Democracy. Russia. CIS.

Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

Ekaterina Zatuliveter and the Neglect of Public Opinion.

Posted by democratist on March 24, 2011

March 24th 2011,

This morning Democratist has been enjoying yet another prize example of media manipulation, disinformation and obfuscation, courtesy of the (curiously) increasingly amateurish Russia Today (“Neglecting Public Opinion is a Privilege of the West“)

Given permission from the relevant judge, the Kremlin’s English-language mouthpiece has taken to employing Ekaterina Zatuliveter (Mike Hancock’s former parliamentary researcher, currently on bail after being arrested on charges of espionage last December) as a “contributor.” 

And naturally, the chosen subject for  Zatuliveter’s  journalistic debut is that mainstay of Soviet-era propaganda; Western hypocrisy – as expressed through the pretext of support for the anti-war movement.

In halting, accented English, the lissome Ms. Zatuliveter gives it her best shot, reading out the following (which we reproduce in full);

“This Saturday, London might experience the biggest protest in its history. Bigger even than the anti-war coalition march in 2003. Up until now the [inaudible] political activist groups have not been very well-organized, but they have finally decided to gather everybody who has been badly effected by the actions of the coalition government. With 35-45% of British people opposing intervention in Libya, it seems that on Saturday those intervention protestors will not be lost in the crowd. I will not expect [sic] the government to rush into doing everything straight away, it rarely happens in practice, but those protests are simply a part of a democratic system. However, there is a paradox in here; when non-Western countries experience protests, and their governments do nothing about it, western countries immediately accuse those governments in being undemocratic, but when western countries do the same, they ignore opinion of people [sic] in their country. [Inaudible very short sentence]. The polls show that public opinion in the UK regarding intervention in Libya, is not mirrored by MPs in the house of commons, with only 13 of them voting against the military intervention this vote was taken on Monday, two days after the UK had started bombing Libya. This was a rare moment in the House of Commons, when Labour literally occupied seats next to Tories and the Lib-dems, vacating the opposition side of the chamber to the people of Britain.”

Where to start with the unravelling of this inelegant, unwieldy macédoine of quarter-truth?

Apart from the obvious questions about Zatuliever’s impartiality/objectivity, and why the “independent” Russia Today has seen fit to employ her as a commentator (thumbing their noses at the British establishment, whilst in fact unwittingly highlighting the UK’s liberal bail conditions and commitment to freedom of speech – even for suspected spies) Democratist sees Zatuliever’s first journalistic effort as raising the following main points;

The first is that the piece appears to have been edited to focus more on Western military action in Libya than originally intended; a quick check of the Stop the War Coalition’s Website reveals that this weekend’s demonstration is not principally intended to be about Libya, but rather that, “Stop the War will be marching with CND in an antiwar and peace contingent on the 26th March TUC anti-cuts demonstration.” – i.e. Stop the War and CND will be tagging along on a larger TUC demonstration focused on spending cuts.  This explains some of Zatuliever’s otherwise more opaque comments (“intervention protestors will not be lost in the crowd” etc). But this information is not contained in the piece as broadcast – which misleadingly implies that the entire demonstration is in opposition to Western military action in Libya.

Second, the original YouGov opinion Poll (upon which we assume Zatuliever/RT are basing their figures – and we have to assume this, because the data provided in the piece are not attributed) was taken between 20th-21st March, and is poorly worded in terms of the question it posed (“Do you think Britain, France, the US and other countries are right or wrong to take military action in Libya?”) because it did not differentiate between the imposition of a no fly zone, and a full ground invasion, or between action that had been mandated by the UN, or not: Further work is therefore required before British public opinion on this issue can be satisfactorily established. But the figures cited seem to support the idea that military action is unpopular, and that a big anti-war demonstration due to take place this weekend in London as a result of that, and they seem to imply that British MPs don’t really care about, or represent the opinions of their constituents (just like the Duma!) – so why let something as trifling as accuracy get in the way of a good story?

