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Archive for March, 2012

“Colour Revolution” and the Myths of Putinism.

Posted by democratist on March 23, 2012

23rd March 2012,

Since 2000, Russia has increasingly come to be governed by the use of propaganda as a method for ensuring the legitimation of the regime and keeping the population in check. A series of half-truths, exaggerations and myths have been created to this end, each of which bears the none too subtle whiff of the work of political technologists; that Russia’s elections are “more or less” democratic; that the country only suffers from “civilized” levels of corruption; that Skolkovo will make Russia’s economy a globally competitive center of innovation within a few years; that the Duma is an institution that dutifully scrutinizes legislation on behalf of the electorate; that political and economic reform is “just around the corner…”

But perhaps the overarching legitimation myth of Putinism is idea of the “Colour Revolution,” the notion that the processes of revolt and democratization which have taken place in the near abroad and (more recently) middle East over the past decade are part of some all-powerful, hydra-headed American conspiracy, aimed at “destroying Russia” (and incidentally, world domination). Indeed, according to this narrative we are to believe that those perfidious Americans work day and night to confound otherwise perfectly content populations into overthrowing such beloved (and, of course, free and fairly elected) leaders as Milosevic, Yanukovich, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.

The rationale behind the promotion of such theories is an unwillingness to accept the growing appeal of democratic governance to people in autocratic states generally, and of the applicability of the democratic model to Russia specifically. The need for the continued promotion of such a view of the world is dictated by the elite’s unwillingness to relax their grip on power domestically, or allow themselves to be put to the test of a genuinely fair election (regardless of how popular the opinion polls say they are). It is far easier to ascribe an unwarranted role in these revolts to the CIA, George Soros, the Bilderburg group or whoever, than to accept that the autocratic model of governance, while currently popular in Russia,  has a very limited shelf life in the absence of high oil revenues, and has been rejected by the populations of at least a dozen countries over the last decade.

In terms of the implications of this we might expect for Russia’s domestic political development over the coming years, the continued employment of conspiracy theory as a means of control does not bode well. It is unlikely that the government will allow any genuine political alternatives to emerge to the current system whilst it also tars them, at the same time, as agents of foreign influence. This makes an eventual peaceful transition of power less likely.

A related problem is that Russian history already has several examples which demonstrate that where conspiracy is given prominence, there is a strong tendency that eventually even the leadership and security organs will come to believe their own inventions.

In Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History (2009) the British author David Aaronovich gives the example of the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion; a forged document supposedly describing how senior representatives of the Jewish community were plotting to achieve world domination, which was in fact cooked-up by the Okhrana in the early 1900′s as a weapon to bolster tsarist autocracy against reformism (many reformist politicians were Jews).

Another example of the NKVD’s (as it was by then called) handiwork can be seen in the Moscow “show trials” of the late 1930′s. During these trials several senior party members were coerced into implicating themselves in a complex series of conspiracies apparently intended to derail Soviet industrialization and overthrow Stalin in favour of the exiled Leon Trotsky. Needless to say (as was later admitted), no such plots ever existed; they were invented by the NKVD in order to consolidate Stalin’s grip on power, provide excuses for the numerous shortcomings of the first 5-year plan, and pander to the leader’s own deep personal paranoia. As Robert Conquest has described in The Great Terror (1968/1991), many millions died in the subsequent purges.

What is important in both cases is that eventually those in power in Russia came to believe the fictions they had created were true: In The Mitrokhin Archive (a document whose veracity and accuracy never been officially denied, more than a decade after publication), Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin recount that many among the KGB senior ranks still fully believed in the existence of Zionist plots well into the 1960′s and 1970′s. Similarly, many in the nomenklatura genuinely believed in the truth of the “show trials,” and supported the purges up until Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956.

Therefore we should perhaps not be too surprised at the anger in Prime Minister Putin’s voice, and the tears which streamed down his face during his otherwise carefully choreographed acceptance speech on the Manezhka earlier this month. His invocation of outside forces trying to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs may seem contrived to the foreign observer, especially after what the OSCE described as a poll which was “clearly skewed in favour of one of the contestants.” But, old chekist that he is, the possibility remains that Russia’s old-new President has come to genuinely believe in the myths that have been invented over the years by his colleagues in order to ensure he retains his grip on power.

