Monday, March 12, 2007

The Washington Post asks the two eternal Russian questions

Russians, during their frequent bouts of self-criticism, like to point out that the two main Russian questions are "Who's to blame?" and "What's to be done?" From my observations, these questions are relevant to any society that faces a crisis, but only Russians manage to claim them as some kind of a national trait. Be it as it may, today these questions were asked by the Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt: i.e., who's to blame for losing Russia and what's to be done about it? While he did not manage to come up with any coherent answer to the first question, except general disingenuous whining about the allegedly sad state of affairs in Russia, his recommendations on what's to be done were so downright silly that I simply could not ignore them.

For starters, indeed, what a contrast: "On the one hand, you have, say, Estonia, a democracy of 1.3 million people, freely joining in 2004 an alliance of like-minded democracies. On the other hand, you have Vladimir Putin abolishing local and provincial elections, muzzling the press and imprisoning his political enemies."? Hmm, last time I checked, Estonia was an apartheid regime denying citizenship to much of its population. Indeed, the US in the first half of the 19th century was also a democracy, even if certain black "citizens" in the south of the country might've disagreed with that assessment. It's not that bad in Estonia, but a "democracy" that is not for everyone can hardly be called by that term. But, according to Fred Hiatt, things are even more bleak in Russia, where Putin, as it turns out, has abolished local and provincial elections. I'm sorry to do this, but on the issue of local elections I'll just have to go ahead and call Fred Hiatt a liar. Local elections (i.e. mayor level) were never abolished, and Hiatt knows this. On gubernatorial (so-called "provincial") elections Hiatt is also wrong, but I would blame it more on his incompetence than intent to deceive, as was the case with local elections. After all, there is a wide misconception about the process of appointing Russian governors, and an incompetent observer like Hiatt could easily fall in the trap even while trying to be honest. The reality of the situation is that direct gubernatorial elections were not "abolished", but replaced with indirect ones. Candidates for the post of governor are nominated by the local legislature (directly elected by the people) and approved by the President of the Russian Federation (also directly elected by the people). Thus, a compromise candidate can arise through a process indirectly controlled by the voters. There are pros and cons for either system, but that's outside the scope of this review. What's really interesting is that Hiatt also managed to put forward Ukraine as a shining example of democracy -- where governors were never elected in the first place. Apparently, Hiatt has no problems with France either. Hmm, how are things with gubernatorial elections in France, does anyone know? So the question of the relevance of specifics of gubernatorial elections to democracy remains unanswered.

What other sins is Putin accused of? Oh yes, the "muzzling of the press". Apparently, that's what Hiatt calls the fact that state owned media don't engage in anti-government propaganda anymore. Seriously, that's such a setback for Russia's democracy. After all, as we all know, in every real democracy it is the duty of media outlets to attack their owners 24/7. Which they all do, right? Right? No, seriously, they do it, don't they? Whoops...

The freedom of information in a given country is not so much a function of objectivity of any given media outlet as the sum total of all such outlets. It is fashionable in some countries for media outlets to claim to be "fair and balanced". But does anyone take the claim seriously? Can anyone in their right mind describe the Washington Post as fair and balanced? Unfortunately, no, the media is biased, and it is extremely naive to expect anything else from them. But the freedom of information is secured by the differences of bias, and that's where Russian media as a whole shine, despite the nauseating tendencies of some of the individual outlets. So evil Putin crushed the freedom of the press by getting the government-owned media to stop broadcasting anti-government propaganda? How did that affect anti-government media, such as Novaya Gazeta or the Kommersant? Their propaganda line has remained the same. But the picture is even more complicated by the fact that some government-owned media, such as Gazprom's Ekho Moskvy, still maintain their anti-government editorial policy? And what about statistics? Nicolai N. Petro provides some here and here. With so many independent media outlets, why aren't they muzzled? Is Putin simply incompetent, or is Hiatt prevaricating?

But the most damning indictment against "the Putin regime" is, of course, the "fact" that Putin jails his political enemies. You'd normally expect a list of such enemies to follow, but not from our ever so honest Fred Hiatt. I don't think I'll make a major discovery here when I point out that Hiatt was slightly prevaricating here as well. Not "enemies", but one enemy -- Mikhail Khodorkovsky, doing time for fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion. This, of course, begs the question: did Khodorkovsky really commit the crimes he was accused of? If the answer is no, then Hiatt might have a point. If the answer is yes, then what is Hiatt blathering about? If he stole money and didn't pay taxes, then jail is precisely where the former "oligarch" should find himself. Does Hiatt know about the nature of charges against Khodorkovsky? Can Hiatt look someone in the eye and claim that Khodorkovsky was an honest businessman? Does his chutzpah go that far? I don't know. But one thing I do know is that the crimes of Khodorkovsky are real, and the evidence against him is real. An inquisitive reader doesn't even have to bother with reading legalese Russian of the indictment and the sentence, which are freely available on the Prosecutor General web site -- it is enough to read a very interesting explanation of the case from Peter L. Clateman. Khodorkovsky might've thought he was an enemy of Putin, but he is doing time for being a thief and a fraud. That's all there is to it.

