More Thoughts on Belarus

After I wrote my recent piece about past Russian liberals’ admiration of General Pinochet, Mark Galleotti published a short comment saying that I shouldn’t have written what I did – not because it’s false (which it isn’t), but because it makes Russian liberals look bad and so undermines their struggle against the evil Putin regime (or words to that effect).

A very similar logic has been on display this week following the arrest of Belarusian activist Roman Protasevich, after the Belarusian authorities diverted his flight to the Belarusian capital Minsk. It didn’t take long for some researchers to discover that Protasevich had some dubious connections with far-right groups, including some time spent with the Azov Regiment in Ukraine. This news, however, raised the ire of many people, who complained that it is wrong to drag up this dirt about Protasevich’s past because it diverts attention from the crimes of the Belarusian state and thereby helps excuse its repressive actions.

In both instances, what we see is an argument that unpleasant truths must be suppressed if they are politically inconvenient. Academic research must be subordinated to political objectives. In my latest article for RT, I discuss this matter. I note that the facts about Protasevich’s fascist links are not directly relevant to the rights and wrongs of his arrest, nor to the rights and wrongs of the diversion of the aircraft. It also true that they may be used to deflect attention from the alleged misbehaviour of the Belarusian state. But I also argue that that’s not a reason to cover up those links. The public deserves to be fully informed. Beyond that, you ignore such links at your peril. In 2014, many chose to ignore the presence of the far-right in the Maidan revolution in Ukraine. The cost has been high.

To illustrate the point, I cite an article in Politico by Leonid Ragozin, in which he argues that European states should support opposition activists in Belarus and Russia, particularly those like Protasevich who make use of social media to promote their cause. He writes:

The EU has a unique opportunity to play a key role in nurturing the new generation of Russian and Belarusian political and cultural leaders who will inevitably replace the corrupt authoritarians in power today. By embracing the healthy part of society in both countries and working together with people like Protasevich and Navalny to build a common European future, the EU will do more to bring about the end of dictatorships than any number of sanctions can ever offer.

This is where the story of Protasevich’s fascist connections suddenly becomes important, for can one really call such people “the healthy part of society”? I think most people would say not. And that is why politically inconvenient facts shouldn’t be ignored.

Ragozin has written some good stuff in the past, but this isn’t one of his best pieces, in my opinion. As well as discussing social media activists, he also makes reference to educational institutions ‘like the predominantly Belarusian European University of Humanities in Vilnius … the newly created Free Russian University, based in Riga, …. [and] The Moscow School of Political Studies [that] has been also forced to relocate to Latvia’. The argument appears to be that European states should be doing all they can to support such institutions, so as to nurture a new generation of liberal, democratic youth who will then return to their home countries (Belarus and Russia) and liberate them from oppression.

It sounds nice, but let’s think about it for a minute. What will be the net result of these educational programs? The answer, I think, is a group of cosmopolitan, Westernized young people who are completely out of touch with the domestic realities of their own countries as well as with the interests and values of their compatriots. If they go back home, it’s most unlikely that they will be able to persuade large numbers of people to follow them, precisely because they will be so alien.

Change when it comes, is often the product of shifting patterns of thought among the ruling elite. In a place like Belarus, that means changes in beliefs (or at least perceptions of interest) among bureaucrats, policemen, secret servicemen, factory managers, and the like. But, Ragozin’s Western-educated youths aren’t ever going to get that type of job. Given that, in Ragozin’s scheme, the declared purpose of their Western education will be to subvert the state, they will be marked down from the start as dangerous elements, not to be trusted with employment in the state system. Perhaps they’ll get jobs in tech start ups, or somewhere in the ‘creative classes’, but those aren’t the people who change the system.

If you want to get the elite to shift, you have to persuade them that it’s safe to do so. That means, as a first step, reducing international tensions. It also means that associating liberal youth with a strategy to subvert the state is likely to be counterproductive.

So, what should be done? To be honest, my own instincts tell me that we should leave well alone. Rather than trying to improve others, we should focus on improving ourselves, and then let the power of attraction do its work. I’ve yet to see good evidence that doing otherwise brings positive results.

Separating the Domestic from the International: Or Whatabout Whataboutism?

One of the great myths of our time is the idea that domestic and external politics are connected, in the sense that the nature of a given regime determines whether it is a benign or malign actor on the international stage. According to this myth, democracies are naturally peaceful and benign; authoritarian states (a very broad, and poorly defined, category) are naturally aggressive and malign. Authoritarian states are thus by their very essence threats to international peace and security and as such worthy targets of our foreign policy.