Additional note: I have just added a link for the Wikipedia page for The Mitrokhin Archive. Oddly enough, there is no Russian translation of this page.  I wonder why?

Posted in Conspiracy Theory, Russian Politics | 11 Comments »

Putin 2.0?

Posted by democratist on March 19, 2012

March 19th 2012,

In the wake of the presidential elections, commentators across Russia and the world have been asking how Vladimir Putin will govern Russia in his third term. How will he respond to the rise of an increasingly critical urban middle class? Is he about to recast himself as a reformer (“Putin 2.0”), or will he crack down on the unrest as a populist autocrat? Finally, will he imitate reform but actually maintain the status quo?

A mixture of the last two options looks most plausible. The rhetoric of reform will be pushed once again to the fore but the system will remain unchanged. Just as was the case with the Medvedev “liberalization,” “Putin 2.0” looks likely to prove a non-starter; a convenient lie designed to provide the illusion that change may on the way in a society that is (mostly) aware that this is not true, but also one where many people are keen to keep up the pretence of reform.

In this regard, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that political and economic reform in contemporary Russia are “being implemented” in the same way that the communist utopia was “just a few years away” during the late Soviet period. In both cases this narrative serves the same purpose: A legitimizing tool that can be trotted out by those with an interest in keeping the existing system in place in the face of popular scepticism. In both cases the message is essentially the same; you are part of a “greater project”; stay the course; things will improve gradually; there is no need to rock the boat.

But the fact that issues of property rights, the promotion of small and medium-sized business culture, and especially corruption persist after 12 years of Putin strongly suggests that serious change is unlikely. Indeed, for an indication of the source of much of Russia’s corruption, we need look no further than Angus Roxburgh’s analysis of the extraordinary good fortunes of Vladimir Putin’s friends from his Saint Petersburg youth, and the Ozero dacha collective. (Strongman, I.B. Tauris 2012). Arkady and Boris Rotenburg, Putin’s erstwhile judo partners, each now have assets worth $1.75 billion. Yuri Kovalchuk, from the Ozero collective is worth just under a billion dollars. There are many other similar examples.

More broadly, Roxburgh notes, “…by far the biggest obstacle to foreign investment (or the creation of an international financial center in Russia) can be summed up in one word – corruption – a word so complex that one leading Russian businessman told me I would never, as a Westerner understand it. “Theft,” he said, “is not theft as you know it. It is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable.””

In this regard, Professor Alena Ledeneva (of University Collage London) has argued that the Putin corruption systema is fundamentally unreformable, and will remain in place until a change in the political or economic situation provokes a collapse. Given the evidence presented above, the continued popularity of the government, and the involvement of large sections of Russian society in various corruption networks, the re-election of Vladimir Putin is unlikely to herald a period of reform. Rather, a better case can be made that Putin has become captive to a system he helped to create, and will be unable to introduce the reforms Russia needs without alienating these constituencies.

Nonetheless, change is certainly coming, because the middle class is growing, and Russian society is changing. But the tipping point is years away. The oil price is again on the rise, and so social spending can remain high. This will be enough to placate large parts of the population. Many people are living materially better lives, and indeed have more freedom than Russians have enjoyed throughout almost all of their history.

Additionally the current system has the backing of the FSB, an organization which acts in a manner closer to an arab mukhabarat than western Security Services, and which sees the protection of the regime as a key priority. Therefore, in addition to the (already evident) shift towards renewed state media restrictions and manipulation, the FSB will not hesitate to use all of the many tools at its disposal (surveillance, subversion, kompromat) to ensure the opposition remains weak, divided and marginalized.

Posted in Russian Corruption, Russian Economy | Leave a Comment »

Spies, Lies and the OSCE.

Posted by democratist on March 14, 2012

March 14th 2012,

A few days ago we ran a piece suggesting that there was a high likelihood that the FSB were planning a “provocation” against the OSCE, because the international elections watchdog had been critical in their preliminary report on the presidential elections.

