Archives for December 2010

REPRINT: Is Putin Pitiable, Or Is The Financial Times Corrupt?

A thundering takedown of the Financial Times transparently one-sided coverage of the Khodorkovsky affair -and Khodorkovsky says Putin is ‘pitiable’ can also serve as a palimpsest for Western media coverage of this topic in general – from Eric Kraus at Truth and Beauty. BTW, do feel free to add his blog Truth and Beauty to your subscriptions. As someone with a dozen years of investor experience in Russia, Kraus has cutting, pertinent commentary, with fine sarcastic wit, on Russian finance and economics and global affairs. His article Is Putin pitiable, or is the FT corrupt? is reprinted below.

Reading the FT on Russia, what is interesting is not what they write – it is why they write it. A friend of T&B was told face-to-face about six months ago by an FT editor that, as a journalist here, one’s role has to be ”to write about how awful Russia is”. (While, admittedly, T&B does not know many FT journalists in Poland, Belgium or Mexico, we strongly suspect that they have an entirely different mandate. Only in Russia has the paper descended to outright advocacy…)

A recent propaganda piece in praise of Khodorkovsky – proudly splashed across the front page of the Financial Times in defiance of the most basic journalistic ethics – is so transparently self-serving, dishonest, and in a few points frankly absurd, that one is at a bit of a loss where to start. We shall borrow a technique from Russia: Other points of view – numbering the paragraphs in the original for discussion.

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Exercises in Banality: The Moral Preening By Khodorkovsky Apologists

My views on Khodorkovsky – and by extension his being found guilty of $25bn embezzlement – aren’t exactly a secret (1, 2, 3) so I’ll keep this brief.

1. As usual, the only people who care about this are Western politicians eager to score cheap shots against Russia’s “assault” on transparency and rule of law (note that the same people have no problem with repressing Wikileaks and killing Assange – everyone should be subject to equal scrutiny, but some more equally than others!); MBK’s lawyers and PR-men whose job this is; and the legions of naifs, fools and ideologues manipulated by them. BTW, my favorite photo is above, showing elderly ladies parading with that chic glossy poster of their hero, with Medvedev and Putin darkly conspiring behind his back. I’m sure they funded it all out of their pensions.

2. The standard argument of MBK’s PR-men goes something like this: how could Khodorkovsky be guilty of embezzling $25bn, from his own company? And especially considering that he’s already been found guilty of tax evasion? But that’s just begging the question; insinuations, not facts. While MBK *might* not be directly guilty of this, I’m sure the prosecutors have found some legal loophole or another sufficient to convict him. I can imagine a scenario where the proceeds from the tax evasion he was originally convicted for – if retained by MBK’s various LLC’s and holding companies, which they presumably were – could also legally constitute embezzlement.

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REPRINT: Wikileaks And The South Ossetia War

Though I originally meant to write my own analysis of what the Wikileaks cables have contributed to our understanding of the 2008 South Ossetia War, I realized that I would essentially be trying to duplicate the excellent efforts of Patrick Armstrong. (See also the New York Times article Embracing Georgia, U.S. Misread Signs of Rifts). Patrick’s article for Russia Other Points Of View is reprinted below:

I have been a diplomat: I have written reports like the ones leaked and I have read many. And my conclusion is that some report writers are better informed than others. So it is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I have read the Wikileaks on US reports.

My sources for the following are the reports presented at this Website (passed to me by Metin Sonmez – thank you):  (Direct quotations are bolded; I will not give detailed references – search the site). The reports published there are a small sample of all the communications that would have passed from the posts to Washington in August 2008. They are, in fact, low-grade reporting tels with low security classifications and only a partial set at that. Nonetheless they give the flavour of what Washington was receiving from its missions abroad. (It is inconceivable that the US Embassy in Tbilisi was reporting everything Saakashvili told it without comment in one set of reports while another said that he was lying; that’s not how it works).

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Tales From The Beijing Embassy

China - not only toys, but tokamaks too.

China – not only toys, but tokamaks too.

Four cables from Cathay, courtesy of this excellent Cable Search tool.

The first cable (Cable 1) is one of the last dispatches of Ambassador to the PRC Clark T. Randt, a long, analytical piece from January 2009. But it’s also perhaps the least interesting of the four.  This is because it is only a rehashing of the standard narrative that can be found on most editorials on the subject: the post-Mao economic liberalization; fast industrial expansion; pollution and demographic problems; etc. China’s prospects are underestimated, as I’ve argued in the past. For instance, he cites projections that China will overtake Japan in five years years and “could rival the United States in overall scale” by the late 2030’s. But these are surely very, very pollyannish (from the US perspective) since in actuality China overtook Japan this year (2010) and its real GDP is already 70% of America’s.

