Interviewed by Anatoly Karlin

A meeting of the minds!

Yesterday Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion interviewed me for his new series, “Watching the Russia Watchers.” Here’s an excerpt:

ANATOLY KARLIN: As I understand, you are not the biggest fan of the Russian liberal opposition. You believe their leaders kowtow to the West and couldn’t care less about the everyday concerns of ordinary Russians. But consider the case of a patriotic Russian who detests the corruption and proizvol (arbitrariness) of state institutions and genuinely wants to improve human rights – not just those of Khodorkovsky, but of prison inmates, conscripts, minorities, etc. What can she realistically do about it, apart from ranting about the return of neo-Soviet totalitarianism in front of foreign TV cameras?

A GOOD TREATY: People “do” all kinds of things. Thirty-six parents and teachers in Ulyanovsk went on a week-long group hunger strike to successfully protest the closure of several local schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a group of youths in the Far East, fed up with local law enforcement and inspired by a particularly trigger-happy version of nationalism, decided to arm itself and start attacking police officers. Some people make it their profession to work in the line of danger — people like Natalia Estemirova and Sergey Magnitsky. Others lead scholarly human rights organizations like Oleg Orlov of Memorial, dedicated to unearthing a Soviet past they believe is forgotten at Russia’s peril.

All of these people are patriots in their own heads, and who am I to disagree?

I don’t begrudge the liberal opposition for ranting hyperbolisms in front of foreign TV cameras. This is half the business of being in the Russian liberal opposition, after all: (a) they need to provoke/tempt the authorities into cracking down on their rallies, otherwise nobody would ever care, and (b) they need to attract the attention of the West — for financial aid, for international connections, and for status. The liberal literati are frequent visitors to the United States — even the younger, student-”employed’ members like Ilya Yashin (who recently concluded a cross-country tour of the U.S.) and Oleg Kozlovsky (who’s been Stateside for weeks and is currently attending some kind of not-at-all-propagandistic-sounding democracy workshop at Stanford University).

These boys are more than welcome to globetrot wherever they like, but I personally can’t help but see them as a bunch of spoiled brats, partying to their own celebrity and hopelessly out of touch with the needs of ordinary Russians. (I’ve made it a point on AGT to focus on their endless infighting in order to highlight how self-centered and oblivious they really are.)

For the whole thing, visit Karlin’s site here или здесь на русском языке.

A Response to Democratist's "Encouraging Liberalization in Russia"

The following post is my response to an article published by the author the Russia & CIS blog, Democratist. The original piece is titled “Encouraging Liberalization in Russia.”

To import or not to import, that is Russia's question.

Oil dependency and crippling corruption. Yes, these are certainly problems facing Russia’s economic development. (Though I do find it curious that you use military tech as an example of innovation struggles, as surely a revamped weapons R&D infrastructure would involve more state intervention, not less.)

I agree with you that Western businesses would be vastly more comfortable investing their money and energy in Russia if they felt more confident about “the institutions of Russian democracy and civil society.” But profit returns remain the bottom line. The 2007 Sakhlin-2 scandal was perhaps the nadir in the modern history of Russian FDI, but even that venture is starting to finally post profits — profits that accrue to both the federal government and a team of private investors, largest among whom is still Dutch Shell oil.

That being said, Russia has, is, and will continue to be able to attract a great deal of direct foreign investment (even if it slumped during the financial crisis) thanks to the enduring truth that investing in Russia is extremely profitable. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin estimated earlier this year that FDI would be back to pre-crisis levels in less than three years. Continue reading ‘A Response to Democratist's "Encouraging Liberalization in Russia"’ »

The Medvedevian Tea Leaves

Machine code or the secret to Russia's legal nihilism?

On the heels of last week’s post about the new FSB law, I’d like to explore a couple of alternate theories on the reasons for and consequences of this piece of legislation. While Dmitri Medvedev infamously took full credit for this initiative, he’s had it on his desk from parliament for over a week now — and for some reason the Kremlin has yet to announce his signing it. This will likely prompt Medvedev’s die-hard liberal fans to theorize that he’s either considering vetoing the law or feels ashamed to publicize his endorsement. There’s a third option that he might аbstain from signing it altogether, which would automatically pass the bill by constitutional law: “В силу ч. 2 ст. 107 Конституции РФ Президент РФ обязан подписать принятый федеральный закон, если в течение четырнадцати дней с момента поступления не отклонит его.” If Medvedev does this, drunken celebrations among liberals worldwide will likely produce drowning casualties that rival the number of people who have died swimming to escape Russia’s current heatwave. Guns of August would be forgotten and it would become a summer of love.

But until something as unlikely as all that actually happens, we’re left with the slightly uglier reality that this law is poised to go into effect. The general consensus in the West has been to unremittingly criticize the legislation, and maybe to slip in some hopeful ambiguity about the degree to which Dima Medvedev actually supported the whole idea. Continue reading ‘The Medvedevian Tea Leaves’ »

Medvedev & the Minority Report FSB

Medvedev activates the FSB's precogs?

This last Friday, the Duma passed legislation no. 364427-5, “On Changing Federal FSB Law in the Russian Federation’s Code of Administrative Violations.” The law’s first public reading was on June 3rd. Before finally being accepted last week, the bill underwent another two drafts. After the first draft, a series of changes were made to the legislation after some lawmakers and human rights organizations complained that the bill bestowed KGB-like powers on the FSB. Basically, the legislation enables the FSB to warn citizens and organizations that they are suspected of (future) action that will threaten Russian national security.

