidential Candidates

These are the results of our first poll (running from January 11 to March 19).

I am pleased to see that the number of people thinking it’s brilliant decisively outnumber those who think it should be deleted. (So I’ll remain on the blogosphere.) Otherwise, don’t bother with digressions, aesthetics or more features, but concentrate more on regular news and editorials. Well, I’ll try. I’m not really the kind of person who loves pumping out stuff at constant intervals, but I’ll have a go at making updates more frequent (and posts smaller). As for Core Articles – well, we have a juicy one coming up tomorrow – Top 10 Russophobe Myths, as well as a finished News 19 March.

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News 19 Mar: It Takes 2 (or 3) to Tango in Human Rights

The US State Department has released its latest human rights report – as usual, a veritable list of America’s bugbears (North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Sudan are the ‘top ten’). It is true that the majority of the above are pretty odious regimes, with the partial exception of Belarus and Cuba.

Nonetheless, the State Department shoots itself in the foot – the hypocrisy is revealed immediately by thinking Belarus; Kazakhstan; Saudi Arabia. Obviously, having lots of oil and being friendly to the superpower has highly democratizing effects…

The fact that China was dropped from The List didn’t stop them from issuing a Human Rights Record of the US in 2007, which cites an increase in violent crime, police brutality and unaccountability, world beating prison population, racism, sexism, increasing socio-economic stratification and huge HR abuses abroad and calls on Americans to finish with double standards and ‘reflect on their own issues’. Russia wasn’t much impressed either.

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Education as the Elixir of Growth

What are the reasons behind the wealth and poverty of nations? Since this question has exercised the minds of thinkers from Adam Smith to David Landes, Jared Diamond and Richard Lynn, I decided to take a look at it myself. I came to the conclusion that while geography, macroeconomic policies, resource windfalls and the microeconomic environment do play important roles, by far the most important factor is the state of a country’s human capital – things like literacy rates, school life expectancy and performance on international student assessments.

This is not a new idea. A Goldman Sachs report, Dreaming with BRICs, noted that:

Many cross-country studies have found positive and statistically significant correlations between schooling and growth rates of per capita GDP—on the order of 0.3% faster annual growth over a 30-year period from an additional one year of schooling.

However, I think education is much more central to this. The problem with using years of schooling as a yardstick is that in many middle-income countries, like Argentina, Turkey or Brazil, the amount of schooling is converging to that of the developed world, but the quality isn’t. This is attested to by their performance on international student assessments like PISA. For instance, in the 2006 PISA Science assessment, only 15.2% of Brazilians were at Level 3 or higher (the threshold for moving beyond purely linear problem-solving), compared with 47.6% of Russian, 51.3% of American and 66.9% of Australian students. Is it really then surprising to discover that from 1997 to 2007 purchasing power GDP per capita in Brazil and Russia, both medium-income countries, has grown at 1.3% and 6.0%, respectively, i.e., that Russia is playing the game of economic catch-up much more successfully?

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Flotsam and Jetsam: Election Entertainment

Some 47% of Russians watched the pre-election debates between Zyuganov (Communists), Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democrats, i.e. nationalists) and Bogdanov (Democratic). (Medvedev decided against participating). Here’s a scene from when they thought they were off-camera, in which the ever colorful Zhirinovsky shows us how to debate properly.

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Annals of Media Madness – The Trouble with the Economist

This is how the Economist celebrates Russia’s presidential election – the Trouble with Russia’s Economy, represented by a bear gorging itself on oil (i.e. invoking the Myth of the Russian Oil Curse, which we have debunked far too many times to count on this blog). Guess we’ll have to do it again.

Never mind that organizations like the the World Bank, academic econometricians and even their own Economist Intelligence Unit disagrees, and that there is also OECD academic work that argues that ‘the resource curse – if it exists – is at least no fatalité’.

But whatever. Let’s analyse the article on what it says..

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News 2 Mar

The most important development has been Medvedev’s election to the Presidency with 70.2% of the vote. While it has not been squeaky clean (and as such, no different from any other Russian election under either Yeltsin or Putin), the more hystryonic claims of voter intimidation are to be treated with a pinch of salt – for a start, it’s a secret ballot, and as such authorities can have no control over how people vote in the booth. Even Nigel Evans, a British parliamentarian and member of PACE’s monitoring team, admitted “There does not seem to be any voter intimidation“.

Media coverage has been skewed towards Medvedev (who was a key government official – deputy prime minister – as well as election candidate), but this is not surprising in a country where opinion polling typically put his popularity at around 80%, in contrast to Zyuganov’s c.10%, Zhirinovsky’s c.10% and the ‘Liberals” c.1%. (This is also the reason Medvedev refused to participate in TV debates). The elections followed the polls, which heavily suggests that they were free. In fact, the major upset was Zyuganov, who managed to scrape 17.8% (well above what most polls predicted) to the detriment of Medvedev.

Now Russians do get coverage of the latters’ platforms and as such it is not surprising they are rejected – the Communists talk the talk but can’t walk the walk; the Liberal Democrats are too crudely clownish to have genuine popular appeal; and the ultra-low ratings of ‘liberals’ is largely of their own making. After all, the media reflects, as well as manufactures, consent.

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