Since then, some additional evidence has come to light that may indeed be the case; one of Democratist’s friends, present during both polls has written to us about their adventures. They made the following points:

  • The presidential campaign was unfair because candidates were disqualified on technicalities, the media biased in favour of Putin.
  • Many people said they were afraid to demonstrate because they feared negative impact at work.
  • The electoral administration was professional, but completely dominated by United Russia, with allegations of bribery.
  • There were many more domestic observers in the presidential poll than in the parliamentary; both from parties and NGOs such as GOLOS. This may have reduced the number of irregularities on election day, although there were still plenty of complaints of ballot box stuffing, carousel voting, intimidation of observers and changing the figures on the protocols.
  • The counting process lacked transparency; no international observers were allowed entry to the GASvibory room, where the results were entered onto a computer.
  • Additionally, in St. Petersburg and Nizhegorodksy, international observers found evidence of so-called “phantom” polling stations; polling stations that proved to be non-existent when investigated (and where Putin received over 90% of the vote).
  • The number of NVT  (New Voting Technology) automated units in PECs was increased from the Duma polls, and it is believed that Russia is heading towards a system in the future where NVTs will be used in every PEC; this could lead to a number of problems as there will be no physical counting of the ballots.
  • There were fewer complaints received at every administrative level than during the Duma elections, but this was probably due to a general lack of confidence in the system, since many legal complaints have “gone missing” since the parliamentary polls.
  • Many observers experienced intimidation by individuals claiming to be immigration officers (but probably FSB). These claimed that the observers had problems with their police registration, visa etc. They put it to the observers that they were secretly funding the opposition and training domestic observers. There was evidence that emails and phone calls were intercepted, and that some local staff were working as informants.
  • The local press ran stories accusing the international observers of being spies.

Such then, is the welcome provided for the OSCE by the “managed” Russian democracy. But our initial question remains: Were the allegations of espionage just a form of intimidation? Or will the leadership choose to use them as an excuse to ensure that there are no international observers in 2018 (other than those “international observers” who are in fact controlled by the Russians themselves) or as part of wider political manoeuvring?

Posted in OSCE | 1 Comment »

Russian Autocracy and the Future of the Arab Spring.

Posted by democratist on March 12, 2012

12th March 2012,

It hardly comes as a great surprise that the Arab Spring should have proved unpopular with the current Russian government and its representatives in the media. The great fear is that before too long the same fate awaits the Putin regime as that suffered by the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Closer to home, recent examples of so-called “colour-revolutions” include Georgia (2003) Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005) and Moldova (2009).

In the Russian case this fear seems somewhat exaggerated for the time being since the government remains popular, especially in the provinces, but nevertheless the obsession is rather telling. Since Russia Today is essentially a more or less unmediated reflection of the world-view of its Kremlin paymasters, it is again unsurprising that the channel should seek to highlight the post-revolutionary problems that have occurred in the middle East since December 2010.

Recent negative trends here have included an election of questionable usefulness and validity in Yemen, and growing regional divisions and repressive Islamist measures apparently to be taken against women in Libya. Time after time, the message drawn from this by the representatives of autocracy is clear; these people were far better off under the strong-men; safer and freer.

In one sense, this is, of course true. Hundreds of Egyptians have died since the revolution, about 10,000 people have died in Syria (so far), and several times that number died in Libya during the civil war there. Islamism is indeed in the rise, as the elections in Egypt and developments in Libya have demonstrated. So it is quite legitimate to ask whether it was all worth it?

There are several answers to this question. The first is ask whether another, more peaceful alternative was ever available? Would it not have been better for the people of the region to have been more patient? Wouldn’t the Mubarak, Gaddafi, Al-Assad and other regimes have been willing to reform of their own accord eventually? This seems unlikely; Gaddafi was in power for 42 years, Mubarak for more than thirty. The revolutions that have taken place in these countries provide clear evidence that the people’s patience had long been exhausted. Historically, we would do well to remember that the internal peace and democracy of contemporary western states act to obscure the bitter and violent struggles in the past which eventually brought the new order into being; the English Civil War; the American war of independence; the French revolution; the fascist and nazi periods in Italy and Germany. Indeed, Marxists have argued that there is no such thing as a peaceful path to modernity: Social movements are brought into inevitable conflict by the development of capitalism.

