Kettle, Meet Pot

Corruption across EU ‘breathtaking’ – EU Commission” says a headline in the BBC. The Commissioner responsible for the report said that she believed the cost of corruption was “probably much higher” than the €120 billion (US$162 billion) the report estimates. And indeed that is probably correct because corruption within EU organs themselves was not included. Given that the auditors have persistently found money missing in the EU accounts (or, as it is quaintly put in Eurospeak: “error rates”) for nearly two decades, 4.8% of €138.6 billion (€6.6 billion or US$8.9 billion) in 2012, there may well be more. Almost half the businesses operating in Europe say they find corruption to be a problem, More than half the people surveyed think the problem is getting worse. 8% claim to have personally experienced something in the past 12 months.

Here’s the actual report.

Now, these are precisely the politicians, followed enthusiastically by a barking pack of reporters, opinioneers and editorial writers, who are always ready to lecture Russia and posture as an paradigm to be emulated. Indeed Ukraine is being torn apart precisely by the pretension that the EU is the only route for it to get out of stagnation and corruption. I do not believe that tu quoque is a particularly effective way of arguing but there are times when outright hypocrisy must be acknowledged. Eurosceptics like myself have always expected that huge uncontrolled bureaucracies producing ever more layers of regulations is a strong precondition for corruption – how else can a company or individual navigate through contradictory and incomprehensible regulations than by the lubrication of a shot of cash in the right place? It is to the credit of the EU that it produced such a harsh report.

And it’s not just hypocrisy that Ukrainians should think about. What if the EU structure is in fact the principle cause of stagnation and corruption just as communism was? There are important similarities after all: faceless, well-paid bureaucrats at the centre conducting experiments on a powerless population.

Who are the faceless gnomes of Brussels to lecture Moscow or Kiev or anyone else?

Who can take anything they say seriously any more?

 

Preliminary Thoughts on TIMSS/PIRLS 2012

I had been meaning to post about this for a long time. Better late than never, I suppose.

The TIMSS and PIRLS are international assessments of academic ability in math, science and literacy that are conducted once every four years. They are similar to the PISA tests, although the latter are less purely academically focused and more a test of pure IQ.

Here are the results of TIMSS/PIRLS (h/t North Asian). And here are the results of PISA from 2009 for comparison.

As can be expected, they are highly correlated (r > 0.8 to be precise). This however makes the few differences all the more interesting. The gap between the East Asian countries and European countries, though substantial in PISA, is significantly greater in TIMSS/PIRLS. And most strikingly, both Russia and Israel go from being laggards in the OECD group to being at the forefront of the class.

  Math (PISA) Math (TIMSS)
Korea 539 613
Sweden 494 484
Russia 468 539
Israel 447 516

From performing more poorly than Turkey in the PISA reading test, Russia soars to take second global position in the PIRLS.

  Reading (PISA) Reading (PIRLS)
HK 533 571
Sweden 497 542
Russia 459 568
Israel 474 541

Meanwhile, some European countries, especially Sweden and Norway, plummet quite substantially.

What explains all this?

There are two possibilities. First, the TIMSS/PIRLS tests may have poorer samples than the PISA. For instance, we know from the latter that Moscow has a 10-point IQ lead over the rest of the country. If Muscovite pupils are over-sampled, then it’s quite feasible for the consequent result to be closer to say Hong Kong or Korea than to Greece or Turkey.

However, a second possibility is that the PISA-TIMSS/PIRLS gap is a proxy for differences in the quality of educational systems. It is more feasible to prepare for the TIMSS/PIRLS than it is for PISA, which is closer to an IQ test and is, as such, more difficult to improve through policy interventions. It is nowadays fashionable to lambast the ex-Soviet and East Asian school systems for “rote learning,” “stifling creativity,” and whatnot. However, the data shows that under these systems, pupils perform well above the levels they “should” as indicated by their underlying IQ levels. Meanwhile, in places where “creativity” and “self-expression” are given full bloom, where science lessons focus on the evils of plastic bags in between sermons on LGBT appreciation and the progressiveness of Islamic civilization, academic performance is somewhat less than what might expect based on the local students’ apparent IQ levels.

This all makes sense, I suppose. To be truly “creative” you first have to acquire a ton of skills and knowledge via the old method of applied hard work. Without that, “creativity” simply boils down to a sea of PoMo-waffling curmudgeons and MacBook-toting hipsters. And whoever needs that?