Let us finally then examine the core question of Western hypocrisy. Zatuliveter’s  report suggests that the UK government is ignoring popular anti-war demonstrations at home, while accusing non-Western countries as being “non-democratic” when these experience supposedly comparable demonstrations. But we have already established that i) this weekend’s “anti-war” demonstration may well turn out to be for the most part something quite different from what is implied by RT, ii) British public opinion has not yet been fully established on the subject of military action in Libya, and that therefore iii) the question of the extent to which British MPs represent their constituents on this issue remains open. It is however, certainly correct to say that the UK government is accusing Libya of being undemocratic (to say the least), and has helped to enforce the UN no fly zone. But then again (the very real considerations of geopolitics and oil aside), that might be to an extent because the regime in Tripoli used its airforce to repeatedly strafe and bomb its own population over much of the past month: The Libyan government response was not (as Zatuliveter implies) to “do nothing about it” when they experienced protests, but rather to kill large numbers of their own people.

Perhaps if President Medvedev (partly in reaction to events in the middle East over the past few months) was not quite so concerned about the long-term reaction of his own population, he would have had the guts to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and say in public what Prime Minister Putin did effectively say; that the West has no right to interfere in the affairs of repressive regimes such as Libya (or Russia for that matter). But in fact, as Medvedev (but not Putin) seems to understand, it looks increasingly that taking public opinion for granted is a privilege that not even the Russian elite will be able to maintain for that much longer, despite the best efforts of Russia Today’s domestic homologues.

Posted in Democratization, Human Rights, Libyan Revolution, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today, Russian Espionage | 2 Comments »

The Enduring Relevance of NATO in “an Asian Age.”

Posted by democratist on March 21, 2011


March 21st 2011,

Over the weekend Democratist has been watching a video of a recent public debate at the LSE entitled, “Out of Europe? The United States in an Asian Age.”

The debate brought together three highly respected commentators on international relations; Professors Niall Ferguson, Michael Cox, and Arne Westad; each of whom took it in turns to give their respective opinions on the extent to which US engagement in Europe is likely to wane – or not, over the coming years, as Asia becomes a more important focus of policy.

The lecture is certainly worth exploring in its entirety, but rather than give a blow-by-blow account, we would like to highlight what we thought were some of the most perceptive points.

These were;

  • Despite the headlines of a new US orientation towards Asia, transatlantic relations will continue to be important because the United States’ global reach will remain connected to the transatlantic economy, NATO, and its political relationships with the Europeans.
  • The decline of American “empire” has been repeatedly over-predicted since the 1960’s, and while the financial crisis and rise of China have contributed to a renewed “decline debate”, the US retains a great deal of (what Susan Strange identified as) “structural power”; major economic, geographical, historical, political, and cultural advantages, which no other country is able to emulate.
  • While an economic shift is underway, this does not imply a contemporaneous power shift. The US will remain at the heart of the international order in terms of military power, and indeed this order is currently incapable of functioning without it.
  • While US economic problems may imply some drawdown in overseas commitments, this may not be the case in Europe because continued US involvement in the middle East/North Africa imply that Europe will remain a strategic base for the US. The purpose of NATO/Europe is changing, and it is becoming an appendix to American power projection “out of region.”
  • NATO will remain fundamentally demand driven. It provides a security guarantee, especially for states in Central and Eastern Europe, but equally there is no appealing alternative to the US security umbrella: Many Europeans want the US to stay because, given the history of the 20th Century, they fundamentally distrust themselves, as well each other: NATO prevents the renationalization of foreign policy in Europe.

Regular readers will not be surprised to discover that Democratist finds considerable solace in these words. We remain resolutely Atlanticist: While the US may have made a number of mistakes since the end of the Cold War, it is a fundamentally democratic country which mixes both realism and liberalism in its foreign policy. Its presence in Europe guarantees internal peace, and counters attempts to “divide and rule” from outside.

Russia, despite its current (largely self-inflicted) military weakness and reformist rhetoric, is run by a small, autocratic, highly nationalistic clique of nomenklatura; its foreign policy is essentially guided by realpolitik, with little regard for democracy or human rights beyond what is politically expedient (just ask a Belarussian or Georgian). The nomenklatura respects and understands power, and will always be tempted to exploit any perceived European weakness for its own advantage. An American presence in Europe will therefore remain an important counterweight to Russia for at least as long as the nomenklatura remains in power; and – as a source for internal European stability – may well remain relevant for far longer.