The second point to make here is that, although Islamism is certainly on the rise in the region, and represents a socially conservative agenda, its success does not necessarily represent a return to despotism, or anti-westernism in foreign policy. As professor Fawaz Gerges of the LSE noted in a public lecture given on 13th February, there are several historical-sociological trends we need to take into account in our analysis of the likely future developments stemming from the Arab Spring.

Firstly, in the Arab world most mainstream Islamists (in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Syria) have renounced violence since the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, and have not only renounced it, but have laboured hard to join the political process in their societies, despite severe repression. For many Arab Islamists the Iranian revolutionary model is seen as having failed to offer a workable alternative to western secularism: The construction of theocracy in Iran since 1979 has motivated them to think in alternative terms to the Iranian goal of the construction of an “islamic state”, and rather to aim about the creation of a “civil state” [i.e a one which, while not secular, has many democratic elements, including free and fair elections, which might serve as a peaceful arbiter for at least some of the “conflicts of modernity” mentioned above].

Secondly, since the 1950’s, there has also been a generational shift within Islamism in almost every Arab country towards pragmatism. This new generation of pragmatists is less obsessed with identity politics that their predecessors. This is not to suggest that ultra-conservatives are not still powerful among Islamists. However, they have been in decline for many years.

Nonetheless, the possibility of a shift to the right remains: There is almost 100 years of bitterness to contend with. And so, if we are looking for an immediate shift to a Swiss-style democracy (as a number of autocratically minded commentators seem to have assumed should have already taken place), we are wasting our time: Whether these developments take place will only be evident over the longer term. This said, there are several important historical-social trends evident which suggest the Arab Spring will not descend into the despotic anti-western fiasco of the Putinist imagination.

Additionally, it seems unlikely that Arab Islamists are about to take reckless decisions on foreign policy: Islamists in Libya embraced NATO intervention, and many are calling on the US to take action in Syria: A change is taking place in the way Islamists view the west, and of western intervention.

Equally, Russia’s influence in the region has waned over the past 18 months through its support for Gaddafi and Assad.

And if the countries of the Arab Spring do indeed eventually settle down into a pattern or more or less democratic “civil” statehood over the coming decade, this will act as yet another indicator of the backwardness of the autocratic model, and as yet another signal that the writing is on the wall for the Putin regime.

For a theoretical overview see;

Posted in Arab Spring, Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, Revolutions, Russia Propaganda | 7 Comments »

A reply to Peter Lavelle’s, “The Return of Vladimir Putin.” In The National Interest.

Posted by democratist on March 9, 2012

9th March 2012,

A reply to Peter Lavelle’s article “The Return of Vladimir Putin” in The National Interest.

After a recent Facebook discussion, Peter Lavelle (of Russia Today fame) has asked me to review his new piece in the The National Interest.

To save time, I will highlight Lavelle’s main points in bold, which will be followed by my replies.

“There is ample evidence of some voting fraud in December, though hardly enough to change the final results.”

This is untrue for a two reasons. Firstly it is false because the considerable falsification that took place in December (6%-15% depending on who you believe) meant that more United Russia candidates were elected to parliament that should have been, and conversely other parties have less representation than they deserved.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is misleading because electoral fraud and the manipulation of public opinion in Russia take a wider form than just ballot stuffing on election day. If we look at the OSCE ODIHR final report on the parliamentary elections, we will see that they make the following points;

“Although seven parties ran, the prior denial of registration to certain political parties narrowed political competition. The contest was also slanted in favour of the ruling party. This was evidenced by the lack of independence of the election administration, the partiality of most media, and the undue interference of state authorities at different levels. This did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition… The denial by the Ministry of Justice of registration to a number of political parties reduced the choices available to voters. In one case, the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the state’s disbanding of one party was disproportionate and constituted an unlawful interference in the party’s internal functioning.”

So it is also necessary to look more broadly at the context of the parliamentary elections. The choice of parties was unfairly narrowed before the elections took place, and some parties which may have been represented in parliament under a fair vote were denied access to the electoral process. Additionally, both electoral administration and media were biased, and these also affected the final result. Therefore Lavelle is being highly disingenuous when he states, “United Russia’s poor showing in the parliamentary elections proves that the electoral mechanism reflects public opinion.” United Russia’s poor showing (which should have been a lot poorer) proves that a majority of people are not prepared to vote for the party, but this does not mean that the electoral mechanism accurately reflects the full range of public opinion.

