Archives for August 2010

Boris Berezovsky: Godfather of Strategy-31 Abroad?

The agents of Berezovsky organizing Strategy-31 Abroad.

In recent months, there has coalesced yet another, fleeting Russian liberal movement, focused on holding (unsanctioned) protests on the last day of the month to draw attention to the 31st article of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of assembly. As is usually the case with other sagas in the (largely illusory & irrelevant) “Kremlin Regime vs Noble Liberals” narrative, Strategy-31 is something between theater and circus; a show in which the liberals provoke the authorities in front of TV cameras (of which there is no shortage), and the police happily take the bait, obliging them with an evening-detention PR martyrdom.

At this point, one may ask, “Can it possibly get any more farcical?” It certainly can, courtesy of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky: this August 31, his agents and “dissident” fellows, Alexander Goldfarb and Andrei Sidelnikov, are bringing Strategy-31 to the West, especially to the Russian Embassy at 6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens, W8 4QP, at 6-7pm GMT. Who are these guys? Goldfarb is a close Berezovsky confidante, responsible for dispensing money to a cluster of anti-Kremlin websites and “HR foundations”; in 2006, he managed the PR surrounding the death of Litvinenko and likely authored the dying defector’s j’accuse letter to Putin. Sidelnikov was the one-time leader of Pora! (“It’s Time!”), a liberal opposition movement in Russia, whose namesake belonged to a Ukrainian organization whose warm bodies and US intel-NGO tactics abetted the Orange Revolution. He met Litvinenko two days before his poisoning, and is close to Berezovsky on his own admission.

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Measuring Democracy I: Introducing the Karlin Freedom Index (KFI)

I’ve been meaning to make an in-depth study of the 3 major “freedom indices” – Polity IV (the most objective one), the Economist Democracy Index (fairly arbitrary) & Freedom in the World (a purely ideological project) – for more than 2 years now, but have yet to come round to it. Though it remains on my long-term agenda, for now I’ll content myself with something that’s a lot more fun and easier to compile: my own “freedom index”. I mean since so many others are in on the game, why don’t I have a go?

In practice, truly reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two*. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful); the Totalitarian extends the political realm over all spheres of human activity, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

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The Kremlinologist Catechism

This is a reprint of my article for the Sep/Oct 2010 issue of Russian Life magazine. It is a condensed version of Rosstat and Levada are Russophobia’s Bane. Enjoy!

There is a Catechism that dominates American discourse on Russia today. Just flip through The Washington Post’s editorials, peruse American political science journals or listen (cringe) to a Joe Biden interview. It goes something like this:

In the past decade, Putin’s Russia has forsaken Western values and returned to its authoritarian past. Ordinary Russians, bribed by the Kremlim’s oil largesse and misled by its controlled media, expressed only apathy at this development. Granted, the regime may enjoy superficial support (given Putin’s strangely stratospheric approval ratings), but the accelerating population decline proves that Russians are discounting the nation’s future with their loins. And so should we, for what’s the point of taking a “Potemkin country” ruled by a “kleptocratic thugocracy” seriously?

There’s only one problem – many of the underlying assumptions of this Catechism are unsupported by any facts, figures or statistics.

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Russophobe Hack Exposed, or: The Misadventures of Dorothée Olliéric of France-2

So you know how the Western commentariat carries on about how Russia Today fawns over the Kremlin and propagates anti-Western propaganda, while shamelessly peddling itself as a paragon of universal truth and uncompromising objectivity? Welcome to the next installment in the never-ending annals of Western media hypocrisy, brought to you courtesy of Dorothée Olliéric, hack zhurnalizdka extraordinaire of state TV station France 2.