Posted in Human Rights, NATO, Russian Foreign Policy, US - Russia | Leave a Comment »

Belarus 2010: How they cheated.

Posted by democratist on February 14, 2011

14th February 2010,

The Belarusian domestic nonpartisan election monitoring NGO,  Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections has just released their Final Report on the 19th December 2010 elections.

This is an excellent report, that gives considerable detail on the techniques used by the regime to rig the polls (which broadly match our predictions). You can link to it here, or read Democratist’s short summary below.

The main points are;

  • The necessary foundation for democratic elections, in particular regarding the real independence and balance of the election authorities, vote count procedures and effective complaints and appeals process, was not established.
  • 2009 census data provides an indication that 300-350,000 persons who have the right to vote were not included on the voter lists, and that the real number of eligible voters in Belarus during the election should have been 7.4-7.45 million.
  • The complete dominance of state broadcast and printed media by the incumbent, especially during the last two weeks of the campaign period, disadvantaged other opposition candidates who were either not mentioned, or were portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative light.
  • The majority of the national observers were representatives of NGOs and political parties loyal to the regime. Their task was to interfere with activities of independent national observers and journalists. No single complaint has been lodged by these observers, or any election observation report released.
  • The authorities used state administrative resources to coerce voters, especially students and state employees, to vote early. Observers experienced numerous obstacles during early voting, including denial of accreditation and withholding of information on the registration figures.
  • A high number of reported irregularities concerned the inclusion of voters into the list for mobile voting. As a rule, voters were added to the special voter list based on their age and the geographical distance from the polling station (especially in rural areas) rather than at the request of the voter. In many polling stations, the number of mobile voters was disproportionate, i.e. up to 30%.
  • The vote count was carried out in a non-transparent manner. Though most of the observers were allowed to observe the vote count, in most cases the distance from which they were allowed to watch did not allow them to view the content of ballot papers.
  • It is impossible to say whether the ballots in the ballot boxes at the moment the vote count started were the same ballots which were cast by the voters themselves, because during early voting and mobile voting, members of election commissions (which were not independent or pluralistic) and unauthorized persons had access to relevant ballot boxes in absence of observers or other witnesses, and the way the ballot boxes were designed and sealed did not provide an adequate safeguard against potential manipulation.
  • Peaceful conduct of the election was marred on the evening of election day, 19 December, when riot police brutally dispersed participants of a mass demonstration who came to Nezalezhnasci Square in Minsk to protest against unfair conduct of the election. By the morning of 20 December, about 700 persons were detained, including seven presidential candidates. Many of those detained were beaten, including three presidential candidates. At the time of the report’s release, four presidential candidates and 31 of their supporters were in pre-trial detention facilities and under house arrest. They are charged with organization of a mass riot or participation in it.

Posted in Belarus, Domestic NGOs, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights | Leave a Comment »

The Second Khordokovsky Trial and the “Virtual Mafia State.”

Posted by democratist on December 31, 2010

31st December 2010,

From time to time Democratist enjoys dipping into Truth and Beauty, an intelligent if cynical pro-putin blog run by Eric Kraus, the (fairly openly) mercenary Moscow-based French investment broker who maintains a natty sideline as a sort of ersatz financial Machiavelli among Russia bloggers.

Democratist tends to see the opinions in T&B as a cleverly distilled reflection of the prejudices of the Russian elite, aimed at gaining this critical constituency’s approval, whilst also talking-up foreign investment through Kraus’ own firm.

As such, we found T&B’s recent musings on the second Khordokovsky trial both instructive and informative. These can be summarized as follows;

  • Khordokovsky is a brutal crook, guilty of complicity in a number of murders, and deserves to be in prison.
  • However, he has not yet been charged with murder, perhaps because the Russian government is holding this in reserve so it can continue to threaten him later.
  • Khordokovsky is no more guilty than the worst of his oligarch peers, but unlike them continued to threaten the Russian state after Putin came to power, and has therefore faced the consequences.
  • Putin is being disingenuous when he claims he does not have evidence against the other oligarchs. He does, and can use this kompromat to keep them in line.
  • The West is just as corrupt as Russia, only in a different way: Russia has “honest corruption”; well-stuffed envelopes and fee-for-service, without hypocrisy. In the West, the media are “bought” through the influence of PR men and lobbyists.

