Archives for August 2009

The Nazi-Soviet Pact as Second Munich

On the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, signed on August 23, 1939 (also my birthday!), historians, ideologues and everyone in between inevitably fall into a game of recriminations, revisionism and relativism. The anti-Soviet side maintains that the Pact gave Germany a free hand in the west and contributed to the onset of war, as represented by OSCE’s recent recognition of Nazi-Soviet equivalence in their culpability for the Second World War. On the other hand, most Russian historians stress that the Pact was a) justifiable on the basis of the Western betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, and b) gave the USSR valuable time to build up its military-industrial potential for the coming war with Germany.

The “Westerners” (and their liberast Russian allies) tend to impute sinister motives to the Russian leadership’s recent efforts aimed against the “falsification of history” – seeing in them a revival of totalitarian and expansionist thinking, whereas the Russians see this as Western-sponsored “revisionism” whose aim is to impose a sense of historical guilt on the nation. Considering that a glorified version of the Great Patriotic War is fast becoming Russia’s national myth, any acceptance of responsibility for its outbreak is ideologically unacceptable, an a priori anathema. This pits Russia directly against the Visegrad nations of the former Soviet bloc, whose occupation and repression under Soviet / Russian rule – yes, they view the two as interchangeable – is a staple of their national myths, and consequently also brings Russia into a new ideological conflict with the wider West.

Given the huge role of these underlying emotional, ideological and spiritual factors, there is little space left for objective history. But one can try by hi-lighting the kind of international environment the USSR faced during the period and the sense of insecurity that the Western nations instilled in its government through their actions… I’ll start by translating, summarizing and expounding on a timeline meticulously compiled by Sergei Fedosov [my additions] – please see link for his sources:

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Perils of Water

Three interesting stories, all tied with Russia and water.

1. The explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in Siberia. Though the official Russian version is that it was a blown transformer, the Chechen separatists / terrorists are claiming that it’s their work:

A decision was taken at the start of the year at a meeting of the council of the Mujahideen of the Emirate of the Caucasus, led by Caucasus Emir Doku Abu Usman, to activate an economic war against  Russia on its territory. To carry out these tasks, subversive groups were created and sent to a  host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial  sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil  pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage  power lines, and sabotage at factories.

In the name of Allah, through our efforts on Aug. 17 an act of sabotage, long in the making and thoroughly thought out, was carried  out at the Khakasia region’s Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power  plant, the largest in Russia. An anti-tank mine on a timer was planted in the turbine room, and its explosion caused enormous damage, greater than we anticipated. The result halted the hydro-power station completely, and caused losses to Russia worth many billions of dollars.

[…talks about their recent militant attacks in Ingushetia & threatens those who cooperate with the “apostates” with death]

Lay down your arms and return to your homes, work and earn money in the ways permitted under Sharia, and you will once again have a calm life.

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Translation: Ksenia Larina – Radio Liberty, The Liberty of Mendacity

One of my readers, Fedia Kriukov, kindly pointed me to a LiveJournal blog post by Ksenia Larina from August 13th, 2009. She’s been working with the liberal “Echo of Moscow” radio station since 1991 and her husband, Rinat Valiulin, had accepted a position with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in February 2009. In uncompromising language, she reveals her husband’s unpleasant experiences with RFERL in Радио Свобода – свобода подлости (Radio Liberty – The Freedom of Mendacity). Her impression is that a once-respectable institution has degenerated into a nest of self-serving nepotism, neo-Soviet bureaucracy and US managerial fecklessness. Coming hard on the heels of Mario Corti’s revelations about its plummeting popularity, corruption and retreat from journalistic independence, RFERL will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the tens of millions of dollars of American taxpayer money going into supporting it.

TRANSLATION: Ksenia Larina on “Radio Liberty – The Liberty of Mendacity” (LJ post)

(http://xlarina.livejournal.com/117110.html; accessed August 15, 2009)

My husband Rinat Valiulin, who was invited to the position of Director of the Russian service this February, abandoned the “hospitable” walls of this human rights-defending radio station Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on August 10th. His contract had been terminated. The presenter began the traditional midday briefing of the Moscow and Prague editorial offices with congratulations: “Colleagues! Congratulations! We did it!” What did they do? They arranged a civil execution for my husband. A ritual killing. They destroyed him.