Russia’s Economic “Stagnation” In Global Perspective: Continued

It is now a staple of “common wisdom” to such an extent that there is little point in digging up specific news items. Bound up in red tape and crushed by the weight of state regulations, the argument goes, the Russian economy is doomed to years of renewed Brezhnevite stagnation – with the government increasing repressions and anti-Western rhetoric to divert attention away from its failure to raise living standards.

But is this actually a valid viewpoint? Russia’s rate of GDP growth has plummeted relative to 2010, when it was emerging out of a deep recession. In 2010 and 2011, it was typically at around 4% to 5%; by Q1 2013, it was just 1.6%.

russia-gdp-growth-to-2013

Now yes, that looks pretty bad – even though its far from being an outright recession (aka two consecutive quarters of negative growth, crudely defined). But one could credibly make the argument that a middle-income economy that still has much room for productivity increases, like Russia, should be growing considerably faster. But while that is true enough, it should nonetheless be pointed out that to the extent that Russia is in stagnation – so is the entire world, bar China.

global-gdp-growth-to-2013

See the similarities between the two graphs? Now imagine China were removed from the second one. In that case, they would virtually be mirrors of each other. Or how about simply comparing Russia’s growth rate to comparable CEE countries that are widely considered to be much “freer” and less corrupt:

russia-cee-gdp-growth-2010-2013-compared

The rather banal reality is that Russia is far from alone in experiencing a big slowdown among its middle-income peers: Especially in comparison to many of the Central-East European countries, some of which are in outright recession, but also fellow BRICS members Brazil and South Africa – not to mention Mexico, South Korea, Turkey, Argentina, and most other emerging markets – which have likewise seen slowdowns to the low single digits in the past few months or year.

As such, the question isn’t so much “Why is the Russian economy stagnating?” but more like “Why are pretty much all developed countries and emerging markets, except China, stagnating if not in outright recession?”

Translation: Demographics in Russia and Germany

In a graphs-heavy blog post, German-Russian blogger A.S. Schmidt argues that with its far higher emigration rates and lower birth rates, Germany is now in a much bigger demographic crisis than Russia.

Demographics in Russia and Germany

I have long wanted to compare some of the demographic trends in Russia and Germany but, to be honest, I was afraid to take on this subject, since the volume of data is very large. In the future, I hope to return to this subject again because of this. Today, I will only compare a few demographic indicators to give a general overview of the situation and take away some of the deep-rooted prejudices. In the future, I plan to write more about measures aimed at the birth rate, migration, aging of the population and some non-obvious effects of policy on the population in Western Europe.

To analyze the situation, I used data from the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, the Federal State Statistics Service of the Russian Federation (Rostat), Federal Research Institute of the German population. To check my calculations I used data on the site of the World Health Organization (WHO). For the analysis I uysed the period 1990-2012.

Fertility in Russia and Germany

To start, let’s take a look at the fertility rate. The fertility rate characterizes the number of births per 1000 inhabitants per year. It can be said that the fertility rate is one of the most important indicators to measure the population. Let me remind you that the population of Russia is about 143 million people, and the population of Germany is 81 million people.

1.-germany-russia-birth-rates

To avoid unfounded accusations of being creative with the truth, I just want to end the argument about the connection between the growth of the fertility rate and the increase in the decline of the population Russia. The chart below gives an overview between the number of births in Russia and Germany in absolute terms.

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Russians Produce 7 Cars For Every 10 They Buy

One common trope about the Russian economy is that it has virtually no manufacturing to speak of and lives off “oil rents” that can collapse any day.

Whiles there is a small nugget of truth to this assertion, but by and large it is simply false. It is true that a great chunk of Russian exports do accrue to hydrocarbons and metals, because that is its comparative advantage in trade. That said, there are plenty of Russian products on the domestic market. The automobile industry is a good and representative example of this because they it’s a stalwart of many national economies and there exist reliable and easily accessible statistics on it.

Car Production Car Sales Autos self-sufficiency
Czech Rep. 1,178,938 193,795 608%
Mexico 3,001,974 987,747 304%
South Korea 4,557,738 1,530,585 298%
Poland 647,803 328,532 197%
Japan 9,942,711 5,369,721 185%
Germany 5,649,269 3,394,002 166%
Turkey 1,072,339 817,620 131%
China 19,271,808 19,306,435 100%
Argentina 764,495 832,026 92%
Brazil 3,342,617 3,802,071 88%
South Africa 539,424 623,921 86%
France 1,967,765 2,331,731 84%
Russia 2,231,737 3,141,551 71%
USA 10,328,884 14,785,936 70%
UK 1,576,945 2,333,763 68%
Sweden 162,814 326,441 50%
Italy 671,768 1,534,889 44%
Ukraine 76,281 263,604 29%
Australia 209,730 1,112,132 19%

As such, I decided to compile a representative list of countries, with data on production and sales for 2012 drawn from OICA, in order of the ratio of their auto production to new auto sales – that is, their degree of self-sufficiency in cars.As we can see above, while Russia is perhaps rather lower than average, its domestic auto manufacturing industry nonetheless manages to satiate 71% of demand for new cars.