In pointing out that Mr Khordokovsky was (to put it mildly) no saint, admitting the political motivation for the original trial, and underlining how the case has served as an important constitutive element in the creation of the of the current political system, Kraus is surely correct.  For Democratist however, his main failing is his clearly false, nomenklatura-flattering insistence that Russia and the West are two sides of the same coin in terms of corruption.

In a competitive political environment, politicians, voters, PR men, lobbyists, civil society do-gooders, journalists, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers and others are forced to constantly fight it out for political influence.  The result is a system which, while far from perfect, retains a considerable resistance to political and judiciary corruption, and in which policies and legal decisions are usually tested by criticism, and face possible correction.

In contemporary Russia there is no longer any political competition; corruption flourishes to an extent unseen in any other major industrialized country, and the rule of law is open to the kind of selective application (as a warning to others) demonstrated by the second Khordokovsky trial. Under Putin, murder and blackmail have been subsumed into the fabric of the political system rather than quashed by it. The predictable result has been, in the wikileaked words of the US State Department, “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy…in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state.”

It will be very interesting to see how many foreigners will be keen to invest their money into such a country in 2011.

Posted in Democratization, Human Rights, Russia - US Relations | Leave a Comment »

Belarus 2010: An “internal matter.”

Posted by democratist on December 20, 2010

December 21st 2010.

Democratist is disappointed and upset, but not especially surprised to learn of the results and fallout of yesterday’s presidential election in Belarus.

Since the signing of a series of economic agreements earlier this month, the Russians appear to have decided, in the words of Prime Minister Putin that “the Belarusian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia,” and suitably mollified, their desire for Lukashenko’s ouster has fallen by the wayside – for the moment at least.

Subsequently, reading between the lines of the OSCE’s sensibly diplomatic preliminary statement (which nonetheless provoked the ire of the newly confident Lukashenko), it appears that it was business as usual for the Belarusian electoral administration over the last few days, and the incumbent has been returned to office with just under 80% of the vote, according to the highly questionable official results.

Subsequently, seven of the nine opposition candidates that stood against Lukashenko have been arrested (including one who was dragged from his hospital bed after a police beating) along with 600 of the several thousand protestors brave enough to demonstrate against this charade of an election in Minsk last night.

While the Belarusian authorities have behaved abominably in both their conduct of the election, and the violent crackdown that has followed it, the reaction of the Russian government has served to underline their own extraordinary cynicism, and more specifically, Dimitry Medvedev’s real attitude towards the democratic process to which he paid so much rhetorical homage earlier this year.

According to Reuters, when asked, Medvedev described the Belarusian elections as an “internal matter,” and did not comment on the police crackdown.  He is quoted as saying, “I hope that as a result of these elections, Belarus will continue on the path of creating a modern state based on democracy and friendship with its neighbours.”

And for all its “strong condemnation” of the fraud and violence, and demands that the opposition candidates be freed, the West is left looking weak and ineffectual, with Lukashenko and the Russians the only game in town.

For the time being then, it seems that Belarus will only change when Russia changes its mind about Lukashenko. However, real support for democratization in Belarus (or indeed Russia) in Moscow is lacking, and will continue to be so, regardless of whether Putin or Medvedev wins in 2012.

Posted in Belarus, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights, OSCE, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Liberalization | 5 Comments »

Belarus 2010: Most likely methods of manipulation and fraud.

