Striking back

On more than one occasion I have complained about the all-too prevalent habit of smearing people as ‘Kremlin proxies’, ‘Russian agents’, and the like, simply because they happen not to share the belief that Russia is at the root of all the political turmoil recently experienced by Western states. As I pointed out in a post last March, this habit reflects a view of the world in which ‘people who disagree … about Russia can’t be doing so be doing so because there are some genuine reasons for a different opinion or because they just have a different conception of their country’s national interests. It must be because they are ‘witting or unwitting agents of influence”.’ However, ‘This is, of course, nonsense. People do what they do for their own reasons, not because the Russian state is directly or indirectly impelling them to do so. And calling people ‘agents of influence’ is indeed defamatory.’

It’s also harmful, both to society as a whole, due to the fact that it suppresses constructive debate on important issues, and to individuals, because of the negative impact such accusations have on those defamed. As I reported last year, one Swede ‘went so far as to declare that, “my life changed”’ as a result of the accusations made against him.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped the flow of statements from individuals, think tanks, and public institutions identifying ‘Russian agents’ and peddlers of Russian disinformation in an effort to put a stop to their allegedly subversive actions. Sometimes these statements consist of direct accusations; other times, they are merely insinuations. Either way, the intent is the same – to blacken the reputation of those accused, to deter similar voices, and to silence opposition. ‘If only genuine purveyors of “disinformation” and “foreign propaganda” were to be caught up in this censorship,’ I wrote last April, ‘one might not be too alarmed. But recent experience has shown that numerous innocent actors have been accused of being foreign “agents of influence,” “proxies,” “Trojan horses,” “extremist conspiracy theorists,” and so on.’

Now, some of these actors are striking back.

Back in October, I recorded how the New York Times attempted to smear Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, telling readers that her platform ‘reminds some Democrats of the narrative pushed by Russian actors during the 2016 presidential campaign’,and that some see her ‘as a useful vector for Russian efforts to sow division within the Democratic Party.’ As I noted, this was ‘smear by insinuation’. Hillary Clinton, however, was more direct .Without actually naming Gabbard, but clearly referring to her, Clinton remarked that the Russians were ‘grooming her [Gabbard] to be the third-party candidate … She’s the favourite of the Russians … she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset, I mean totally’.

Two days ago, Gabbard responded, announcing that she was suing Clinton for $50 million for defamation. As her lawyers put it, ‘she has seen her political and personal reputation smeared and her candidacy intentionally damaged by Clinton’s malicious and demonstrably false remarks’. According to Time magazine, ‘legal experts are split over whether Gabbard can win the case. I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, a similar lawsuit hit Canada this week. For the past year or so, there’s been quite a large campaign to whip up fear of Russian ‘disinformation’, ‘electoral interference’, and the like. This included a think tank report which defamed this blog, a report from the University of Calgary, and late last year yet another report, this time from Communications Security Establishment (CSE – the Canadian equivalent of the NSA and GCHQ). It is this last which has now resulted in legal proceedings.

The CSE document argued that Canada was the target of a cyber campaign undertaken by foreign powers with the purpose of causing ‘reputational damage’ to leading ministers, notably Chrystia Freeland. Although the document was secret, the Global News network somehow or other (a deliberate leak??) got hold of a copy and revealed its content. According to Global News,

The cyber-campaign directed by Russia involved distortions of facts and was timed, targeted and, according to the CSE, ‘pushed the narrative that Freeland’s family immigrated to Canada as part of a wave of Nazi collaborators.

The first attack was a February 2017 report in the ‘online Consortium News’ followed ‘in quick succession’ by pro-Russian English language and Russian-language online media, the CSE report says.

If Global News’s depiction of the report is accurate, then CSE’s analysts are guilty of sloppy work, given that the story about Freeland’s grandfather was actually true and thus did not ‘involve distortion of facts’. But more importantly from Consortium News’ point of view, the statement that Consortium News’ article about Freeland was ‘the first attack’ in a ‘cyber-campaign directed by Russia’ strongly implied that Consortium News was acting on behalf of the Russian state. In fact, it’s quite hard to interpret the two paragraphs above any differently.

