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Date: Fri, 08 Sep 2000
Subject: From Edward Lucas--personal view from Moscow

I was quite wrong to describe the Russian advertising market as "one of the most lucrative businesses in the country". Gas, oil,  diamonds are lucrative, but the total TV advertising market is only about $250m now--it was $500m in 1997-- reckons Gareth Brown,  one of the readers of this list and an advertising man himself.

It is all the more pleasurable to point out my mistake and get a gratuitously favourable reference to you-know-where into the bargain.  Gareth writes: "$250m is roughly the size of the combined Baltic states' TV markets, half the size of Hungary, one quarter the size of  Poland, one hundredth the size of Germany or the UK, or one thousandth the size of the USA." So there.

Fair point--what I really meant was, perhaps, that the Russian media world is, if not lucrative compared to natural resources, at least a  notorious source of easy money, determined by kick-backs and intimidation rather than talent. The notorious companies that sell the  advertising funnel the revenues anywhere but into the broadcasting infrastructure, as the Ostankino fire shows.

Someone else took me to task for saying that it was "odd" that the Russians are more forgiving towards Putin over the Kursk fiasco  than the West has been. Surely the Russians are the people best equipped to judge their leaders. We may think that he is an  incompetent, sinister, mediocre, compulsive liar, but if they like him--hey, that's democracy. What I meant to say was that Putin's  behaviour, viewed from the West, reported by Western journalists and judged by Western standards, looks very bad. Seen from  Russia, reported by RTR and with Russian expectations, or lack of them, about how a leader should behave during a national tragedy,  it looks a lot less bad. And that is odd.

The point is, I think that Russians are very tolerant, by our standards too tolerant, of their leaders' remoteness, greed, arrogance, and  general horribleness. Arguably, that's their business. But then we shouldn't have illusions that they, their values, habits etc are  basically like ``us''--meaning western countries with centuries of democracy--which is a principal principle of Hurrah-ishm.

That prompted another response from the same chap, suggesting that "I think the difference between us is that I like the Russians; I  think they are at least as like us as Hitler's Germans were; and I don't believe that any people are condemned by their history always  to repeat the same mistakes. Fundamental things have already changed in Russia, and given two or three generations and a good  deal of luck, they ought to work their way through to what we would regard as a more reasonable economic and political system."

No disrespect, but that sort of reply is classic Hurrah-ism, lightly disguised as realism.

I don't think that even Pipes and Brzezinski would argue against the idea that within two or three generations, and with a lot of luck,  Russia can become a well-functioning happy country. My problem with this is that this happy prospect is, even by the boosterists'  own admission a) distant and b) unlikely, (it is a bad idea in almost any walk of life to base plans on a large dose of good luck having  a benign effect, many years ahead). And what really puts acid in my pen when I write about Russia is that the westerners are so  unwilling to look at what is likely to happen in the short and medium term. Authoritarianism, collapse, upheaval, stagnation,  Africanisation--all these are just as much worth discussing, arguably more so--than the pollyannaish view that "it'll be all right in the  end".

We have a frightful tendency in the west to compress timescales. As soon as something is agreed to be possible, we start expecting  that it will happen tomorrow (the fact that this practically now does happen in software and the internet probably increases the  misperception as far as the real world is concerned). And secondly we tend to hype good news: a few western hotels open in  Moscow, and the whole tourism sector is--in principle--sorted out. Recruits to western companies are fantastically bright, able,  impressive people--so Russia is a limitlessly deep pool of human talent.

I don't think personal likes or dislikes should come in to it. I'm not actually sure what it means to "like Russians", or to "dislike  Russians"--in almost any country there will be likeable and repellent features and people, but they shouldn't affect our analysis of  politics and economics. I also get shirty when people start ascribing my views to my supposed "russophobia". It is possible to be a  russophobe (whether that means fear, hatred, jealousy, or just dislike of drunken sobornost) and still think that the country is going to become rich and powerful. And one can be a russophile (meaning lots of Russian friends, loving the culture, even the food) and still  believe that it cannot exist much longer as an advanced industrial country.

It all goes to the heart of the Western misunderstanding about Russia--the tendency to say that it is all so mysterious and nasty that the best thing is to pretend that it is going to be all right, and the Russians know best what to do with their own country. Actually,  Putin's sinister, mediocre nature, which is worrying enough, is compounded by the fact that most Russians seems to like him,  because it means that there are few limits to his power. Look at Belarus. Lukashenko seems like a thuggish clown to us, but because  Belarus doesn't really matter, we don't feel any compulsion to sanitise him or it (the Germans, who are the softest touch in Europe on Belarus, are a bit different). Imagine if Putin was the president of Belarus--we would say tht this was just further proof of the country's hopelessness. But because Russia has oil (and therefore a temporary prosperity), plus nukes, and is big, we can't take the stance  that we would about about a smaller country (contain the damage, minimise the risk, encourage the next generation)

I am tempted to recast that well-worn line of Churchills on the lines of Russia is a monstrosity wrapped in self-deception and  surrounded by wishful thinking.

I can already hear someone bleating that Putin is actually not that bad, and look at all the laws that are going through the Duma etc .  Now that I am properly back from holiday, I feel a bit more able to take the temperature.

  1. The cake is being resliced between out-of-favour oligarchs and the inner circle. I am pretty sure that the attacks on Sibneft are for  show, which shows that Abramovich is still "in". Berezovsky is hard to read (even when he is dead, somebody will be saying that this  is just a clever manoeuvre). But the open letter to Putin looks to me like an obvious public breach.

  2. Putin is turning up the heat on the regions again, but more selectively. They are investigating Moscow's murky property dealings,  but, for the moment, leaving Tatarstan alone. Putin's problem is that he simply doesn't have the people to deal with the rgions  properly. He can try making dramatic examples, but cleaning up regional government systematically, even if he wanted to do it, is all  but impossible at the moment. I am pretty sure that he will get bogged down.

  3. There are some stabs at pepping up public admnistration--or at least being seen to do so. Sacking the bosses of the Odintsovo  customs house looked quite dramatic. But I doubt that this is going to work. I think the chinovniki have already rumbled Putin, and  know that it is going to be basically business as usual.

Putin's key shortcoming over the last few months, I think, has been his failure to get the people on his side. For all his loathsome  past, personal shortcomings, and muddled ideas, it is conceivable that he really means some of the things he said in his  state-of-thenation speech to parliament (a remarkable document, by the way, and well worth reading at  http://en.rian.ru/rian/poslanie.cfm). But I think he simply doesn't have a clue how to make it happen. It's the old story of top-down  reform, and contempt and for and ignorance about the Narod. The only way in which a country can become properly administered is  when the state and society are linked by lots of different feedback channels--everything from the media which reports abuses, elected  officials who want to win popularity by sorting them out, ombudsmen and public auditors who control the state for a living, judges and  public prosecutors who tackle criminal abuses of state power, pressure groups and other bits of civil society that focus public opinion, channel grievances and so forth. Almost all of this is missing or broken in Russia. Of course with the best will in the world it won't be created over night, but Putin is not even really trying.

On that happy note, have a nice weekend. Edward

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 06:37:16 PM EST
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