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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 »

You have been weighed, and found wanting: Russia Today and the 1st Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution

Posted by democratist on January 25, 2012

January 26th 2012,

It has been a year since the revolution in Egypt. Russia Today’s treatment of the anniversary has been rather telling.

In a piece provided top billing yesterday, the Kremlin’s international mouthpiece noted that, among hundreds of thousands celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of the uprising in Cairo, many (perhaps the majority of) people are still demonstrating as part of an ongoing struggle to entrench the revolution by reducing the influence of the army on the Egyptian political system.

The tone of the report is markedly different from the way the channel greeted the first days of the revolt a year ago. Back then, it implausibly claimed that (then recently released) Wikileaks cables “revealed” that the US had been plotting to overthrow Mubarak for “at least three years” and that they, ”show Washington had been secretly backing leading figures behind the uprising.”

At the time, Democratist noted that the Wikileaks documents did not in fact reveal anything of the kind, and suggested that the RT’s wholly invented position was chiefly inspired by the nomenklatura’s concerns about the ramifications of the Arab Spring for its own domestic position;

“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.”

And so now we find ourselves a year on. RT’s talk of direct CIA involvement in the revolutions has waned. Indeed, if anything it has become mildly supportive of the Egyptian protests, seeing them as part of the inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement (which the channel has also been attempting to leverage to the Kremlin’s advantage through its coverage and support in the US – hoping that it might eventually have some influence on the broader political scene and foreign policy).

Additionally, while RT could just about defend the argument that the Americans were behind the revolution for a few months, the very fact that millions of Egyptians are still prepared to come out onto the streets a year after the initial uprising gives the lie to the suggestion that what has happened in Egypt and the wider middle East was directed from Washington/lacked popular support: Surely not even the most credulous of RT’s viewers are now prepared to accept that the US was able to organize, on its own, uprisings of millions of people in five or six countries simulaneously, and for a period which has (so far) lasted for more than a year?

Instead RT’s propaganda model is adapting to the new circumstances, and the original position is being replaced with a new and more convoluted conspiracy theory, which sees “the West” backing Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are in turn using money and influence to hijack the popular grievances (now accepted as genuine, at least in terms of economics) which sparked the Arab Spring, and to bring Sunni Islamists to power in local elections.

This new perspective highlights the supposed potential dangers of democratization in the region, but also handily provides rhetorical ammunition to Russia’s allies in Syria and Iran: The Syrian regime can defend itself on the basis that it preventing the country falling into the hands of the Muslim brotherhood, and the Iranians can argue that there is a western-backed conspiracy against Shia Islam from which they need to protect the Iranian people.

From Democratist’s perspective, while it is would hardly come as a great surprise to discover that the Saudis may be funding Islamic parties in the region, the idea that the West would support them in such an endeavor is without the slightest foundation, and serves only the nomenklatura’s ideological/geopolitical objectives.

Additionally, in seeking to highlight the potential dangers of democratization in the middle East, RT deliberately ignores the extent to which political demands – democracy and rights – have been at the forefront of protests throughout the region. Instead RT seeks to rewrite the history of the Arab Spring in the Russian ruling class’s own image – playing up economic demands at the expense of democratic ones, whereas it has been clear, not least to the demonstrators themselves, that the two are in fact closely intertwined and mutually supporting. As the crowds shown by RT in Tahrir square demanding genuine reform yesterday attested, demands for democracy and rights have been, and remain central to the Arab Spring, and since this is the case it seems considerably less likely that the countries affected are likely to turn into anti-western theocracies than RT implies.

More fundamentally, what the Arab Spring highlights is that, while the last few years may have been witness to some democratic reversals in the CIS (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), on the global scale, and from a longer term perspective, the last two centuries (and especially the last sixty-five years) demonstrate the growing international potency of the democratic ideal, and the erosion of autocracy as a legitimate form of governance, even in previously unexpected places (such as Egypt), and despite the United States’ perceived hypocrisy on this issue.

With the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the pressure for democratic reform in states which have reached the prerequisite level of economic and social development appear to be strengthening, rather than receeding. Even in Russia the population, whose docility was taken for granted by the ruling class (and the west) for much of the last decade, has finally given some indication of its potential, with the large demonstrations which followed last December’s rigged parliamentary elections.

Autocrats throughout the middle East, and wider world are being weighed, and found wanting by their people. Although this process may be delayed for some years in Russia, through economic growth, propaganda, rigged elections and the efforts of the FSB, the writing on the wall is clear for all to see.

It’s simply a question of when, and how.

Posted in Arab Spring, Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, Russia Today | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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 »

Dimitry Medvedev and the Autonomous Power of Lies.

Posted by democratist on February 27, 2011

27th February 2011,

Democratist was not especially surprised to hear President Medvedev’s comments in Vladikavkaz last week suggesting that outside forces are plotting a revolution against Russia.