Reality, of course, is very different, as the recent case of Belarus shows.

Belarus, as you no doubt know, has been making news this week due to what has been called its act of ‘piracy’ against an Ryanair jet flying through its airspace. Whether this really was an act of ‘piracy’ I will leave to a neutral international arbiter to decide (which, of course does not exist). But the case neatly demonstrates that the domestic-international connection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Domestically speaking, Belarus is far from a model of liberal democratic norms. Its president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, almost certainly owes his position to mass electoral fraud allied to occasionally brutal, though normally quite targeted, use of state violence. Given that the fraud and violence serve no obvious purpose other keeping him in power, one may say that much of the opprobrium directed against him and his government is deserved.

But is Belarus a threat to international peace and stability? Should we be concerned enough about it to warrant sanctioning it and doing what we can to promote regime change? Critics would no doubt point to this week’s events, and answer yes to all of the above. But let’s put it all in perspective. What were the effects of the ‘hijacking’ of the Ryanair jet (if that is what is was)? Did it infringe on the sovereignty of another state? Was anybody killed? Did people suffer other than having their flight delayed several hours? Was any property damaged? Was anybody bombed? Was anybody invaded? Were any fundamental principles of the international system challenged?

The answer to all the above is no. Even if could be shown that this was a breach of international law (and I’m somewhat sceptical about that), it’s fairly mild as these things go and poses no danger to any other country anywhere. In fact, despite its authoritarian regime, Belarus is about as harmless an international actor as you’re likely to find. As far as I can tell it doesn’t threaten anybody, never has, and probably never will.

Many liberal democracies, by contrast, have a lot of blood on their hands, and if you were to ask the questions above about some of their deeds, the answers would be a very emphatic ‘yes’.

At this point, people starting getting very angry at me and start accusing me of supporting dictators. Or, as happened after my latest RT article, start throwing the ‘Whataboutism’ charge in my direction. ‘How dare you point out that Western states are selective in their outrage and failed to object to other breaches of international law,’ they say, ‘‘Pure whataboutism.’

Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you define it. But as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with whataboutism if it’s used properly. If the purpose is to excuse misbehaviour, then it is wrong – it’s a logical fallacy to say that it’s ok for me to commit some misdeed because somebody else has also done it. But if its purpose to expose hypocrisy or to analyze others’ true motivations by revealing discrepancies in their actions, then it’s perfectly valid. Say person X condemns ‘piracy’ by person A, but refuses to condemn obvious acts of piracy by person B. That gives reason for supposing that an objection to piracy per se isn’t the main reason for their indignation. Rather, they are driven by something else, such as a dislike of person A and a like of person B. That’s useful information, and there’s nothing wrong in pointing it out.

But for some reason, it really pisses people off. I think most likely this is because it bursts their moral bubble. But the moral bubble deserves bursting, because the reality is that, with some notable historical exceptions, there are generally no good guys or bad guys in international affairs, no liberal democracies and no autocracies, just states pursuing their interests. In that regard, there are just two types – powerful states and not-powerful states – and as Thucydides put it, “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer as they must.”

The international system favours the powerful, as they can get away with more. The United States isn’t worse than Belarus, but it is more powerful, and so it misbehaves more than Belarus does. This isn’t a moral judgement; it’s just a fact. It does misbehave more. Russia misbehaves more too, because it also is more powerful, though obviously not as powerful as the Americans. As a results its misdeeds, though larger than those of Belarus, are not as large as those of the USA. This is just the way things are.

Selective moral outrage is mistaken, in other words. It’s mistaken when it targets the weak for their occasional breaches of international norms, because those breaches are both occasional and generally fairly mild. And it’s mistaken when it targets the powerful, because their more consistent, flagrant, and harmful breaches are a product of their power rather than some inherent malevolence. But on the whole, I feel that targeting the latter is more justifiable, simply because their misbehaviour is more consistent, flagrant, and harmful. In short, piling the outrage on Belarus is wrong, just as much as it’s wrong to pile the outrage on the United States (or the Chinese, Russians, or Brits). But if you’re going to pile it on anybody, the latter is a more justifiable target than the former.

Domestically, we in the West have some good reasons for preferring our own systems to those of authoritarian regimes elsewhere. But internationally, we’re no better (and no worse) than all the others we like to complain about. Condemn Lukashenko’s domestic policies as much as you please, but let’s not pretend that Belarus is an international danger. So when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, start complaining about the evils of the Belarusian state, just ask them, “When’s the last time Belarus invaded anybody, sir?” Whataboutism? Sure. But fully justified.