Posted by democratist on December 1, 2010

1st December 2010,
It is always hard to predict exactly which techniques will be used to rig a particular election in advance, especially since these may vary according to the changing legal context, as well as from region to region, but on the basis of past experience the main methods likely to be employed in the 19th December 2010 Presidential elections in Belarus are as follows;
Firstly, the regime can abuse its huge influence and monopoly of power within local administrations to both ensure a good turnout, and encourage or coerce individuals to vote for the incumbent.
The local administration achieves this by abusing its control over resources such as jobs and education:
In this regard, employees of state enterprises (who make up about 50% of the workforce in Belarus), may be brought into a meetings with their managers, and told that their jobs might be on the line if the President is not re-elected (or more directly, if they do not vote for him). The many people who work for local authorities (hospitals, clinics, water, roads, sanitation etc.) will receive similar talks from the mayor or another senior figure.  University staff and students will also be threatened with expulsion of they don’t vote for the for the right candidate. Very often these groups will be encouraged to vote early to ensure a high turnout, and in some cases transport will be arranged to get them to the polls.
As an example of this form of manipulation, the NGO “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” recently noted that, during a meeting at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, Rector Mikhail Batura is quoted as having stated;
“We have a great upcoming political event, the presidential election. I cannot ignore the issue. I urge you all to take part in this election. Moreover, I even advise you on the candidate for whom to vote. This is the incumbent head of the state, because everything good that was done in this country was achieved in the years of his presidency. Therefore, I urge you all to take part in the election….We have always encouraged our students to go to early voting, because then… different situations happen…Therefore, early voting will be held from December 13th, and I urge you to take part in it.”
It is to be noted that those voting will be afraid that the authorities have the ability to find out who they voted for by checking the ballots cast against counterfoils (regardless of whether this actually happens).
Secondly, the fact that Belarus allows for “early voting” between 14th-18th December (during which typically 30% of the total number of votes will be cast) has in the past facilitated ballot-box stuffing, because the ballot boxes remain under the protection of Polling Station staff outside voting hours during the early voting period (and international observers do not arrive until shortly before the final “election day” on 19th December) and this has made it easy for senior PEC staff to cast additional votes for the incumbent after the polling has closed, as well as falsify signatures on the voter register to legitimize these votes.
It is to be noted that the CEC has recently changed the law to make this practice harder (for example, ballot boxes are to be sealed at the end of each day) but the extent to which the change in the rules will be followed on the ground remains to be seen.
Additionally, in the past, international observers have not been permitted to watch the counting of votes too closely, and are forced to sit at a distance that makes it hard for them to see the marks on the ballot (again the CEC has apparently passed a resolution to allow them to observe more closely this time).
Furthermore, in 2006 the OSCE reported that, in a number of instances, the completed election results forms were completed in pencil (which of course can be altered later).
So, there are a multiple opportunities for fraud, but the most significant enabler of these is the near total absence of opposition representation throughout the election administration, as well as in local government generally.
Perhaps the best illustration of the barely-hidden bias of the system to have emerged so far was provided by the Chair of the Central Election Commision, Lidia Yermoshina, yesterday. In response to the release of polling data indicating that President Lukashenko may currently have less than 50% support, and might therefore be forced into a second round run-off, ITAR TASS reports this nominally independent appointee as stating, “Why do you think that will be a two-round election? I am positive I will see in New Year at home.”

Posted in Belarus, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights | 2 Comments »

Book Review: “Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can” by Michael McFaul.

Posted by democratist on November 29, 2010

29th November 2010.

As Michael McFaul, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, and latterly Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the US NSC notes in his preface to Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). “After eight years of the George W. Bush Administration, most Americans, as well as many people around the world, had grown tired of the United States’ efforts to promote democracy in other countries.”

And yet, while the paramount objective of US foreign policy has always been to defend the security of the American people, from the very beginning of the republic US leaders have consistently defined a special, ethical role for the US in world affairs.

McFaul argues passionately, persuasively, and in great detail against the adoption of a narrowly “realist” or isolationist foreign policy in reaction to the mistakes of the Bush administration, and for the continued relevance of democracy promotion for reasons both ethical and practical.

In the introductory chapter, he neatly summarizes his perspective in a single sentence; “Under democracy, people around the world enjoy better government, more security and economic development. In parallel, the advance of democracy abroad has made Americans safer and richer.”

At the core of his argument is the claim that, “The history of the last 200 years, but especially the last 80 years, shows that American security, economic and moral interests have been advanced by the expansion of democracy abroad, while reliance on realpolitik frameworks [i.e. alliances with autocracies] as a guide for foreign policy has produced some short-term gains, but many long-term setbacks for American interests.”

Advancing Democracy Abroad is therefore essentially an expanded, detailed and very timely restatement of the Kantian argument for the international benefits of the spread of democratic government, in light of  the practical concerns of foreign policy, and as such, equally a statement of Democratist’s own broad core position.

