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Putin's Russia: rich, powerful, unpredictable and malicious

by Jerome a Paris Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 10:13:38 AM EST

The text below comes from Edward Lucas, formerly the correspondent of the Economist in Moscow. It's not going to be published, it was provided to Johnson's Russia List, the main distribution list for texts in English on Russia and the FSU. Some of the articles are posted here, but not all. If I find a link, I'll shorten the post. I am also asking Mr Lucas for his authorisation to post this in full.

It's well written, it's irreverent, it's sharply critical of Putin's Russia (but not disrespectful) - a lot more so than his articles printed in the Economist -, but is it anti-Russian?


I saw a lot of President Vladimir Putin when he became my neighbour. At least I saw him most days; I doubt he saw me, fuming at the side of the road as his presidential convoy swept past at 80mph all the way to the Kremlin from his newly built presidential palace in our village of Kalchuga, 10 miles outside Moscow.

Mr Putin's country pad and its effect on our village highlighted for me his regime's authoritarian, bullying style. The past week's rows over gas have now brought that home for the rest of the world. Russia is not just aggressive towards its neighbours, but contemptuous of world opinion. Under Mr Putin, it is no longer a basket case: it is rich, powerful, unpredictable and malicious.




The first thing I noticed about my neighbour was that he had to build a new house: he hadn't inherited the sumptuous country retreat of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. That was because the deal between Russia's crooks and spooks that brought Mr Putin, then an unknown and undistinguished bureaucrat, to power in 2000 included an iron-clad agreement that the outgoing Yeltsin clan would not just be immune from prosecution, but also keep the spoils of office­cash, cars and country cottages.

Secondly, the Putin "dacha" or "cottage" (it was about the size of Sandringham) was built at amazing speed and great secrecy on a disused airfield at the edge of our village. That infuriated my sons, who were learning to ride bicycles there. It also illustrated an important point about the way the Russian state works. It may be corrupt, lethargic, and stunningly incompetent in general. But when the man at the top wants something done, it happens fast and ruthlessly.

Our Russian neighbours in the village were unhappy at the rush of development that followed Mr Putin's arrival. One new rich neighbour with close Kremlin connections concreted over the village green to make a driveway for his mansion, beating up an elderly neighbour who objected. Then a property company, also with Kremlin links started bulldozing a nearby forest for a housing development. That taught us two lessons about Mr Putin's Russia. It was startlingly encouraging to see the effects of ten years of democracy: the villagers reacted not with traditional Russian apathy, but with lawsuits, petitions, and when all else failed, direct action: they blocked Mr Putin's road to work. The sad lesson was that the legal system brushed them aside; that their petitions were ignored, and that their modest demonstration met with a tough Soviet-style response from the authorities. The developers and their mates in officialdom offered cash and­ - bizarrely and for reasons I never understood­ - fridges to those locals willing to join a rival outfit set up to campaign for the new housing development and denounce the protestors as anarchists, greens and communists. Setting up fake front organisations was a classic Soviet-era tactic. So was bullying opponents. The villagers received blunt threats: "we will turn up with a bit of paper saying your house is built on our land, and then we will bulldoze it" a shadowy official told my next-door neighbour.

Such are the paradoxes of Putin's Russia. There is prosperity amid lawlessness. The outward trappings of democracy decorate an increasingly authoritarian system. Imperial pomp and ceremony surround a modest-seeming man from a humble background.  But the biggest puzzle is that what the all-powerful Mr Putin really wants, believes and can do is still a mystery to Russians, as it is to the former captive nations of eastern Europe, and to the rest of the world. Sometimes it seems a mystery to Mr Putin too. Certainly when he was first nominated by Mr Yeltsin as designated successor, he seemed as baffled as everyone else. "I am obeying orders," he told journalists wryly in the summer of 1999 when he first emerged, blinking and tongue-tied, into the world's view. Mr Yeltsin, the bearlike destroyer of Soviet communism, was by then so confused and erratic in his rule that few people thought his choice of successor would mean much. Mr Putin, a dull, publicity-shy bureaucrat with not an ounce of charisma, and the fifth prime minister in 18 months, would surely be swept aside by some bouncier character, such as the rumbustious wheeler-dealer mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. Yet the provincial Mr Putin, a second-rate spy turned local-government official, moved seamlessly into the top job, and now presides over the world's largest country, over its second-biggest nuclear arsenal, and over its most strategically important gas reserves.

To everyone's surprise, he rapidly became very popular. For the public, he was sober, young and athletic­ - everything that Mr Yeltsin wasn't. And for the Russian elite, he was the ideal compromise.