Now, like Gabbard, Consortium News has struck back, with lawyers acting on its behalf sending libel notices to both CSE and Global News. Consortium’s editor-in-chief Joe Lauria justified the action by saying that,

The CSE and Global News, with this report, are portraying critical journalism as directed by a foreign power, as if legitimate and indigenous dissent cannot exist on its own.

Their report takes place in the context of a broader campaign by powerful interests to link their critics to Russia as a way of discrediting them and protecting themselves. It is reminiscent of the Cold War campaign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, revived in the 2016 presidential election and persisting, evidently, until today.

It strikes me that these legal cases are a double-edge sword.  If Gabbard and Consortium lose, then no doubt those who like to smear their opponents as Russian assets will feel emboldened to go on doing so. If they lose, however, it may become a whole lot harder. A lot hinges on the outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

And now for the details

Discussing proposed amendments to the Russian constitution a few days ago, I remarked that the devil would be in the details. Well now we have the details. Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin established a 75-person commission to review the constitution, but no soon had it started work than he dispatched a 29-page list of detailed amendments to the Russian parliament for consideration, which makes one wonder what the point of the commission was. Anyway, the proposals (which you can read in Russian here) make for interesting reading, and to some degree confirm my earlier suspicions that there might be rather less to all this than all the hype had led people to believe.

The main thing people have been talking about is Putin’s statement a week ago that the right to appoint the Prime Minister and other members of the Russian government would pass from the president to the State Duma (lower house of parliament). This has been seen as a step towards the creation of a ‘responsible government’ – i.e. a government responsible to parliament. This is not the same as a parliamentary government, and in his speech Putin made it clear that Russia needed to retain a powerful presidency. Yesterday he repeated this thought, saying that due to Russia’s large size and its mix of numerous ethnic and religious groups, parliamentary government was inadvisable and Russia ‘still needs a strong presidential power.’

In fact, as Leonid Bershidsky rightly points out, the proposed constitutional amendments actually augment presidential power in some ways, particularly in terms of the appointment and dismissal of judicial officials. But what is really significant is what the amendments submitted to parliament say about how members of the government will be chosen.

Continue reading And now for the details

Russia reacts

One question I’ve been asked a lot these part couple of days is ‘How have the Russian people reacted to Putin’s proposals to change the country’s constitution?’ If we’re talking about the ordinary Ivan or Elena on the street, it’s hard to say, but according to the polling company VTsIOM, Putin’s popularity rose slightly in the aftermath of his speech, with his approval rating going up from 64 to 67% –  not a huge leap, to be sure, but a sign that people weren’t too unhappy with what he had said. That may, however, have more to do with the other parts of his speech which touched on bread and butter issues. One imagines that these are rather closer to ordinary people’s concerns that issues of constitutional procedure.

The Russian political class, on the other hand, are much exercised by such issues, and so have been making their views well known. The main opposition parties (the Communist (KPFR) and Liberal Democratic (LDPR) parties) were fairly supportive of the constitutional changes. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky declared that, ‘We have long demanded this [amendments to the constitution], and we are pleased that the president has asked the legislative institutions, above all the parliament, to confirm them.’ Zhirinovsky then proposed an additional, typically eccentric, amendment of his own: ‘We should establish a limit: in the outcome of elections, no single party should receive more than 40 percent of the seats in parliament’, he declared, adding that parliament should always be governed by a coalition.