Finally, the question of NATO. Hiatt specifically contrasts how the allegedly "democratic" Estonia (among others) is joining the alliance, while the allegedly "authoritarian" Russia is not. And the alliance, of course, turns out to be one for democratic countries, rather than a military alliance whose purpose was to engage in a war. This approach is actually quite illustrative. Considering the outright falsification with regard to Estonia's "democracy", Russia's "authoritarianism", and NATO as an alliance of democratic countries (Hiatt never bothered to count how many outright dictatorships and somewhat authoritarian countries joined NATO as it was being formed? Or is he lying?), maybe the logic here should be reversed? In Hiatt's world (and the world of other similar ideologues), it's not being democratic or not that justifies membership in western institutes. It's the membership that justifies the label. If a country is a part of the club, then Hiatt will gladly distort reality to apply the needed label of "democracy" to it. Similarly, if a country is not a part of the club, and even presumptuously behaves like it doesn't even want to beg entry, then Hiatt will distort reality to label it "authoritarian". In modern Hiatt world, the simple political terms became utterly divorced from their origins and are instead used as code words to specify belonging to selected groups. "Democracy" = "good guys" = "us". "Authoritarianism" = "bad guys" = "them". And who gives a damn about the actual intricacies of political systems and electoral processes, about availability of information to the population and their actual opinions? "We have an ideological battle to wage here, don't distract us with facts and requests for evidence. 'Cause you know, if we paid attention to stuff like that, we might never have gone into Iraq to bring freedom to its people."

So, what Hiatt's proposed solution? Why, it's to fund Russian opposition groups. Hiatt, apparently, hasn't noticed that the US government has been doing just that for years, and all that time Russians' opinion of the US has been steadily worsening. One of the chief accusations against Russian opposition figures has been the fact that they are puppets of foreign regimes. This funding has been of no benefit to the US, except bringing it accusations of neo-imperialism by buying up agents of influence in other countries. It morally destroyed much of the Russian liberal opposition, but giving credibility to the accusations that they are foreign agents -- the communists, who are widely distrusted, but are seen as honest, can make it into the Duma, while the liberals, who had much higher level of support in the past, cannot. It corrupted the nascent Russian civil society by giving an unfair competitive advantage to NGOs promoting American rather than Russian interests, and did much to discredit the whole concept. After all, NGOs receiving American money will sound exactly like Fred Hiatt does, and how will an average Russian see them after that? About the same way I see Fred Hiatt. Liars discredit every single concept they stand for, even if sometimes they tell the truth. And that's the saddest part of it -- the west and western-funded Russian propagandists turned the really positive ideas of democracy and liberalism into swear words in Russia. In reality, Russians are very much supportive of these concepts -- but the words themselves elicit a largely negative reaction due to their sad association with liars and propagandists. This has certainly stifled the public discussion on these issues and set back the development of a more just society in Russia. Thanks to all the Fred Hiatts who did their part. And now this Fred Hiatt wants it back. Great.

So, if I may answer the original question: who is to blame for losing Russia? Liars are. Fred Hiatt.

As to what should be done, it's easy: don't compare Russia with small countries begging to be accepted into NATO. Russia is certainly not opposed to the West, but only if it is treated as an equal, not a subordinate. If not, Russia will go the other way. Current global economic trends suggest that it's not going to be Russia's loss. And no, this doesn't have anything to do with "democracy" or "authoritarianism". Fred Hiatt will have to learn to deal with the fact that he and his ilk don't own the copyright to "democracy".

10 comments:

Heribert Schindler said...

Hello Fedia, nice piece of work. Thanks.

ArtFedorov said...

Once again Fedia, I greatly admire your facile style and thorough analysis. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Hmm, how are things with gubernatorial elections in France, does anyone know?

There are no governors in France.

Fedia Kriukov said...

There are no governors in France.

That's right. The French authoritarian regime is grabbing all the reins of power. The debate is over. France isn't a democracy anymore.

Now that I've mastered this method of analysis, where do I apply for the position of the chief Kremlinologist in some think tank?

jeannick said...

The "prefets" used to be nominated by the interior ministry ,they were a trained body of professionnals administrators with overiding authority , including calling upon the military in case of need ,
with the regionalisation , some of their lesser powers have been transfered to elected officials

Max Power said...

I like the quality of your analysis, but I want to register an objection to the use of "apartheid" to describe Estonia. In the South African apartheid regime, ALL blacks were disenfranchised on account of their race. In today's Estonia, while many ethnic Russians are disenfranchised, many others are citizens of the country and have the right to vote. Since the percentage of the population without citizenship is steadily decreasing, I expect this issue to go away in the next 10 or so years.

Ziggi said...

Once again somebody asks to treat Russia in a very special manner...

Why is Russia so special? Probably because it has many good agents of influence in the West...

Putin's Russia is nothing more but evil greedy empire doing its upmost to get back into power.

Look real - we have lost Russia not because we did something wrong but because the Russians love power more than anything else. They may starve to death, may suffer cold and may be treated like pigs by their authorities but as long as they may identify themselves better than e.g. Latvians or Estonians - they will accept this.

This is why they do not care about democracy and accept Putin's autocracy - they like the taste of empire and he gives them this taste exactly.

Fedia Kriukov said...

This leads me to think that if all Russophobes were as idiotically open as Ziggi, rather than insidious and cunning like Fred Hiatt, Russia would have a much easier time with its foreign policy.

lamb said...

Well, - I would add that turning words like "democracy" into the swear can not be attributed to actions of only propagandists and liars. The real actions of those in power during 90'ties and nazi-like disregard of basic suvival opportunities of local (and espessially - Russian) population by the so called "Democrats" and then -buisness-elite of the russian society will be well remembered for years to come.( and, sadly, will add a just cause to the nationalistic frenzy of some).

Ellen said...

Great work.