A lack of self-confidence

We have become decadent, politically correct, and weak, some people say. Our demise is all but inevitable. And yet, our societies are actually much stronger than the doomsayers imagine. Economically, we continue to prosper; politically, we are stable; morally, we are probably doing better than ever before – we treat each other better and we harm each other less than possibly at any other time in history. Far from being weak and decadent, we are strong and healthy. If only we could accept that, we would avoid many terrible mistakes.

The same is true of Russia. Many Western observers describe the current Russian state as fragile. Sooner or later, they say, political or economic discontent will bring the ‘regime’ tumbling down. Sadly, it seems that the Russian state shares this point of view. As a result, rather than permitting and encouraging the maximum amount of political discourse and opposition, it has sought to place limits upon it. In particular, it has moved to restrict the influence of outside forces in Russian civil society, for fear that they might incite a ‘colour revolution’. The latest manifestation of this is the announcement on Monday that, ‘The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has recognized as undesirable several foreign non-profit organizations, such as the Open Society Foundation and the Assistance Foundation in Russia.’ According to Interfax:

This decision was taken, following an address by the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly to the Russian general prosecutor, foreign minister and justice minister to inspect the organizations, which were put on the so-called “patriotic stop-list”,’ spokesperson of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office Marina Gridneva told Interfax on Nov. 30. She recalled that the ‘stop-list’ was approved by the Federation Council resolution as of July 8 this year, in which the activity of the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation) is paid attention to. ‘It was found out that the activity of the Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation poses a threat to the foundations of the Russian constitutional system and security of the state,’ she said.

The Soros Foundation is a particular bugbear of critics of American ‘imperialism’. Soros’ support for self-styled liberal democratic opposition movements has been seen as playing an important part in events such as the Georgian Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004. Many believe that Soros would like to encourage something similar in Russia. But even if this is true, it does not mean that banning the Open Society Institute is justified, let alone a good idea. Liberal democratic societies tolerate all sorts of organizations which don’t like liberal democracy or the prevailing social norms. That is part of what liberty entails. Moreover, the fact that an institution would in principle like to change the political system doesn’t mean that it actually can. Perhaps if the Russian state really is as fragile as some people think, then its worries might be justified. But I don’t believe that it is.

There is certainly some discontent in Russia with the political system, but looking at the data of the Levada Centre, we see that a majority of Russians approve not only of President Vladimir Putin, but also of the government more generally, and that they think that their country is moving in the right direction. Despite predictions that the current economic recession would ruin the state’s finances and cause massive social discontent, the Russian economy has proven to be surprisingly resilient and is due to return to growth next year. There have been a few protests against economic hardship (e.g. from truck drivers), but not many. Russia is not a country on the verge of revolution. Neither Soros nor anybody else is going to bring about ‘regime change’ in Russia.

But designating non-governmental organizations as ‘foreign entities’ and placing them on ‘patriotic stop-lists’ is harmful. Martin Malia pointed out in his book Russia Under Western Eyes that Western perceptions of the ‘Russian threat’ are largely about how Western elites view internal Russian politics. When they see Russian rulers as relatively ‘enlightened’, the West doesn’t fear Russia; but when they see them as becoming more ‘autocratic’, then the West believes that Russia is dangerous and has to be resisted. Banning NGOs falls into the ‘autocratic’ framework. It makes Russia look bad, and strengthens anti-Russian feeling.

In other words, just as Western states over-react to the terrorist ‘threat’ out of fear of seeming weak, the Russian state is over-reacting to the danger of colour revolutions, and in the process is shooting itself in the foot. It would be better if everybody could just have a bit more self-confidence.

33 thoughts on “A lack of self-confidence”

  1. My counter argument would be, in a word, Ukraine.

    Let me try this out on you. I take it as axiomatic that:

    – Ukraine’s ascension to EU membership was never practical / affordable or in the country’s interest given the magnitude of its trade ties with Russia, it’s multi-ethnic makeup and the state of EU financially speaking (it’s not ’89 anymore to say the least.)