The spooks, longing to restore Russia's great-power status, liked him because of his intelligence background: not quite the top drawer, perhaps, but certainly part of the charmed circle that had studied at the Red Banner Institute, the top Soviet spy-school.

And he was palatable for the crooks. These were the sharpwitted shysters who had run black-market businesses during the late Soviet era, and had gone on to grab amazingly lucrative stakes in the free-for-all that followed over who would control Russia's natural wealth, and exploit the huge opportunities that capitalism created in banking, transport and property. Having served as a trusted official in the Kremlin, Mr Putin knew the way that wealth and power in Russia overlapped. Mr Yeltsin's highly influential daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and her husband Valentin Yumashev, the two figures in the Kremlin that epitomised the reckless greed of 1990s Russia in their blurred roles as high officials and highly successful businesspeople, were solidly behind the new man.

So at the beginning, many people hoped that Mr Putin would be a magician-president who would kick-start reforms and drag Russia into the modern world. Even democratic-minded Russians who loathed the KGB and everything it stood for wanted to give the new man a chance. And for a time it looked good: he cracked down on the "oligarchs"­the arrogant, lawless tycoons who had looted Russia in the 1990s. True, that meant closing down their once-flourishing media empires, all of which are now run by tame businessmen close to the Kremlin. But that seemed defensible. Independent television is one thing; pocket stations that blatantly serve the commercial interests of their owners are hardly an ornament to democracy. Mr Putin might have a steely manner, but he spoke nice words. He praised democracy and civil society.

Many outsiders were prepared to give Mr Putin the benefit of the doubt too. George Bush said that he had looked into the Russian president's eyes and "seen his soul". Tony Blair enjoyed lavish nights at the opera during visits to Russia. Gerhard Schroeder got on so well with the German-speaking Putins that they spent a family Christmas together; Mr Putin intervened personally to help Mr Schroeder bend the rules and adopt a Russian orphan.

The first doubts appeared over Mr Putin's effectiveness. It was increasingly clear that he wasn't a magician: The growth in the Russian economy owed everything to high prices for oil and gas, and almost nothing to the half-hearted, half-baked reforms coming out of the Kremlin. Many began to think Russian president was a mouse, an over-promoted minor spook who spent his days obsessively reading intelligence reports, but was ignorant of the big picture, and lacking the drive and vision needed to run a country as huge and troubled as Russia. Mr Putin might be good at appearing on television, in elaborately choreographed stunts­flying a fighter plane, whizzing down ski slopes, hurling opponents across a judo mat. He certainly seemed to enjoy them­what a contrast to his humble origins as a scrawny, bullied youngster from a hard-up family living in a rundown communal apartment in Soviet Leningrad. But many felt that real power surely lay elsewhere, with the sleazy, wily old-timers inherited from the Yeltsin era.

Certainly Mr Putin's public utterances, or the lack of them, were often mystifying in their quality and quantity. At times of crisis, such as terrorist attacks by Chechen rebels­the direct result, many say, of his regime's brutal policy of reprisals in that breakaway republic­he simply vanishes from public view. When he does speak in public, his remarks have seemed at times astonishingly callous and ill-judged. Asked on live television about the Kursk tragedy, in which 118 Russian submariners perished, Mr Putin shrugged and smirked: "it sank". Speaking about Chechen rebels, he resorted to slang normally heard only in the mouths of gangsters, which could be loosely translated as "if we find them in the shit-house, we'll whack'em in the shit-house".  Criticised at a press conference in Brussels for his harsh policies in Chechnya, he suggested that the offending journalist should undergo ritual castration at the hands of Muslim extremists. At a joint press conference with Mr Blair, he could not resist the temptation to humiliate the British Prime Minister about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "Maybe they're here, under this desk" he sneered. Mr Blair has never trusted him again.

What is really scary about Mr Putin is that despite his undistinguished record in office, his limited intellectual and cultural horizons, and his bullying manner, he has still been able to turn the tables on the people who put him in power. Russia may still be shambolic, but it is a shambles over which he and his team of Kremlin loyalists, mostly from the old KGB, is in undisputed charge. Everyone who has dared challenge or resist Mr Putin's rule has been sidelined, neutralised or humiliated. The Yeltsin advisers are gone. The tycoons are in jail, in exile, or in political purdah. The media is cowed. The opposition parties are shams, run to give the appearance of pluralism to the Russian public and the outside world, but with no chance of taking real power. The once-mighty regional chieftains like Mintimir Shaimiyev of Tatarstan and Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow, who used to run Russias's cities and regions as private fiefs are now, like the central government itself, merely nervous servants who carry out the presidential administration's commands as their predecessors once obeyed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

That is thanks to the way the Russian state works. There is huge power for the man at the top, regardless of whether he is impressive or not. Lenin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Yeltsin all ruled for years as sick men. Mr Putin is the first Russian leader since Peter the Great to have the simple advantages of being punctual, efficient, fit, sober and concise.