Meanwhile, deputies from the ruling United Russia party, which can be expected to loyally follow Vladimir Putin’s lead, have undertaken an initiative of their own, putting forward a proposal in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, that would ban political parties who receive funding from abroad or who insult Russian statehood. As the newspaper Kommersant reports, ‘The authors explain that the document was conceived “to limit the activity of oppositional parties” carrying out “anti-Russian propaganda abroad”, citing as an example the Yabloko party. Oppositionists consider the legislative proposal repressive”. As well they might. It’s the kind of stuff which makes you wonder whether giving more power to the State Duma is a good idea.  As I’ve said before, it would be foolish to imagine that a more democratic Russia would be a more liberal one.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that while the ‘systemic opposition’ has given its support to Putin’s proposals, members of Russia’s ‘non-systemic opposition’ have been lining up to denounce them. Fairly typical was the response of the handshakeably liberal newspaper Novaia Gazeta:

In reality, we’re talking in the best case about a change of decoration (Russia will remain a presidential republic, even if not probably a superpresidential one), and in the worst case about a revolution from above which will only strengthen the vertical of power. ‘The most important and significant thing one can extract from [Putin’s] speech is the destruction of the federation; a fatal diminution of the authority of regional organs of power, the rout of local self-government, the destruction of the principle of the power of the people, the defeat of rights, and the destruction of the principle of the equality of citizen,’ lists Elena Lukianova, professor of constitutional and municipal law at the Higher School of Economics.

Likewise, Andrei Nechaev of the Civic Initiative party (associated with the likes of Ksenia Sobchak and Dmitry Gudkov) declared that, ‘The president has decided to concentrate all power in his own hands, appointing a technocratic prime minister with no political ambitions.’ Mikhail Kasyanov, leader of another liberal party – RPR PARNAS – latched onto Putin’s statement that, ‘Russia must remain a strong presidential republic’ to claim that, ‘there will be no real transfer of authority to parliament.’ Instead the proposed reforms would ‘strengthen the vertical [of power] and existing practices, for instance “the president’s direct leadership of the armed forces and all the legal and security system”.’ And Yabloko’s Grigory Yavlinsky complained: ‘The proposed constitutional amendments have nothing in common with Russia’s main problem and won’t in any way improve life in the country … the re-division of powers between president and parliament is a means of resolving a different task – guaranteeing a formal transition of power without real changes. These “checks and balances”  won’t really create a division of powers, but create the possibility for manipulations from on high.’

Finally, one time Kremlin PR-man turned regime critic Gleb Pavlovsky (a favourite rent-a-quote among foreign correspondents) declared:

The real structure of power in the Russian Federation (for simplicity’s sake I call it the ‘system’ even though there’s very little systematic about it) doesn’t work in the manner written down in the Constitution but, as everyone knows, informally. And for now, nobody wants to change that. Thus, the nomination of a candidate for the post of Prime Minister will be preceded, crudely speaking, by a phone call from ‘waiting room no. 1’ … The only change is where the waiting room will be located, in the Kremlin or in the State council – that is to say, in the Kremlin either way.

Much happier than the liberals were representatives of what one might call the ‘democratic’ conservative wing of Russian intellectuals (admittedly a fairly small group). Conservative thinkers Boris Mezhuev and Liubov’ UIianova, for instance, celebrated Putin’s proposals and directed readers to  a recent article by Mezhuev entitled ‘Russian conservatism and popular representation’, joking that perhaps Putin had read it before making his announcement.  The liberals’ despair over the constitutional proposals, Mezhuev suggested on Facebook, derived from the fact that these fighters for ‘freedom’ had assumed that ‘the superpresidential regime would pass into the hands of a liberal successor without much change’ but had now discovered to their dismay that ‘(KPRF leader Gennady) Ziuganov and (LDPR leader Vladimir) Zhirinovsky would be able to put their own people into the chairs of the ministers of education and culture’!

Mezhuev has said before that the key political battle in Russia is between conservative democrats and liberal authoritarians. In line with my last post, the liberals may be right to doubt that much will change because of this. Still, it’s interesting to see the conservatives supporting what purports to be a democratic move, and the liberals opposing it. Interesting, but perhaps not entirely surprising.

Much ado about nothing?