    If you accept the above analysis then what to make of the fact that Nuland crowed about the billions spent on “helping” Ukraine achieve its “European aspirations”? I suggest the first takeaway is that this foreigner does not have the country’s best interests at heart. (Cough.) The evidence is plain: the Crimea is lost, the economy is in ruins, a suspended civil war drags on.

    Is there a test for having a country’s “best interests at heart”? Not as such but I’d suggest that having to declare who’s actually paying for your “heartfelt” advocacy is close enough.

    You do know that there are similar laws in the U.S. right? From what I’ve read the Russian laws were actually modelled on these though I can’t cite a source at the mo. That irony alone puts pay to your argument to my mind.


    1. You are right that the Russian foreign agent law is modelled on a US equivalent. But the fact that the Americans have a silly law isn’t a good reason for Russia to have the same thing.


      1. Speaking of silly American laws, isn’t the situation more analogous to that with Citizens United? Why should countries allow unlimited money to flow in to influence their electorate to see the world through their opponents’ eyes?


    2. Couldn’t agree more. Back when the USSR fell apart, Ukraine was pretty placid and remained so. Russia had a war in Chechnya, Moldova had a war, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Tajikistan. Throughout, other than the odd fistfight over church ownership, Ukraine slumbered on. A potential problem over Crimea was resolved reasonably with Crimea preserving its autonomy. But, thanks to hard work, picking at scabs, careful investment of money, assiduous work at increasing divides and widening cracks by innumerable foreign GONGOs we have arrived at the present state of affairs when Ukraine is very unplacid indeed.
      The other point is why should any country, no matter how stable it is, allow a foreign organisation whose sole purpose is to disrupt it?


  2. The Russian state over-reacting? The Maidan protest resulted in a US engineered coup (see Victoria Nuland), in the Ukraine, a state on Russian borders. Since Russia post-Yeltsin rejected US meddling in its government, the US has through NGOs, covert action and military aggression attempted to manipulate Russia to do its bidding.

    No, Russia isn’t in a strong enough position to tolerate that kind of opposition, even if the Western states now can with decades of democracy behind them. Better to be seen as intolerant than a failed state, like the Ukraine.


  3. The “West” and Western elites, have, for the time being, disqualified themselves from having any standing to be critical of other systems or possessing the “right” to undermine systems they disapprove of. Western Elites have murdered, or arranged the murder of, or facilitated the murder of, or benefited from the murder of upwards of 20,000,000 “non-Western” “non-elites” since 1946. These are murders because killing someone [or arranging their killing, or facilitating, or enabling, or profiting from….you get the point] those who aren’t threatening your life is murder. Defending one’s self and one’s state and nation against Ukraine-style, or Yugoslavia-style, or Honduran-style, or Iraq-style, or Afghanistan-style or Vietnam-style or, you get the point, chaos isn’t “silly”. The “Western Elites'” projects seems to be to replace “bad” governments and “bad” legal orders [with large exceptions for Batista-type or Mobutu [sp?] types] with chaos. Western NGOs are properly viewed as enemy agents, until proven otherwise. End of ranty typy thingy. Cheers.


  4. Is that what you really think, Paul? All right, then; let’s take a look at it.

    You say – or, more accurately, you support Martin Malia when he says – that when western leaders perceive the Russian leader of the day as “enlightened”, they do not fear Russia. Presumably this implies that when they do not fear Russia, they treat it better, and there is less disagreement. This happy state is more likely to occur when Russia permits western NGO’s more or less free rein; do I have it right?

    The most reform-minded and western-friendly Russian President in recent history – perhaps ever – was Dmitry Medvedev. Did the west treat Russia as a friend and associate during his tenure? Better than they have under Putin, certainly. But Medvedev was praised only for so long as he went along with the western agenda, and as soon as he crossed the west, the same platoon of critics showed up. Of Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which put a crimp in NATO’s plans to absorb Georgia – quoth Merkel; “…the decree contradicts the principle of territorial integrity, a principle based on the international law of nations and for this reason it is unacceptable.” Ban Ki-Moon offered his usual sycophantic condemnation, probably reading straight from the script the State Department provided him. The USA, EU, Baltic states and Poland chimed in to kick Medvedev for spoiling a great show, and we even got a preview of what an assrocket Yatsenyuk was going to be.


