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Bunga Bunga! Russia Today lends an old friend a hand.

Posted by democratist on April 15, 2011

15th April 2011,

A wonderfully bonkers piece of dezinformatsiya on RT this morning (“Silvio and I are closer together than ever” – Berlusconi’s Russian flame”), that seems to owe more to the News of the World, or Channel Four’s 1990’s comedy “documentary” Eurotrash than what one might normally expect of the average international news channel.

The main point of this “exclusive interview” with Berlusconi’s, “reported Russian flame” Raisa Skorkina is that, in Ms. Skorkina’s opinion, allegations that Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute (the trial began on April 6th, but was adjourned) must be false because he is “simply too attractive” to resort to such “desperate measures”.

Quotes from Ms Skorkina, fashionably attired in a pink suit and white bandage-like bandanna (which gives the unfortunate impression that she may have recently suffered a severe blow to the head) include the following gems;

“Silvio and I are closer together than ever. Earlier, we were together like this [holds hands to heart], but now are much, much closer together!” 

“I can’t even explain what I felt inside when I met him, he gave me goosebumps, when I saw him, because he’s a very handsome man. It was love at first sight. He’s such a gentleman. 100% percent man in every sense!” [covers face to hide girlish blushes].

“For me he’s always been like a “guardian angel”, as he puts it himself. In my heart, my feelings for him sparkle, and he knows it. This is going to stay for ever. You should understand that, even if I fall in love or marry, my husband might resent it, but Silvio will stay in my heart forever. [Smiles and licks lips] I’m going to cry now.”  

And who could be behind this clearly unfair “media campaign” against Il Cavaliere?

“It’s the communists! Of course it’s them, who else would benefit? They want to get rid of him as fast as possible, by any means…I don’t know, they might even bring something from the Moon and say that Berlusconi did something there.”

While the allegations against Berlusconi remain of the sublunary variety for the time being, we at Democratist have certainly also been moved to tears by Ms. Skorkina’s story of her “romance” with the Italian premier.

And it is surely entirely coincidental that Skorkina has been implicated as a central participant in the Berlusconi “harem” (and may have acted to procure other women), or that Berlusconi is known to be personally close to Vladimir Putin, or that wikileaked State Department cables describe Berlusconi as acting as a “mouthpiece” for Moscow in Europe over the past few years, and suggest that he may have been “profiting personally and handsomely” from secret deals with the Russian prime minister.

And doubtless, none of this could possibly have affected the decision of the “editorially independent” (although 100% state-owned) Russia Today to run this story.

Posted in Russia and the EU, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today, Russian Corruption, Russian Foreign Policy, wikileaks | Leave a Comment »

The Arab Spring and “Structural Power.”

Posted by democratist on March 31, 2011

March 31st 2011,

A few days ago we noted Michael Cox’s recent restatement of the argument that, despite the current debate about it’s supposed decline, the US has managed to retain a great deal of “structural power.” However we did not explain this concept in any detail.

The notion of structural power was first put forward by the British academic Susan Strange in the 1970’s. In her classic States and Markets (1988) she defined it is as;

“the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which other states, their political institutions, their economic enterprises and (not least) their scientists and other professional people have to operate…Structural power in short confers the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises.”

Essentially in Strange’s view, “structural power” is the power of a state to shape various kinds of international frameworks: For her, the advantages for the US of the dollar as the key post-War currency for international trade was the central example of structural power at work, because it allowed the US to run large deficits at reduced cost (a feature of the International Monetary System which continues to this day).

However, it has occurred to Democratist that beyond the realm of economics, the “Arab Spring” we are now witnessing may well represent the strengthening and maturing of a new and potentially far more important form of structural power, one that may well confer considerable advantages for the US, and the wider West over the coming years.

As Halliday argues in Revolutions and World Politics (1999), in addition to expressing the tensions that occur within societies in transition, revolutions are also a result of the pressures placed on traditional societies by international factors.

And over the last 20 years the international trend towards democratization – which therefore increases pressure on others to democratize – has strengthened markedly; the end of Communism, the enlargement of the EU, the continued democratization of Turkey,  the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon – and now Tunisia, Egypt and (possibly) Libya.  These will all add to the already considerable domestic problems faced by developing autocratic states as an additional, and now heightened structural pressure for domestic reform, if revolution is to be avoided.