McFaul points to the long-term security advantages for the US that have stemmed from enduring alliances with other democracies, as well as democratization, and the economic and reputational dividends of democratic expansion. By way of contrast, he considers the three main problems of alliances with autocratic states have been sustainability (e.g the Shah in Iran until the 1979 revolution), consistency (Nasser in the 1950’s, or Saddam in the 1980’s and 1990’s) and cost (billions of dollars given to Iraq for its war with Iran in the 1980’s).

As such, McFaul calls for a  pragmatic and commonsense foreign policy based on “Wilsonian liberalism with a realist core.” He argues that, while at times the US needs to work with autocratic regimes to pursue vital national interests, it must never lose sight of its values, or of the critical importance of internal regime type for its ongoing relationships with other states.

In this regard, he devotes a detailed and useful chapter considering the wide range of instruments the US and its allies have available for the gradualist facilitation of democratic development. These include “dual track” diplomatic engagement; trade and economic incentives; security guarantees,  the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the US’ participation in the OSCE, funding for foreign domestic NGOs and election observers, media resources such as Radio Free Europe, and the International Republican and National Democratic Institutes.

McFaul is also fully aware that the United States’ democratic and human rights failings over the last decade have considerably weakened America’s standing in the world, and made it much harder for US leaders to call for democratic practices in other parts of the world.

As such, the renunciation of military intervention as a tool of democracy promotion, criticism of autocratic allies (including Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and the reassertion of democratic values at home are, he suggests, important prerequisites to the successful promulgation of liberty abroad.

Posted in Book Reviews, Democratization, Human Rights, OSCE, Russia - US Relations | 9 Comments »

Oh dear, ODIHR.

Posted by democratist on November 1, 2010

1st November 2010,

Democratist is rather concerned about the results of Sunday’s local elections in Ukraine.

According to an exit poll by international market research firm GfK, President Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions took a substantial 36% of the vote; nearly three times the tally for the next placed Fatherland opposition party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The final results remain to be seen, but Tymoshenko’s camp have already been complaining about electoral fraud, and are refusing to accept the result in three Oblasts.

Democratist’s initial reaction is that we cannot help but think that it might have been wiser for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to have forfeited their general policy of only sending a very few (if any) election monitors to observe municipal elections (a mere four in this instance) and to have sent a more substantial team, which would have underscored the OSCE’s commitment to Ukraine’s continued democratic development.

Instead, this lacklustre performance may well provide additional encouragement to those who point to the EU’s foot-dragging in relation to offering Ukraine a firm membership prospective, as evidence that Europe and the US are essentially indifferent to Ukraine, and the country should not worry too much about observing the democratic niceties.

Additionally, it would have also provided a credible alternative international “voice” to that of the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observers, who predictably stated that they did not register any election violations.

Posted in Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights, OSCE, Ukraine | 2 Comments »

Book Review: “Putin’s Labyrinth.”

Posted by democratist on June 6, 2010

June 6th 2010

Over the past couple of days I have been reading “Putin’s Labyrinth” by Steve LeVine (Random House – 2008).

The book provides a good survey of a number of aspects of the domestic development of Russia between Putin’s appointment as PM in 1999, and the rigged elections that installed Dimitry Medvedev as President in March 2008. However, it lacks an especially clear sense of focus; while the over-arching theme is the contempt the the Putin regime for the lives of it’s own citizens, and its complicity in a culture of impunity, and in the encouragement of violence towards those who are prepared to criticise the regime (with interesting and detailed chapters on the Klebnikov, Politkovskaya and Litvinenko cases), the book uncomfortably mixes an attempt to set out a serious history of the period with a disjointed memoir-like quality. And while he certainly provides some illuminating nugets, LeVine tends to be rather selective in his coverage – for example, there is very little about the horrific massacre of school-children in Beslan in 2004 (and contributory ineptitude of the local authorities). This is surprising given the book’s central theme.

While an engaging read, “Putin’s Labyrinth” is therefore more for the seasoned Russia-watcher in search of additional background detail than the beginner.

Posted in Book Reviews, Human Rights | Leave a Comment »

Springtime for Dima?

Posted by democratist on May 22, 2010

22nd May 2010

Rumours abound that a new, pro-western foreign policy shift is underway in Moscow. But if Russia really wants to attract European investment and American technology for the long-term it will need to implement root and branch political and economic reforms. Are the Russians really ready to play ball?

