Rule of Law in russia

In my latest article for RT, which you can read here, I discuss Russia’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, and the possibility that Russia will quit the Council of Europe so as to withdraw itself from the court’s jurisdiction. I argue that it would be a shame if Russia did decide to do this. The evidence does not suggest that the court is biased against Russia, and many Russians have benefitted from it being there to protect their rights. I suggest that,

The problem with a number of Russian leaders, throughout history, is that they have tended to want to make their subordinates accountable to the law, while at the same time not wanting the same accountability to apply to themselves.

I conclude that Russian president Vladimir Putin should avoid going down the same path himself.

Of course, many people think that he went down that path long ago, and I was interested to see a couple of pieces this week that also address issues of the rule of law in Russia.

The first is an NBC News interview with exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In this Khodorkovsky says, ‘Putin is a typical mafia godfather, a typical head of a crime syndicate.’

The second is a piece in Meduza that discusses liberal economic reform during Putin’s first presidency, and in particular the role of two important officials, Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref. The article reports the following:

Kudrin and Gref pushed for new things like a tax of mineral mining. According to Gref, major oil companies were not happy with the proposal. He says that a representative of the company Yukos approached him on the night before the new law was to be discussed by the Duma and told him that they’d made an agreement with all of the deputies. As a result, the ministers were given a choice: they could either not take the proposal to parliament, or they could ‘be taken out [feet first]’. … Gref called Kudrin and found out that he’d also been visited and threatened. … In the end the legislation failed miserably.

So, who was it who owned this oil company, Yukos, which suborned parliamentary deputies and threatened senior officials? Well, golly gosh, it was none other than Khodorkovsky, the same man who accuses Putin of being a ‘mafia godfather.’

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

Continue reading Imperial Waste

WAtching the Disinformation Watchers

The Roman poet Juvenal was a curmudgeonly old sod. Rome was going to the dogs, he thought. Things were better in the good old days, when men were men, people had a sense of duty, and there was an all round understanding of the importance of public morality. Foreigners, women, homosexuals – you mention it, Juvenal disliked it (one has to wonder if it’s still permissible to get students to read him nowadays). He also wasn’t too fond of soldiers, and in his final (incomplete) satire complained that it was impossible to get redress against them. ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ (‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’) he asked, and never has a more pertinent question be posed.

As I’ve mentioned before, the fight against alleged Russian disinformation, electoral ‘meddling’, and so on, has led to the creation of a large and well-funded disinformation industry devoted to controlling what the rest of us can read and hear, in accordance with the industry’s own understanding of reality. Canada, where I live, now has its own branch of the industry in the form of an organization called Disinfowatch, which is reported to be funded by the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the US government.

So, who watches Disinfowatch?

Continue reading WAtching the Disinformation Watchers

Amnesty, and the Failure of the Navalny REvolution

I don’t like spending too much time on the story of Alexei Navalny. For all of its personal drama and tragedy, ultimately, I suspect, it will end up being a mere footnote in history. Basically, as I see it, Navalny is a political dead end, not the paradigm changing revolutionary that so many in the hack pack believe him to be.

That said, people seem to expect me to churn out Navalny stories, so in response to the demand, I have written a couple.

The first, which you can find on the website of the Centre for International Policy Studies here, is a fairly basic survey of the whole Navalny saga, and explains why, in my opinion, his return to Russia and subsequent arrest has not sparked the mass political turmoil that so many pundits were expecting.

The second article, which is on RT here, looks at Amnesty International’s decision to stop referring to Navalny as a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ I point out that the decision makes little sense given that a) the hate speech Amnesty refers to is not relevant to Navalny’s imprisonment, and b) Amnesty continues to insist that Navalny’s jailing is political. The message seems to be that we only deem people ‘prisoners of conscience’ if we happen to like them. I conclude that this is a bad precedent.

Enjoy!

The Sad Decline of the Spectator (and Why so Many of its Contributors Now Write for RT)

Oh Speccie, my Speccie, what happened to you?

I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the weird contradictions of current Western reporting is the fact that it simultaneously maintains that Russia is a) the chief worldwide spreader of anti-vaccination propaganda, and b) devilishly undermining the world by trying to persuade people of the merits of its Sputnik-V anti-covid vaccine. Those damn Russians – anti-vax and pro-vax all at the same time!