This trend has in turn been encouraged by a developments in IT and globalization;  Al Jazeera, Twitter, Wikileaks, Wikipedia and Facebook are all a part of this process.

But while the US has consciously (and sometimes counterproductively) sought to export democracy for much of the last century, a great deal of the attraction of democracy – its equation with modernity for increasing numbers of people throughout the world – has been partly independent of the United States’ actions. Rather the desire for freedom and egalitarianism which informed the French and American revolutions has taken on something of a life of its own – regardless of (for example) the US invasion of Iraq, or support for Hosni Mubarak.

Nonetheless, since democratization represents the development of an international framework within which states relate to each other, and one which seems likely to disproportionately favour the democratic West (no two democratic states have ever gone to war with each other), whilst placing an additional pressure on authoritarian competitors, this democratization has to be seen as a burgeoning form of Western structural power.

Posted in Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, Historical Materialism, International Political Economy, Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Orange Revolution, Revolutions, Russia 2012 Elections, wikileaks | 4 Comments »

The Great “Arab Spring” of 2011: Causes and Consequences.

Posted by democratist on March 28, 2011

28th March 2011,

As the “Arab Spring” rolls onwards through Libya, and towards Yemen and Syria, Democratist – like many others (not least a number of red-faced foreign policy professionals), has been looking to get some sort of an explanatory purchase on recent events in the middle East. Why there? And why now?

For Democratist,  the key factor lies in the interrelationship between globalization (Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks and the rest), and a number of other historical-sociological factors that have been perhaps slightly less eagerly grasped upon by (especially the US) media.

These include the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by the West) for decades; tremendous social upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of crony capitalism (abject poverty cheek by jowl with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and tech-savvy) young; and the delayed flowering of civil society.

Looking at the broader, global context, a superbly insightful, if so far largely ignored framework for understanding these events is to be found in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999) by the late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE (1945-2010).

One of the main conclusions of this 300-page comparative study of revolutions and their international aspects is that over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has been, not (as Marx had hoped) on the most developed states, but rather in the contrary direction; that revolutions have historically tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism.

In other words, the historical pattern has been one in which revolutions take place in societies that have embarked on, but are at a comparatively early stage of economic and political development: One of Halliday’s key insights is the idea that, in the contemporary world, revolutions express the pressures placed on traditional societies by international structural factors, in addition to the tensions that occur within societies in transition, and the drive for accelerated development.

All three elements have been present in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They are also present to a very considerable degree in a large number other less developed countries – including Yemen, Syria and Iran, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.

What the revolutions in the middle East represent therefore, are the increasingly inevitable consequences for states which refuse to meet their citizens expectations, after a certain level of development has been attained, in an increasingly integrated world.

While not linear, or liable to easy prediction, this trend has become all the more evident since 1989; in the collapse of the USSR itself, in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Kyrgyzstan (2005). Moldova (2009), and now with the great Arab Spring of 2011, whereby the democratic agenda has been firmly set for much of the rest of the developing world.

As Halliday notes;

“Revolutions are moments of transition which, once passed, may not need replication. Instead, they lay down an agenda for political and social change that through reform, struggles and democracy may take decades or centuries to be achieved. This is at once evident from the programmes on rights of the American and French revolutions, the radical egalitarianism and the international programme associated with each; the point is not whether America or France always, or ever, lived up to these ideas, any more than Russia was to do after 1917, but rather how ideas and aspirations that emerged from these revolutions retain their validity in subsequent epochs.”

2011 may then therefore eventually come to mark the decisive point at which among the populations of developing states, democractic reformism ceased to be seen as essentially a restrictedly “Western” phenomenon, and became recognized as a potentially universal one.

See also my pieces:

Russian Autocracy and the Future of the Arab Spring

Revolution, Democracy and the West.

The Arab Spring and Structural Power

The Egyptian revolution and the precariousness of autocracy.

Posted in Democratization, Domestic NGOs, Egyptian Revolution, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Moldova, Russian Corruption, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Western Foreign Policy, wikileaks | 12 Comments »

Wikileaks and the broader foreign policy context.

Posted by democratist on February 22, 2011

22nd February 2011,

Democratist has been thinking a bit more about the implications of last year’s various Wikileaks disclosures, and Western information integrity more broadly.