A report on two supposedly “leaked” internal foreign ministry documents which appeared in Russkiy Newsweek on May 10th has sparked off a wave of speculation about the possible future orientation of Russian foreign policy in the local press and diplomatic circles.

These documents: “A List of Criteria for the Effectiveness of Foreign Policy” and “A Program for the Effective Exploitation of Foreign Policy Factors for the Purposes of Long-term Development” – both written over the past six months, together imply a rethinking and potential realignment of Russia’s external relations.

In line with the much-discussed (but so far largely rhetorical) trend evident since Medvedev took on Presidency in 2008, the focus of both papers is the need to modernize the Russian economy, and the use of foreign policy to achieve this goal. As such, both underline the need to attract external financial investment, as well as the technological and scientific resources required for Russia’s modernization – especially from the United States and European Union.

This renewed concern with foreign relations as a path to domestic modernisation, while clearly still a matter of internal dispute within the ruling elite (indeed the “leaking” of these documents are almost certainly a symptom of these internal discussions) nonetheless reflects two serious problems that Russia needs to address with some urgency; firstly the impact of the ongoing global financial crisis on the Russian economy, especially through the effect that this has had on global hydrocarbon and raw materials prices; and secondly, a recognition that Russia is falling behind in terms of technological innovation.

With regard to raw materials, oil, gas and mineral exports currently account for 70% of Russia’s exports, making the economy hostage to price fluctuations. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin stated on May 14th that Russia’s 2010 federal budget, including reserve fund spending, will only be balanced if oil reaches $95 per barrel (considerably above the current price of about $71). Given recent market developments, oil prices seem likely to stall or decline over at least the short-term, and perhaps for longer. As a result, The Russian government expects its budget deficit to rise to 5% of GDP by the end of the year and external sources of funds will therefore be required. Given that overall debt stands at only 50-60% of GDP (compared with 115% for Greece), Russia had little difficulty raising $5.5 Bn from its sovereign debt sale in April (the first since 1998). Nonetheless, this pattern of borrowing looks set to grow significantly as reserve funds are drawn down.

As for technological innovation, as Dimitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre noted in an article in the Moscow times on 14th May, in addition to diminishing the hubris that Russia displayed in the years of high energy prices, the current crisis has awakened the leadership to the reality that Russia is losing ground in the global pecking order by falling behind in terms of its industrial, technological and scientific capabilities.

As Trenin observes “…Russia is sorely lacking what it takes to be a major global economic and political force in the 21st century. Relative energy abundance and nuclear arsenals are simply not enough. The Kremlin …[has been]… forced to come to terms with the fact that Russia cannot modernize on its own and that it needs Western investment and strong business partnerships with the West.”

But how will this need for investment and scientific know-how be translated into policy? Is Russia really willing to make the deep domestic political and economic changes necessary to make itself an attractive place for sceptical Western companies to invest, as Trenin suggests? Western markets cannot be bargained with or cajoled in the same way that Russia strong-arms other States – they will have to want to come.

However, there are a number of compelling reasons why serious reform is unlikely:

The main argument against the probability of anything more than superficial political an economic reform in Russia over the next few years is the nature of the current regime. This is essentially a reconfigured Soviet nomeklatura – more homo Sovieticus than homo economicus. The nomenklatura sees itself as having a quasi-divine right to rule and shape the country, and sought in the early 2000’s to move precisely away the “Western” template of market economics and political freedom introduced in the 1990’s – because it considered that these reforms had failed (culminating in the national humiliation of 1998) and that additionally, as many siloviki believed, that these reforms had in any case been little more than an elaborate Western “conspiracy” aimed at weakening Russia right from the start.

This nomeklatura is distinguished by its strong nationalism and desire for Russian national resurgence (as a regional power, if no longer perhaps a “superpower”) but also additionally by three significant traits [1] inherited from the late Soviet period that make economic liberalization and diversification extremely difficult.

These are;

  • A culture of nearly all-pervading corruption and rent-seeking.
  • An authoritarian concept of the State (in which the elite maintains a decisive and guiding – albeit sometimes informal – control over key aspects of the economy).
  • An instrumental “end justifies the means” attitude towards ethics.