Russia’s Futile Extremist Law

This week, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, approved the first reading of a bill designed to restrict the rights of people associated with groups officially designated as ‘extremist’. As described by Meduza:

“According to the draft law, former “leaders” of terrorist or extremist groups will be banned from running for parliament for a five-year period after said organization is outlawed officially. For an organization’s regular employees, as well as “other persons involved in its activities,” the ban on being elected to parliament will last for three years.

What’s more, anyone who led an outlawed organization in the three years before it was blacklisted could be deprived of the right to be elected to the State Duma. Anyone who supported or worked for an outlawed organization one year before the ban could face the same penalty. In other words, the legislation is meant to have retroactive effect.”

Unsurprisingly, this law has engendered some hostile criticism from those who see it is proof that the Russian state is moving away from ‘soft authoritarism’ towards something closer to ‘hard authoritarianism’. I share the general lack of enthusiasm, and regard the law as definitely a step in an undemocratic direction. Beyond that, I also consider it completely pointless. My logic is as follows:

  1. The law in effect allows the executive branch of government to prevent anybody it so wishes from standing for election, simply by declaring the organization to which they belong as ‘extremist’. This is not a power one would wish the executive in any society to have.
  2. Why not? First, because it’s arguably contrary to democratic values in and of itself. Second, because the power is likely to be used arbitrarily. In Russia’s case, it seems to be directed against opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which the Russian state is attempting to label as ‘extremist’. But why FBK? Why not any number of other political groups who one might think much more properly fit the ‘extremist’ label? Why not the Rodina party, or Zhirinovsky’s LDPR? Or others? The reason seems to be that the Russian state doesn’t object to those, whereas it does object to Navalny. That’s not good reasoning.
  3. The only check on this is judicial review of the ‘extremist’ label, but there is an understandable lack of confidence in the Russian courts’ political independence.
  4. It’s completely unnecessary. No ‘extremist’ organization – including Navalny and his team – is in a position to win seats in parliamentary elections. The law seems to be directed against a threat which doesn’t exist.
  5. It’s counterproductive. The primary reason for considering Navalny and co. ‘extremist’ is their choice of tactics – street demonstrations. But there’s a reason why they resort to those – they feel that there is little point in using normal methods of political struggle via elections. It was rather similar in the late Imperial period – liberal oppositionists became more and more radical because the government restricted alternative modes of political engagement. By banning groups from participating in elections, you leave them no choice but to engage in street protest, seek support from foreign governments, etc. The way to de-radicalize them is to make electoral politics meaningful. This legislation does the opposite.

So, all in all, this legislation takes Russia in the wrong direction, in my opinion. How far in that direction remains to seen. Much will depend on how it will be implemented. But even if the Russian state chooses not to list large numbers of groups as ‘extremist’, thereby limiting this laws scope, the very threat of such labelling could have a chilling effect on opposition activity. All in all, a bad week for Russian democracy.

Striking Back at Modern Day Macarthyism

For several years now, what one might call a neo-Macarthyite atmosphere has prevailed in the United States and elsewhere concerning all things Russian. Anybody who has in any way dared to lift his or her head over the parapet and say or write anything remotely challenging the prevailing Russophobic mainstream has found himself or herself subject to accusations of being a ‘Russian agent’, ‘in the pay of the Kremlin’, a ‘Kremlin’s Trojan Horse’, a Russian ‘useful idiot’, a ‘Russian proxy’, a ‘Kremlin asset’, or any number of other similar things.

On occasions, the attacks have gone beyond mere name-calling. The entire Russiagate saga in the United States was a case in point, with Donald Trump’s statements about the need for improved relations with Russia being interpreted as proof that he was a fully-paid up agent of Russian intelligence. Trump’s one-time advisor Carter Page was similar accused in effect of treason, and even had his phoned tapped by the FBI. And historian Stephen Cohen saw an effort to establish a prize in his name blocked. In other countries, lobby groups have tried to get people fired from their jobs, as in the case of Dublin City University in Ireland, where the Georgian and Ukrainian embassies launched an assault on a professor on account of a course he teaches. Or Glenn Diesen, who was subjected to a campaign of harassment at his university in Norway, because he writes for RT.

There is no shortage of such examples, and I have covered some of them on this blog, showing the absurdity of the charges levied against those involved. Now, at last, there has finally been some reaction, in the form of a letter signed by over 120 academics and former government officials in defence of Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Kennan Institute, who was denied a position in the US National Security Council after a campaign by opponents who denounced him, among other things, as a ‘Kremlin asset’.

