Tag Archives: coronavirus

Wishful democratic thinking

‘How coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings in the former Soviet Union’, says a headline in this week’s New Statesman, followed by the subheading ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’. That pretty much tells you the message that author Felix Light wants you to take on board – when it comes to dealing with the COVID crisis: ‘democracy good, authoritarianism bad’. It sounds nice. I’m a democrat. So are most of you, I imagine. We’d like to think that democracy works better than the alternative. But is it true?

‘In the former Soviet Union … if dictatorship is fumbling the coronavirus test, then democracy is passing with flying colours’, writes Light, contrasting the low infection and death rates in the ‘democratic’ Baltic states and Georgia with the higher rates in ‘dictatorial’ Russia, Belarus, and Central Asia (Ukraine doesn’t get a mention – perhaps Light can’t work out where to put it on the democracy-authoritarian spectrum, or perhaps it fails to fit his model). The reason, he says, is that ‘post-Soviet authoritarianism tends to mask relatively weak states. Even without a deadly viral pandemic, these regimes often find it difficult to perform bread-and-butter functions.’

There’s some truth to this, in that state capacity in many former Soviet states is relatively weak compared to, say, Western Europe or North America. But state capacity and democracy are not directly correlated. China has quite substantial state capacity, but isn’t democratic. Ukraine is considered more democratic than many other post-Soviet states but has perhaps the weakest state capacity of them all. Moreover, capacity is one thing; having the will to use it is another. When it comes to COVID-19, China has shown that it has both capacity and will; the United States, by contrast, has the capacity, but has shown relatively little will. Overall, looking at the data on which states have fared well and which states have fared badly during the COVID crisis, it’s very hard to see any correlation between success or failure on the one hand and state capacity on the other.

So let’s look at those statistics. Comparing them is difficult because some states do a lot more coronavirus tests than others, and so their higher infection rates may simply be a reflection of detecting a lot more asymptomatic cases. Also problematic is the fact that different countries use different criteria to classify the cause of death, with some putting the cause down as coronavirus if there’s even a suspicion that it might be, and others saying that it’s not an official coronavirus death if the deceased had the virus but actually died of something else. This produces wide differences in death rates from country to country. In the case of Russia, there are suspicions that the official death rate underestimates reality, perhaps by a factor of 2 to 3. There is some evidence to support this claim, based on the number of ‘excess deaths’ this year as opposed to last. However, this is hardly unique to Russia. According to the BBC today, the number of excess deaths in the past few weeks in the UK is around 50,000, whereas the official COVID death toll is about 28,000, suggesting that the official toll underestimates reality by a factor of 2. Given all these problems, the best we can do is accept that official statistics are questionable, but also recognize that the same errors arise across the board, and so take the data as a more or less accurate representation of comparative levels of infection and death.

And so what does the data tell us (focusing on death rates, as ultimately that’s what really matters)? Latvia has experienced just 19 coronavirus deaths, Estonia 61, and Lithuania 54. These seem like tiny numbers, but the population of these countries is very small too (Estonia being just 1.3 million). The death rates per million of population in these three countries are 8.3, 46.9, and 19.3 respectively, indicating quite a variation between them (Latvia doing quite well, but Estonia not so much).

Russia, meanwhile, has officially declared 2,305 coronavirus deaths, which equates to 16.5 per million inhabitants, a higher rate than Latvia, but much lower than Estonia, and a little lower than Lithuania. Belarus has declared 151 deaths, a rate of 15.9 per million – very similar to Russia, so again lower than Estonia and Lithuania. In Ukraine, there are 456 deaths, a rate of 10.1 per million. Kazakhstan claims only to have suffered 32 deaths, giving it a remarkably low rate of 1.74 per million. Uzbekistan says only 11 Uzbeks have died from coronavirus, despite a population of nearly 33 million, a death rate of 0.33 per million. And so on.

You can, of course, take the Central Asian results with a pinch of salt, if you want, but even if they are a substantial underestimate, there’s no evidence to suggest that the death rate there is any worse than in the Baltic States. Likewise, if you accept the claim that Russia’s official statistics underestimate reality by an order of 2-3, and simultaneously believe that the Baltic figures are 100% correct, then Russia’s true death rate ends up being pretty much identical to that of Estonia. And if on top of all that, you accept the classification of the Baltic States as ‘democracies’ and the other post-Soviet states as ‘authoritarian’, then Light’s claim that democracy is coping with the virus crisis better than authoritarianism simply isn’t borne out by the data.