This is quite comparable to France, the US, and the UK, and is vastly higher than a similarly resource-dependent rich country, Australia. Quite a lot of other resource-heavy countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Norway don’t produce cars at all. Mexico is a huge exception, but the reason for that is that it borders the US and the US has outsourced quite a lot of its auto industry south of the border to take advantage of lower labor costs – a situation analogous to the Germans’ outsourcing of car production to Spain in the 1980’s, and Central-East European countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland in the 2000’s.

What I Learned From Freedom House…

My latest for the US-Russia Experts Panel and VoR.

In this latest Panel, Vlad Sobell asks us supposed Russia “experts” whether Freedom House’s “alarmist stance” towards Russia is justified. Well, what do YOU think? I don’t think you need to be an expert to answer this; it’s an elementary issue of common sense and face validity. Consider the following:

Freedom House gives Russia a 5.5/7 on its “freedom” score, in which 7 is totalitarianism (e.g. North Korea) and 1 is complete freedom (e.g. the post-NDAA US).

This would make Putin’s Russia about as “unfree” as the following polities, as we learn from Freedom House:

  • The United Arab Emirates, a “federation of seven absolute dynastic monarchs whose appointees make all legislative and executive decisions”… where there are “no political parties” and court rulings are “subject to review by the political leadership” (quoting Daniel Treisman and Freedom House itself);
  • Bahrain, which recently shot up a ton of Shia demonstrators, and indefinitely arrested doctors for having the temerity to follow the Hippocratic oath and treat wounded protesters;
  • Any of the 1980’s “death-squad democracies” of Central America, in which tens of thousands of Communist sympathizers or just democracy supporters were forcibly disappeared;
  • The Argentinian junta, which “disappeared” tens of thousands of undesirables, some of whom were dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean;
  • Yemen, which lives under a strict interpretation of sharia law and where the sole candidate to the Presidency was elected with 100% of the vote in 2012 (which Hillary Clinton described as “another important step forward in their democratic transition process”).

Putin’s Russia is also, we are to believe, a lot more repressive than these polities:

  • South Korea in the 1980’s, a military dictatorship which carried out a massacre in Gwangju on the same scale as that of Tiananmen Square, for which China would be endlessly condemned;
  • Turkey, which bans YouTube from time to time, and today carries the dubious distinction of hosting more imprisoned journalists – 49 of them, according to the CPJ – than any other country, including Syria, Iran, and China. (Russia imprisons none).
  • Mexico under the PRI, which falsified elections throughout the years of its dominance to at least the same extent as United Russia.
  • Singapore, whose parliament makes the Duma look like a vibrant multiparty democracy and uses libel law to sue political opponents into bankruptcy. (In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds about Putin’s yachts and Swiss bank accounts).
  • Kuwait, where women only got the vote in 2005.

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that Freedom House has a definite bias which looks something like this: +1 points for being friendly with the West, -1 if not, and -2 if you also happen to have oil, and are thus in special urgent need of a color revolution. Then again, some call me a Kremlin troll, so you might be wiser to trust an organization that was until recently chaired by a former director of the CIA, an avowed neocon given to ranting about Russia’s backsliding into “fascism” among other things. If that’s the case you’re probably also the type who believes Iraq was 45 minutes away from launching WMD’s and that Islamist terrorists “hate us for our freedom.”

PS. If you want a reasonably accurate and well-researched political freedoms rating, check out the Polity IV series. Unfortunately, while it’s a thousand times better than Freedom House, it’s also about a thousand times less well-known.

Russia’s Corruption In Comparative International Perspective

Continuing from my previous post (which focused mostly on trends), this one focuses exclusively on international comparisons as per the results of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey of 2010-11. The graphs represent affirmative answers to the question of whether the respondent had paid a bribe in the past 12 months to each of 9 institutions if he had come into contact with them.

Is Russia the most corrupt of the BRICs?