Mr Putin's KGB background adds both useful skills, and an aura of intimidating mystery. Even Russians who hated and feared the Soviet secret police have grudging respect for it. It was an organisation that recruited the brightest and toughest people in the country, and gave them excellent training. All KGB officers are trained in target acquisition: gaining a target's cooperation through bribes, flattery or threats­and then bending them to your will. Some joke that Mr Putin's relationship with Mr Schroder is a public example of this.

Privately, Mr Putin seems to enjoy showing off the fruits of his spy networks and their dungeons packed with information. A western newspaper editor who met him was amazed when the Russian leader murmured at the start of the interview, in English, "I hope your wife's mother recovers soon." Not even the editor's closest colleagues knew that his mother-in-law was gravely ill.

Mr Putin also understands the way that corruption both fuels Russia and makes it manageable. When the rules are impossible to observe, everyone is vulnerable. It requires only a phone call from the top and the tax police, special anti-corruption police, anti-racketeering squad and all manner of other menacing, implacable monsters descend on an uncooperative individual, company and organisations. Even the honest cannot hope to escape the government inspectors: they will always find something. Such arbitrary rule is inefficient­but Russia's oil and gas wealth makes it affordable.

In short: Mr Putin is neither a magician, nor a mouse. But he increasingly looks like a monster. He has unleashed the two most sinister forces of the Soviet past: the totalitarian habits of the security services, and the imperialist urge that lies deep in the Russian psyche. Put politely, he wants the Russian state to be strong at home and abroad. Put crudely, he is trying to recreate an empire reminiscent of the Soviet Union: feared by its own people and its neighbours in equal measure.

The big question now for Russia and the world is what happens next.
The bullying of the former captive nations seems set to continue: the latest spat about gas has illustrated that rich Europe is unwilling or unable to protect the east European countries that are captives of the Russian gas monopoly. The slide away from democracy is continuing too. Here 2008 will be decisive, when, according to the Russian constitution, Mr Putin should step down as his second term in office ends. Few believe that he, like his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, will step gracefully away from power in return for immunity against prosecution for him and his family. Some smart money bets that he will leave a puppet figure in the Kremlin, and move over to Gazprom, the hugely powerful Russian gas monopoly. Others think he will change the constitution. Or he may create a new country, a union of Russia and Belarus, and become president of that.

But one thing is clear and scary. The world may still know very little about the prickly little ex-spy who now runs Russia. But it is going to be hearing about him for a long time to come.

Display:
Nice piece of propaganda.


It's well written, it's irreverent, it's sharply critical of Putin's Russia (but not disrespectful) - a lot more so than his articles printed in the Economist -, but is it anti-Russian?

Well, among other things. Namely, assuming that Russians would not know which leader is good for them and invoking old tired myth of imperialist urges.

by blackhawk on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 10:41:44 AM EST
Agreed, blackhawk.

If you cannot tell from a cursory reading that this is anti-Russian, well...

He makes sweeping generalizations about the Russian state based on personal experience with his neighbors bulldozing a "disused airfield", which apparently is used by his kids to ride their bikes.


Secondly, the Putin "dacha" or "cottage" (it was about the size of Sandringham) was built at amazing speed and great secrecy on a disused airfield at the edge of our village. That infuriated my sons, who were learning to ride bicycles there. It also illustrated an important point about the way the Russian state works. It may be corrupt, lethargic, and stunningly incompetent in general. But when the man at the top wants something done, it happens fast and ruthlessly.

My neighborhood has been trying to put in sidewalks for the past couple of years.  To do this, we need the unanimous approval of everyone living there.  Two households are still witholding their approval.  Both are older couples who say, "We don't want sidewalks.  If we put them in, we'll have crazy skate-boarding punks passing our house all the time."  In the same situation, Lucas would invariably infer that all Americans are anti-youth.

by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 11:26:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Anti-russian means

  1. Unfavorable to the Russian state.

  2. Negative about the leadership of the Russian state.

  3. Negative about the Russian people.

You see, I'd tend to choose (3). I suspect you might choose (1),(2) and (3).