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One Nation under CCTV

Now we’ve all known for some time that Britain is degenerating into a neoliberal version of East Germany, with its endemic surveillance and database wet dreams, and few things really surprise me any more, but every so often it manages to plumb an even deeper level of insanity. This time the thieving crooks and totalitarian freaks who run Britain want to install CCTV cameras in people’s homes:

THOUSANDS of the worst families in England are to be put in “sin bins” in a bid to change their bad behaviour, [AK: the aptly named] Ed Balls announced yesterday.

The Children’s Secretary set out £400million plans to put 20,000 problem families under 24-hour CCTV super-vision in their own homes. They will be monitored to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time and eat proper meals. Private security guards will also be sent round to carry out home checks, while parents will be given help to combat drug and alcohol addiction.

What with all the unprecedented budget deficits, money printing and soaring debt, I’m sure spending more money spying on the population is an excellent idea. I’m not even being sarcastic here. As the government steps up its repressive and unpopular policies, resulting in ever more disillusionment and resentment, this actually constitutes an essential investment in state security. The accompanying expansion of the overgrown nanny state is aimed at making children of the population, incapable of resisting the state’s spreading, suffocating tentacles.

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New Russia-Georgia War?

Whispers of war are heard in the Caucasus, as the anniversary of last year’s South Ossetian War approaches. Will the guns of August be fired in anger to mark the occasion?

Here are some things we need to keep in mind when analyzing this:

    • It was Georgia that attacked South Ossetia last year, mere hours after Saakashvili promised them peace and eternal friendship and candy. The Georgians proceeded to indiscriminately bombard Tskhinvali, a densely populated town full of civilians, with Grad missiles. They also attacked UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, which constitutes a clear casus belli. Russia’s response was just and proportionate.
    • The Western media at the time presented this as a struggle between aggressive Russian tyranny and democratic Georgia, spewing the most propagandistic bilge imaginable (e.g. headlines about Russia attacking poor little Georgia, while showing Georgian Grad rockets being fired at Tskhinvali!). Putin’s well-argued justifications of Russian intervention were censored and manipulated by CNN and Western journalists with enough personal integrity to refrain from unconditionally siding with Saakashvili were blacklisted.
    • In reality there is much evidence, including the testimonies of former Georgian cabinet members, to the effect that Saakashvili was planning to retake the “lost territories” months beforehand.
    • Since then the media retracted their most sensationalist claims in a bid to reinforce their (questionable) reputations for objectivity. Many media outlets now acknowledge the reality of Georgian aggression and war crimes. Amongst those who looked at the issue in detail, only the most diehard neocons and Russophobes still deny that it was Georgia that was primarily responsible for the war. In their circles, the idea of Russian war guilt is almost an article of faith. Applying Occam’s Razor would suggest they are wrong.
    • Nonetheless, the US continues to unconditionally support Saakashvili, even under the Obama administration (whether this is because of American geopolitical interests, or because they really are hoodwinked by Georgian PR, is an exercise I leave to the reader). In doing so they turn a blind eye to Saakashvili’s repression of the opposition. This only serves to further reinforce the Russian conviction that the West cares about democracy only in so far as it advances its geopolitical interests. Far from pressuring the Russians to cease and desist, the West’s hostile rhetoric, encroachment on Russia’s security space and dismissal of Russian protestations will only reinforce Russia’s disillusionment with the West and make it ever more unwilling to consider Western interests.
    • This disillusionment is especially prevalent amongst the Russian elites and younger people with Internet access. Thanks to the West, they are coming to the conclusion that no matter what their country does – right or wrong – it will be condemned by the champions of Western chauvinism regardless. The only way to make them the West happy would be to lie down and lick its boots, but few peoples anywhere think this way, let alone in a nation as proud as Russia. Though Georgia struck first, this war marked the most significant Russian retaliation to years of humiliations yet; it sent a message that it would no longer passively resign itself to Western imperialism.
    • Look at the detailed Legal Case for Russian Intervention in Georgia by Nicolai Petro which looks at these issues in scholarly depth.
    • All this may lead to a growing preference for Realpolitik over “liberal internationalist” solutions to Russia’s geopolitical problems, which will go in tandem with an internal power shift towards the hardliners. They are interested in more than just responding to external aggression against the Russian Federation; they want to redefine Russia itself.
    • As I pointed out in my previous post Reconsidering Parshev, the weight of history is forcing Russia back to its future, the desires of its leadership regardless (let alone the desires of Westerners). This past-and-future is a Eurasian empire based on economic autarky, political sovereignty and spiritual sobornost. Amongst many other things, this implies control over the Caucasus.
    • Georgia is the linchpin of the Caucasus. Securing a Russian-friendly government there will reinforce Russian control of gas flows from Central Asia to Europe, extend its influence over the Black Sea region and allow it to link up with its ally Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base. Nabucco will turn into a pipedream, at least as long as relations between Iran and the West remain strained.
    • As Stratfor points out in Georgia: Left to Russia’s Mercy?, Georgia is not a strong nation. It is riven by divisions that could be exploited, e.g. separatist-minded Adjara and Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti. Its economy is dependent on agriculture and the government budget relies on pipeline rents. Meanwhile, Saakashvili’s brand of market fundamentalism may have provided a temporary boost from efficiency gains, but the attendant deindustrialization now limits its longer-term prospects.
    • “Soft” measures failed to topple Saakashvili in the past year. He retains the approval of perhaps half the population, crushed an attempted military coup (or set it up himself) and now appears to be more secure in his position than he was in months.
    • Another important point is that many elements of the Russian military were disappointed at being ordered to stop before overthrowing Saakashvili. They would love to finish the job (and furnish the excuse).
    • That said, Saakashvili is hardly a peacenik either. According to Kirill Troitsky’s “War taught them nothing” in Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kurier, the Georgians have been rapidly rearming since 2008. Regaining control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains a strategic goal of the Georgian regime.
    • Russia is upgrading and expanding its forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is renovating Soviet-era air and naval bases in Abkhazia, deploying its own border guards to the region (which increases the chances of an incident), kicking out foreign observers, and equipping the 131st Motor Rifle Brigade in Abkhazia with the latest T-90 tanks. Below is a photo of a Russian soldier in Abkhazia posing in front of his new kit, first posted to the social networking site Odnoklassniki (the Russian Facebook).