What Assange has helped create is basically a form of journalistic sourcing, albeit enabled by the internet and therefore on the grand scale. He himself comes across as eccentric, but this is far bigger than one man; the technology exists, and Wikileaks seems fairly uncontrollable under existing media laws in most democratic countries. 
Freedom of the press is a critical check on government and a sine qua non of an open society. But leaked documents can be used to betray human sources, or techniques which provide information that may be used by governments to bolster the cause of democracy and their national interests. Once the information is out, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle; journalists may edit it to remove names, but sophisticated hostile governments can (presumably) eventually hack into the journalists’ computers to discover the information they did not make publicly available.

Democratist believes that in reacting to Wikileaks (and similar future imitators), Western governments have to put the principle of freedom of the press above that of their own information integrity. It is the job of governments to safeguard their information, but if they are unable to do this they will have to live with the consequences. Once the information is released into the public domain, there are clearly legal limitations to the actions governments can take, and the imposition of additional restraints on the press are unlikely to serve the cause of liberty. It is better to concentrate on protecting those who may have been exposed, and the introduction of additional safety measures for the most sensitive information, rather than going off on legally questionable witch-hunts (although in clear-cut cases where it can be proved that existing laws have been broken, prosecutions should follow). 

Democratist does not consider the Wikileaks cables to have been a major cause of the recent uprisings in MENA (although they may have been a contributory factor), but the Wikileaks saga does appear to be symptomatic of a broader international technologically driven shift in power in terms of availability of information and organization away from the state towards the press and people. Democracies have less power in relation to their populations than autocrats, so autocrats have far more to lose from this trend (and probably have a higher proportion of disgruntled potential “leakers”); and since no one can afford to shut off the internet for too long if they wish to run a successful modern economy, their room for manoeuvre may be limited (they are unlikely to be able to block information as effectively, or for as long as they wish).

While much of the leaked information has so far come from the US, Democratist suspects there will be plenty more from countries that lack democratic legitimacy, and are therefore less stable, so the impact of future leaks will be much larger for these countries than the West. Ensuring and respecting freedom of the press at home will therefore also have positive foreign policy implications, because hostile autocracies will not be able to accuse the West of hypocrisy when the focus falls on them, and their attempts at media and internet crackdowns will further delegitimize them in the eyes of their people.

Posted in Autocracy and Innovation, Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, International Political Economy, Jasmine Revolution, Western Foreign Policy, wikileaks | 1 Comment »

Napolitano, Wikileaks, and the Absolute Necessity of a Free Press

Posted by democratist on February 17, 2011

17th February 2011,

Back in December we wrote that we did not agree with Wikileaks’ release of several hundred thousand classified State Department cables, on the basis that discretion is, and should remain an important element of diplomacy (but we also acknowledged that there seemed little point ignoring these cables once published).

Our initial position was based on practicality rather than principle, and we did not pay much attention to the legal implications of the case at the time, on the basis that the main focus of this blog is on the politics and international relations of Russia and the CIS, rather than Wikileaks or the US.  

In retrospect, this was a mistake: we were disturbed by calls from the more rabid sections of the American right for Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange to be brought to trial as a “terrorist” (and presumably executed if found “guilty”), but until today did not feel we had the required legal expertise, to comment usefully on the matter.

In this regard, we have been delighted to discover this extraordinarily clear and powerful defence of Assange, Wikileaks and the fundamental necessity of freedom of the press as an essential bulwark of a free society, thanks to a rather unexpected source; Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News.

Napolitano’s main points are that the actions of Mr. Assange (and Wikileaks) in releasing the secret documents are absolutely protected by the first amendment to the United States constitution, and that there is a legal precedent in the form of the release of the “Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times in 1971 for the Wikileaks case. Napolitano states;

“In 1971 the NYT obtained a stolen copy of classified defence department documents; a study on US political involvement in Vietnam (the “Pentagon Papers”). When the Times published the report, the federal government wanted to censor the newspaper, and prevent it from printing more of the classified documents. The government, and president Nixon argued that the Espionage Act of 1917 trumped the first amendment, and gave the government the right and the power to censure the newspaper. Fortunately, the supreme court disagreed, and ruled six to three that the first amendment trumps the Espionage Act, and that a free press was absolutely necessary, and was the check on the government.  And so the court ruled, that wherever members of the media come upon government documents of public interest, no matter how secret, no matter how they got them, there can be no liability, civil or criminal, for publishing them. The attacks on Assange are another example of the government trying to quash dissenters. Mr. Assange did not steal these cables, he merely published them; it’s the government’s responsibility to keep their own secrets, and not that of a free, unbiased press. If we allow the governments of the world to label Assange a terrorist, and allow them to shut down Wikileaks, it will be one giant leap towards tyranny.”