This is the conventional wisdom, both as per the widely cited CPI as well as numerous pundits. Is it correct? Well, going by the best possibly objective measure of corruption – asking people whether they (or a member of their household) paid bribes in the past year – no, it isn’t. The honor goes to India. China is modestly less corrupt than Russia, while Brazil is basically a First World country in this respect.

brics-corruption-chart-institutions

Is Russia especially corrupt by Central-East European standards?

No, it isn’t. While it’s certainly more corrupt than average, that particular honor has to go to Azerbaijan. The Ukraine is systemically more corrupt than Russia, with a higher percentage of respondents reporting bribing all nine institutions. Even Lithuania is, on average, more corrupt than Russia. (So much for the pro-Western democracy automatically leading to cleanliness and transparency thesis).

cee-corruption-institutions

On the other hand, for the sake of honesty and consistency, one has to acknowledge that Saakashvili’s campaign against corruption in Georgia was a genuine and astoundingly successful achievement. In fact, if these polls are perfectly accurate, Georgia now has less “everyday” corruption than the US!

Antisocial Punishment: Why China Will Defeat Corruption, But Russia And The Arabs Won’t

One of the books I’ve been reading lately is Steven Pinker’s massive door-stopper The Better Angels of Our Nature. Incidentally, I found it a very interesting read with tons of cool factoids, although it could have done with a third of its text and a tiny fraction of its liberal sanctimonious. But that’s for the forthcoming review; in this post, I will focus instead on a reference I found there to a very fascinating and revealing paper about Antisocial Punishment Across Cultures (Herrmann et al.) – and by extension, its implications for social cohesion.

Power summary: The shrinks got a bunch of university students, divided them into teams of four, and got them to play a “public goods game.” They were given 20 tokens at the start of each of ten rounds, and they were told they could invest any number of them into a pot, with a return of 0.4 tokens to each player – regardless of whether or not he participates – to each token invested in the pot. So if everyone was to contribute all 20 of their tokens, each player would walk away with 32 tokens; on the other hand, if only two players were to contribute all their tokens while the other two got a free ride, the altruists would walk away with only 16 tokens, whereas the free riders would get their 16 tokens plus their original 20 which they had kept back.

no-punishment-contributions

In this version of the game, there were no interesting patterns; across all cultures, contributions plummeted as free riders enjoying impunity undermined the morale of productive contributors. However, that’s not how the game works in real societies, which actively punish many forms of free riding: Tax evasion, benefit fraud, dodging fares on public transport, etc. The game was then modified to include a punishment option, in which any player could choose to spend one token to remove three tokens from any other player of his choosing. The results changed drastically.

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If Sunlight Is The Best Disinfectant, Why Is The Russian Mafia State Opening The Blinds?

My latest for the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel. Also as usual it appears at Voice of Russia. The version printed here is a slightly longer one:

There are already a lot of opinions on the topic of Russian corruption, and I see no pressing need to add more to that morass. I do however think it will be useful to ground the scale and trajectory of Russian corruption in quantifiable facts and statistics.

There are three major ways of measuring corruption: (1) Subjective assessments; (2) Objective assessments; and (3) Opinion polls.

The most famous subjective assessment is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Russia might go up and down this index across the years, as per the businesspeople and “experts” it queries, but overall it remains consistently stuck somewhere in between Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. Bearing in mind that they also believe Italy is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia – a country that is owned by its royal family even in name – one must ask to what extent this PERCEPTIONS index reflects actual corruption in any particular country, as opposed to the generosity of the expat packages it offers and its friendliness to the international business community. Is it a complete coincidence that Russia’s already low CPI score started plummeting to new depths about the exact same time it jailed Khodorkovsky?

russia-corruption-subjective

(1) CPI = Corruption Perceptions Index.
(2) WBGI = World Bank Governance Indicators.

Russia does much better on assessments that include precise methodologies for calculating scores, i.e. a particular anti-corruption law either exists – or it doesn’t. On the Global Integrity Index, it scores 71/100, which is comparable to many other middle-income countries like Lithuania (74), Hungary (73), and Mexico (68). On the Open Budget Index, which measures fiscal transparency, Russia improved drastically from 47/100 in 2006 to 74/1000 by 2012, and is now ahead of all the other BRICs, all of East-Central Europe barring the Czech Republic, and even ahead of Germany.

Likewise, widespread tropes of shady siloviki appropriating all the proceeds from the Russian oil industry – typically accompanied by terms such as “Muscovite patrimonialism” or “rent-seeking clans” by those seeking to project an aura of learnedness – to the contrary, Russia is second only to Brazil and Norway in the transparency of its oil and gas accounts, as measured by the Revenue Watch Index.

