A Response To Vadim Nikitin’s Arguments For The “Liberation” Of Khodorkovsky And The Kuriles

Over at his Foreign Policy Russia blog, and (provocatively?) a few days before Russia’s Unity Day, Vadim Nikitin penned the post Khodorkovsky = Kurils in which he argued for their mutual liberation from the Russian state. Whereas in their time both the conquest of the Kurils and the destruction of robber oligarch Khodorkovsky had been “effective metaphors for Russia’s resurgence”, they now constitute “an impediment for Russia’s modernization”. That’s because “you’re not supposed to know the outcome of a trial in advance” in a modern state, while internationally “what matters today is the volume of trade, not landmass; economic, not territorial, growth.”

Let’s start with the Kurils. Nikitin has an implausibly liberal conception of international relations, relying on the extremely fuzzy logic that unilateral Russian concessions to Japan will promote goodwill and more trade between them. There are immediate problems that any realist could identify. The most important factor is that this is a profoundly unequal exchange: Russia offers a sure and immediate concession, denying itself fishing grounds and barring its Pacific Navy from free strategic access to the ocean, in exchange for… well, nothing. Not even promises of reciprocal concessions from Japan. This strategy paid great dividends in the 1990’s, didn’t it?

Second, nobody sees Russia as a “nice” international player. To the contrary, the prevailing opinion (be it justified or not) is that hard balance of power calculus plays a much bigger role in its conduct than amongst Western countries. Let’s also not forget that in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, Japan had officially forsworn any future claims to the Kurils (and even when repeatedly offered two of the four islands from the 1990’s to 2005 as part of a final settlement, Japan refused to play ball). Consider these two points together, and it emerges that the far likelier outcome of Nikitin’s proposal is that a unilateral Russia giveaway will be interpreted as a sign of weakness (or at best stupidity – which it really would be), and since weakness is contemptible, it will only breed demands for more.

And there surely won’t be any shortage of those. One of the pillars of international stability is that the territorial changes enacted by the victors of World War Two have remained largely permanent and unchallenged by the Great Powers. As Randy McDonald writes in his perceptive post On the foolishness of Japan’s claim to the Kuril Islands: “Italy hasn’t tried to reclaim western Slovenia and the Istrian peninsula, say, or Germany Silesia, or even–pardon the pairing–Finland the Karelian isthmus. Whatever the maritime boundaries between Russia and Japan on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk were before 1945, after 1945 they changed. Japan might almost as well demand the Karafuto–the southern half of Sakhalin island, an entire prefecture in itself–also lost to the Soviet invasion.”

Potentially, it’s not just Japan with territorial pretensions towards Russia. Though I’ve argued before that Russia And China Won’t Fight, the latter’s calculations may shift radically if it observes Russian concessions and interprets them as a loss of will to retain the nation’s territorial integrity on the part of its ruling elites. Even in Germany – a country that has been orders of magnitude more introspective about its dark wartime past than Japan, where many textbooks skim over or deny The Rape of Nanking or the bio-warriors of Unit 731 – the Bavarian party newspaper of the ruling CSU recently offered tourist holidays to “[Russian] occupied East Prussia.” In short, Nikitin’s proposal threatens to open a can of worms that, far from increasing “growth” and “the volume of trade”, will instead undermine both Russian and global security.

Fourth, the vast majority of Russians prefer keeping their country whole. According to the latest poll in 2009, some 82% of Russians were opposed to giving back the Kurils to Japan, while only 8% were in favor (views are even more unambiguous in the Russian Far East where only 4% supported the giveaway in 2005). Vadim Nikitin respects democracy, right? But it gets even better. It turns out that he isn’t the majority even amongst the Russian liberals he presumably identifies with. Some 57% of (liberal) SPS/Yabloko voters said that their attitudes to Medvedev would change for the worse if he gives away the Kurils, barely distinguishable from the all Russian average of 63%.

On November 3rd, I went to a presentation by Denis Alexeev on Russian foreign policy in Berkeley. It was a rather boring and derivative affair, with him simply recycling many of the Western tropes on the subject: that Medvedev is a closet liberal in thrall to Putin’s policy of “confrontation” with the West; that the pro-Kremlin media’s “anti-American rhetoric” was a major cause of poor American-Russia relations from the mid-2000’s to the “Reset”, with no mention whatsoever of the US portrayal of Russia (that is until I pressed him on it during the questions period and he conceded that it was a two-way affair). So rest assured that Alexeev is no “putinoid”, “putztriot”, or “kremlyad” (as per “liberast” terminology). Nonetheless, when during question time one of the participants, an all-out Russophobe who claimed Russia was “just like Saudi Arabia”, condemned Medvedev for visiting the Kuril Islands and called for their return to Japan, even Alexeev tersely responded that the islands are consecrated with the spilled blood of Russian soldiers. That even someone in the deeply liberal minority of the Russian political spectrum would come out with such rhetoric just confirms the suicidal nature of any such endevour for domestic politics. Though Nikitin is free to deconstruct the issue as “symbolic expropriations-as-restitution”, most Russians feel it’s rather more than that.