And this isn’t the case only in the post-Soviet space. Let’s say that the Russian and Belarussian statistics underestimate reality by 200%, so that there are actually about 6,000 coronavirus deaths in Russia, and let’s also say (which, as we’ve seen, we probably shouldn’t) that official statistics in Western democratic states don’t underestimate at all. That would give Russia and Belarus a death rate of around 50 per million, while giving Western states the following rates: United States – 258; United Kingdom – 495; Canada – 141; Spain – 580; Italy – 499; France – 403; Belgium – 777; Germany (considered a European success story) – 94; and so on. The picture is pretty clear: while the situation is far from universally rosy and there are certainly no grounds for complacency, compared with the democratic ‘West’, all states in the former Soviet Union have fared reasonably well. Why that is the case is an open question, but regime type appears to have nothing to do with it.

The COVID pandemic, says Felix Light, has ‘underlined democracy’s public health advantages’, and ‘has simply incentivised governments to make sound pandemic policy decisions’. For simplicity’s sake, let’s put aside the somewhat unsophisticated division of states into categories of ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’, and similarly for simplicity’s sake let’s accept Light’s formula for which states fit into which box (the West, the Baltics & the Georgia – democratic; the rest – authoritarian). Is it true, as Light claims, that ‘coronavirus is exposing authoritarianism’s failings’ and that ‘Dictatorships in eastern Europe have struggled to respond to the pandemic in contrast to their democratic rivals’? As I said, it’s a nice story, and the democrat in me would love to believe it. But, unfortunately for Mr Light, the stats say otherwise. It’s just another case of wishful democratic thinking.

Twice Doomed

What’s up with The Spectator magazine? As I mentioned in my last post, on Thursday they published a piece by Andrew Foxall entitled ‘Covid-19 is testing Putin’s regime’. And then, on Friday, just one day later, out comes another article, this time by Owen Matthews, with the headline ‘Can Putin survive the coronavirus stress test?’ Really? How many different versions of the same story does the Spectator plan to publish?

Matthews has been on my radar since he produced this piece, just a few days after I had written this one. Perhaps I’m a bit petty, but I was somewhat peeved by the striking similarities. Anyway, Matthews is a fully signed up member of the ‘the Putin regime is doomed’ club, as you can see by the Speccie front cover below from the time of World Cup two years ago. ‘Russia is crumbling’, he told us, which is odd because Russia looked quite good during the World Cup, at least to me and just about everyone else who attended. But it’s always the beginning of the end for Matthews, apparently. The annexation of Crimea? A huge blunder, he said – it would cost a fortune, Putin’s paymasters wouldn’t tolerate it, and it ‘will be the downfall of Putin’. And so on, and so forth.

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Continue reading Twice Doomed

Crisis? What Crisis?

Back in 2014, Paul Starobin wrote an excellent article analyzing what he called the ‘“Russia is Doomed” syndrome’, which is manifested in persistent claims that Russia is on the verge of collapse. This perspective, said Starobin, ‘is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context.’ One should add to this that the ‘Russia is doomed’ narrative applies not just to Russia as a whole, but also to the system of government and the person of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. They are all perpetually on the edge of extinction.

You can get a flavour of this from titles of books published by Western journalists this past decade, such as Ben Judah’s  ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin’ (embarrassingly published just before Putin’s ratings rose to record highs following the annexation of Crimea), and Richard Lourie’s ‘Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash’ (neither of which has yet come about). Whenever anything happens which suggests that everything is not going 100% swimmingly well in Russia, then out come the keyboard warriors to flog another screed telling us all how the end is nigh, Putin’s popularity is tumbling, and regime change is just around the corner.

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Continue reading Crisis? What Crisis?

Pot, kettle, black

I’ve theorized before that there may be something of a correlation between how loudly someone shouts about misinformation and how much misinformation comes out of that person’s own mouth. Recent years have led to a large-scale, and seemingly well-funded, industry of misinformation ‘experts’, who make a healthy living from exposing alleged foreign attempts to undermine our fragile democratic order, while simultaneously having a rather tenuous hold on the truth themselves. A recent publication from the University of Calgary is a case in point.

Entitled ‘COVID-19 as a tool of information confrontation: Russia’s approach’, the piece comes under the banner of the university’s School of Public Policy, giving it the air of academic respectability. In reality, it’s an under-referenced, poorly produced rant, which doesn’t deserve wide publicity. Still, I think it’s worth referencing as an example of how the misinformation industry operates.