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 11:31:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
All of your choices come down to the same thing in a democracy.  The people choose the state and the people can remove a leader whom they no longer trust to run their affairs.
by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 11:50:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In an ideal world, maybe. In a world of mass media controlled by the people who are running the place and people too busy to fight through the information, no. And there's nothing stopping the people mistakenly trusting a thief and a liar. Happens all the time.

You're proposing that criticising Bush is anti-American, that criticising Blair is anti-British and that criticising Chirac is anti-French.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 11:56:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]

You're proposing that criticising Bush is anti-American, that criticising Blair is anti-British and that criticising Chirac is anti-French.

No, just the opposite actually.  I'm proposing that each one of the peoples you mention bear a certain measure of responsibility for the leaders they have.

by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 12:02:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, a certain measure which depends on how close to some sort of ideal democracy the state is.

But to say that criticising the leader of the state is the same as criticising the people of the state is naive. Blair wasn't reelected because the British public approved of his stance in Iraq, he was reelected because there was no viable alternative on offer. When I call Blair an arrogant liar I'm not anti-British, I'm anti-Blair. When someone criticises Putin he's not anti-Russian, he's anti-Putin. He may feel it was a mistake for the Russian people to appoint Putin, but that's another matter entirely. That doesn't make him anti-Russian. I'm not arguing whether the author quoted above is pro- or anti-Russian by the way, just the more general point.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 12:21:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Granted.


I'm not arguing whether the author quoted above is pro- or anti-Russian by the way, just the more general point.

I'd be curious to hear your opinion, though.

by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 12:27:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Certainly anti-Putin, not very nice to the Russian establishment. I wouldn't have said anti-Russian exactly, though some of the "even Russians who ..." are certainly borderline.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 12:40:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We don't generally assume the Americans or the Irish or the French know which leader is best for them. Democracy is not magic.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 11:32:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Генсек НАТО допускает вступление Украины в альянс в 2008 году

9 января 2006 года, 16:37

Брюссель. 9 января. ИНТЕРФАКС-УКРАИ& #1053;А - Генеральный секретарь НАТО Яап де Хооп Схеффер назвал Украину в числе стран, которые могут войти в следующую волну расширения альянса в 2008 году.

Выступая перед журналистами в понедельник в Брюсселе, он отметил, что НАТО особое внимание уделяет 2008 году, когда состоится следующий после 2006 года саммит. "Мы ожидаем, что страны-кандидат& #1099; с западных Балкан могут присоединиться к альянсу, но срок вступления связан с практическими достижениями, а не со сроком проведения саммита. Это в полной мере касается и других стран-кандидато& #1074;, в том числе и Украины", -сказал он.

Вместе с тем, генсек альянса в очередной раз подчеркнул, что перспектива членства зависит от самой Украины. "Ключ находится в Киеве", -сказал он.

No time to translate now, but this is addressed to Jerome (who can read it).  In a previous thread he asserted that NATO does not want Ukraine to join.

by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 12:24:31 PM EST
The secretary general of NATO supposes the introduction of Ukraine into an alliance per 2008
On January, 9th, 2006, 16:37

Bruxelles. On January, 9th. ?????????-????? and *1053; And - the Secretary general of NATO Jaap ?? ???? ??????? has named Ukraine among the countries which can enter into a following wave of expansion of an alliance per 2008.

Addressing to journalists on Monday in Bruxelles, it has noted, that the NATO gives special attention 2008 when the summit following 2006 takes place. " We expect, that the countries-candidates and *1099; from the western Balkans can join an alliance, but term of the introduction is connected with practical achievements, instead of with for carrying out of the summit. It to the full concerns also other countries-????????? and *1074;, including Ukraine ", it-has told.

At the same time, the secretary general of an alliance has once again emphasized, that the prospect of membership depends on the Ukraine. " The key is in Kiev ", it-has told.

Courtesy of this service.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 12:30:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He says that for the Balkan countries, the decision to bring them in in principle is taken, but actual membership will depend on objective achievements, whereas for Ukraine, the principle itself of bringing them in needs to be decided upon.

And that's about candidate States. So NATO is reacting to requests from countries, and is saying that by no means the decision that Ukraine should join is taken.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 02:30:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Mark Ames begins his latest article like this:

The Putin regime's moves to tighten controls over foreign NGOs is being portrayed in the West as yet another example of Russia's savage authoritarianism and anti-Western paranoia. While only a drunken apologist could deny Putin's authoritarianism, the real question is whether or not the crackdown on NGOs is a symptom of classic tyrant-paranoia, or if it has a valid basis.

Damn.  I think every journalist should adopt that format!  