Fifth (quite a list isn’t it?), frankly speaking – and Japanese assertions to the contrary – Japan needs Russia much more than Russia needs Japan. Japan is disliked in its neighborhood for historical reasons and also has disputes with South Korea and China, whereas few such issues plague Russia’s relations in the Far East. Though Japanese claims on the Kurils are supported by the US, this does not go beyond mere rhetoric, and in any case American influence in East Asia is waning fast. Almost 100% reliant on foreign imports of oil, much of it passing through the Strait of Malacca, Japan is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army Navy and China’s burgeoning network of naval bases (“string of pearls”) around the Middle East to East Asia route. Acquiring a secure alternative supply of energy, i.e. building good relations with Russia, should be one of Japan’s biggest foreign policy priorities. Cajoling from a position of weakness is downright idiotic, for the things Japan can offer Russia – capital and high technologies – can be gotten just as easily from countries like Germany, Italy, even the US.

All this indicates that the Japanese elites are either abjectly short-sighted or just engaged in meaningless political grandstanding. I wouldn’t reject the former. Though they’re in fast decline (economic, demographic, etc), they maintain fractious relations with all their neighbors and have by far the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the industrialized world. On the other hand, Japan’s abstention from any serious measures in response to Medvedev’s Kurils visit – as well as their hurried release of a detained Chinese fishing boat captain in response to China’s threats of cutting off its exports of Rare Earth Metals to Japan – indicates that they know their cards are weak and will fold whenever the other players raise. Whatever the case might be, it’s Japan’s problem, not Russia’s.

Now on to the Khodorkovsky Affair. Now make no mistake. Back in the days before he reinvented himself as a liberal dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a gangster capitalist – and quite possibly worse than “just” a billionaire swindler (e.g. see the list of people from the “White Book of YUKOS” who crossed him and ended up dying untimely deaths). He was hardly exceptional, though – certainly less flamboyant about his wealth than Roman Abramovich, and probably less overly odious than rapist-murderer Alisher Usmanov who continues to prosper to this day. Damning with faint praise! But unfortunately, arguing that you shouldn’t go to jail for thievery just because the guy down the street is an acquitted murderer doesn’t wash in most places.

It is a common view, and one with which I entirely agree, that Khodorkovsky’s main sin was in breaking the deal the oligarchs reached with Putin, in which they got to keep the fortunes they misappropriated in the 1990’s in return for their tribute and political loyalty. Misha thought he was too good for that, bribing Duma deputies to build his own power base and trying to run his own foreign policy through YUKOS (e.g. see Mark Ames’ The Real Reason Why Putin Arrested Yukos Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky). So the hyena tried to take on the wolf pack that is the Russian state and got his ass handed to him. Smallest violin in the world playing just for him… (BTW, question for Nikitin: if Khodorkovsky “has lost all his money”, as you claim, how come he’s still so prominent? Do his lawyers and PR men work for free?).

Look, I’m not a vindictive person. I don’t support keeping Khodorkovsky locked up just for shits and giggles. But humanitarian arguments don’t hold water. If Khodorkovsky had truly changed, he’d have condemned his own resume and come clean about the whole sordid story. I’m afraid no quantity of self-serving, martyrological op-eds published by his PR men in big Western newspapers qualify. If anything, they just damn him further, because it demonstrates that not only does he produce at least as much bullshit as he attributes to his prosecutors, but that his main goal remains challenging the Russian state – and in particular, sniping at those forces that had rolled back open oligarch domination.

So let’s look at this from a purely pragmatic viewpoint. Vadim Nikitin says that “in a modern, functional state, you’re not supposed to know the outcome of a trial in advance.” Not really. I think we all know the outcome if Osama bin Laden were to be openly captured by the Americans, right? That was too easy.

What about the fact that many businessmen want Khodorkovsky freed, as argued by Timothy Post at Julia Ioffe’s blog? Well, I would certainly hope that isn’t a reason for actually going through with it. Of course people with big private fortunes – especially if they’re made in shadowy and quasi-legal ways, as is still often the case in Russia – don’t approve of the Khodorkovsky precedent. But this is just one of many examples in which business interests don’t coincide with national interests. After all, in August 2008, many Russian financiers were aghast at Russia’s forceful response to the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, valuing their own business and financial interests higher than their country’s murdered peace-keepers and international commitments. They are not to be blamed for that – it is, after all, their job and their nature. But it doesn’t mean the state needs to indulge them.