The real threat to Chinese – AND global – growth prospects are resource constraints. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a US government official, Randt cites estimates having China reach peak oil in the early 2010’s and peak coal “in the next 15 to 25 years” (I think coal production will plateau as early as 2015). However, these shortages will be partly mitigated by huge alternative programs – he cites China as being the world’s largest producer of renewable power and Cable 3 mentions plans to construct 70 new nuclear power plants in the next decade. He is almost certainly wrong in his optimistic ideas that China will buy into the US global order, rather than seeking to remake it in its own images (as all aspiring hegemons try to do). To take an example, the wish that China will make itself into a “reliable partner” for the US and other donor countries is put into question by Cable 4 from the very same embassy, in which a Kenyan ambassador expresses an African preference for Chinese aid over Western “conferences and seminars”. The cable finishes with some platitudes about the US needing to “push for the expansion of individual freedoms, respect for the rule of law and the establishment of a truly free and independent judiciary and press”, which must surely have the publisher of this cable spinning in his British prison cell.

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I’d Sooner See The World Burn Than Compromise With Rogue Scientists

Or at least that’s what seems to be going around in the mind of Condoleezza Rice, if this cable (Cable 1) from September 2008 is anything to go by. After successfully persuading countries like Brazil to let the American scientist Christopher Field run unopposed for an important position in a Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), US diplomats began behind the scenes lobbying to block the appointment of an Iranian scientist as its co-chair, since that would be “potentially at odds with overall US policy towards Iran.” Though Mostafa Jafari is admittedly a “highly-qualified scientist”, he is also “a senior Iranian government employee”, and so “close collaboration and often travel to or extended residencies in each others’ countries” between Field and him simply wouldn’t do. Disgracefully, if true*, Pachauri “agreed to work on this issue.” In the event, an Argentinian candidate was appointed co-chair, while Jafari was relegated to a far more junior position.

That said, it’s not of course the case that the US is uniquely responsible for climate fiasco after fiasco. Obviously, these cables don’t paint the US in a good light, what with its underhanded tactics to force countries into signing up to the Copenhagen Accords (a grossly inadequate treaty because of its soft targets and lack of enforcement mechanisms). But thanks to China’s sabotage** in the closed-door negotiations in Copenhagen – even cajoling developed countries against setting their own targets, while manipulating them into taking the fall in public – this is what we got. And while I understand the position of poor countries like the Maldives or Bolivia that it’s nowhere near enough to prevent devastating AGW, or Addis Ababa’s complaints about the absence of formal US guarantees of financial aid in exchange for their support (Cable 2), nonetheless there is a logic to the US strong-arming poor countries into the Accords since this at least gets “the international community moving in the right direction.” (A bonus in that cable is seeing Ethiopians arguing, just like Russians, for restricting foreign funding of NGO’s on the grounds that it undermines indigenous civil society).

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Orientalism Overload

This might well be my favorite cable so far – perhaps even better than the Caucasus wedding – courtesy of US ambassador to Iran Bruce Laingen in August 1979. Now maybe US diplomats are culturally West-centric and insular today, but they’ve got nothing on their predecessors. “Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism. Its antecedents lie in the long Iranian history of instability and insecurity which put a premium on self-preservation. The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one’s own.” No wonder the US hasn’t had much luck communicating with the Islamic Republic

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Chechnya, A Once And Future War?

Truly, if Willian Burns were to issue an anthology of his Moscow cables during his 2005-2008 ambassadorship, I’d seriously consider buying it. Just consider this cable from May 2006, on Chechnya’s “Once and Future War”, a nuanced US view of that conflict and the cynicism and corruption it engendered amongst all its parties.

What struck me first was its reminder of the awesome magnitude of corruption and state dissolution during the 1990’s. Though Transparency International might claim that nothing much has changed in the past two decades (or even regressed), it is belied by Burns’ vision of a “military-entrepreneurial” officer corps that proclaimed President Yeltsin’s “business” was to “sit in Moscow, drink vodka, and chase women” while they did “[their] work” in the Caucasus region. And profitable work it was too. Due to post-Soviet Russia’s low domestic energy prices, it was highly lucrative to launder oil it through Chechnya, sell it on foreign markets, and make big dollar on the difference. Army officers profited from the racket; their Chechen partners spent their cut of the gravy to arm themselves for war. One of the primary causes of the First Chechen War, apart from the state’s usual hatred of separatism, was a specific desire to reassert control over Chechnya’s oil and arms bazaar.