Author Sergey Sukhankin, whose work I have discussed before, argues the following:

As the rest of the world struggles to cope with COVID-9, Russia is churning out propaganda that blames the West for creating the virus. … Russia is using social media accounts, fake news outlets, state-controlled global satellite media, bloggers, pseudo-scientists and supposed scholars, experts and Russians living in the West to spread its lies and distortions. … Putin’s larger goal in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories is to subvert the West … COVID-19 is seen as an ideal way for Russia to deal a powerful blow not only to the EU, but to inflict damage on the ties between Europe and its North American allies.

It’s sounds terrible. The problem is that after two and half pages of introduction and historical filling, the core of the publication, which itself consists of just two pages, contains no evidence to back the assertions above. Note the claim that Russia is ‘churning’ out propaganda, suggesting a huge flood of the stuff. But Sukhankin fails to provide examples, let alone evidence of a process of ‘churning’. Note also the use of the word ‘Russia’, which seems to imply that everything any Russian says is somehow part of some centralized state plan. Again, no evidence is produced. It’s remarkably thin gruel.

What we do get is a complaint of crude disinformation being spread on Russian TV to the ‘least informed of the Russian masses’ by ‘Russia’s most notorious TV anchor, Yevgeny Kisilev’ (a rather embarrassing error, as Sukhankin surely means Dmitry Kisilev – Yevgeny moved to Ukraine in 2008). I have to admit that I don’t watch either Kiselev, so I have no idea what they’ve been saying about coronavirus. But what I do know is that Dmitry broadcasts in Russia, to Russians, not in foreign languages to foreign audiences. How then could he be part of some Russian plan to spread disinformation in the West? It doesn’t make sense. As for what this disinformation is, the only example Sukhankin provides is Russian TV showing pictures from the social media account of hockey star Alexander Ovechkin’s wife, showing empty shelves in American stores. Well, where’s the disinformation in that? (Besides which, most of us have probably seen similar pictures online from the USA and elsewhere from any other number of people – it’s hardly something extraordinary for them to appear on Russian TV).

I could go on, but I don’t want to give too much credence to this stuff. I’ll just provide one more example of Sukhankin’s weird form of argumentation. Apparently, ‘Russian intellectuals have concluded that the virus is a precursor of the coming end of the “liberal world order, and giving way to a new configuration in which old powers, such as the US … are giving way to the new leaders, including China and Russia.’ Well, yes, some have. But the idea that the balance of power in the world is shifting is hardly a uniquely Russian one (let alone disinformation, since it is obviously true), and the potential impact of the current crisis on the international order is a topic exercising intellectuals in the West just as much as in Russia. How is all this proof that Russia is ‘churning out propaganda’ to ‘subvert the West’ and deal a ‘powerful blow’ to the Western alliance? It isn’t. Not in the slightest.

‘Russian military-political elites consider COVID-19 as something that could and should be used to deal a powerful blow to the EU’, concludes Sukhankin, providing not a single reference to anything any Russian military-political leader has said to this effect. But don’t let the lack of evidence get in our way. Something must be done! ‘The Canadian government must take a tougher stance on platforms/agencies operating in Canadian information space and deliberately sowing panic or discord among the population’, says the final words of the report. And so we end up where we so often do, with a call for censorship.

Of itself, this publication doesn’t matter a jot. It’s just the ramblings of one guy in Calgary – a true scholar, I guess, not one of the ‘supposed scholars’ he denounces. But this stuff spreads. For instance, Canadian military historian David Bercuson, a Calgary U professor emeritus, took the opportunity of Sukhankin’s publication to pen a piece in the National Post, spreading fear of Russian and Chinese disinformation. On almost a daily basis, stories and op-eds appear claiming that the Russians are using COVID-19 for geopolitical purposes. The aid Russia has recently provided to Italy and the United States is a case in point. Take a look at these recent headlines:

‘The influence operation behind Russia’s coronavirus aid to Italy: how the Kremlin is using Covid-19 crisis to undermine NATO and the EU.’ (Coda Story, 2 April 2020)

‘Coronavirus: what does “from Russia with love” really mean?’(BBC, 3 April 2020)

‘Beware of Bad Samaritans: China and Russia are sending medical aid to Italy and other coronavirus-stricken countries, but their motives aren’t so altruistic’. (Foreign Policy, 30 March 2020)

‘Russian aid to Italy leaves EU exposed’. (New York Times, 26 March 2020)

‘Russian mercy mission to Italy is a front for intelligence gathering, British expert warns.’ (Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2020)

Having read these, now ask yourself a couple of questions: who exactly is using COVID-19 to spread propaganda? who exactly is exploiting the current situation to raise tensions and stoke conflict? To me, the answer is pretty clear. It’s very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black.