Continue reading The Sad Decline of the Spectator (and Why so Many of its Contributors Now Write for RT)

Lipstick on a Pig, British-Style: Or Why the UK’s Anti-Russian Propaganda Campaign is Bound to Fail

In his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia British journalist Angus Roxburgh details the time he spent working as a public relations consultant for the Russian government. The problem he confronted, he writes, is that the Russians felt that negative fallout from any type of bad news, or bad behaviour, could be avoided if the news was given the appropriate media spin. He kept telling them that if they insisted on doing x or y, it would look bad regardless of how it was spun, while they insisted that as a PR guy it was up to him to make it look good nevertheless. In essence, Roxburgh says, the Russians never understood that if you put lipstick on a pig, everyone will still see that it’s a pig.

It’s a fair enough point, and I couldn’t help thinking of it when reading news this past week of a big dump of leaked documents showing how the British government has been spending millions of pounds on supporting anti-Kremlin journalists, media organizations, youtubers and other influencers both in Russia and its near abroad (especially the Baltic states).

The leaked documents consist of instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to companies wanting to bid for contracts to supervise the media campaign, as well as various bids drawn up by companies hoping to win the contracts. You can find some of the details in an article by Kit Klarenburg on RT as well as on the Moon of Alabama blog.

The latter goes out of its way to portray this as a campaign of British subversion targeted against Russia. Strictly speaking, nothing in the documents says that. Rather, the FCO couches its language in terms of training journalists, overcoming disinformation, improving the quality of reporting, raising journalistic ethics, and so on. Who can argue with any of that? On the surface, it’s all fine and dandy, though perhaps a bit patronising, as there’s an underlying assumption that Russians are incapable of high quality, ethically sound reporting, whereas the UK (home of the Sun, the Daily Express, and the like) knows all about that sort of thing and can teach those poor benighted Russians how to do things properly.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and it’s clear that something is not quite as innocent as the FCO would like to make it out. Particularly striking was a statement that British funds have been used to set up a network of Russian youtubers while also helping them avoid having to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’, as required by Russian law. It’s hard to see how the Brits will be able to explain that to the Russians as not constituting interference in domestic affairs and aiding and abetting people to break the law.

Likewise, it’s difficult to say how one can describe positively the news that the FCO-funded Zink Network has been working with the Latvia-based Meduza and other media outlets, holding “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets”, “adjusting their editorial and commercial strategy accordingly” and creating “common framings of issues.” It will be interesting to see how Meduza from now on rebuffs the accusation that it’s acting as an arm of the British government (I imagine that it just won’t bother trying).

I’m not going to go into all the details – you can read them yourselves, if you want. Instead, I feel it useful to mention a couple of points which these documents raised in my mind.

The first is that what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘disinformation industry’ (i.e. the industry devoted to combatting alleged Russian disinformation) is big business. There’s millions of pounds to be made in this. And nobody’s going to get any of that money by playing down the Russian threat.

The second is that it is all utterly pointless, even counterproductive. This sort of thing has a tendency to become public knowledge – as it now has – and when it does, it looks bad. In the process, it taints all and every anti-government source of information in Russia as the agent of hostile foreign states, even when they’re not. In this way, schemes like this actually end up playing into the hands of the Kremlin, justifying its claims that Russia is under attack from the West.

Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if somehow this great media campaign convinced huge numbers of people to change their view of the world. But I don’t see any evidence that it does. One of the leaked documents has the following to say about the Baltic states:

Especially amongst 40+ populations there is a lower level of trust in both the domestic and international media amongst Russian-speaking populations. There is the strong perception that the Baltic states’ Russian TV and radio programmes favour a Baltic perspective rather than reflect the Russian minority’s perspectives. There is also a degree of mistrust in the authorities especially around citizenship and language.

Returning to Mr Roxburgh, the correct solution to this, it seems to me, would be to address the policies that cause the mistrust, and also to start reflecting the Russians’ perspectives in your programming. But that’s not what the FCO plan wants to do. It assumes that the current policies and perspectives are fine; they just need some decent PR to sell them better. So, keep on churning out the same old line, just train some people to do it more professionally.

In short, paint some lipstick on the pig. But as the quote above shows, the reason Russians are listening to the message isn’t because the pig is ugly, but because it’s a pig. Making it a nicely painted British pig isn’t going to help in the slightest.

Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:

I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.

I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.

The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.