As for being "anti-Russia," it is not the content but Lucas' tone that irks me.  World leaders, even the crummiest, are rarely described as "scary" or "monsters" by the press.  Hell, it took 5 years for the international media to even begin to suggest that maybe Bush is a nut.

Read the following and note the tone.

The bullying of the former captive nations seems set to continue: the latest spat about gas has illustrated that rich Europe is unwilling or unable to protect the east European countries that are captives of the Russian gas monopoly. The slide away from democracy is continuing too. Here 2008 will be decisive, when, according to the Russian constitution, Mr Putin should step down as his second term in office ends. Few believe that he, like his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, will step gracefully away from power in return for immunity against prosecution for him and his family. Some smart money bets that he will leave a puppet figure in the Kremlin, and move over to Gazprom, the hugely powerful Russian gas monopoly. Others think he will change the constitution. Or he may create a new country, a union of Russia and Belarus, and become president of that.

But one thing is clear and scary. The world may still know very little about the prickly little ex-spy who now runs Russia. But it is going to be hearing about him for a long time to come.

Now change the topic to Bush, and here is the standard tone one would expect to find:

The conflict in the Middle East seems set to continue ... Some Democrats suggest the slide away from democracy is continuing too. Here 2008 will be decisive, when, according to the US constitution, Mr Bush must step down as his second term in office ends. Few believe that he will step gracefully away from power in return for immunity against prosecution for him and his family. The Washington insiders say that he will leave an ally in the White house, and take a job at Halliburton, the US contracting company. Others think he will change the constitution. Or he may create a new company and become head of that.

But one thing is clear. The world may still know very little about the ex-governor who now runs America. But it is going to be hearing about him for a long time to come.

See the difference?  Is Lucas "irreverent"?  Perhaps.  And I do like irreverent.  But is he purposefully irreverent?  Like Hunter Thompson, Chris Hitchens irreverent, where the irreverence is actually medium used to drive home a point that might be otherwise lost, as an idicator that the journalist is consciously committing an act of rebellion against journalistic norms, etc.?  No.  This author is not saying anything new or dangerous. This is just about colorful prose.  Colorful in a way not normally seen in the media when covering Bush, Blair, etc.  Because a bit of hyperbole here, a bit of irreverance there, a bit of patronizing there, is ok when talking about Russia.  Why?  Debate for another day and I won't say Russia doesn't encourage it.  

Hope this answers your question.


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 03:19:27 PM EST
Hell, it took 5 years for the international media to even begin to suggest that maybe Bush is a nut.

What part of the international media do you read?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 03:53:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I had the BBC in mind when I made that comment.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 03:59:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The BBC was the first to report the stolen election in 2000.  You could easily argue it was the first source to figure it out.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:11:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you missed my point.  

I was discussing the media's usage of hyperbolic charicature to describe world leaders (ok for Putin, not ok for Bush).  Not whether or not they were reporting the facts...  

Ok, I don't think the BBC has called Bush a "nut."  But they've become a bit less guarded and polite lately.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:35:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I had the BBC in mind when I made that comment.

But then the BBC won't describe Putin like that guy you quoted, would it? (Not that the BBC is unbiased.) For some other examples - the Guardian ran Steve Bell's cartoons with chimpanzee Bush from the start, German DER SPIEGEL used to have a cover in 2002 with all leading members of the Bush admin dressed as comics superheroes. In fact I used to battle some Americans on the internet at the time who took patriotic offense at Europeans' view that their President is an idiot. (The irony of which of course was that that view was already shared by quite few Americans.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 05:05:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As I said, saying that Putin is no worse than Bush is not saying much - it just goes to show how we have all fallen.

Hell, we have supermenteur as president ourselves ("superliar" is one of Chirac's nicknames in France), a man who should be in jail and has done nothing of his more than 10 years in power except act as the Secretary of Agriculture he was in the 60s.

Blair, Berlusconi, Barroso, Bah!

What's wrong with all of us that we all get such terrible leaders? Do we really deserve them, collectively?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:14:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
saying that Putin is no worse than Bush is not saying much

Not sure what that has to do with my comment, but I agree.

And, well, uhm, some here have suggested you are our leader (a bit overzealous for me, but a charming idea.)  
Do you think we deserve you? ;)

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:40:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Have a care now, or it'll be reeducation for you. Forty verses of "Hail Glorious Maximum Leader" three times a day.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:52:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This wasn't published in the mainstream media.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:53:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I see why this didn't get published.

Big, mean Putin infuriated his kids by stealing their  playground in a "fast and 'ruthless' manner.