That is because the dynamics at work here are similar to those in international relations. Remember what I said about unilateral concessions just spurring more demands from predatory Powers? Capitalists are the same. What started out as economic deregulation under Reagan has now mushroomed to a point in which corporations acquire the rights of free citizens (but none of the responsibilities), oil companies can requisition US police forces to detain journalists seeking to report on their own oil spills, the dominant party flat out denies anthropogenic global warming during the hottest year on record, and the state outsources tax collection to private banks and corporations just like the Ancien Régime in France. Again, this is not to argue that the innovation potential of capitalists can’t be utilized for the common good. But letting them off the hook entirely only brings ruin, as seen in 1990’s Russia and increasingly in the United States today.

The final leg of the “Free Khodorkovsky!” argument was made by the commentator mab, against at Julia Ioffe’s blog: “Without making any claims about Russia being better or worse, or three rating points above or below various African countries, Russia DOES have a problem with selective prosecution, rigged courts, and political use of the judicial system. Remember “legal nihilism?” We talk about that over here, and at the highest levels, we condemn it. But then nothing seems to change. So that’s why this trial — where the prosecution’s case is so transparently, so obviously, so clearly we-know-it’s-bogus-and-we-dare-you-to-object — is so important. Everyone is waiting to find out: is it business as usual (ie, legal nihilism prevails) or not?” But the only problem is that mab, actually answers his own question: “It’s not that Mr M and Mr P are feuding, but that the clans backing them are maneuvering and dancing around. Since the dance is going on behind a curtain with only a few shadows visible or the occasional shoe slipping out, it’s hard to say how far the dance has gone. But it might have gone far enough for an acquittal.”

Let me explain. Even if the judge were to acquit Khodorkovsky, IT WOULD NOT BE SEEN AS AN INDEPENDENT JUDICIAL DECISION. Mab himself says as much with his remarks about clan maneuvering influencing the process. In other words, REGARDLESS of the verdict, Russia will remain as “legally nihilist” as before. As established above, the main purpose of Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment is pour encourager les autres, the only result freeing him would have is to nullify that effect – and give a signal to the other oligarchs that perhaps trying to capture the state ain’t so bad no more.

Then there could be one of two scenarios. First, with (the perception of) weakened extra-constitutional checks on oligarch depredation – regrettably, a vital element in a country with institutions as underdeveloped as Russia’s – the hyenas begin running wild again, threatening the climate of political stability that has enabled Russia’s economic (re)growth during the 2000’s. Then, either Russia may begin to go the way of Ukraine, with its permanent oligarchic feuding and much lower long-term growth rates, or the powers that be will be forced to crack down and make examples of over-reaching oligarchs yet again – and more severely than last time, because reestablishing credibility is harder the second time round. Foreign perceptions of Russia, the perceived risk of doing business in the country, and FDI inflows will all be much more negatively impacted than if Khodorkovsky continues to rot in jail.

Now I’m not saying that this will certainly happen. Who knows, perhaps the oligarchs will remain fully cowed and pliant. Perhaps Russia’s institutions have developed to a point where they can independently check oligarch takeover (though obviously none of Khodorkovsky’s defenders have a high opinion of Russian institutions!). But is it worth taking such a big political risk for one scumbag? I very much doubt it, and furthermore, I’m almost certain that “the powers that be” think the same way. My prediction is that Khodorkovsky will remain in jail for a long time to come…

Didn’t really mean to write so much on this, I suppose I was feeling prolific with my keyboard today. So in short – it appears to me that Vadim Nikitin is basically arguing that it is rootless financial elites and the international community (read: Western countries) that should define Russia’s parameters of “modernity and functionality”, regardless of Russian popular opinion and political realities. Yay for democracy! But otherwise, just glad he’s not in charge.

Karlin a la Nikitin.

Karlin a la Nikitin.

UPDATE: Nikitin responded to me in his post The Kurilous Case of Khodorkovsky, for which I thank him, but I remain to be convinced on most issues. A reply to some of the most germane critiques:

Re-Kurils not strategically important: “The strategic aspect is handled by Kamchatka and the fishing volumes can’t possibly be so earth-shattering either.” Though the east coast of Kamchatka does have important secondary bases, the Pacific Fleet’s heart remains Vladivostok. If Japan owned the Kurils it would make Russia’s naval status there nearly analogous to that in the Black Sea.

Re-“So why not use the useless Kurils as a cheap trade for a better image?” But will it create a better image? Magnanimous gestures mean little – who knows or even cares about Russia’s huge debt cancellations in the 2000’s, or it’s amicable resolution of borders with China, Estonia and Norway? In the real world, a good PR machine is the nuts. Ask Saakashvili.