Now all of this is not, of course, to say that the Germans steal more from their budget than the Russians; that would be ridiculous. These indices try to tally laws that promote integrity and institutional transparency, not corruption per se. It does however mean that Russia releases more information about its budget than a wide array of other middle-income and even developed countries, which – all else being equal – should make any thefts and shady dealings easier to detect. For instance, Navalny’s work to expose corrupt state tenders is hailed in the press – and rightly so! – but had not the kleptocratic Kremlin made those tenders publicly accessible on the Internet, his activities wouldn’t have even been possible in the first place! If Russia truly were the “mafia state” it is frequently painted as by the Western chattering classes, why on earth would it want to shine more light onto its own rotten essence by steadily increasing its integrity and transparency indicators?

russia-corruption-objective

(1) OBI = Open Budget Indicators.
(2) GII = Global Integrity Index.
(3) RW = Revenue Watch Index.

The final method of measuring corruption is both the most direct and democratic – asking ordinary Russians how often they experience it in their everyday lives, as opposed to the musings of ivory tower “experts” and limousine expats. Unfortunately, opinion polls on the matter – most of which come from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, the Levada Center, and FOM (The Foundation for Public Opinion) – are too irregular and differently worded to confidently discern any decadal trend. On average, as we can see from the graph below, about 20%-25% of Russians tend to say they or their families have experienced corruption in the past year or two.

russia-incidence-of-bribery

(1) GCB = Global Corruption Barometer (“In the past 12 months, have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe in any form?”)
(2) Levada – “Did you have to pay a bribe anywhere in the past 12 months?”
(3) FOM 1 – “In the past year or two, have you personally met any state servant who asked or expected an unofficial payment or service from you for doing his/her work?”
(4) FOM 2 – “Have you ever given a bribe to a state official or not?”

In the most comprehensive international survey, that of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, some 26% of Russians said they or a member of their household paid a bribe in the past year. This is directly analogous to countries like Hungary (24%), Romania (31%), and Mexico (33%) – and not far below the worst-performing “old European” country, Greece (18%). This is, of course, nothing to write home about; but neither is this comparable to India (54%), let alone aforementioned Honduras or Equatorial Guinea. Bear this in mind the next time you read some opinion columnist pontificating about Russia as “Zaire with permafrost” or “Nigeria with snow” (for the record, more than 60% of the respondents from those two countries said they or a member of their household paid a bribe in the past year).

If ordinary corruption is difficult to quantify, it is doubly so for elite corruption. And rumors about Putin’s $40 billion dollar Swiss bank accounts – especially if they are sourced from his political opponents like Stanislav Belkovsky and Boris Nemtsov – aren’t going to get us very far. We need concrete sums and figures – say, the total of $100 million or so that appears to have been stolen in the recent Oboronservis scandals. This is an order of magnitude or so higher than the largest corruption scandals in developed Western countries, but on the other hand, it’s unfortunately quite typical of major corruption scandals in places like China, India, and Latin America. (The overall sums are smaller in truly deprived regions of the world because there is far less to steal in the first place).

Case in point. In a Twitter argument about whether it was better to live in Russia or India, the Swedish diplomat Mats Staffansson wrote to me, “India has enormous poverty but has one big advantage. A functioning noncorrupt legal system. Good British heritage… Corruption in India is definitely a problem but on a much smaller scale than in Russia.” In response, I challenged him to find a single Russian corruption case from the past decade that is remotely comparable to the theft of food worth $14.5 billion in India that was supposed to have been sold at subsidized prices to the poor – and the poor in India are really poor, as half of India’s children are chronically malnourished – but was instead looted by “corrupt politicians and their criminal syndicates.”

I am still waiting for an answer from him

As for Vlad Sobell’s question of whether corruption in Russia can ever become “the exception rather than the rule”… Well, where precisely is this threshold? Corruption is part of a continuum, not a set of discrete states. I will venture to say that with the correct incentives and cultural propaganda, it is certainly plausible for Russia to reduce its levels of corruption from the levels of Romania or Mexico today… to the somewhat better levels of Italy or Poland. I do not know if improvements beyond that are possible. Whether it was due to Protestantism, or the out-breeding fertility patterns specific to family life within the Hajnal Line (which according to some theories promoted altruism), the peoples of north-west Europe seem to have reached a level of very low corruption that has been equaled by very few other societies. In Russia’s case, just converging with Mediterranean and Visegrad corruption norms would be an adequate achievement.