Bad Putin.

He makes a few points but overall it's a pretty lame piece. I forwarded it on to Chris (Moscow Times) to see if he has any comments on it.

His take on the gas crisis is a little different.

RK.

Atlantic Free Press

by ghandi (expatforums@gmail.com) on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 07:32:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't find this to be even remotely anti-Russian.  This is a journalist who is clearly frightened by what he has seen.  You can disagree with his assessment, tell the rest of us (who don't live in Russia and don't have the background information to speak intelligently on its politics) that he's full of shit, but these are his experiences.  If anything, the writer seems like a person who had high hopes for Russian democracy, and who is warning that it is failing to materialize, due to a group of thugs and crony-capitalists controlling the Kremlin.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 03:24:25 PM EST
Any journalism school alumni in the room?  I'd like to hear their take.  My attempt at media criticism 101 went over like a lead balloon.  (Perhaps the reason why I'm not teaching...)

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 04:43:49 PM EST
that what I posted was NOT published anywhere. This is much closer to what that journalist thinks that what he gets through in his magazine.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 06:01:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are correct, and I was thinking more about his being a former correspondent for The Economist (which I read in the Dr.'s waiting room and inevitably end up even more ill by the time I am seen...) rather than the fact that the article was not published by The Economist or any other widely read publication (though was accessable via JRL).  

I am curious. What was the purpose of this piece?

And I think you just might be shocked by what "gets through" on the nightly news in America.  Op-ed is considerably more prevalent than the facts.  And forget serious investigative journalism.  So perhaps that is why I read this and felt it sounded just like every other piece I've heard on Russia...

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 06:16:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, he has been posting regularly his unofficial take on Russian events (in addition to his "real" articles). I've found them interesting - and they have also spurred pretty vigorous debate on JRL, with various scholars or journalists telling him that he was full of shit. I'll check my archives, I may have saved some exchanges.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 06:30:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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
[ Parent ]
He has obviously been wrong on how successful Putin would be in some of his tasks, and how popular he has turned out to be, but he has been pretty accurate on other things, and his analysis of how "the West" analyses things is not far off the mark.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 06:39:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
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.

Really?

Agree with the mysterious (and DoDo thought the BBC was better than that...) and nasty part.  But I think we stopped pretending it was going to be alright almost decade ago.  And that last part! Ack!  The Western "misunderstanding" that the Russians know best what to do with their country?  I find that to be niether the trend, nor a "misunderstanding" ...  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 06:50:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
poemless,

Jerome seems to think highly of this moron.

Разве так возможно прочитав эту дрянь наверху?

by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 07:01:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Разве так возможно прочитав эту дрянь наверху?

Vosmajnio prachitat => to be able to read I think
So I guess this means "how can anyone read such a thing?" or something along those lines, or maybe "how did you manage to read through that stuff"

How far off am I?

Do I get a candy bar? :))

by Alex in Toulouse on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 07:24:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ce n'est pas mal, mais ce n'est pas correct aussi.

Peut etre les autres peuvent offrir une meillure traduction...

My French is obviously not the greatest either.

by slaboymni on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 08:22:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, Jerome is an international man of mystery.  Who knows how his mind works?

But I suspect he values the piece for its entertainment value.  And respects a fellow rabble-rouser...  And I don't know if I'd call it trash.  Maybe silly, opinionated, unproductive.  But apparently it was meant to be...

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 12:54:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Few more quotes from from quick googling of Lucas are below. It's even funny to read his dire predictions on Russia in 2000/2001. To me he looks patented Russophobe, consistently highly negative of Russia.


Edward Lucas: The sick party line on Eastern Europe

Twice at parties in the last week I've found myself gasping for breath. Each time I was chatting to pillars of the right-wing British establishment, solid Cold Warriors with whom I used to agree about the big questions of Europe's future - America in, Germans down, Russia out - and so forth.

This comment regarding Lucas's Economist 2001 Russia survey is spot on:


New Russia survey dishes out an old, tired tale

...
The reaction to the report in the audience was, predictably, negative, and probably best summarized by panelist and economist Vladimir Mau, who said that while he admired Lucas' writing immensely, he could not reconcile the country being surveyed with the one he lives in.

...
In fact, when I finished reading the survey the only conclusion I could draw is that Russia today was not the survey's focus. The real story in its midst was Lucas himself: his deep-seated anxiety, cynicism, frustration and tiredness with the country.

by blackhawk on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 01:51:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The first link continues:

But Euroscepticism is corroding those comforting and commendable certainties. One of my pals, a newspaper editor, interrupted me as I praised the flat-taxes and other reforms sweeping across Europe from the new member states. "Oh, I'm not interested in that now. I'm for a pull-out." In vain I tried to explain that the Central Europeans and Balts would regard his idea of a new EFTA - backed by NATO - as dotty and unworkable. The constitution had failed, he insisted, so the EU was dead.

