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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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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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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The Nazi-Soviet Pact as Second Munich

On the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, signed on August 23, 1939 (also my birthday!), historians, ideologues and everyone in between inevitably fall into a game of recriminations, revisionism and relativism. The anti-Soviet side maintains that the Pact gave Germany a free hand in the west and contributed to the onset of war, as represented by OSCE’s recent recognition of Nazi-Soviet equivalence in their culpability for the Second World War. On the other hand, most Russian historians stress that the Pact was a) justifiable on the basis of the Western betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, and b) gave the USSR valuable time to build up its military-industrial potential for the coming war with Germany.

The “Westerners” (and their liberast Russian allies) tend to impute sinister motives to the Russian leadership’s recent efforts aimed against the “falsification of history” – seeing in them a revival of totalitarian and expansionist thinking, whereas the Russians see this as Western-sponsored “revisionism” whose aim is to impose a sense of historical guilt on the nation. Considering that a glorified version of the Great Patriotic War is fast becoming Russia’s national myth, any acceptance of responsibility for its outbreak is ideologically unacceptable, an a priori anathema. This pits Russia directly against the Visegrad nations of the former Soviet bloc, whose occupation and repression under Soviet / Russian rule – yes, they view the two as interchangeable – is a staple of their national myths, and consequently also brings Russia into a new ideological conflict with the wider West.

Given the huge role of these underlying emotional, ideological and spiritual factors, there is little space left for objective history. But one can try by hi-lighting the kind of international environment the USSR faced during the period and the sense of insecurity that the Western nations instilled in its government through their actions… I’ll start by translating, summarizing and expounding on a timeline meticulously compiled by Sergei Fedosov [my additions] – please see link for his sources:

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Top 50 Russophobe Myths

This is a list of common Russophobe myths about Russia and its people, and the successor to a March 2008 post on a similar theme. Please be sure to check the supporting notes at the bottom before dismissing this as neo-Soviet propaganda. Also partially available en françaisна русском thanks to Alexandre Latsa’s translation.

1

MYTH: Life has only improved for a few oligarchs, while the poor and everyone outside Moscow remain impoverished.

REALITY: During Putin’s Presidency, poverty rates more than halved and wages nearly tripled, fueling an on-going consumption boom shared across all regions and social groups.

2

MYTH: Russia is in a demographic death spiral that has gotten worse under Putin and which will soon sink its economy.

REALITY: The birth rate has increased, the death rate has fallen and mortality from murder, suicide and alcohol poisoning has plummeted. Projections of Russia’s future dependency ratios are no worse than for China or the G7.

3

MYTH: Putin abused human rights, personally murdered 200 journalists and returned Russia to its totalitarian past.

REALITY: Too bad that only 3% of Russians agree, despite having easy access to such views via the press, cable TV and the Internet. The number of journalists killed under Putin (17) is less than under Yeltsin (30), and only five of them can be definitively linked to their professional work. Elections have been mostly free and fair.

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Ukraine, Georgia and Latvia, Beacons of Freedom

I am being a sarcastic, of course. Ukraine has banned broadcasting of Russian TV channels. Georgia cut access to the .ru domain and banned Russian TV channels (and Euronews!), no doubt to silence any questioning voices over their criminal aggression as opposed to the likes of Fox, CNN or the BBC, which swallowed the psychopathic Saakashvili’s lies hook, line and sinker. Finally, and most disturbingly, Latvia is now arresting those who dare question the stability of its economy on charges of ‘destabilizing the financial system’.

The Western MSM would do well to express greater interest in this instead of endlessly hectoring Russia – the whole specks of chaff and logs and eyes thing, you know. Otherwise, as in the 1930’s, the debris of capitalism could end up once again incubating incipient fascist regimes.

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The Unfathomable Depths of Western Hypocrisy

Putin gave an interview to CNN, logically and comprehensively explaining the Russian view on the South Ossetian War. What did CNN do? They censored most of the interview (in stark contrast, Saakashvili’s frequent deranged rantings bouts got prime attention during the conflict), leaving only the stuff that makes Putin look like a loon to the average Joe.