“Politics during and after the presidential election is characterized by accountability and confidence.”

Accountability? Really? I again refer to the OSCE’s report on the parliamentary polls from December. They state;

“The process of adjudication of complaints’ by the CEC [Central Electoral Commission] lacked transparency and did not afford the contestants effective and timely redress. The CEC has not complied with the legal requirement that all complaints must be acted upon and responded to in writing. Representatives of most political parties expressed a high degree of distrust in the impartiality of election commissions at all levels and questioned their independence from various state administration bodies.”

So how “accountable” is that? And to what extend did the lack of accountability from the parliamentary polls in December effect the “confidence” which you suggest was present during the presidential election?

“Now parliament must legislate through compromise.”

This is misleading. It is easy to compromise when a high degree of consensus already exists (as discussed above). All three parliamentary “opposition” parties are in fact systemic to a greater or lesser extent (with corruption playing a critical role in keeping them all in line, see below). Characters such as Zhirinovsky and Lugovoi do not inspire much confidence and are unlikely to rock the boat. There is every indication that the Duma will continue to act as a rubber stamp.

“Putin’s intensive-growth strategy must take into account social demands that are hardly revolutionary or alien to him and his inner circle. They include respect for property rights, promotion of small- and medium-size business culture, a tax system that promotes economic growth, decent pensions for the elderly and a serious effort to tackle the scourge of modern Russia—pervasive corruption.”

This is very curious. Where exactly has this great reformer been for the last 12 years? And why was it not possible to deal with these issues during the previous period of “extensive growth” which Lavelle describes? The fact that such problems (especially corruption) continue to flourish strongly suggests that reform is unlikely. Transparency International rated Russia 143rd (out of 182 countries) last year (Russia was 80th in 1999).

The case of Sergei Magnitsky is instructive in this regard. He died in prison in November 2009 after being arrested by the very officials he accused of fraud. As far as I am aware, despite plentiful evidence, no action has yet been taken against those who originally stole $230 million from Hermitage Capital, nor against those responsible for Magnitsky’s murder.

For an indication of the source of much of Russia’s corruption, we need look no further than Angus Roxburgh’s analysis of the extraordinary good fortunes of Putin’s friends from his Saint Petersburg youth, and the Ozero dacha collective of which Putin was a member. (Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, I.B. Tauris 2012). As an example, Arkady and Boris Rotenburg, Putin’s erstwhile judo partners, each now have assets worth $1.75 billion. Yuri Kovalchuk, from the Ozero collective is worth just under a billion dollars. Roxburgh provides many other similar examples.

But, going back to Magnitsky, the enrichment of Putin’s friends is just the tip of the iceberg. As Edward Lucas writes in Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West (Bloomsbury, 2012), numerous officials involved in that case from the interior ministry and tax department have in fact been linked to the FSB, and the fraud which was perpetuated against Hermitage Capital may well have been directed from the ministerial level.

In this regard, Roxburgh notes in Strongman, “…by far the biggest obstacle to foreign investment (or the creation of an international financial center in Russia) can be summed up in one word – corruption – a word so complex that one leading Russian businessman told me I would never, as a Westerner understand it. “Theft,” he said, “is not theft as you know it. It is the entire system – the political system, the business establishment, the police, the judiciary, the government, from top to bottom, all intertwined and inseparable.””

Professor Alena Ledeneva (of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL, and author of numerous books on the subject) has argued in a number of recent public discussions that the Putin corruption systema is, (much like the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era) fundamentally unreformable, and will remain in place until a change in the political or economic situation provokes a collapse. Given the evidence presented above, as well as the continued popularity of the government, and the involvement of large sections of Russian society in various corruption networks, the re-election of Vladimir Putin is extremely unlikely to herald a period of reform. Rather, a better case can be made that Putin has become captive to a system he helped to create and (just as was the case with Dimitry Medvedev), he will be unable to introduce the reforms Russia needs without alienating these critically important constituencies.