Democratist (who is no lawyer) thinks Napolitano makes a strong and logical argument. From our own perspective the most important of the points he makes are on the absolute necessity of a free press as a check on government, and that it is the responsibility of government, and not the press to keep their own secrets. It seems to us that this is a central principle to protect political freedom in the face of oppression, and one which the United States must respect is it wishes to be taken seriously as an exponent of democratic governance.

Posted in Freedom of the Press, wikileaks | 4 Comments »

The Egyptian Revolution and the Precariousness of Modern Autocracy.

Posted by democratist on January 29, 2011

29th January 2011,

Some of the less perceptive among Democratist’s readers might be forgiven for believing that the US has been caught off-guard by the revolt in Egypt, and that events there have been given much of their impetus by the example of the similar uprising in Tunisia a couple of weeks ago.

Certainly that is the impression one might have garnered from the lack of US government public statements on the subject until yesterday, and an evident unwillingness to abandon long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Obama’s statement late last night, despite it becoming increasingly apparent that the writing is on the wall.

But if you thought that the Americans had been caught short, you’d be wrong, because in fact it was the CIA that planned and has directed the uprising in Egypt all along – at least according to Russia Today.

Since late last night, RT has been claiming that recently released Wikileaks cables reveal that the US has been plotting to overthrow Mubarak for “at least three years” and that they, “show Washington had been secretly backing leading figures behind the uprising.”

Curiously, RT does not include a link to these documents on their website, so Democratist decided to have a look for ourselves…

It turns out that the extent of the “US plotting” (according to the Telegraph article that broke the story) was that the US Embassy in Cairo helped a young dissident attend a  summit for activists in New York in December 2008, while working to keep his identity secret from Egyptian state police.

A couple of days after his return, when this individual claimed that Egyptian opposition forces were drawing up a plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, US Ambassador Scobey (unsurprisingly) questioned whether such an “unrealistic” plot could work, or ever even existed.

Scobey’s reaction (like Obama’s statement yesterday) and the wealth of other Wikileaks documents that repeatedly underscore  the deep and enduring political and military relationship between the US and the Mubarak regime over the last 30 years suggest a rather different story to that put forward by Russia Today; one where the US has attempted to balance the realpolitik support of an important if nasty autocratic ally with a comparatively limited liberal policy of help for moderate oppositionists. Subsequently, it is apparent that the Americans did not expect their democratization projects to have any significant impact over the short-term, and have been caught largely unprepared by the recent rioting.

So why has RT suddenly decided that what is happening in Egypt is a CIA-backed coup?

The answer is simple; just as in Georgia and Ukraine, from the perspective of the nomenklatura, any major popular democratic uprising has to be presented to the Russian people (and by extension the world at large) as part of an “American plot”, because what has to be avoided at all costs is the idea that people might actually be able to think for themselves.

As long as it’s all the CIA’s fault, that’s OK. But if people in other countries can overthrow oppressive regimes, then the Russians might slowly wake up to the idea that they might one day do the same thing – and that would never do.

Russia Today’s position reveals the precariousness of modern autocracy; the Egyptian revolt highlights that, while the last few years may have been witness to some democratic reversals in the CIS (Ukraine, Belarus), on the global scale, the last two centuries (and especially the last sixty years) demonstrate the growing potency of the democratic ideal, and the erosion of autocracy as a legitimate form of governance, even in the most unexpected places, and despite the United States perceived hypocrisy on this issue.

Over the long-term the nomenklatura has much to fear from this trend, and it is therefore unsurprising their apologists make every effort to explain it away as renewed Western imperialism. In turn, the US and EU have much to gain; but only if they make clear through their actions as well as words that, in addition to the necessary realist policies, they are willing to recognize and support the democratic aspirations of people throughout the region, and indeed the world wherever possible.

Posted in Belarus, Egyptian Revolution, Orange Revolution, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today, wikileaks | 12 Comments »

Of dissembling and Disinformation.

Posted by democratist on December 12, 2010

12th December 2010,

While it is usually fairly easy to spot the various forms of Russian disinformation campaigns in state-controlled media such as Russia Today, it is rare for the public at large to have an opportunity to examine a piece of Russian diplomatic dissembling, as practiced by an expert.

