Archives for July 2010

Interview with Kevin Rothrock (A Good Treaty)

putmarckKicking off the Watching the Russia Watchers interview series at S/O is the promising new blogger A Good Treaty. He is a DC-based foreign policy analyst who prefers a “good treaty with Russia” to only treating with a good Russia: as a foreign policy realist, he is averse to neocon (and neoliberal / liberal interventionist) tropes alike. A Good Treaty has a graduate degree in Soviet history and has lived in Moscow several times. His blog references Russian newspapers and makes original translations, and constitutes an excellent resource for any Anglophone seriously interested in Russian politics and Russian-American relations. You can follow Putmarck on Twitter.

A Good Treaty: In His Own Words…

Before answering any questions, let me take a second to thank Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion for taking the time to draft some very challenging questions that were very fun to (try to) answer. I tried to invent responses that were equally thought-provoking, and while I may have failed in that enterprise, I do hope to explain a little bit about the way I approach this work, which occupies a startling amount of my time.

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

I’ve been studying and working on Russia for about nine years now. Russia = bizarre, alluring, etc. I figure anyone reading my blog shares my interest in the Motherland.

I don’t expect this blog to have any impact on public policy or academic debate, but I do personally benefit a great deal from having a forum through which I can better synthesize my own ideas and listen to the responses of others.

The specific angle of AGT (the whole ‘realist’ POV) was a conscious decision I made after working in Washington for about a year. Democracy promotion, I soon discovered, has really supplanted all other approaches to foreign policy. Speaking outside this framework is the easiest way to get oneself painted as un-American and pro-dictatorship. This is largely a sham, since the United States has hardly stopped cooperating with nasty foreign states, but the dialog carried out in DC makes it very difficult for anyone to acknowledge this. Basically, I set out to avoid the old, tired normative analysis.

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The Russia Watchers In Their Own Words…

Over the years, Andy Young of Siberian Light did a series of interviews with top Russian watchers. However, Andy doesn’t have the time for continuing these interviews of late, so we’ve agreed to have me take over for the time being.

You can follow these interviews at Watching the Russia Watchers. They will consist of about 15 questions – most of them standard ones and a few specific to the interviewee. I’m not as nice as Andy, so you can expect the latter to be probing, even combative. I will try to avoid taking any ideological stance: I want to have every interviewee, no matter their beliefs, leaving the stage with fear and trembling. 😉

I intend to conduct one interview every two weeks. If you want to be interviewed, write to me with your contact details. If you’ve already been interviewed by Siberian Light, I’m open for second rounds, but not before finishing with the newcomers.

Russia’s Demographic Resilience IV

Russia’s demographic situation continued improving this year: according to the H1 2010 data released by Rosstat, relative to the same period last year, the number of births increased by 2.3% from 12.1‰ to 12.4‰ and deaths fell by 1.8% from 14.6‰ to 14.4‰. This means that once net migration is factored in, Russia is set to register its second consecutive year of positive population growth. This should come as no surprise to S/O readers, given that both my and Sergey Slobodyan‘s projections indicated this would be the case (but the same cannot be said of those who read Mark Steyn or Nicholas Eberstadt).

This means that Russia’s total fertility rate (TFR) is likely to rise to around 1.60 children per woman this year (2009 – 1.56, 2008 – 1.49), which is similar to Canada and Estonia. These trends can be compared with those in other E. European countries, e.g. Ukraine‘s 5% fall in births during Jan-May 2010, Belarus‘ stagnation in H1 2010 and Latvia‘s remarkable 21% decrease in births in H1 2010 relative to H1 2008 (the Baltic country’s TFR will now be around 1.15-1.20, the lowest in Europe). On the mortality side, Russia’s life expectancy will likely regain or slightly exceed its Soviet-era maximum of 70 years. Guest writer Sergey Slobodyan summarizes these developments in the light of his September 2009 forecasts and February 2010 updates.

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A Rant on Orientalism & Western “Experts”

I’ve recently had a debate with… let’s call him Marcus Stein, about whether you have to be proficient in a relevant language to hold really deep and insightful views about a region, culture or civilization, or whether, to put it in Averkoese, “translation, acquired knowledge (of the subject matters), good contacts (to interact with) and a good intuition (on the involved topics) are factors which successfully refute the above claim”. What do you think?

AK Edit: All old polls are gone because of this.

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The Red Slope to Caviar Road

The Russian magazine Esquire came up with some pretty shocking figures: It would be cheaper to pave one 48km road for the Sochi Olympics with elite beluga caviar than asphalt. The total cost would come in at a cool 227 billion rubles, or $160 million per kilometer – five times higher than what it costs to build an equivalent stretch of Autobahn! (It’s also 2/3 of what Russia spent on all road construction in 2009). But even under the most charitable assumptions, that the Sochi road will be built to the highest traction and environmental standards, doesn’t this mean that at least 80% of the Sochi road funds are being stolen?

Not really. The only problem with looking at Russia through this failed state prism, without bothering to corroborate sources, is that in no sense can the Adler-Krasnaya Polyana route be described as just a “roadway”. Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!

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Book Review: Howard Bloom – The Lucifer Principle

Depressingly fatalist, morbidly truthful, irresistibly Nietzschean. That’s Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” in a nutshell: a meandering trawl through disciplines such as genetics, psychology and culture that culminates in a theory of evil, purporting to explain its historical necessity, its creative potential and the possibility of it ever being vanquished. The odds do not appear to be good. For in the world painted by Bloom, peace is submission, social hierarchies are natural, ideas are polarizing, and liberal individualism is invidious to the collective “superorganism” that both oppresses, nourishes and saves us. Fascism really is the “natural state” in every sense of the term.