    I think Tony Cartalucci put it very well; the Russian government under Putin “placed immense restrictions on foreign-funded lobby groups and NGOs, demanding that they exhibit the same level of transparency and honesty that they themselves demand of the government. ”


    As he also pointed out, when the western-funded NGO’s were ordered to register as foreign agents if they (a) received funding from another country, and (not or) (b) their activities were political in nature…the nuisance protests dwindled to a whisper. It is important to note that NGO’s who could demonstrate that they received foreign funding but that their activities were not political in nature were left alone. Those who made false declarations, naturally, were kicked out. Some who felt the label “foreign agent” would hamper their…ahem…good works chose to leave of their own volition.

    Of course I am a sucker for a well-substantiated argument, and am always willing to have my mind changed. If I could be persuaded that the west ceased its inveigling against Russia during Medvedev’s presidency because they were not afraid of Russia, and that Russia enjoyed the favour of its western partners during that time, or if I could be shown some of the concrete benefits NGO’s like George Soros’ Open Society brought to Russia during its residence, I could perhaps be more supportive of the view you have expressed here.


  5. “The Soros Foundation is a particular bugbear of critics of American ‘imperialism’. Soros’ support for self-styled liberal democratic opposition movements has been seen as playing an important part in events such as the Georgian Rose Revolution of 2003 and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004. Many believe that Soros would like to encourage something similar in Russia. “

    It’s not a “bugbear” when Soros himself was braging about it and promising to that in Russia. Man is a rabid Russophobe, who became even more rabid and aggressive since this so-called “Euromaidan” and “Russian aggression”.

    Government is doing the most logical thing possible – protects itself and society.

    “Liberal democratic societies tolerate all sorts of organizations which don’t like liberal democracy or the prevailing social norms”

    Russia is NOT a liberal democracy – and the people are okay with it.

    ” When they see Russian rulers as relatively ‘enlightened’, the West doesn’t fear Russia; but when they see them as becoming more ‘autocratic’, then the West believes that Russia is dangerous and has to be resisted.”

    Wrong. The West is incapable of trusting and befriending Russia – only “not fearing” it. And for that the West don’t want “Enlightened” ruler – they want a weak one. Another Yeltsin or Gorbachev.


    1. The West does want an “enlightened” Russia, one that flatters and imitates the West.
      Whether it works out for Russia is not important for the West.


  6. Yeah, the FARA act, in the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_Agents_Registration_Act

    Not only it exists but is actively used, apparently, except, of course, when the foreign entity in question is Israel.

    PressTV and Al Jazeera had been banned, removed from satellites, etc.; RT is being harassed and investigated all the time. This is normal.

    This ‘foreign agent’ law in Russia would often come up when I was commenting at the guardian (now I’m banned, as my comments were somehow consistently violating their ‘community standards’). This is just a smear, IMO. It’s as if someone was screaming: ‘Can you believe it!!! In tyrannical Russia a pedestrian can be stopped – and punished!!! – for merely crossing a street!!! What a despicable tyranny!!!’ Same kinda thing: no direct lies, but its only purpose is to mislead. Like most of the stuff we read about Russia in the western media. And the rest are direct lies.

    As for Mr. Soros, here in Hungary I sometimes hear the conspiracy theory that he’s not really a ‘philanthropist-billionaire’ character, but just a CIA operative with a cover story. The money he spends is CIA and/or DoS money, and that’s all there is to it. First, I thought that was extremely far-fetched, but then I noticed that his apparent interests seem to be very closely coordinated with the places where the DoS focuses its attention. So, who the hell knows.


  7. In an ideal world, one would like to see competing ideas to be given the freedom to compete without interference or restrictions by governments.
    However, the perniciousness of certain ideas as promoted by the Soros foundations are now too obvious to be overlooked. They don’t even have to lead to another government overthrow by force: they are working insidiously inside society. Multi-Culti, sexual “liberation” (e.g. legislation to accommodate trans-gendered people being the most pressing issue ….), denigrating of a country’s historical achievements are just a few examples.
    What amazes me is that on the one hand the usual suspects bewail the ‘suppression’ of these ideas while at the same time they suppress eagerly any criticism of their ideas, as can be seen in western MSM.