Re-“Anatoly seems to want Russia to play by the same rules as the US: bullying its way around the world, trying people just as the US would hypothetically try bin Laden.” I like to think of it more as fighting fire with fire. 😉

Re-“That means, first of all, dispensing with Russian opinion polls regarding ‘territorial integrity’. Why don’t we also ask ‘the Russian people’ what they think of immigrants, Jews, Georgians and all matter of other gut issues. Or Chechnya.” This is a strawman. While about half of Russians do hold (backward) views that Russia is for Russians, in practice immigrants and minorities have certain legal protections which, though imperfect, do work if the immigration figures are anything to go by (e.g. something like 20% of all Georgians live in Russia). Dismissing Russian popular opinion on territorial integrity in such cavalier fashion is, IMO, unseemly and elitist. Even from a purely practical perspective, I would point out that political capital is a limited resource, and giving away the Kurils will drain much of it for no apparent gain to Russia either social or national. Instead, it may well provide fuel for a nationalist reaction, and make upholding truly fundamental things such as minority rights that much more difficult.

Re-“I mean: what are states nowadays, in the age of neoliberalism? They have offloaded most of their responsibilities towards their citizens, they are increasingly powerless (if, more than anything else, also unwilling) to control financial flows.” Ideologies and international regimes come and pass, but geography remains static. I also think Nikitin overestimates the decline of the state in the age of neoliberal globalism, but that’s another discussion.

Re-“As for Khodorkovksy, I was tempted to pick a fight over language but decided that, as a gifted writer living in 2010 and not 1950, Anatoly was surely only using such Stalin-vintage rhetoric as “conquest of the Kurils”, “destruction of robber-oligarch” and “hyenas trying to take on the wolf pack” ironically to get a rise. I’m equally sure that in identifying me with Russian liberals of the SPS/Yabloko variety, he was just trying to provoke me into writing a response, and does not actually seriously think that I might hold some affinity with the odious Nemtsov-Khakamada brigade.” I plead guilty on both counts.” What’s so Stalinist about “conquest of the Kurils”? It was undoubtedly a conquest and occupation, highly opportunist, but not unjustified (as Nikitin himself agrees). I might have gone beyond respectability on the rhetoric, but I’ve never intended for S/O to be respectable. 😉 As for Nikitin’s political views, though I was aware he wasn’t Westernocentric or rightist as are most Russian liberals, I can’t say I’m familiar enough with his political positions to properly classify him on the Russian political spectrum. Question for Nikitin: Who if anyone do you identify with?

Re-“But at least the bad PR will stop, and the investment climate would maybe improve.” Not really. While Khodorkovsky’s people certainly work overtime creating bad PR, it’s not as if they’re the only ones at it. And as Nikitin would surely agree – much of it is actually deserved. But I would argue that this just proves that the main task of the government is to clean up its game, reduce bureaucratic hurdles to doing business (where Russia is currently 123rd in the world), strengthening institutions, informatizing government services. Some of it is already happening but most of it remains unfinished or even unstarted. If Russia succeeds here, then frankly, no-one will care one way or the other about Khodorkovsky. If it fails, no amount of freed Khodorkovsky’s and liberated Kurils will create a positive image.

Re-“But in Russia today, ‘national interests’ are little more than the interests of a small group of people connected to the government, gas/oil wells and strategic enterprises; who use the state mantle as a way of protecting their assets… Anatoly seems to be defending just another clique of hyenas and robber oligarchs, only ones who happen to call themselves the Russian state rather than the ‘liberal opposition’. What’s the point?” Though it’s certainly true that many of the guys who run Russia also benefit from it – as in most other countries – the main question is in terms of degree. Let me explain. Like many others of the leftist persuasion, Obama has been a disillusionment to me (though not an unexpected one). That said, the GOP under Tea Party and corporate influence has become so utterly deranged, ideologically blinkered, and mendacious in their anti-Obama rhetoric that I felt compelled to strongly support Obama in the recent elections nonetheless.

My relation to the “wolf pack” Russian state is roughly analogous. By and large, they are not my ideological soulmates. But… (1) I find the rhetoric and actions of the liberals and “dissident oligarchs” to be so blatantly self-serving and repugnantly worshipful of foreign ways just because they’re foreign that I can’t possibly see how they can be as good as the current regime for both Russia and (ordinary) Russians let alone better, (2) that’s too bad because to be serious contenders even “just as good as” isn’t anywhere near good enough; they have to be “far better than” in order to justify the risks of transition instability and of exchanging the devil you know for the devil you don’t know, and (3) let’s face it – Putin is about 10x cooler than the coolest liberal, whoever he or she is. Hence my qualified defense of it.

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