On the morning of August 10, at the height of the Great Russian Heatwave, Olliéric contacted Alexandre Latsa, a Moscow-based French blogger*, through Facebook. “I’m in Moscow again for a few days,” she said,  “I’m looking to interview someone on the failure of the Putin system in this crisis, if possible a blogger who goes to the real news away from Russian state TV, etc”. After a few hours, in response to Latsa’s queries, she clarified that the interview’s purpose would be to link the news on the wildfires and deaths to “explain the failure of Putin’s system” and on how to get access to information in a country where the state “says nothing, hides everything”. She concluded by asking Latsa if he or a Russian friend could participate in an interview.

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My Interview on Middle East Geopolitics, Afghanistan and Iran & the Bomb with Marat Kunaev

I was recently interviewed on Middle East geopolitics and the Iran Question by Marat Kunaev, a blogger and translator at InoForum. I would like to thank him for the opportunity to express my views on the topic and providing a possible gateway into the geopolitical commentary on Runet. I’m reprinting the interview from here, with a few very minor edits; Marat made a Russian translation here.

What do you think about the situation in the Middle East?

The mainstream media likes to make generalizations about this very diverse region. Most of these are idiotic, simplistic tropes (oil, Islam, terrorists, etc). I don’t think this is productive, so instead I’ll highlight two things that get little traction in the Western mainstream media.

First, water scarcity is the root of many of the region’s problems. The Middle East is the world’s only major region perennially incapable of feeding itself, forcing it to import “virtual water” in the form of food. One of the main causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is over the unfair distribution of water, which is skewed towards Israel and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. On a bigger scale, water flows are almost as important to the region’s strategic balance as the distribution of oil deposits. Control of the headwaters of the Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, coupled with the biggest economic base in the region, gives Turkey immense strategic clout. To the contrary, Egypt’s food production deficits make it potentially vulnerable, as seen in the food riots of 2008 when global grain prices spiked. The urban poor who are hardest hit tend to resent their secular authoritarian rulers and support Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, making good with Israel and seeking US protection and subsidies makes perfect sense for the Egyptian political elites: resources can be freed up from military spending towards maintaining domestic stability.

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Another View of the US Economy: Observations on Exergy, GDP & Median Incomes

The standard view of the American economy is one of exponential growth: even if interrupted by a recession once a decade and a Depression once every two generations (the 1890’s, the 1930’s, the 2010’s?), the engines of industry would always come back roaring again. Output per American could always be expected to increase as it has from 1790 until the present day. There has never been a decade, even during America’s two Depressions, when US GDP was lower at the end than at the beginning.

However, another point of view on the US economy can be developed by drawing on observations of factors such as median income, energy consumption and inequality. Broadly speaking, this picture is one relative stagnation from 1890-1940, and again from 1973-today, punctuated by the truly remarkable “miracle economy” of the post-war boom. Furthermore, the US is now about to transition to a new phase: economic stagnation and anarchic stasis, to be followed by oligarchic Caesarism. This first post will be, for now, just a series of observations that I believe to be inextricably linked, but lack the theoretical foundations to put on a sound footing. Feel free to skip it, as it might be hard to follow and I’m mostly writing it to get greater understanding for myself. More polished version(s) to follow.

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The Death of Sergei Tretyakov & Spook Flame Wars

Sergei Tretyakov, the Russian traitor / US patriot (whatever you prefer), died June 13, 2010, at the age of 53. The Russian “illegals” were rounded up on June 27. The two week gap is exactly the same as the amount of time President Obama is said to have known of the Russian spy ring. What I suspect is that the order to round up the Russian spy ring was issued immediately after President Medvedev’s visit to Silicon Valley in order to provide a source of leverage in case the autopsy found Tretyakov’s death to have been unnatural. It was only on July 9 that Tretyakov’s death – of natural causes – was announced by his biographer (hagiographer) Pete Earley. The same day, a federal court ruled the Russian spy ring were not guilty of espionage, paving the way for the US-Russia spy swap, the Anna Chapman personality cult and the patriotastic karaoke songs with Putin.