However yesterday an example of the genre came to light, courtesy of Wikileaks and The Guardian.

Dissembling is the art of concealing one’s true intentions, or seeking to arouse sympathy for a cause by the spreading of falsehoods or rumours. While the use of the mass-media for this purpose might be termed “macrodisiformation”, in as far as it is aimed at as wide an audience as possible in the hope that some will believe it, dissembling is a form of “microdisinformation,” practiced on a individual-to-individual basis, and is generally targeted at smaller groups, such as journalists themselves, or the diplomatic communities that one finds in most national capitals throughout the world.

In each case the end goal is the same; that the targeted individual(s) will repeat the rumours that you have fed them, thereby influencing the perceptions of others. In the case of diplomatic dissembling, the expectation might be that the target will repeat the rumour in a cable back to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and that this will cast enough doubt on alternative versions of the event being described (where the truth is not yet fully established) to influence decision-making in one’s favour, or at least temporarily prevent potentially unfavourable decisions being taken.

This surely, was at least partly the logic behind a reported meeting in Paris in late 2006 between Russian special presidential representative (and former intelligence officer) Anatoliy Safonov, and US ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism (and ex-CIA bureau chief) Henry Crumpton, shortly after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, during which Safonov told Crumpton that “Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city, but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place”.

Democratist suspects that the Safonov’s main motive was to try to forestall potentially negative US actions in support of the UK during the tense period that followed the Litvinenko murder by; i) implying that the FSB was not involved, and that the murder was the work of non-state actors and, ii) perhaps seeking to imply that the British spooks allowed the murder to take place because they had their own agenda, and they could later use Litvinenko’s death as a cause célèbre.

Interestingly, the Russians have sought to use a very similar (albeit more open) tactic in relation to the recent Zatuliveter case. In the same article, the Guardian reports, “Alexander Sternik, chargé d’affaires at Russia’s embassy in London…denounced the move [to deport Zatuliever] as a “PR stunt” designed to mask Britain’s own problems. “These problems are many over the last couple of months,” Sternik said. “You can cite the unflattering leaks from WikiLeaks and [England’s] unsuccessful [World Cup] bid.”

While no hard evidence of Zatuliever’s guilt has come to light so far, Sternik’s explaination of the UK’s actions lacks credibility when seen in the context of the KGB/SVR’s history of dissembling, as practicsed by Safonov.

Posted in Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russian Espionage, wikileaks | 1 Comment »

Russia according to Wikileaks: Kickbacks and extortion.

Posted by democratist on December 2, 2010

4th December 2010,

While we do not approve of Wikileaks’ release of several hundred thousand formerly classified State Department cables (discretion is, and should remain an important element of diplomacy), now that these documents are out in the open, there seems little point in Democratist ignoring them, especially since they reveal much about how US diplomats (and others) have viewed Russia and other former Soviet States over the past decade or so.

The main problem with analysing much of this material, of course is one inherent to historical research, and indeed intelligence analysis; just because a State department official saw fit to write down their appraisal of a situation, or relay claims made to them by a third-party, this does not mean, either that their analysis was correct, or that the person they were talking to was necessarily telling them the truth (claims surrounding the “Litvinenko cable” detailed here may – or may not – prove a case in point).

In this regard, much of the information released is basically high-grade gossip. However, much like the historian or the analyst, we can apply our pre-existing knowledge and theoretical insights to contextualize newly available information, and come to a judgement about its likely veracity and relevance. Democratist will doubtless be adding our contribution to the rapidly growing pile over the coming months. 

As far as Russia specifically is concerned one point already stands out; while others have suggested that Vladimir Putin might be secretly revelling in the leaking of these reports since they underscore his strongman image, the Wikileaks cables validate much of what we at Democratist have been saying about corruption at all levels in Russia since we set up shop in May. As such they are likely to have a negative impact on much hoped-for western investment into Russia, and by extension to some extent Medvedev’s (already rather lacklustre) “liberalization” project.

After all, how many US or European business people are going to want to invest in a country that is described by the US government, in cables that it never thought would become public as, “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy…in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state.”

Russia’s “BRIC” image of a few years ago, already in tatters  before these revelations, is becoming so toxic that many major western companies will surely seek to avoid investment in Russia at all costs, fearing an unending nightmare of kickbacks and extortion, or pull back from existing commitments.

 Russia surely now has the worst PR of any major country on earth.




Posted in Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, wikileaks | 4 Comments »