My Article For Komsomolskaya Pravda On Press Freedoms In Russia And The West

Here it is in Russian: Вверх-вниз по рейтингу свободы. This translation here is of a longer version at my Russian language blog.

A version of it also appears on Voice of Russia: Press freedom – on both sides of the Information Curtain.

press-freedom-voice-of-russia

Thanks to Alexei Pankin (who is a regular at Komsomolskaya) for making it happen – and for the title!, and to Alexander Mercouris for proving a couple of ideas and nice turns of phrase.

Up and down the freedom index

Recently the French human rights organization Reporters Without Borders unveiled new press freedom ratings, which showed Russia sinking to 148th place globally. This finding is consistent with the yearly ratings of the American organization Freedom House, which deems the Russian media to be “not free.” In contrast, Western countries, as we might expect, are the world’s freest and most democratic and ahead of everyone else.

Does this correlate to reality? As a regular reader of the mass media from both sides of the Information Curtain, I have long been under the strong impression that the Western public intelligentsia – including the creators of all these ratings – often consider that the only “free” and “independent” media outlets in Russia are those which support their own ideas and prejudices. At the same time, those Russian media outlets that take a pro-Kremlin or even neutral position are inevitably painted as Kremlin stooges – disregarding that the majority of the Russian mass media audience approve of Putin.

(By the way, those approval ratings are created by polling ordinary Russians, whereas the ratings of organizations such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders are compiled using opaque methodologies by anonymous “experts.”)

As evidence of their position, their argue that Russia apparently has no freedom of speech, and that the “bloody regime” crushes the voices of “democratic journalists.” Yes, these things sometimes happen. For instance, after the Presidential elections, Kommersant Vlast printed a photograph of a election ballot saying, “Putin, go fuck yourself.” The paper’s editors cheekily captioned it thus: “Correctly filled out ballot, ruled spoiled.”  The paper’s owner Alisher Usmanov quickly fired them.

Harsh? Maybe, but there is a wealth of similar examples in the West. For insulting Romney, accidentally caught on open mic, the journalist David Chalian was fired from Yahoo News. One can compile an entire list of journalists who were fired for criticizing the state of Israel: Sunni Khalid, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, etc. Likewise there is another substantial list of journalists fired for attending Occupy Wall Street protests. The most famous journalist-whistleblower in the world, Julian Assange, today lives in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to avoid arrest the moment he walks out onto the street.

Regardless of all this, “professors of democracy” continue to harangue us with the idea that the Russian media are controlled and toe the Kremlin line. These claims would seem absurd to any Russian who cares to leaf through the pages of Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, or an array of other publications. If you wish to find a glaring example of mass media parroting a single narrative, one need look no further than Western coverage of the 2008 war in South Ossetia. In that fairytale, evil Russian orcs cravenly attacked flourishing, democratic Georgia, ushering in all kinds of savagery and destruction in their wake. At the same time, the American news channel FOX interrupted its interview with an Ossetian-American schoolgirl, at the time resident in Tskhinvali, when it became clear that her account did not square with Washington’s party line. The Polish journalist Wiktor Bater was fired after he started saying “politically incorrect” facts about the Georgian bombing of Tskhinvali and Saakashvili’s lies. Needless to say, these episodes did not in the slightest impact the press freedom ratings of either the US or Poland.

This is not to idealize the state of Russian press freedoms, which has a huge number of its own problems. For instance, writing about Putin’s private life (but not his policies!) is something of a taboo in Russia, just as is criticism of Israel in the US. And the situation as regards unsolved murders of journalists is far worse than in the West, albeit in statistical terms it is comparable to or even better than in many widely acknowledged democracies such as Brazil, Mexico, India, Colombia, and Turkey.

That said, there are some things Russia can be “proud” of. American “dissidents” such as Hearst Newspapers journalist Helen Thomas and former professor Normal Finkelstein are not only fired, but also put on blacklists which complicate their chances of finding another job and getting access to high-ranking officials. Meanwhile, in stupid and naive Russia, the American journalist Masha Gessen can publish a book about Putin titled “The Man Without a Face” and get a personal interview with the Russian President as a reward. She is then free to repay his consideration by practically calling him an idiot in an account of their meeting in the journal Bolshoi Gorod – and to then go on to head the Russian service of Radio Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, headquartered minutes away from the walls of the Kremlin.

So in some sense Russia still has many, many steps still to climb up the stairs of the press freedom ratings…