I discuss the letter in my latest piece for RT (which you can read here). On the one hand, I comment that the letter is welcome. On the other hand, I note that there is something about it that is a little bit off. This is revealed in a section of the letter that states that Rojansky shouldn’t have been attacked because his views are not ‘controversial’ and because ‘Mr Rojansky is a respected member of the expert community in Washington, DC. His ideas are well within the scope of serious debate about US Russia policy.’

I realize that it may be a little bit churlish to complain about this letter, but those lines rather offended me. For what they seem to suggest is that if Rojansky was indeed controversial, and his ideas weren’t well within the mainstream of what is considered ‘serious’ in the ‘expert community’, it would have been ok to attack him. The letter talks of a need for a ‘range of perspectives expressed through vigorous debate … free inquiry and discussion.’ But it’s not clear that the range of perspectives and free inquiry being spoken off includes ideas that lie outside the normal, very narrow, spectrum of what is considered ‘serious’ among ‘respected members of the expert community.’

Indeed, the fact that, as far as I can tell, with the exception of some who came to the defence of Stephen Cohen a few years ago, this community has not bothered to lift a finger to defend all the others whose names have been similarly sullied over the past few years rather suggests to me that the community’s idea of ‘free inquiry’ remains very limited.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair here. If so, I apologize. But I would be rather more impressed with this letter if it was written in defence of somebody who wasn’t a ‘respected member of the expert community’ and whose ideas are indeed ‘controversial.’ For ultimately, they are the people who really need defending, and if we won’t resist the assaults on controversial ideas, then all talk of ‘vigorous debate’ and ‘free inquiry’ is rather pointless.

The Pinochet Option – Liberal Authoritarianism, Russian Style

Right now, I’m reading Alfred Koch’s rambling 2009 book A Crate of Vodka, in which he and journalist Igor Svinarenko muse over their lives in the period 1991 to 2001. Koch was Russian Deputy Prime Minister, with responsibility for privatization, in the mid-1990s, and his book provides an insight into the inner workings of the Russian liberal mind of that period. On pages 44-45 and 284 of the book, he notes the following:

I have nothing against a strong hand, when it is strong. I developed a lot of my mentality in Chile. We got some training from ministers who were in the Pinochet government. … Pinochet didn’t try to pass himself off as a democrat, which he was not. He knew they needed to build a liberal economy, and he built it; he knew they needed to stifle the opposition, and he stifled it. Just as he was supposed to. … It pained me to think that we, unlike the Chileans, did not manage to seize power from our leftists in 1973. We had Russian Communists an extra 18 years in our country … The mighty old man Pinochet spared his country the humiliations that are inevitable under a Communist regime. He overthrew the regime when he got sick and tired of it, when he couldn’t stand it any more. … Grandpa-General Pinochet acted like a man, and shot from the hip. But we didn’t have any one in those years who could have brought the country in line with common sense. Who had the strength, the intelligence, and the conscience. It just didn’t work out that way. … Chile, 1973. Total collapse. The economy just stopped. The country was bankrupt. Politically, a dead end. Then, like in a bad movie, fast forward on the calendar, twenty years later… What better example do we need to see that we must act and not just gab about reforms?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how modern Russia has moved in an authoritarian direction in the past couple of years. Of course, people have been saying that for years, but the argument is that with a recent clampdown on opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his allies, Russian president Vladimir Putin has shifted from ‘soft’ authoritarianism to ‘hard’ authoritarianism. Anna Nemtsova, for instance, recently published a piece in the Daily Beast with the title ‘Russia plunges into era of “dictatorship” as Putin looms over Eastern Europe.’ Other such articles abound.

I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of many of the repressive measures recently introduced by the Russian state: declaring media ‘foreign agents’, labelling Navalny’s organization ‘extremist’, and so on. But while Russian liberals bleat about the illiberal and undemocratic nature of their government, Koch’s statement above makes it worth spending a little time considering how Russia ended up that way and who built the system that Putin now governs.

Continue reading The Pinochet Option – Liberal Authoritarianism, Russian Style

Ukraine’s Fascist Problem

In a new article for RT, that you can read here, I discuss the recent march in Kiev in commemoration of the 14th SS Galicia Division. I conclude that Ukraine is not a fascist state but does have a fascism problem.

Since I wrote this, President Zelensky of Ukraine has condemned the march and told the Kiev city authorities to investigate why it was permitted. This is all well and good, but one has to ask what took him so long. Things like this are hardly a rarity in some bits of Western Ukraine. Does it only matter if it happens in the capital? Will Zelensky now put a stop to it throughout the country, or continue turning a blind eye as long as it stays clear of Kiev itself? I’m can’t say that I’m confident that it will be the former.