  • The focus on Abkhazia suggests that any Russian offensive would be focused on the west of the country, bypassing urban quagmires in Tbilisi. This would cut Georgia’s links to the Black Sea and sever the gas pipelines running across its territory. The Armenians may be persuaded to join in the dismembering of Georgia through the “liberation” of their compatriots in Samtskhe-Javakheti, through which Georgia would be cut clean in half. Azerbaijan would be cornered into quiescence. The main uncertainty is how Turkey would respond to such developments; it is not as pro-NATO and pro-West as it was a decade ago.
  • Several commentators believe the risks of a new war are high. Stratfor believes Georgia will return into Russia’s fold by the early 2010’s, though it does not believe there will be a Russian military offensive this year. Vaha Gelaev, a former member of the now-disbanded “Vostok” Chechen battalion, is certain there will be war this summer. Pavel Felgenhauer has been raising the prospect of a new war since March in Wartime Approaching in the Caucasus and Risk Increasing of Russian Intervention in Georgia. Now he’s saying there’s an 80% chance of war breaking out this August. The Chechen terrorist site Kavkazcenter claims a 300-strong convoy of Russian tanks, BMPs, BTRs and multiple launch rocket systems are moving towards Georgia. If Russia were to attack Georgia, the optimal time would be August, before the autumn rains set in.
  • That said, Felgenhauer is not a reliable military analyst. He predicted the Georgians would humiliate the Russian Army in a war.

In conclusion, though innocent of starting last year’s Ossetia War, Russia made significant geopolitical gains and its elites became more disillusioned with the West. Control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia now make an invasion much easier to carry out than in 2009. The troops in the region conducted military exercises in July, they are being equipped with modern armaments and Russia’s naval forces in the region are recently very active. The main question is, are these forces meant to deter Georgia from another military attempt to reintegrate its “lost territories”, or are they to be the spearheads of a pre-meditated Russian aggression?