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Everyone is Still Underestimating China

There’s been lots of fanfare over China’s GDP overtaking Japan’s in Q2 2010 (coming hard on the heels of a big ruckus over its DF-21 “carrier killing” ballistic missile and rising tensions with the US over North Korea and the South China Sea). The big debate is now whether China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy by the 2030’s (as originally argued by Goldman Sachs in their classic Dreaming with BRICs paper), or whether its nomenklatura authoritarianism, centrifugal tendencies and demographic problems will preclude it from ever challenging Pax Americana. My view is that China is underestimated even by many of its proponents: underlying tendencies in world economics and energetics indicate that China’s GDP will overtake America’s before 2020, enabling it to emerge as the last superpower by the 2020’s.

First, there is a major delusion that affects a disturbing amount of the commentary surrounding the size of the American and Chinese economies. Newsflash: nominal GDP and real GDP are different things! China overtook Japan in nominal GDP this quarter, but its real level of output has been the world’s second largest for almost a decade*. The reason China’s nominal, or market exchange rate, GDP is twice lower than its real GDP is because its currency is undervalued relative to the US dollar – simply put, living in China is a lot cheaper than in America. But it’s not an accurate proxy for the actual output of the Chinese economy, which is now at around 2/3 of the US level (IMF)**. The “purchasing power parity” GDP is better suited for gauging a country’s real living standards and economic strength.

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Interview with Peter Lavelle (Russia Today)

The next installment of our Watching the Russia Watchers series at S/O features an interview with Peter Lavelle, the main political analyst at the Russia Today TV network, host of its CrossTalk debate show and Untimely Thoughts blogger. (He also has a Wikipedia page!) Peter is opposed to Western media hegemony, considering it neither fair nor useful, and firmly believes that global media should feature a diversity of voices from all cultural traditions; as such, the rise of alternate forums such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today are a boon for media consumers everywhere. Peter Lavelle actualizes this philosophy in his own CrossTalk program, in which controversial topics from France’s burqa ban to the collapse of Soviet Amerika are discussed: agree with him or not, one can certainly never get bored listening. The serious Russia watcher is recommended to join his “Untimely Thoughts” – Expert Discussion Group on Russia.

Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…

What first sparked your interest in journalism and Russia, and how did the twain meet?

The reason I started to write about Russia – circa 1999 – came about for two reasons. First, having an education in Eastern European and Russian history gave me a reason to write about where I lived. I didn’t like much of what the commentariat was writing on contemporary Russia. The second reason was to earn some money, which later led to needing to make a living.

I came to Russia to live in late 1997. I was employed as an equity analyst at what was then called Alfa Capital. I was lured to Russia by my former boss (an American) I worked with in Poland. I never wanted to move to Russia – actually I must say I was rather adverse to Russia, having lived in eastern Europe for about 12 years. As a result of the financial crisis of 1998, I was given a generous severance package. This allowed me to stay in Russia for a while without worrying too much about money. In spring of 2000 I started to work for a small Russian bank. The money wasn’t great, but at least the bank organized and paid for my visa. Plus, I had time to write now and then. It was at this time I discovered the JRL – Johnson’s Russia List. I have been hooked on (even an addict to) Russia watching ever since.

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Russia Burning: Not Apocalypse, but Its Prelude

This post is a meta-commentary on media coverage of Russia’s drought and wildfires. Now make no mistake, I admire the yeoman work of some journalists in covering Russia burning: no doubt a few will even make their way into the classical cannon such as The Saga of the Burned Foot (Miriam Elder) or The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich (A Good Treaty). 🙂 But in my opinion, they almost all fail to consider the key facts that render their Kremlin criticism moot and fail to grasp the “big picture”: the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010 as a mere herald of things to come.

In summary: 1) There is nothing the Russian government could have done to contain a natural disaster of such magnitude, 2) many of the lectures about how Russia could have done better to prepare itself would have been counter-productive had they actually been implemented, 3) the hysteria about Moscow turning into a giant morgue from heat stress and smog or radioactive ash clouds is overblown, and 4) the real problem, or rather predicament, is global warming, the effects of which are expected to transform Russia’s heartlands into Central Asia within the next few decades.

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