Don’t let those craven neocon shills win. Watch the full interview.

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Comprehensive Outline of Russia’s Point of View on 2008 War of Ossetia

So let’s get this straight – breaking their own ceasefire, Georgia attacked Russian citizens and peacekeepers, and there are grounds to believe they committed war crimes, in violation of the latters’ peacekeeping mandate. All Russian military action is aimed at repelling the Georgian military from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which at times involves bombing the source of attacks originating in Georgia proper. Saakashvili mounts a pathetic, whiny PR campaign of “Russia murdering poor democratic Georgia” and the Western media swallow it line and hooker, despite their own governments’ complicity in making this happen (i.e. offensive arms’ sales).

Putin: “The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing — the attempt to turn white into black, black into white and to adeptly portray victims of aggression as aggressors and place the responsibility for the consequences of the aggression on the victims.”

Interview by Minister of Foreign Affaires of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov to BBC, Moscow, August 9, 2008. Granted, a bit dated as of today, but none the less important for understanding Russia’s reasons for getting involved in maintaining peace. I have highlighted in bold Lavrov’s most important points.

Question: What is Russia’s aim in South Ossetia?

S.Lavrov: Russia’s aim is to keep peace. This is not just Russia’s aim, this is Russia’s obligation. Russian peacekeepers have been brought there under the agreement between the parties after the war which started in the early nineties. The late President Gamsakhurdia who was the leader of Georgia at that time declared his policy “Georgia for Georgians”. He cancelled autonomies of Southern Ossetia, Adjaria and of Abkhazia. He brought his troops into these areas and then the resistance took place. And Georgian army was wiped out of those regions. It was then that after quite nervous and intense negotiations a peacekeeping mechanism was established comprising Georgians, Ossetians and Russians. The peacekeeping force was established and this peacekeeping force has a mandate. The mandate is to make sure that there is no violation of quiet in the zone of conflict and the peacekeepers are required by this document to prevent any violations and to put out any violations. Since Georgian forces for the second time are engaged in aggressive actions in full violation of the obligations under those international agreements and international humanitarian law by attacking civilians, residential quarters, humanitarian convoys, attacking the convoys trying to remove the wounded from the area of the fighting and even, by some reports, finishing off the wounded. So this is absolutely unacceptable and the responsibility of Russia as a peacekeeper could be only sustained by responding to this aggression.

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Western Hypocrisy Lambasted Before the World

Russia’s representative at the UNSC, Vitaly Churkin, against the dramatic backdrop of Georgia’s criminal assault on Ossetia that is implicitly backed by the US and its closest allies, made a great speech lambasting Western hypocrisy, comparable to Putin’s bravura performance in Munich.

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The Western Media, Craven Shills for their Neocon Masters

I noted in my first post, Flare-Up in the Caucasus,

Even normally Russophobic media outlets, from what I’ve seen, cannot quite manage to spin this in an anti-Russian way (although I may have to retract this point, when the Op-Ed’s have been written up).

Well, I’m retracting it now. The propaganda model has been kicked into high gear in the West and turned squarely against Russia. Although it is acceptable for Georgia to attack Ossetia, with callous disregard for the lives of Russian citizens and UN-mandated peacekeepers (not to mention rumors of genocide), Russia cannot put a single plane over the territory of Georgia without inciting a chorus of condemnation from the Western hypocrites. (It’s totally OK in Kosovo’s case, but let’s not dwell on this uncomfortable comparison, at least for now).

Of course, expanding the conflict beyond South Ossetia is not only fully justified from a moral perspective, but it is also a military necessity. It would be stupid to allow Georgian armed forces to maintain perfect logistics and arrive fully-equipped, battle ready and full of morale, into South Ossetia. The fact Russia has limited itself to spoiling strikes against military and infrastructural targets and a naval arms embargo speaks of tremendous restraint, which can only be applauded.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning, to see just how well the Western media meets its ideals of transparency and objectivity, which it constantly tries to push down Russia’s throat.

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