So what were the changes made to that first version of this law?

Paragraphs 3-10, Clause 2, Article 1

  • Instead of granting the FSB “special prophylactic measures,” the law now reads simply “prophylactic measures” without mentioning ‘special.’
  • The following language was removed entirely: “The text of official FSB warnings can be published in the mass media without the approval of the accused individual” and “without the approval of state branches, administrative bodies, institutions, organizations, and public associations [NGOs].” Under the revised bill, the FSB is still able to alert NGOs (obshchestvennye ob’edineniia) when it perceives a national security threat, but gone is that specific language granting the right to publicize these warnings even without the accused’s permission.
  • Language was added to specify the accused’s right “to contest and appeal any official warnings before a court and federal authorities.”
  • Two specific mentions of legal responsibility for fulfilling the demands of official warnings were removed. The following text was cut: “Noncompliance with the requirements of [FSB] demands is subject to penalties established by the laws of the Russian Federation.”
  • Persons receiving warnings no longer have to appear in person before the FSB. The following text was removed from the bill: “For an official warning, the accused can be called [to appear before] bodies of the FSB.” Continue reading ‘Medvedev & the Minority Report FSB’ »

Mitt Romney: the American Vladimir Zhirinovsky?

How similar are these men?

As a regular listener of Echo of Moscow, I took note of a July 7, 2010, episode of ‘Народ против’ (The People Versus), starring the notorious Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The subject of the show was “The New START Treaty Shouldn’t Be Ratified,” and Vladimir Volfovich came to Эхо’s studio clad in a casual, short-sleeved shirt, ready to yell at the top of his lungs about how arms control imperils Russian national security.

This kind of political theater represents the Russian version of Mitt Romney’s insane anti-arms-control rambling in The Washington Post last week. In both cases, the spectacle is acted out by a struggling politician who has never been able to mainstream his appeal. Of course, Zhirinovsky is a lackey of the Kremlin — a comedian under contract to dance and scream obscenities: someone to remind Russians why they mustn’t elect a real nationalist (or perhaps to dupe his heartfelt supporters into believing that nationalists already have a voice in the government). Romney, meanwhile, seems to have grasped at the reins of the Republican Party in an effort to steer its position on New START and thereby better his odds of leading the party in future elections. Continue reading ‘Mitt Romney: the American Vladimir Zhirinovsky?’ »

Bettering the World 14 Spies at a Time

Who wins in this exchange?

While the media deluge on this subject makes it virtually impossible to say anything new or interesting about the Russian-American spy swap this week, there was an important revelation yesterday in The Washington Post that occasions a few more words.

Karen DeYoung reports that President Obama only learned about the Russian illegals-spy program on June 11th, about two weeks before the arrest of the ten Russian agents. (Before the information got to Obama, other officials in the White House apparently knew of the case as early as February this year.) At any rate, the timing of the actual arrest was left to the DOJ and the FBI. That they moved on June 27th, so soon after President Medvedev left Washington, was “entirely coincidental.”

CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly worked with London to hammer out a list of Russian prisoners, for whom the illegals could be swapped. (Hence, the USA would get back Zaporozhsky and Vasilenko, and the UK would get back Sutyagin and Skripal.) Panetta communicated the demands to Mikhail Fradkov, and, after three separate conversations, the deal was done.

Continue reading ‘Bettering the World 14 Spies at a Time’ »

Mitt Romney Is An Idiot: A Response to His Washington Post Op-Ed on New START

Tuesday, July 6th, Americans nursing Independence Day hangovers will wake up to find in their morning paper a second reason to start the day with a headache: an outrageously stupid op-ed by Mitt Romney in the Washington Post.

Mitt Romney.

Mr. Romney’s article is about the New START Treaty, what he calls President Obama’s “worst foreign-policy mistake yet.” The op-ed is a laundry list of neocon boilerplate, criticizing and rejecting the recently negotiated arms control agreement concluded by the White House and the Kremlin. “It must not be ratified,” Romney instructs the Senate, concluding with a zinger that I can only assume his 4-year-old daughter coined: “As currently drafted, New START is a non-starter.” Very good, Mitt. Now let’s have a look at what the hell you’re talking about. Continue reading ‘Mitt Romney Is An Idiot: A Response to His Washington Post Op-Ed on New START’ »

A Russian in America: Ilya Yashin's Travelogue

In honor of the holiday, just a short post today. Not a post, at all, really, but a partial repost and recommendation that anyone with some spare time on this blazing-hot Monday take a look at Ilya Yashin’s recent blogging about his tour of the United States.

Suddenly the amateur anthropologist/ethnographer, Yashin has visited Washington DC, NYC, San Francisco, and Sacramento — all in the last week. He’s taken some admittedly awesome photographs, and his commentary is actually a little charming, I confess. Sometimes he exaggerates American super-duperness in order to take a cheap shot at Russian shortcomings, but for the most part this is an innocent travelogue, ‘a Russian in America,’ complete with Harlem street dancing (see above) and chats with California bums (see below).

Check out his posts: DC, NYC, Harlem, SF, Sacramento

Read on for some choice photos with Yashin’s captions… Continue reading ‘A Russian in America: Ilya Yashin's Travelogue’ »