    1. Yes, Soros has shown himself to be an all-around destructive force in both East and West. He’s been funding the Black Lives Matter craziness in the US, and is now proposing that Europe should take at least 1 million “refugees” a year for the foreseeable future. The man appears to have no concept of the fragility of society or the risk of chaos – unless that’s what he actually intends to bring about.


  8. Paul,

    I think you should be aware that in January this year, State Duma representative Ilya Ponomarev was in Washington DC giving a PowerPoint presentation to various representatives of right-wing think-tanks and other interested people working in Capitol Hill on the political situation in Russia at the time and the potential for ousting the government there. Ponomarev all but gave a bullet-point guide on how this would be achieved. The bullet points included:

    1/ Organized street protest (versus spontaneous one)
    2/ Appealing vision of the future presented to the majority of Russians
    3/ Leader, acceptable for all protesters and the elites
    4/ Access to some financial resources
    5/ Part of the elites should support the revolution
    6/ Trigger event

    Ponomarev admits that changing the government through the ballot box is unlikely and that the tactic most likely to effect change was a revolution (either non-violent or violent).

    The presentation can be viewed on Youtube at this link:

    The Kremlin would be well aware of Ponomarev’s presentation and the blueprint he gave for fomenting a colour revolution in Moscow. The Soros Foundation would have a role to play in encouraging revolution (see point 4 above). Is it any wonder that the Kremlin would seek to nip Ponomarev’s plan in the bud before it starts to put down roots? If the Kremlin did nothing and allowed the Soros Foundation to continue its funding activities, all the while being aware of where the funding could be going, wouldn’t a sane and rational observer conclude that the Kremlin had its collective ostrich head in the sand and was lacking the confidence to stop such activity at the risk of making itself look like an autocratic back-to-the-USSR fool? Ponomarev’s presentation in Washington, the ideas he advocated and the make-up of his audience suggest that regime change through a staged revolution in Russia is not just a topic flirted with among the country’s political opposition, it is already in the making.


    1. But how likely is that Pomomarev’s harebrained scheme will get anywhere? My point is that Russia is not Ukraine. It’s much less fragile. The opposition and their neocon backers can dream all they like about street protests sweeping Putin from power, but I don’t see it happening.


      1. But the RF government isn’t lining the western grant-eaters up against the wall and shooting them either. They are just required to register as ‘foreign agents’ that they are, if they conduct political activity.

        So why the RF is the one accused of being paranoid?

        Couldn’t you, as well, write a post accusing well-meaning western NGO of manifesting insecurity by throwing a hissy fit at this trivial, superficial restriction?


      2. It doesn’t matter whether it can succeed or not – the harm will be done, “sacred victims” of the “bloody Regime” would be proclaimed “martyrs” and the West will turn up its indirect warfare against Russia up to 11 in the name of “avenging the brave dissidents”.

        Good ol’ lecher Benji Fraklin used to say – “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That’s what the government is doing here – acts as immune system.


      3. It is more fragile than you think.
        The Kremlin elite has no strong allies or ideology that could protect them from a revolution, only the approval ratings which could quickly change if they fail.


      4. Whether Ponomarev’s scheme will succeed or not isn’t the issue. The fact is that it exists and there were already enough people in Washington interested in his presentation for him to go ahead with it. He would have had to pitch the idea first and someone would have stumped up the money and facilities for the presentation, and the whole thing would not have gone ahead if the interest didn’t exist.

        Whether Russia’s political system is fragile or not also isn’t an issue. On paper Britain and the US appear to have quite stable systems but both can be and have been corrupted by political / economic elites for their own self-serving interests. Canada’s system under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not been immune to abuse and Australia has had its leadership crises as well. Political and economic systems are really only good to the extent that the people who live under them are prepared to defend them with their money and their lives if need be.


  9. Wow, a lot of strong opinions.
    US, RF, and many governments have a low opinion of their citizens. Rather than encourage education, informed debate, respect for a variety of opinion, keep them susceptible to cheap advertising. Keep the media a dependent pet-like role. Problem with this is that rival powers can also tap into that carefully cultivated state of mind. It’s a real phenomenon to a degree. Don’t forget China in this list, btw.