The idea that the US is plotting to unseat the current Russian government (or its allies) in order to get its hands on Russian oil has been making the rounds in the Russian domestic media since at least the 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, and gained intensity after the “Orange Revolution” in late 2004 (indeed, a great deal of such propaganda was promoted domestically within Ukraine at the time as part of Yanukovich’s unsuccessful election campaign; Democratist remembers reading Russian-language articles accusing Yukashenko’s American-born wife of being a “CIA Colonel”). The trend has seen a major renaissance since the recent revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the middle East.

These conspiracy theories continue to circulate despite (or more likely because of) the fact that democracy promotion is has been an openly admitted, and highly successful aspect of US foreign policy for many decades, and has been pursued quite openly by organizations such as NDI and Radio Free Europe, and through international organizations such as the OSCE (of which Russia is a member-state, and as such has agreed to abide by democratic norms such as the holding of free and fair elections by signing the 1990 Copenhagen document).

The rationale behind the promotion of the “Colour Revolution” conspiracy theories (whose central defining motif is to ascribe an unwarranted role in these revolutions to the CIA, George Soros, the Bilderburg group and so on, and to play down the role of popular sentiment and mobilization in the countries concerned) is an unwillingness to accept the appeal of democratic governance for 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 Russian elite’s unwillingness relax their grip on power, or allow themselves to be put to the test of a fair election (regardless of how popular the opinion polls may claim they are).

So what is the historical background to such conspiracy theories (in the Russian context) and who how do they circulate and gain currency?

As David Aaronovitch recounts in some detail in his excellent Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History (2009), the various incarnations of the Russian secret service have had a lengthy record of both creating and promoting conspiracy theory to influence the world view of the Russian people for their own political ends.

A good early 20th Century example (which we have mentioned before) is 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 (secret police) in the early 1900′s as a weapon to bolster tsarist autocracy against reformism (many reformist politicians were Jews). The Protocols later became a favorite of Hitler’s, and were added to the secondary-school curriculum in Germany in the 1930′s, eventually making a contribution to the genocidal mentality that led to the holocaust.

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. At these trials a number of senior Communists 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 (significantly) to pander to Stalin’s own deep personal paranoia. As Robert Conquest has described in The Great Terror (1968/1991), many millions died in the subsequent purges.

Other historical examples of the KGB promoting conspiracy theories, both domestically and abroad (e.g. in relation to the Kennedy assassination) abound. Those interested can read The Mitrokhin Archive (1999) for more details.

In contemporary terms, as Democratist has noted before, a considerable proportion of the work of Russia Today seems to be aimed at the promotion of similarly exculpatory or self-serving mythologizing such as the work of Daniel Estulin. Conspiracy theory continues to play an important role within the Russian propaganda pantheon, and has been a central element in official attempts to propagandize the “Colour Revolutions,” and now more recent events in the middle East .

For Democratist, the continuing potential danger of state-promoted conspiracy theory is obvious. As we see in Voodoo Histories they have been a contributory element in at least two of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century and (combined with the official promotion of Russian nationalism) continue to be an important tool available to the nomenklatura for the control and pacification of their own people, and the sowing of confusion and division abroad.

But the greatest danger of the state promotion of conspiracy theories in this way is that (as we appear to be witnessing in Medvedev’s recent speech) eventually the elite will almost inevitably come to believe in their own lies: Going back to The Mitrokhin Archive, Christopher Andrew notes that many among the KGB senior ranks still fully believed in the existence of Zionist/capitalist plots into the 1960′s and 1970′s. Separately, Andrew recounts how the KGB sought to play to the Kremlin’s (illusory) fears of western invasion in their intelligence reporting in the early 1980′s. This resulted in tensions over the 1983 NATO Able Archer ’83 exercise that may well have brought the possibility of nuclear war closer than it had been at any time since 1962.

Posted in Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today | 2 Comments »

Russia Today: No Alternative.

Posted by democratist on February 9, 2011

9th February 2011,

Democratist doesn’t like to be seen as constantly harping on about Russia Today; there is more to far criticise about the current Russian government than the Kremlin’s English language mouth-piece.

But the truth of the matter is that we enjoy explaining how they skew so many of their stories at the behest of their Kremlin paymasters because;

i) Taking RT’s own advice, Democratist likes to “Question More,” (a lot more).

ii) Since RT is funded by the Russian state to the tune of at least $50 million dollars per year (whereas we are run on a “budget” currently mainly composed of cups of tea and chocolate biscuits), it is clear we enjoy a challenge. 

iii) RT provides an easy target for us, because with a little effort it is usually possible to work out the interests and logic that lie behind their output on any given day, with the added bonus that, because RT reproduces the government line so faithfully, and is generally devoid of editorial independence, it unwittingly sheds considerable light on Russian domestic or (more often) foreign policy: You can usually work out what the Russian government is thinking by working back from an RT story.

