Spontaneous protests?

I don’t often agree with anything in The Interpreter magazine, an online publication whose content is almost uniformly hostile to Russia and its government, but it has recently had some sensible things to say about the protests in Armenia against electricity price increases. The magazine failed, however, to push its argument through to its logical conclusion, perhaps because doing so would have forced it to reassess some of its own preconceptions. Let me give two examples.

First, The Interpreter cites Russian sociologist Igor Eidman (a cousin of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov), as saying that members of the Russian government, particularly the so-called siloviki (representatives of the military and security and intelligence services), ‘simply cannot imagine that people are capable of protesting against a government of their own free will to seek changes, democracy and so on. In their picture of the world, the special services of competitor countries must stand behind all such events.’

Second, Paul Goble remarks that, ‘Many Russian analysts are hurrying to suggest that this week’s protests in Yerevan and their suppression by the Armenian government are the opening round of a new Maidan, an anti-Moscow action that is being promoted and exploited by the West as part of a broader geopolitical struggle.’ Goble argues that this point of view is mistaken. Viewing the Armenian protests as engineered by the United States could lead Moscow into counter-productive policies, he concludes.

This is all true enough, but it isn’t the full story. The phenomenon which The Interpreter describes is not an exclusively Russian one; indeed The Interpreter itself has been guilty of it. For it and many others who oppose the current Russian government and who also oppose the rebellion in Ukraine, have consistently refused to accept that the protests in Donbass which led to the current war were expressions of popular will. They do not accept that the people of Donbass people are ‘capable of protesting … of their own free will.’ By contrast, most Russians do accept this, and thus it isn’t true that they cannot imagine such a thing. Whether people believe that protests are spontaneous or the product of outside forces depends very much on whether they support the protests in question.

Thus, the Russian government and its supporters regard the Maidan protests in Kiev which led to the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich as having been directed by American puppet-masters, whereas they view protests in Donbass as having been spontaneous in nature. The current Ukrainian government sees it the other way around: spontaneous protest at Maidan, and Russian puppet-masters in Donbass.

Both sides are wrong. It is obvious that foreign forces gave encouragement to both sets of protests, but it is naïve to imagine that the diplomats or intelligence services of any country can simply push a few buttons and incite rebellion wherever they wish. Local initiative, pushing from below, is essential in all cases, and is the primary driver of events.

Yet, while refusing to give too much credit to outside agencies, one should also avoid overstating the degree of popular support which underlies such protests. The people who occupied Maidan did not represent Ukraine as a whole; had they done so, there would not now be civil war there. Similarly, the initial demonstrations in Donbass in spring 2014 attracted no more than a few thousand people. Street protests provide a mechanism through which radicals can bypass normal legal procedures. Even if tens of thousands of people participate, they are not democratic in nature.

Overall, therefore, the conspiratorial model which describes mass demonstrations primarily in terms of external intervention is inaccurate, but one should be careful not to idealize such demonstrations as the true voice of the people either.

Why don’t people get it?

One of the most common responses I have had to my Ideacity talk last week is a question along the lines of: ‘Given the evidence that the world is less dangerous nowadays than in the past, why do so many people believe the opposite?’ It is a difficult question to answer, but below are three factors which I believe help to explain this phenomenon.

  1. Human psychology. Human beings do not reason like computers. Most of the time, they don’t collect all the evidence, compare it to various hypotheses, and then calculate which hypothesis best fits the facts. Rather they take short cuts (heuristics), such as reasoning by analogy, and they reason emotionally.                                     Take just one example, the so-called ‘availability heuristic’. Humans will tend to put more emphasis on events which are easily retrieved from memory and will consider that such events are more likely to recur than events which are less easily available. Terrorist attacks are vivid and readily retrieved from memory. We tend, therefore, to consider them far more common than they actually are. Car crashes, by contrast, are fairly routine and not generally well reported, and so we underestimate their danger. We end up fearing terrorism more than car crashes, despite the fact that we are many, many times more likely to die from the latter than the former.
  1. Interests. The tendency to exaggerate dangers is compounded by the fact that powerful groups within society have an interest in generating fear among the general population. Fear justifies those groups’ budgets and allows them to expand their power.             One has to be a little careful here, so as to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist. The ‘Military Industrial Complex’ (the MIC), for instance, doesn’t exist in a concrete form: politicians, generals, spies, military industrialists, and think tankers, aren’t all sitting down in a secret conference room to work out how best to terrorize their fellow citizens and extort the maximum amount of resources from them. If the MIC were that organized, it would be much easier to counter. It is far more amorphous. But it is no less real for that. The benefits which the MIC derives from fearmongering are large and concentrated. By contrast, the costs are diffused, and thus the countervailing pressure is weak.
  1. The Media. As everybody knows, bad news sells. Stories of war, terrorism, and so on, are interesting in a way that stories about nothing very much happening are not. The media paints a distorted view of the world.                                                                                          There are other reasons why this is the case. Changes in the structure of the media mean that there are fewer and fewer professional journalists, while news agencies lack the resources to conduct in-depth research. Making matters worse, in the internet age, the need to produce news rapidly has led to less and less fact checking. Once a narrative has been established, media agencies flock to it and repeat it for fear of being left behind. Governments and other organizations can find it relatively simple to manipulate press coverage – as seen, for instance, by the ease with which the American government was able to get the press to spread uncritical stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

What can we do to counter this, people ask me. Sadly, I don’t know the answer. The factors above are very difficult to counteract precisely because they are so undeliberate. All one can do is keep telling the truth and hope that eventually people’s view of the world will catch up with reality.