After 6 radio interviews (all in French) and 2 TV interviews in the last 18 hours, I’m feeling all-pundited out, but it strikes that it would be odd if a Russia-dedicated blog didn’t say anything the day after the Russian government resigned en masse. So here’s my ha’p’orth on yesterday’s political developments.

The key point you should bear in mind is that it’s all speculation. As I said repeatedly in my media interviews, ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s not clear’. While some commentators might try to persuade you otherwise, we don’t actually know why Putin has called for amendments in the Russian constitution, what these amendments are meant to achieve, or why the Russian government resigned en masse. The best we can do is hypothesize.

The main constitutional proposals are that: a) parliament, not the president, appoint the Prime Minister and cabinet; b) the State Council, currently an advisory body, be given formal constitutional status in order to promote unified government; c) candidates for the post of president be limited to those who have resided in Russia for 25 years (not 10 as a present), and dual-citizens be barred; and d) the Russian constitution should take precedence over international law (a proposal clearly targeted at limiting the power of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)).

Among hypotheses explaining these proposals are the following:

  • Putin wants to create a position he can move into in 2024 so as to remain in power. This might be true, but if so, why do it now and limit his own authority as president for the next four years? Wouldn’t it be better to leave it till later in his term? I find this explanation a little unsatisfactory.
  • By dividing power, Putin aims to prevent his successor from being able to take any action against him or other members of the current ruling elite. Again, I’m not entirely convinced by this, as the proposals would make it easier for the parliament and government to move against those currently in authority.
  • Putin is aware that the current system is over-centralized and inflexible and needs shaking up to make it more efficient, in part by devolving authority and introducing more political competition. This is certainly what Putin has hinted at, but for the reasons laid out below I’m not at all sure the proposals will actually produce the desired result.

There may be other explanations, and frankly your guess is as good as mine as to which is true. We don’t know what’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Similarly, we’re not in a position to say why Medvedev and his government resigned. Were they blindsided by Putin’s constitutional proposals and felt obliged to quit, or was it that Putin had lost confidence in them and thought that this was an appropriate moment to push them out? I think it’s kind of futile to speculate. Consequently, the ‘why’ of all this interests me rather less than the likely results, for which reason I think it’s worth examining them in a bit more depth.

In line with the third hypothesis above, it makes sense, therefore, to consider questions such as ‘Will these reforms fundamentally change the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they improve the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they make Russian government more competitive, more responsive, etc?’ Again, the true answer has to be ‘I don’t know’. But here are some thoughts to help guide thoughts on the subject.

Continue reading Much ado about nothing?

All roads lead to Putin

As a brief interlude, while I finalize a piece about yesterday’s developments in Russian politics, here’s a little something from the United States – Nancy Pelosi talking about the articles of impeachment she just sent to the Senate. How can I put it? Watching this, Russians must think that the United States has become more than a little unhinged from reality.

Voters in America should decide who our president is, not Vladimir Putin and Russia deciding who our president is. I’m very concerned that in all of this, whether it’s withholding funds from Ukraine, the, err, the Ukrainian government to fight the Russia; whether it’s undermining our commitment to, to, NATO; or whether it’s, again, making decisions about what’s happening in Syria vis-à-vis Turkey, favouring the Russians, that all roads lead to Russia, all roads lead to Putin.

Watch here: https://twitter.com/DailyCaller/status/1217510278637727745?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1217603504598061056&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fmikenormaneconomics.blogspot.com%2F&fbclid=IwAR1Qv-UG9EMSB59pN7KDU–psTv-sKX6ECX_PPWQw9UU4cjXpurrkALb0Kc

 

 

Governing Russia

Putin has spoken. The Russian constitution needs some tweaking, he told legislators in his annual address to the Federal Assembly yesterday. Restrictions on how often someone can be president will remain, thus clearing up the question of whether Putin will stay on as president after 2024 – he won’t. But, under the changes Putin proposes, the Prime Minister will henceforth be appointed by parliament not the president, an amendment which should shift power towards the legislature. All this would have to be approved in a national referendum, but still it got the pundits buzzing.