I think somewhere in between, as is usually the case. Russia still respects its foreign relations enough, if not with the West then with the rest, to pay lip service to international law; however, it won’t hesitate to exploit any serious Georgian provocation. I don’t think Saakashvili is a complete idiot, so barring independent lower-rank Georgian military adventurism (or very skilled Russian feigning of said adventurism), the chances of war breaking out this August must be rather small. Perhaps 10-20%. We’ll see. In any case this August is going to be a tense and potentially very fun time in the Caucasus. And that’s not going to change any time soon, because based on current trends the reassertion of Russian power over the Caucasus is almost inevitable this decade.

Reconsidering Parshev

In most Russian bookstores, there is a bookshelf or two dedicated to so-called “patriotic literature” – reappraisals of Stalin against “liberal revisionism”, overviews of Russia’s secret super-weapons, the exploits of its special forces and Russian theo-philosophy. Much of it is (apparent) nonsense, but the economic crisis has forced me to reconsider one particular “patriotic” thesis – Andrei Parshev’s Why Russia is not America.

His big idea, an elaboration and tying together of earlier work, is that Russia’s economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, and that integrating with the global economy will lead to catastrophe. This is because of his counter-intuitive observation that Russia is overpopulated. Though its population density is low on paper, the cold climate, huge landmass and poor riverine connections means that the carrying capacity of north Eurasia is nowhere near as high as that of the world’s other centers of economic and political power – the US, China, and Europe. Because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically “efficient” to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Pearl River Delta or the Great Lakes. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds; the other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the era of neo-liberal reforms). He recommended a return to sovereignty, autarky and sobornost as the solution to these woes.

I agreed with Parshev’s analysis upon my first reading of his book in 2002, a time when I still thought Putin was no more than a better-dressed, sober gangster in Yeltsin’s mold and the country showed little signs of real recovery. Yet as evidence mounted that Russia really was prospering by the mid-2000’s and I became influenced by Krugman’s criticisms of competitiveness, I increasingly came to reject his ideas (e.g. see this comment). However, since then increasing awareness of the vital role played by protectionism in “catch-up” industrial development, the reality of peak oil and above all the economic crisis forced me into reconsidering Parshev.

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Missing the Forest for the Trees

Russia is commonly represented as one of the most corrupt countries in the world in the Western media, ruled over by Kremlin clans who sugarcoat their kleptocracy with bombastic nationalism. The most oft-cited evidence comes from Transparency International. This is an organization which aggregates surveys of foreign businesspeople and regional analysts to compile a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Its verdict on Russia is decidedly unflattering; apparently, as of 2008 it was the 147th most corrupt nation on Earth. This morass of bribery and corruption will inevitably stymie its leadership’s economic development and Great Power ambitions.

I’ve criticized such views for being far too simplistic here, here and here. The crux of my argument is that the CPI measures the subjective perceptions of a narrow class of people; it does not accurately portray the extent of corruption in the wider society. For instance, according to Transparency International itself, ordinary Russians do not pay more bribes in a typical year than the Czechs, despite that the latter have a much higher CPI. Businesses and citizens do not pay more exorbitant amounts to “get things done” than is typical for the former socialist world, or middle-income nations in general. And there is compelling evidence that the extent of corruption declined under Putin from the 1990’s, though not by much. Finally, as I pointed out in Education as the Elixir of Growth, though corruption slows growth it is not a crucial factor; a well-educated workforce is far more important for long-term convergence to developed status.

Now I present a summary of an article by Dietwald Claus, Missing the Forest for the Trees, a counter-intuitive analysis of the causes of corruption, its consequences, and how to reduce it. He works from his experiences in Russia to reach global conclusions, which can be summed up by: “Corruption is the consequence of regulation and poverty: regulation creates the incentives for corruption, while poverty determines its price”. Applied to Russia, its metastasized bureaucracy and reams of red tape provide ample scope for corrupt, rent-seeking activities, especially at the higher echelons where foreign observers are concentrated. (Their impressions are reflected in the CPI and the Western media). It also explains INDEM’s findings, which I covered here, that since the late 1990’s, the incidence of corruption fell, even as the average bribe size soared.

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