Since this is the case, while (as Lavelle’s article hints), the United Russia (UR) party will probably be officially rolled-up soon, the function of any replacement party (and doubtless much of its membership) will remain the same; it is the “party of power,” and (to quote Mikhail Gorbachev) a “bad copy” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: At the regional level, it exists to bolster the existing power structures, for example by organizing the widespread electoral fraud we saw in the December elections. United Russia is merely the most recent incarnation of this “party of power.” It will not be the last.

The same can be said of any forthcoming cabinet reshuffles: things will change a little, so that they don’t really change at all. Ministers come and go, but ultimately the same small group of people will retain political and economic power.

“Consider challenger Mikhail Prokhorov’s remarkable 7.94 percent presidential vote return, in the wake of a very public fallout with the Kremlin.”

Fallouts can be manufactured or exaggerated, as Mr. Lavelle, of all people should know. Prokhorov is smart and would not have run (or have been allowed to run) without a green light from the top. It is interesting that he did not face any of the legal hurdles to his candidacy mentioned above, (and which were used to effectively prevent the candidacy of the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. There remains every possibility that Prokhorov is essentially a long-term kremlin project; someone who might one day be needed to (yet again) provide the illusion of change, whilst essentially keeping the current system in place.

“For the next six years, Putin has no choice but to govern—not to rule, as he has in one form or another over the past twelve years. Normal politics have finally arrived in Russia.”

In fact, as we have argued, Putin probably has no choice but to autocratically “rule”, and not govern Russia for as long as he remains in power (in as far as “governance” – a rather vague and underspecified term as Lavelle uses it here, implies democratization or structural economic reform). And there is certainly much in Russia’s recent history that might cause us to doubt his assertion that “…there is every reason to believe that the Russians are on the path to build a democracy that they can call their own.”

Opposition figures such as Navalny and Udaltsov should avoid any temptation to work within the existing system because the “transformed political terrain” which Lavelle claims has emerged from the presidential elections exists only in his imagination: Co-operation with the regime would result in a rapid loss of support among their overwhelmingly urban and politically savvy fan-bases.

The only thing that has changed since December is that a small (but growing) section of the population is beginning to demand reform, and there has been some very minor media liberalization (which can be quickly reversed) – whereas previously almost no one cared about either of these things. If the opposition is really looking for power in order to drive through real change (as opposed to personal enrichment) then they need to be prepared to remain outside the system, and probably for a very long time indeed. Change is certainly coming, because Russian society is changing, but the tipping point is many years away; the oil price is rising, so social spending can remain high. Many people are enjoying materially better lives, and indeed much more freedom than Russians have enjoyed historically. Additionally the current system has the strong backing of the FSB (Federal Security Service), an organization which, as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan point out in The New Nobility (Public Affairs, 2010), acts in a manner closer to an arab mukhabarat than a Western Security Service, and which therefore sees the protection of the regime as a key priority.

Posted in Electoral Fraud, NATO, OSCE, Russia Today, Russian Middle Class | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: “Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West.” By Edward Lucas

Posted by democratist on March 8, 2012

8th March 2012,

It has been four years since Edward Lucas’ The New Cold War excoriated the Putin regime for its increased repression at home and aggression abroad. That book proved a success precisely because it crystalized a trend in Russian politics which had been becoming evident internationally since about 2003, but which no one had previously managed (or dared) synthesize and analyze in such damning detail in a single tome. The central message of the The New Cold War was a warning about western complacency in the face of a determined foe that was recovering its confidence and capabilities.  In Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West, Lucas seeks to update and deepen his original thesis with both historical and contemporary evidence.

Lucas’ main point is that while the end of the Cold War and the 2010 unmasking of the Russian “illegal” network in the US have been seen as great victories for western spy-catchers, historically it has often been the case that it was the Russians who had the upper hand. In this regard much of the book focuses on the very mixed western record of espionage and counter-intelligence targeted towards the Soviet Union, but launched from the Baltic States in the inter-war period (and again since 1991), as well as often short-sighted and disastrous western attempts at supporting armed resistance groups in the Baltics after 1945.