In reality, though, this wasn’t the main focus of Putin’s speech, and while it’s what got the headlines it wasn’t what struck me most about what the Russian president had to say. What hit me was how he was to a large degree repeating stuff he’d said before and how this indicated the extreme limits of his power. Most notably, Putin started off with a long exposition of Russia’s demographic problems and the need to find ways to support families with young children so as to encourage parents to have more kids. This had been the main thing he’d talked about last year, at which point he had unveiled a series of financial measures to try and resolve the demographic problem. What were the results? Well, if this year’s speech is anything to go by, last year’s measures had no effect at all. In fact, the birth rate actually fell! Perhaps the most revealing section of Putin’s speech to me was the following segment, in which he said:

The most sensitive and crucial issue is the opportunity to enrol one’s child in a day nursery. Earlier, we allocated funds from the federal budget to help the regions create 255,000 new places in day nurseries by the end of 2021. However, in 2018 to 2019, instead of 90,000, 78,000 new places were created, out of which only 37,500 places can actually be provided to kids. Other places are unavailable simply because an educational licence is still not obtained. This means that these nurseries are not ready to enrol children.

Why do I find this so interesting? Because it shows very clearly that there’s a world of difference between making policy statements and even transposing those statements into specific policies with assigned budgets, and actually putting those policies into effect, let alone achieving the objectives for which the policies were created. Supposedly, Putin is all-powerful; the state is highly centralized; the leader just has to wave his wand, and the system obeys. What the statement above shows is that this isn’t the case. Putin can issue whatever instructions he likes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s done.

This isn’t an isolated case. In the past, I’ve noted how other issues keep cropping up year after year in Putin’s speeches, indicating that all his decrees on the issue in question have resulted in naught. For instance, in a 2016 blogpost, ‘The Limits of Power’, I talked about Putin’s complaints that his orders on economic deregulation had not been carried out.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I came across another reference somewhere (unfortunately I can’t remember where) to a speech Putin recently gave calling for a ‘bonfire of regulations’. The fact that he felt a need to demand this yet again is quite striking.

A similar story can be seen in the case of the key economic policy of the past couple of years, namely billions of dollars which have been assigned to infrastructure spending. It promises a lot, but as numerous reports have demonstrated, only a fraction of the assigned money has been spent, in part because bureaucrats are afraid of the scrutiny they’ll come under once they start dispensing a lot of cash.

And then there’s this story from Intellinewsa few days ago:

Russia is suffering from a crisis of confidence that is visible in the extremely high dividend payments (owners take cash rather than invest) and extremely low corporate borrowing, which is the other side of the same coin. The government understands it needs to do something about boosting investors’ confidence in the economy, but while the draft version of a new investor protection law was very radical, the version that was submitted to the Duma was so twisted by state-owned enterprise lobbying that everyone hates it and it is very unlikely to be passed.

In this case, what we see is one part of the Russia state lobbying another part of the state in order to undermine what a third part of the state (the government) wants to do. In circumstances like this, it’s remarkable that anything gets done at all.

In short, governing Russia is a tough business. The ship of state doesn’t always go where the pilot wants it to. This is, of course, hardly a uniquely Russian problem, but the Russian response to it has not always been successful. Historically speaking, when faced with the sort of difficulties mentioned here, Russian rulers have tended to try to bureaucratize and centralize, thereby reinforcing autocracy, Another response has been to find reliable people to whom large powers are then delegated as sort of autocratic plenipotentiaries. At the start of yesterday’s speech, Putin suggested that perhaps Russia needed to move in the other direction. As he put it:

Our society is clearly calling for change. People want development, and they strive to move forward in their careers and knowledge, in achieving prosperity, and they are ready to assume responsibility for specific work. Quite often, they have better knowledge of what, how and when should be changed where they live and work, that is, in cities, districts, villages and all across the nation.