Continue reading Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Debating the ‘New Ethical Reich’.

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss an inflammatory manifesto published this week in the liberal Russian newspaper Novaia Gazeta by the highly respected theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov (also well known as husband of the socialite and one-time presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak). Along the way, I also mention an article by journalist Dmitry Gubin (who has a show on the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station). (If you read Russian and want to read the originals of Bogomolov’s and Gubin’s articles, they are here and here, though Gubin’s is behind a paywall).

Gubin’s piece is an extreme but not unrepresentative example of Russian liberal thought. Its essential message is that the West is great, Russia sucks, and the Russian people have a backward and slavish mentality. “If you gave the people freedom it would turn America into atomic dust, bring back the death penalty, and lock up the liberasts, and anyone who’s very intelligent, in prison,” Gubin writes.

Bogomolov’s piece, on the other hand, is something of a stab in the back of Russian liberalism – or at least that’s how I describe it in my article. The idea that Russia should emulate the West is pretty much at the core of Russian liberalism. But rather than praising the West, Bogomolov lays into it as a “New ethical Reich” that has established a totalitarianism that tries to enforce total compliance not just of what people say but also of what they feel. Using some highly offensive language, Bogomolov complains that “the Nazis have given way to an equally aggressive mix of queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths, who have an equal desire to totally transform society.” “We have ended up in the tail end of a mad train, steaming to a hell where we will be met by multicultural gender neutral devils,” he concludes, adding that Russia needs to get off the European train and instead create a “new rightwing ideology.”

In my article I paint this as something deeply reactionary, and remark that it could easily have come out of the pen of someone like the far-right thinker Alexander Dugin. And so it could have, more or less. It very much gives the impression that Bogomolov has gone over to the dark side. It’s quite remarkable that such a piece could be published in Novaia Gazeta.

But since writing my article, a different explanation of Bogomolov’s manifesto has occurred to me. Bogomolov and Sobchak, someone told me, have reputations as libertarians, so rather than a conservative piece, his manifesto could be seen as a libertarian one.

How?

Well, the ultra-conservative really hates what Bogomolov calls “queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths”, but one could argue that what Bogomolov really hates is something different: namely, he hates being told that he can’t say that he hates them. Citing the novel Clockwork Orange, he argues that the beast within the human needs expression. “I demand the right to be obnoxious,” “I demand to be allowed to be a hoodlum,” is what he appears to be saying.

You might say that that’s not any better, and you’d be right, but it is possibly slightly different. It is, in essence, an extreme form of liberalism, interpreted as denying any form of positive liberty and instead insisting on a very narrow interpretation of negative liberty that gives people the right to do any damn thing they please. If Bogomolov had truly gone over to the conservatives, he’d starting talking of moral values. Instead, he complains that ethics are an inconvenience that get in the way of people’s freedom. The fact that the West is trying to enforce some ethical standards is proof that it’s really just Nazism 2.0.

Frankly, I can’t agree with this, and having read both their articles, I didn’t come away feeling overly fond of either Gubin or Bogomolov. No doubt they have other wonderful qualities, but the forms of liberalism they seem to promote are not my own.

There was once, a long time ago in the late nineteenth century, a type of Russian liberalism that did rest on some sort of transcendental moral values, even if this was perhaps the purview of a minority of so-called ‘Idealists’ within the liberal community. This intellectual trend took inspiration in part from the writings of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov who moved beyond negative liberty to demand that societies provide their citizens with the minimum required for a dignified existence, and that they treat their citizens decently.

When liberalism re-emerged in Russia out of the dust of the Soviet Union, this sort of thinking seems to have largely failed to re-emerge with it. Instead, the libertarian, laissez-faire, ‘screw other people, I have the right to do what I please,’ variant won the day. Bit by bit, its negative effects convinced people that another approach is needed. So when Bogomolov says that he wants to return to the Europe that used to be, not the Europe that is, it seems to me that perhaps what he’s lamenting is the loss of the libertine days of the wild 90s, when anything went, no matter how outrageous.

I don’t know if this is a more accurate explanation of Bogomolov’s motives than the one that says that he’s gone over to the side of the conservatives. I just put it out there as a possibility. Maybe the reality is some strange combination of libertarianism and conservatism. It would be interesting to hear what you all think. Regardless, his manifesto is causing quite a stir in intellectual circles, and with good reason.

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