In terms of corruption and the authoritarian concept of the state, the “transition” as it has taken place in Russia since 2000 has clearly not been to democracy or liberal capitalism but to a repressive political system based on a “corporatist” economic model – with the state retaining decisive influence over key companies as a lever of both economic and political power. This includes, as the most prominent example, Russia’s largest company, Gazprom, which supplies about 17% of the world’s gas and on its own, and has at times accounted for 10% of Russia’s GDP. Gazprom has at least four cabinet ministers on its board of directors, and was chaired from 2002 until 2008 by none other than Dimitry Medvedev – who owed that position (much as he now owes the Presidency) to his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Any statements from the “liberal” Medvedev (or those surrounding him) regarding economic diversification or political reform need to be considered in this light. The recently “leaked” foreign policy documents also need to be considered in this context.

The “corporatist” or “petro-state” model, with its heavy reliance on hydrocarbons and raw materials, fits this authoritarian conception of the State neatly because it allows for an easy source of rents, which can be distributed on the basis of loyalty, and equally because it provides the State with the tools of the energy-based foreign policy we have seen deployed on numerous occasions in Eastern and Central Europe, especially since the Orange revolution in Ukraine in late 2004. While the need for reform is likely to be invoked in order to attempt to drum up foreign investment, any resurgence in the oil price above (say) $100 per barrel will initiate a fairly rapid return “business as usual” so long as the current nomenklatura remains in power.

And it is very likely to remain in th driving seat for many years to come, because the Putin regime is additionally the inheritor of the KGB’s “ethical instrumentalism” and is unlikely to cede power to anyone else anytime soon: Despite a sophisticated propaganda offensive of denial (suggesting such claims are little more than conspiracy theory, comparable to those surrounding the 9/11 attacks in the US), there is little doubt that the current regime achieved power through the mass-murder of hundreds of its own citizens by the FSB in September 1999, as well as through the subsequent resumption of hostilities in Chechnya as a platform to generate support for Putin in the 2000 Presidential elections. Such a regime is unlikely to encourage its own marginalization by the introduction of genuine democratic reforms.

Indeed, over the last ten years, progressive presidential, parliamentary and (most recently) local elections have been marked by a worsening tendency towards fraud. As a result, the key political institutions required for meaningful economic liberalization and the attraction of Foreign Direct Investment – free elections and a free press (to fight Russia’s truly monstrous corruption), the rule of law, and the guarantee of property rights – are largely absent in the contemporary Russian case. The Kremlin has instead assumed (despite the apparent lessons of the Soviet experience) that it is able to manage the social and economic development of the country from above without any requirement for these constraints. So far, the economic crisis has only resulted in a tightening of already severe domestic restrictions – as was evident from the extraordinary level of outright falsification in the 10th October 2009 local elections.

Instead, the instincts of the siloviki are almost always to maintain and extend power and control as far as possible in both political and economic spheres. The history of the regime since 2000 has been one of continual centralization of both polity and economy. In fact, there has been no meaningful diversification of the economy since 1998, despite repeated promises that it would take place, and the period since 2003 has seen the re-nationalization of much of the raw materials and other “strategic” sectors.

While recently the Kremlin may have appeared to be considering the possibility of a fresh round of (vaguely defined) “reform” – with a diplomatic charm offensive (purporting to show how Russia has “changed”) due to take place over the summer, allowing genuine liberalization would potentially allow the development of alternative centers of power to the corporatist state. This raises the specter of, (for example) a revival of independent-minded oligarchs operating outside of the current structures (the “Yukos” effect), or the growth of a critical mass media, or of genuinely reformist political parties gaining seats in the Duma in an un-rigged parlaimentary election in late 2011. Therefore, real reform is most unlikely. Instead, the nomenklatura, is more likely to decide that the best available current strategy is the superficial invocation of the need for change through the offices of the “liberal” President. This will hopefully drum up some additional investment from the more gullible sections of an overly eager West while they wait for a resurgence in commodity prices.

[1] This section draws on work by the late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE

Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, Democratization, Freedom of the Press, Human Rights, Russia - US Relations, Russia Foreign Policy, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, Russian Espionage, Russian Liberalization, Russian Military, Russian Politics, UK Foreign Policy, US - Russia | 12 Comments »