Friday object lesson #34: Millions of Scarlet Roses

Years ago, when I was studying at the Minsk Institute of Modern Languages, our teacher played us a song by Alla Pugacheva entitled ‘Millions of Scarlet Roses’. The song is inspired by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, who ‘allegedly once filled with roses the square of the hotel where his love interest, a French actress was residing.’ Here then is the last of my June series of Soviet music-related objects: the cover sheet of a CD of Pugacheva’s greatest hits, number 5 of which is ‘Millions of Scarlet Roses’.


The world is even less dangerous than I had supposed

Last week at Ideacity I talked about the decline in armed conflict worldwide since 1992 with the help of the chart below. The chart is derived from data compiled by an organization known as the Centre for Systemic Peace (CSP) and it shows the magnitude of armed conflict everywhere in the world from 1946 to 2013.


Continue reading The world is even less dangerous than I had supposed

Under the bus

Now that the rebels of Donbass have jumped off the bus driving towards reintegration with Ukraine, is Moscow about to throw them underneath it?

Today, a crowd of angry citizens of Donetsk gathered to protest against the bombing of their homes, and to demand an end to the war. After going out to meet them on crutches (due to a foot wound suffered in February), the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, told them that, ‘The DPR  is an independent state and will never join Ukraine, blood has flowed between us.’

This isn’t the sort of message which the Russian government wants to hear. It may explain why the Kremlin’s front man for Ukrainian affairs, Vladislav Surkov, was recently reported to have engaged in a shouting match with Zakharchenko. Now, the Ukrainian newspaper Vesti claims that Moscow has made a behind the scenes offer to the Ukrainian government to bring the war to an end by ditching the rebel leaders. According to Vesti, Moscow has proposed that

A special regime of local self-government will encompass all the territory of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, including those under the control of Ukraine, but this autonomy will be headed by people agreed by Kiev, Moscow, and other participants of the Minsk process. In this way, as well as expanding the special territory of Donbass, there will be leaders who will return the region to Ukraine with very expanded rights. In these conditions, all those in the armed formations of the people’s republics will be amnestied, some of them formed into people’s militia, and the rest disarmed.

So, is Moscow really preparing to throw the rebels under the bus? It certainly isn’t the first time that this claim has been made. When the rebellion started, Igor Strelkov, commanding the rebel troops in Slavyansk, regularly complained that Russia had abandoned him. Later, he claimed that Surkov had tried to sell Donbass out in a deal to surrender Donetsk to oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Later still, both the Minsk-1 and Minsk-2 peace agreements were seen by many as halting the rebels when they were advancing militarily in return for almost no political gains. The ‘fifth column’ in the Kremlin supposedly wants above all to get Western economic sanctions on Russia removed so that its oligarch friends can go back to making money and taking their holidays in Europe. If abandoning Donbass is the cost, so be it. Or so it is said.

Like all good conspiracy theories, this one has some basis in fact. Putin and his colleagues are the government of Russia, not of Donbass. Of course they put Russian interests first. It would be absurd to expect Russians to sacrifice themselves for the sake of people who may speak the same language and share a similar culture, but aren’t actually fellow citizens. When the interests of the Donbass rebels conflict with those of the Russian government, the latter will win. Furthermore, the Russian government has made it clear, again and again, that it does not want to annex Donbass, or to see it become independent. In this instance, the aspirations of the rebel leadership do run counter to the wishes of Moscow, and we should not be surprised that Moscow is seeking to end the war on terms which suit Russia, but may not suit the DPR.

Still, domestic politics impose limits on how far the Kremlin can go in ignoring the desires and eventual fates of its Eastern Ukrainian clients. Were the rebels to be militarily defeated it would be an enormous humiliation for the Russian government. The latter will, therefore, not allow it to happen – thus the provision of military supplies to the rebels. Similarly, whatever political settlement eventually ends the war has to be one which Moscow can accept while saving face. Furthermore, however dependent they may be on Russia, the rebel leaders do have some degree of independent agency – they can only be pushed so far. Russia has not provided the DPR with what it needs to win a decisive military victory, but it has enabled it to build up a substantial military force and to create the foundations of a proper state system. Throwing the rebels under the bus isn’t a simple operation.

Finally, even if the Vesti story is true, Russia’s proposals do not appear very far removed from those put forward by the DPR itself, and so they are likely to be considered unacceptable by Kiev. And while the call for a leadership agreed between Ukraine and Russia could be seen as a means of abandoning the rebel leaders, it could also be seen in the opposite light – a compromise which will ensure some rebel inclusion in the post-settlement order.

Overall, the Vesti story does not strike me as implausible. But neither is it surprising – a peace which sees Donbass rejoin Ukraine but with special status has been Moscow’s objective for a long time.

Friday object #32: Anthems of the Soviet Union

Yesterday I attended a reception in honour of Russia’s national day, at which schoolchildren sang the Russian national anthem, the music to which is the same as that of the old Soviet anthem. In recognition of this, today’s object is a record of the national anthems of the Soviet Union and its constituent republics.