Bloom, Howard – The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1995)
Category: human society, psychology, history; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Amazon reviews, James Schultz

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Russia’s Roads to Nowhere, or: build Railways instead!

Though it’s not quite true that Russia has “no roads, only directions”, the old saying isn’t far off the mark. The World Bank’s recent report on Russia’s economy notes that the Eurasian giant’s road network is primitive and crumbling, coming in 111th in a global ranking (the railway system does much better at 33rd); more than half its highways do not meet minimum riding quality requirements. None of this should come as a big surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure* of driving beyond Moscow’s MKAD.

One of the main gripes of Russia’s limousine liberal opposition is the low priority the Kremlin places on the country’s road development – according to Boris Nemtsov, the rate of road construction during the Putin era fell by two or three times relative to the Yeltsin years (these figures don’t tally well with the official statistics but whatever). My intention here isn’t to wrestle over numbers and details in an attempt to either vindicate or condemn Putinism, instead I am going to consider a far more fundamental question: is it really worth Russia’s while to invest limited resources in a high-entropy system with no future that will furthermore accentuate socio-economic divisions in the short-term?

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The Century without an Indian Summer

How will the global South fare in our likely future of energy shortages, climate change and resource nationalism (and wars)? India has China’s population mass, but lacks its industrial dynamism and human capital. Africa has Russia’s energy and mineral wealth, but not the military power or social coherence to defend it. South America’s prospects appear brighter – it at least may have the crucial degree of strategic isolation, industrial infrastructure and energy and agricultural wealth to eke out a comfortable (if not luxurious) existence in the turbulent times ahead. In the next few posts, I will assess the future prospects of these three regions in the post-peak oil world, starting with India.

A 2007 Goldman Sachs report estimated India’s GDP growth potential at about 8% until 2020, reinforcing the hype of recent years over “India shining” and the vigorous IT industry springing up in oases like Bangalore. This may well be realistic, even despite India’s manifold social problems (low human capital, creaky infrastructure, caste-based inequalities, an unwieldy bureaucracy, sluggish courts, etc), under a global “business-as-usual” scenario. That however is highly unlikely, for the hard numbers suggest that India will be economically and geopolitically squeezed out of the resources it needs to prosper or even survive by its massive eastern neighbor, China. There are limits to growth on our planet and no guarantees that they will be distributed fairly or equitably in the coming age of scarcity industrialism.

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Some Updates on Russia’s Economy

There is a wide divergence of views on Russia’s economic future. The pessimists project near zero growth (e.g. SWP, Guriev & Zhuravskaya), or even a renewed collapse if Europe goes haywire. The inventor of the BRIC’s concept (and Russia bull) Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs believes it will manage to eke out growth of 7%, nearly recovering the output lost in 2009. The consensus seems to be around 4-5% (World Bank, bne). In this post I’ll describe developments in Russia’s economy since I last did it in a systematic way in December 2008 and give some indicators of what to expect in the next few months and years. Most of this post is based on the information in the World Bank’s Russian Economic Report #22: A Bumpy Recovery.

1. After the sharp -7.9% contraction in 2008, Russia has began to recover at a slower than expected rate, with GDP rising by 2.9% in Q1 relative to the same period last year (in comparison with China’s 11.9%, Turkey’s 11.7%, Brazil’s 9.0%, India’s 8.9% and Mexico’s 4.3%). However, there are indications it accelerated in Q2. The slowness and bumpiness of the recovery is presumed to be due to the waning of crisis stimulus spending and continuing low demand.

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Rosstat and Levada are Russophobia’s Bane

The evil Russian Bear. But not a substitute for stats.

The evil Russian Bear. But not a substitute for stats.

Still no economic collapse. Still no anti-Putin bunt. Still no demographic apocalypse. As the years pass by, Russophobe canard after Russophobe trope is relegated to the dust-heap of history, only to rise back out of its grave, zombie-like, whenever Boris Nemtsov pens a brilliant indictment hysterical screed on the failures of Putinism or when the militsiya roughs up a few hundred (unsanctioned) protesters in a Russian city of millions. “Surely,” the Western commentariat says, “the system is rotten, the people hate their Chekist oppressors, and guys like Kasparov and Latynina will soon lead the people’s revolt back to pro-Western democracy?”

Unfortunately for their purveyors, these Manichean narratives mostly rely on anecdote, hearsay and the fluff and snake oil that is more commonly known as “political science”. When one looks at the objective evidence – things like economic and demographic statistics and Russian opinion polls – a rather disquieting picture emerges, for Russian limousine liberals and Western Commissars of Transitionology alike. This picture shows that Russians do more or less like “Putinism”, that liberals are despised when they are not ignored, and that most socio-economic indicators really are improving. True, it would be ridiculous to claim that they constitute a full vindication of the regime. Russia still has many serious problems and Russians frequently complain about the system’s corruption and social injustice. But the hard data from Levada Center (Russia’s Gallup) and Rosstat (state statistics service) does tend to invalidate around 90% of what is written about Russia in the Western press and political science*. The onus is on them to present serious evidence that these two organizations manipulate their figures to serve the Kremlin’s interests. And if they can’t, they’ll continue to rant and rave in big media while I spitefully snipe at them from my little blog and accomplish nothi… anyway, let’s not go there.

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