Two days later it was one of Britain's leading right-wing polemicists, a man who as speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher honed some of the choicest phrases of the Cold War. I was trying to interest him in the problems of Europe's eastern fringes, so brilliantly outlined by my predecessor, Robert Cottrell, in his recent survey in The Economist.

He wasn't interested. The EU would collapse, and Britain should pull out as soon as possible. But what, I stuttered, would you do about Moldova, or Belarus? "Those countries," he replied loftily, "will have to look after themselves." I could hardly believe my ears. A man who, only 20 years previously, had championed the captive nations' right to be free of Soviet rule was now consigning the most vulnerable victims of Communism to the scrap heap of history.

There is something very odd going on here. Britain and British ideas of a wide, Atlanticist Europe have never been so popular in Eastern Europe. Memories of betrayals, real or imagined, of Munich, of the Warsaw Uprising, at Yalta, of the Cossacks, of Hungarians in 1956 and Czechoslovaks in 1968, are fading into history. Instead, there is enthusiastic support for British ideas about EU reform, for Tony Blair's ideas about deregulation, dynamism, flexibility and so on. Countries wanting to join the EU see the British presidency as their big chance.

Gosh.

This guy is a fruitcake and an astute observer at the same time.

He is right on the non-collapse of the EU, and that Atlanticist Europe has not been so popular in Central-Eastern Europe (BTW note how he calles the latter Eastern Europe and excludes Russia from Europe). But the rest... Tory elitism and Atlanticist self-blinding and a subconscious imperial arrogance at the same time.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 06:36:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been reading these diaries with a good degree of interest over the past few days.

First off, none of the discussion about Putin's rise take into account the situation Russia found itself in the '90s, after the botched "shock therapy" transition away from Communism. I remember reading at the time numerous stories about the collapse of Russian civil society: soaring drug problems, organized crime, people not being paid wages for months, even years. In this context, I was expecting Russia to collapse, revert to Communism, or to some kind of nasty neo-fascism.

Now certainly, Putin is not an especially enlightened or democratic leader. But none of the three worse case scenarios have emerged because he is clearly a very skilled leader and was able to stabilize Russian society in a way that seemed anything but likely in say, 1998. There is a reason he is very popular within Russia.He is also essentially non-ideological, which strikes me as positive as well. He is a nationalist, but so what? The Russian people have imperial ambitions. But so what? So to do the Americans, the French, the British.

If Westerners want to complain about Putin's rise, they have to be realistic about the nature of the Russian society that enabled his rise - and indeed, their complicity, through their large role in the botched transition from communism - as well as the likely alternatives - none of which strike me as better than Putin, and probably most of them are much, much worse. Both for Russians and for the world more genrally.

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Mon Jan 9th, 2006 at 07:05:31 PM EST
The Russian people have imperial ambitions. But so what? So to do the Americans, the French, the British.

Sorry but this looks like nice patting on the back among imperialists from a non-Brit-nor-American-nor-Russian-nor-French.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 06:37:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Date: Mon, 9 Jan 2006
From: "Paul Starobin" <PStarobin@nationaljournal.com>

I wonder if followers of JRL would agree that, as I sense, we are at the dawn of a new era of Russo-phobia in the West? I take the Ukraine gas episode as a case in point. Yes, it can be argued that this is an instance of Kremlin bullying. But it can also be argued that surely a West-leaning Ukraine cannot expect Russia to subsidize its gas supplies. That point, however, is mostly glossed over in Western coverage. My own particular concern is that Kremlin-phobia or Putin-phobia­a measure of which iis justified, given the track record of the Putin regime"is in danger of turning into Russo-phobia. Thus Edward Lucas, in JRL #2006, is not content with saying that Putin "increasingly looks like a monster." He goes on to say that Putin has unleashed "the imperialist urge that lies deep in the Russian psyche." I don't know quite what to make of this kind of political-Jungian analysis. If something like a collective "imperialist urge" can be said to exist, is it absent from other nations' psyches? (The Germans? The British? The Americans?) Whatever might be said of the Russian national psyche it strikes me that we are back at a familiar and unsatisfying place for Western observers of the Russians: We want to like '"them," and we would like them, if they were more like us, but they somehow insist on being more like themselves. And so "they" provoke our fear. When it comes to our view of Russia, must we always be looking through the glass, darkly?