And despite its posturing as an “alternative” to the mainstream western media, and related anti-Americanism, Russia Today not a sincere “alternative” to anything, but rather a vehicle for expressing propaganda on behalf of an authoritarian state, which has little concern for democracy or human rights beyond what is politically expedient at the time.

Examples of this hypocrisy are legion; Democratist especially enjoys the way RT’s wall-to-wall condemnations of western militarism (documentaries about US war crimes in Korea, Vietnam etc) are regularly interspersed advertisements for is own military hardware. An example (from this morning) has the excited presenter expounding the virtues of a new Russian attack helicopter; (“They say this 30mm cannon can pierce through armour, but obviously it’s not the only weapon this aircraft can be equipped with; anti tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, bombs – all of them installed on the wings here, make this aircraft a real predator in the skies!”).

Very alternative.

Posted in Russia Foreign Policy, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today | 1 Comment »

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 »

Mike Hancock: Not-so-useful idiot.

Posted by democratist on December 6, 2010

7th December 2010,

Nice to see Democratist’s old chum Mike Hancock MP is back in the spotlight once again. We think he has come off rather well so far, under the circumstances.

As the wonderful Ed Lucas (who we suspect has been recently whispering with someone wearing dark glasses and a trilby in the back of a pub somewhere) points out in the Daily Mail, so far Hancock appears as a sort of “useful idiot,” (a politically motivated idealist who can be manipulated to do the Kremlin’s bidding) rather than corrupt, or a full-on traitor.

Nonetheless, his enduring support for the Russians in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) over many years, an interesting choice of questions in the Commons, and his actions and statements as a PACE election observer in Azerbaijan in 2008, imply that more information may be forthcoming.

With regard to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, this all looks like yet another PR disaster (neatly topping off an extraordinarily bad year) which will doubtless provide the staff at Russia Today with a couple more hours’ overtime.

Perhaps a spot of tit-for-tat petulance is also in order, and we might expect to see some hapless Brit hauled onto a plane at one of the Moscow airports (or something similar) at some point.

Nonetheless, the Russian spooks once again come across as inept and perhaps rather desperate, since they chose to run someone working for an MP whose actions were certain to draw attention and arouse suspicion. Evidently, the Security Service have been on to Zatuliveter for some time.

Perhaps the SVR are no longer really that worried about the bad publicity that this kind of public unmasking engenders. They should be. After all, who’s going to want to sell their services to a bunch of people who keep getting caught?

As for the rest of us, Zatuliveter’s arrest feeds into the kind of spy mania so beloved and eagerly sensationalized by the UK media, which at least has the effect of making the population more aware of the potential threat of espionage, and therefore makes the UK a tougher prospect for the SVR in future.

British parliamentarians will also be getting the message, and will hopefully be less eager to be seen employing lissome young Russian women as “assistants” over the coming years. Even so, perhaps it is time for the government to bite the bullet, and impose tighter restrictions on the employment of Russian citizens in potentially sensitive posts in the UK? 

And not just in parliament. As Democratist has underlined, while political and strategic material apparently made up much of Zatuliveter’s reporting, Russian’s main focus is likely to remain on military-technological developments, as they attempt to modernize their armed forces in the face of growing industrial backwardness exacerbated by corruption.

Posted in Russia Today, Russian Espionage | Leave a Comment »

Viktor’s “very legal” business.

Posted by democratist on November 17, 2010

17th November 2010,

Democratist has been delighted to see the return to the screen of one of our favorite Russia Today semi-regulars, thereby once again reassuring us that conspiracy theory continues to maintain a central place in the Russian disinformation pantheon, despite the “reset” with the US. 

The last time we saw Madrid-based “investigative journalist” Daniel Estulin in early July, he had been given a 10 minute prime-time slot on RT’s news programme, during which he (heroically) managed to keep a straight face while expressing the view that the US was building 13 “secret bases” in Afghanistan, “for the forward push to an eventual war against Russia,” as part of a complex plot involving the IMF, George Soros, and the Bilderburg group. (Democratist especially appreciated the inclusion of Soros, as it tellingly underscored the historical use of Jews as scapegoats in Russian disinformation operations, going at least as far back as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; secretly published by the Tsarist Okrana in Paris in the early 1900′s).

This time Estulin (who sports a fetching “slav nationalist chic” ponytail and goatee combo, and whose grandfather was, according to the biography on his web site - surprise, surprise – a colonel in the KGB) has been dragged out to do a similar job in relation to yesterday’s extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout from Thailand to the US.

Thus, whereas Bout was today charged in New York with arms dealing and conspiracy to kill US officials, Estulin has been backing the Kremlin’s claims that he is the victim of a “grave injustice” and comically stated in an RT interview (among other things) that, “[Bout] was not involved in gun running. He was involved, to a very small extent, in shipping arms; but again, shipping arms is not illegal, it is a very legal business.”

And guess what? RT informs us that Estulin is currently,working on a book about the “conspiracy” against Viktor Bout.”

  

 

Posted in Russia Propaganda, Russia Today | 3 Comments »

 
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