Examples here include much which has been glossed over in recent official histories; western support for many years of massively penetrated and ineffective émigré groups in both the post-war period, which led to the deaths of large numbers of their agents, and which never had any chance of revealing information on Soviet military activities or decision-making; superb Soviet domestic counter-intelligence right up until the late 1980’s, which meant that both SIS and CIA were together probably never able to recruit more that a maximum of about 80 agents between 1960-90; and the failure for many years of Western counter-intelligence to detect the activities of Herman Simm, an Estonian citizen who spied on NATO for the Russians from 1995 until his arrest in 2008.

Deception stands as a renewed warning against complacency: While the past few years have demonstrated that the SVR can be penetrated, even in its most secretive enclaves, a more historically informed contextualization of recent events suggests that despite very high levels of corruption present in contemporary Russian society, the special services are likely to remain focused, resilient and reasonably disciplined.

Whereas both the US “illegal” and Simm cases were ultimately uncovered because the CIA was able to recruit a key member of the SVR’s illegal program in the chaos that accompanied the downfall of the USSR in the 1990’s, and while it appears that western intelligence agencies retain a number of agents in situ, Lucas makes it clear that the Russian spooks retain important economic, social and political resources upon which they can draw at home, in addition to taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of comparatively open western societies.

The West still has many secrets; military, political, economic, that the Russians (and others) would be delighted to get their hands on in order to buttress their autocratic regimes at home and spread their influence abroad. In the Russian case is quite conceivable that the current government will remain in power for many years to come, buoyed financially by a resurgence in oil prices. If the west wishes to bolster the gradual trend within Russian society towards democratization, then we must not give the Putin regime an easy ride in its attempts to expand its power and influence.

Posted in Book Reviews, Russian Espionage | 1 Comment »

Provokatsiya: Regime may be preparing stitch-up job on OSCE.

Posted by democratist on March 5, 2012

5th March 2012,

The OSCE has done a thorough, balanced, and above all clearly evidence-based job in its observation of the 2012 Russian Presidential elections. However, despite their efforts at presenting their findings in diplomatic language, by telling the truth about the significant manipulation which has clearly taken place in these elections, they risk unsettling the regime to the point that some excuse will have to be found to discredit them, and ensure that they are not present for any future Russian polls.

In a press statement given this afternoon international observers noted that, “Although candidates in yesterday’s presidential election in the Russian Federation were able to campaign unhindered, conditions were clearly skewed in favour of one of the contestants, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.”

Furthermore, observers made it clear that, there had been problems (often serious) during the counting process at around a third of the polling stations they had visited.

That manipulation of the process was left until the count is hardly surprising. Much was made by the regime of the cameras which had been placed in almost all 94,000 polling stations, enabling the public to observe the vote over the internet, and supposedly deter fraud.

However, it now seems clear that the “workaround” employed by the authorities to surmount this obstacle to the desired result (exaggerated in favour of Putin, probably by about 7-10%) was to reserve the bulk of their manipulation until after the completion of voting. From what the international observers have said, it appears that, once the cameras were safely off (or at the very least since they lacked the resolution to observe the count in any detail), it was “business as usual.”

But in making public their findings, and because the OSCE ODIHR is respected for its professionalism and therefore influential both in the West and among the intelligentsiya within Russia, it seems very likely that the organization now risks a serious counter-reaction from the regime. Given the nature of the current government, and the (so far unpublicized) scrutiny the OSCE have been under from the FSB since they started working in Russia last year, this will probably manifest itself through a tried and tested KGB ploy; the provotatsiya (“Provocation,” “set up” or “stitch-up”).

It is telling that Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Electoral Commision (ex-KGB, and famous for having declared that Putin is “never wrong”) today accused “some” (so far nameless) international observer organizations of espionage: Apparently, Russia is a country where the head of the electoral administration feels that it falls within his remit to make such comments – although quite how remains unclear.

But, given the controversy that the OSCE’s statement is likely to stir up – with opposition demonstration planned both for today and the coming weeks – it will be interesting to see to what extent Churov’s allegations will be picked up by the leadership and what (if any) contrived “evidence” the FSB will have cooked up to prove the observer’s perfidy.

It should be remembered that the OSCE ODIHR were effectively banned from observing the Russian elections in 2007/08 (after their severe criticism of the 2004 polls). This time around, it seems quite possible that they will be kicked out permanently, with all the fanfare that a paranoid espiocracy like Putin’s Russia can muster.

Stay tuned…

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