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Russia Arming The Rest, And US Views On This

Another Wikileaks cable – a secret one, not merely confidential – from our Caucasus ethnologist and bestest bud at the State Department, William Burns. Dated October 2007, it describes America’s perception of Russia’s global arms trade and emphasizes its concerns that many of its partners are “rogue” or “anti-American” states like Syria, Iran and Venezuela. However, Burns is intelligent enough to acknowledge that the Russians have their own economic, political and cultural reasons for doing things they way. Though obliged to provide suggestions on how to make Russian politicians see eye to eye with the US on the matter, it is likely a quixotic endevour.

Russia is expanding arms exports, seeking ties beyond its traditional partners India and China. (Burns correctly predicted that the Russia – China arms relationship will wane due to Chinese reengineering, copying and reproduction of Russian military products). The capture of most NATO and former Soviet markets by US and European military companies is the primary economic agent behind Russia’s courting of states that Washington has bad relations with. In reply to Western objections, Russia tends to reference “multilateral arms controls regimes (e.g. Wassenaar Group, MTCR, etc.), UN resolutions, or Russian law” in justification; and US protests against its entertainment of “Chavez’s grandiose regional visions” are believed, by the RF Foreign Ministry and Russian defense experts, to spring from “a “Monroe doctrine” mentality, and not real concerns over regional stability.” Finally, a lack of economic diversification actively PUSHES Russia into the arms trade: as Anatoly Kulikov pithily notes, “Russia makes very bad cars, but very good weapons.”

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The Collapse Party Fulfills Its Own Name

I founded the Collapse Party one year ago after coming to the hard realization that industrial civilization is unsustainable and that – barring revolutionary socio-political (e.g. “ecotechnic dictatorship“) or technological (e.g. geoengineering) transformation – it’s catastrophic unraveling by the middle of this century is almost inevitable. As neither of development seems to be in the pipelines, I decided it was time to explicitly thinking about the political dimensions of adapting to a re-localized world, in which resource depletion and climate change make impossible the huge economies of scale and their supporting technologies that we know take for granted.

collapse-party-end

The immediate inspiration was Dmitry Orlov’s essay The Collapse Party platform, which argued for setting up a mechanism to clean up the mess left behind industrialism and preparing society for the collapse. Orlov was personally pessimistic about the chances of political organizations achieving this, since to some extent the very notion of a “collapse party” is a contradiction in terms. After a year, it turns out that he was right – at least in the short term. I have neither the time nor the means to push this project, nor have I been able to do anything substantial about it apart from the (soon to disappear) site and a Facebook group. Furthermore, on further examination it never would have any good prospects anyway – even apart from the fact that few comprehend the sheer scope of our predicament, such a “pessimistic” view is politically unappealing to the vast majority of people.

This post will archive the Party’s Manifesto, which I do think contains some useful pointers to future action. The longer its recommendations remain the laughing stock of “polite society”, the more violent will be the long-term outcomes as the industrial engine splutters and screeches to a stop – and the more brutal and dictatorial the means that will be required to mitigate and adopt to the new conditions. But as a political project the Collapse Party is quixotic, and in any case there’s no point worrying about things you can’t change. Instead, I would recommend focusing on the great new opportunities of an opening Arctic: getting in early on its coming investment boom, snapping up prime Far North real estate and establishing your family as the future landed aristocracy. For true prophets are despised, but Tsars are feared and respected!

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Cable Intermezzo: A Caucasus Wedding

One of the most endearing and surprising cables came from William Burns, US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008: a beautifully written account of a Daghestani wedding scene that might as well have come from a latter-day Prisoner of the Caucasus. The US diplomatic corps has hardly distinguished itself with the acuity of its ethnographic insights; there is even the distinct impression that much of its work consisted of producing Cliff’s Notes on the views of the Russian opposition, Western experts, and official Tbilisi. The unsurprising results are the reproduction of tiresome tropes and political character assessments that are of literally comic book sophistication.

This work is an estimable exception, providing an insight into the social dynamics of a clan-based society with guns, cars and dollars, a glimpse into the history and character of some of its leading notables, and a few plain awesome anecdotes (e.g. “First Gadzhi joined them and then Ramzan [Kadyrov], who danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down in the back of his jeans… Both Gadzhi and Ramzan showered the dancing children with hundred dollar bills; the dancers probably picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones”). Copies of the cable here, here & here.

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