If the proposed constitutional changes help prod Russia in that direction, they may well prove to be worthwhile. But don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: Within seconds of posting this, news arrived that the Russian government had resigned, with Prime Minister Medvedev citing the proposed constitutional changes as the reason. I will ponder my response over the next 24 hours.

Reflecting on 20 years of anti-war failures          

Back in Autumn 1999, the International Journal published what was either my first or my second academic article (I produced another in the same year and can’t remember which came first). It’s title was ‘“Ready to Kill but not to Die”: NATO Strategy in Kosovo’. As you might gather from the title, it wasn’t altogether sympathetic to what NATO did during its 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The Kosovo war was, you might say, my ‘red pill’ moment, when I went from being the loyal military officer of my youth into someone who realized that his own countries weren’t above a bit of military aggression allied to a hefty dose of falsehood and propaganda.

Since then I have repeatedly argued firmly against war (or ‘military intervention’, ‘peace enforcement’, or whatever other term people prefer to use to make it look like it’s not war) whenever it’s been proposed. I have argued in favour of substantial cuts in defence spending in the countries in which I have lived and of which I am a citizen (the UK and Canada). I published academic articles and chapters in scholarly books laying out the case against ‘humanitarian intervention’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, the ‘obligation to rebuild’, and so on. I even wrote a short book (Doing Less with Less), arguing that the UK would not only save money but would also be much more secure if it spent less on defence and was less involved in trying to set the world to rights through the use of military power. I repeated this argument again several years later in a couple of works for a British think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs.

At the same time, exploiting my position as a ‘public intellectual’, I moved into the world of op-eds and political writing in an effort to influence public opinion outside of academia. In December 2002, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Spectator denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq and pouring scorn on the idea that Iraq was knee-deep in weapons of mass destruction, if only the UN inspectors could find them. And later, in pieces for the Ottawa Citizen and other outlets, I expressed scepticism about NATO’s military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, the likelihood of military success in Iraq, the bombing campaign against Libya, and the desire to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria, among other things.

I never expected that any of this would have an immediate impact on public policy. But I felt that someone had to say something, and hoped that my writings might in some small way contribute to a gradual change in the intellectual climate. If nothing else, they would put ideas on the table which could be picked up by others at some later point in time when external circumstances altered to such an extent that it became clear that a change in direction was needed. ‘Surely’, I thought to myself, ‘those in charge will eventually realize what a mess their policies have created and will want to find an alternative. So, we need to prepare the ground now.’

Looking back at it all, I don’t see that I got anything seriously wrong about the immoral and counterproductive nature of the military policies pursued by Western states in the past 20 years. But I was completely wrong on that last point – the idea that those in charge would one day wake up to the folly of their policies. These have been two decades of total failure, not only for me but also for everyone else who has been arguing the counter-interventionist case. It is not just that our governments continue to invest vast amounts of money into pointless military endeavours. More broadly, there has been absolutely no accountability for the multiple failures which have accompanied those endeavours. The op-ed pages of major media outlets, for instance, remain dominated by the same rhetoric, and in many cases even the same people, as brought us the war in Iraq, the quagmire in Afghanistan, and the chaos of contemporary Libya. The belief that Western powers represent ‘good’ in the world, and have a moral right, even a duty, to use military power against those who represent ‘evil’, seems to be as entrenched as ever. The post-Cold War alliance forged between hard-line hawks on the right and liberal human rights interventionists on the left has a seemingly iron grip on public policy.

How has this come about? How is that even the catastrophic mess which the United States and its allies (most notably the Brits) have made of Iraq hasn’t allowed us to make even a dent in public policy, to such an extent that we have found ourselves this week seriously contemplating the prospect of a war between the USA and Iran? Twenty years of thinking about the causes of war provide me with the following possible explanations, in no particular order:

Continue reading Reflecting on 20 years of anti-war failures          

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