    1. “Rather than encourage education, informed debate, respect for a variety of opinion, keep them susceptible to cheap advertising.”

      Hmm, in the case of the ‘foreign agent’ law, isn’t it actually the opposite here: governments demanding truth in advertising; forcing the foreign agents to disclose, clearly, that the views expressed and compilations presented are not of uncle Bob down the street. Why wouldn’t you approve of that?

      And are you also a principled opponent of food labeling? Eat whatever tastes good, and then when your teeth start falling out you’ll naturally become educated and informed enough to switch to some other item? Is that it?


      1. Where I was going with this was to say that, to me, the central element is the dumbing-down mode of mass-media/adverstising, and also of government PR rhetoric when communication is structured as distilled talking points stripped of context. As I said, and you also, the same tool cuts both ways.

        I have some hope that social media can help here, although currently it is vulnerable to manipulation due to its centralized nature. Perhaps after facebook or twitter are caught playing the part of Colin Powell in the next Iraq War, wherever it may be, there will be more demand for social media systems that emphasize integrity.

        Secondly, I wanted to say that I wouldn’t be so quick to embrace the direct suppression of foreign propaganda as a solution,

        I would be very happy to see a requirement like the one you suggest – to require for all mass media to state who their sponsors really are.


  10. Fascinating discussion here, on both sides. Just wanted to register my hats off to all the above. I wish this kind of discussion was the norm ‘out there’. Frankly, I find this issue so complex I can’t even begin to formulate a recommendation. Seems to me these are the questions that governments have been grappling with since Plato’s Republic (to Popper’s Open Society … and well beyond).


  11. But designating non-governmental organizations as ‘foreign entities’ and placing them on ‘patriotic stop-lists’ is harmful. Martin Malia pointed out in his book Russia Under Western Eyes that Western perceptions of the ‘Russian threat’ are largely about how Western elites view internal Russian politics. When they see Russian rulers as relatively ‘enlightened’, the West doesn’t fear Russia; but when they see them as becoming more ‘autocratic’, then the West believes that Russia is dangerous and has to be resisted. Banning NGOs falls into the ‘autocratic’ framework. It makes Russia look bad, and strengthens anti-Russian feeling.

    I respectfully disagree, Boris Yeltsin was very autocratic. Yeltsin was the one that brought in the 1993 constitution that gave extraordinary powers to the Russian president. Moreover, Yeltsin used force against the Russian parliament.

    The West’s threat perception of Russia is dependent not on whether Russia’s leaders are enlighten or not, rather whether Russia is perceived as being weak or strong.

    Besides the perception of the ‘Russian threat’ differs in France, Italy and Spain from that in the Anglosphere, Poland and Baltic states.


  12. I have to disagree with you here. Why? Because quite simply the relative power of any single lavishly-financed Western NGO is at least an order of magnitude or two more potent than anything Russia could conceivably conjure up for the West.

    Pelevin put it best:

    Демократия, либерализм — это все слова на вывеске, она правильно сказала. А реальность похожа, извините за выражение, на микрофлору кишечника. У вас на Западе все микробы уравновешивают друг друга, это веками складывалось. Каждый тихо вырабатывает сероводород и помалкивает. Все настроено, как часы, полный баланс и саморегуляция пищеварения, а сверху — корпоративные медиа, которые ежедневно смачивают это свежей слюной. Вот такой организм и называется открытым обществом — на фиг ему закрываться, он сам кого хочешь закроет за два вылета. А нам запустили в живот палочку Коха — еще разобраться надо, кстати, из какой лаборатории, — против которой ни антител не было, ни других микробов, чтобы хоть как-то ее сдержать. И такой понос начался, что триста миллиардов баксов вытекло, прежде чем мы только понимать начали, в чем дело. И вариантов нам оставили два — или полностью и навсегда вытечь через неустановленную жопу, или долго-долго принимать антибиотики, а потом осторожно и медленно начать все заново.

    Considering that Soros is a financial criminal whose proper place is behind bars instead of funding all sorts of destructive movements in both Eastern Europe and the US any country would be well served in banning him and his agents but Russia doubly so.


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