Best,
Paul Starobin
Contributing editor, Atlantic Monthly
Moscow bureau chief, Business Week, 1999-2003



In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 10:10:25 AM EST

From: "Robert Harneis" <r.harneis@wanadoo.fr>
Subject: VLADIMIR PUTIN MAGICIAN MOUSE OR MONSTER?
Date: Mon, 9 Jan 2006

Permit me to comment on 'Vladimir Putin. Magician, Mouse or Monster' by Edward Lucas, who ought to know his Russia. He writes,"Mr Putin is the first Russian leader since Peter the Great to have thesimple advantages of being punctual, efficient, fit, sober and concise."

He seems to have overlooked Catherine the Great, who did pretty well and reportedly often walked ten miles a day. As I understand it Peter the Great was not terrible famous for sobriety. More serioulsy he seems unable to grasp that attempting to re-establish strategic positions recklessly abandoned by his predecessors is not only normal but inevitable. The Russians are agressive he says but it is the United States that now entirely funds the Georgian army and is desperate to rush the Ukraine into NATO. How does he think the USA would react if the Russians constantly stirred up trouble in the former Mexican possessions in the south west of the United States? In addition it would help if he and others did not consistently refer to the Soviet Union and Russia as if they were one and the same thing.

Robert Harneis
European Correspondent



In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 10:12:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice to hear a voice of reason...

(Has he been reading ET?)

BTW, there was an interesting (and admittedly quite anti-Putin) article in the last Atlantic about Kasparov (yes, the chess player) mounting some opposition movement to challenge Putin.  Worth a read, but I don't think it is online yet.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 12:45:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Politically Kasparov is Russia's Fischer. I don't think he has much of a chance.
by blackhawk on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 02:04:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, he has no plans to run.  He's just going around setting up town hall-type meetings and drumming up support for democratic reforms.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 02:22:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, well, well.  That comment, coming from "contributing editor, Atlantic Monthly", just after AM put one of the most blistering pieces regarding Russia behind their subscription firewall:

Russia Is Finished: The unstoppable descent of a once great power into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance, by Jeffrey Tayler, Atlantic Monthly, May 2001.

If Starobin is serious about his position, he should arrange to put one the sharpest ctitiques of Russia, published by his own magazine, in front of the firewall where it's been for years.  Or arrange for permission to publish it where the world can still see it.

-----

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The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
W. Churchill

by US expat Ukraine on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 06:40:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Copy of the article can be found here: Russia Is Finished

Also noted downthread.

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The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
W. Churchill

by US expat Ukraine on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 09:09:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
(Sorry, the full title of the piece won't fit into the limits of subject titles here.)

Jerome's question was whether or not the article is anti-Russian.  In my opinion, no.  It's merely honest.

The title of the piece leads in a somewhat different direction, and poses a separate set of questions.

Russia is not rich.  A few people are.

Russia is powerful only insofar as energy and nuclear threats are taken into account.  Otherwise, Russia is a second-world country, a wannabe, and a black joke as this year's head of G-8.  

Russia is not unpredictable, if Russia =  Kremlin, which = KGB and all that goes with the Chekist tradition.

Russia is malicious, if Russia = Kremlin.  If "reduced" to Russian people,  no.  Most Russians I've ever met are among the nicest, kindest, gentlest, and most decent people I've ever met.  Unfortunately, they are not "Russia" as represented in international contexts.

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The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
W. Churchill

by US expat Ukraine on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 05:48:36 PM EST

 Most Russians I've ever met are among the nicest, kindest, gentlest, and most decent people I've ever met.

I'll support that heartily (although I would say "Most Russians I have known rather than "met")

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 06:18:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...although I would say "Most Russians I have known rather than "met"

Would "known" be in the Biblical sense?  Not to be snarky/snarkish/snarkful or whatever the pseudo-word is, nor meaning to split hairs unduly.  In any case, among those I've met and/or known, however that's interpreted, they are wonderful, decent, gracious and generous people.  So much so, in fact, that I've seriously come to doubt the adage that people get the government they deserve.

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The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
W. Churchill

by US expat Ukraine on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 10:51:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Offshoot from upthread.

Russia Is Finished

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The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.
W. Churchill

by US expat Ukraine on Tue Jan 10th, 2006 at 09:13:47 PM EST
This article was translated into Russian on inosmi.ru. Readers' reaction is here (in Russian).
by blackhawk on Thu Jan 12th, 2006 at 09:16:06 AM EST


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