poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

October 6, 2011

LQD: “Why the pessimism over Putin’s return?”

Fear not – I’m still paying attention to our Vova. While I’ve been making a pathetic effort to compose a response to the recent 2012 Russian election developments, those smart kids Katrina and Stephen have gone and written pretty much what I’ve been thinking, saving me much time and effort. As always, if anyone has a problem with my publishing this in total, they can get in touch. I’m erring on the side of widest distribution. Go buy a Wa Po after you read this or something.

Washington Post: “Why the pessimism over Putin’s return?” By Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen

We make no brief for Vladimir Putin as a democrat, but much of the U.S. commentary following the announcement that he will return to the Kremlin as president in 2012 is simplistic morality posing as political analysis.

A Sept. 28 New York Times editorial, for example, insisted that Putin, who “has made clear his disdain for democratic rights,” is casting out the “more liberal and Western-oriented” Dmitry Medvedev. According to a Sept. 26 Post editorial, “Vladimir Putin decided that he would like to be president again, and so he will be.”

But the complexities of Russian politics cannot be reduced to the whims of one man — however powerful he may be. As was clear from polemics in Russian newspapers before the Sept. 24 announcement, Putin’s return to the Kremlin is prompted in part by the preferences of Russia’s ruling class — top officials and the financial elite known as the oligarchy. As the leading pro-Medvedev advocate, Igor Yurgens, acknowledged, “influence groups” favoring Putin “turned out to be ­stronger.” In their eyes, and probably in Putin’s, the ever-tweeting Medvedev was never able to shed his image as an ineffectual political figure. In effect, Medvedev failed his four-year audition for a second term.

The Russian elite, including the Putin and Medvedev camps, seems to understand that the country’s economy urgently requires diversification away from its heavy dependence on oil and gas exports. The state must find other sources of revenue for its growing budget. As Putin warned recently, such reforms will require “bitter medicine,” including higher taxes on the business class, which has prospered grandly under a 13 percent flat tax while many Russians have fallen into poverty. The governing class, eyeing its own interests, wants the tougher and popular Putin to preside over these changes.

It may turn out, as some U.S. commentators have asserted, that Putin’s return is “bad news for the Russian people.” But opinion polls show that, after more than a decade of Putin’s leadership, a majority of Russians still do not associate him with the country’s “bad news.” The reason is clear to anyone who has followed Russia since the end of the Soviet Union: It was Putin who restored pensions, lifted wages and elevated living standards after the traumatic 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s policies impoverished the country.

And what about President Obama’s highly touted “reset”? The Russian expert at the Center for American Progress asserts that “Putin’s return next year will reverse all of these positive trends” and “is no good for the United States.” This may be so in the limited sense that the Obama administration unwisely based its reset primarily on Medvedev — while directing gratuitous insults at Putin, such as when Vice President Biden told groups of Russians during his visit to Moscow this year that Putin should not return to the presidency. But the larger assumption that Putin’s return will mean a further diminishing of Russia’s democratic prospects is based on the false premise that Yeltsin, like Medvedev today, was a liberal democrat.

But it was the U.S.-backed Yeltsin who used tanks in 1993 to destroy an elected parliament, thereby reversing the democratization of Russia that began under Mikhail Gorbachev, a reversal accelerated under Putin. And while Medvedev has spoken often in the idioms of Western-style liberalism, it was Medvedev who took personal credit for using military force against Georgia in 2008 and then increasing military spending so sharply that his widely admired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, resigned last month. Moreover, if Putin is determined to pursue retrograde policies, why would he promise to appoint the “more liberal” Medvedev as prime minister — an office Putin empowered during the past four years?

Indeed, given the real alternatives, and not those that Americans might prefer, why the assumption that Putin’s return to the Kremlin will be bad for Western interests? For example, the New York Times reported Sept. 28 that Western bankers and corporations welcomed the announcement as “a net positive for foreign investors.” It’s also noteworthy that from 2000 to 2008, when Putin was president, he made more important concessions to Washington than Medvedev has during the past four years — giving the Bush administration critical support in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; bowing to a new round of NATO expansion; swallowing the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and agreeing to an expansion of Russian supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Those days of a yielding Putin, however, may be behind us. He said as early as 2002 that “the era of Russian geopolitical concessions [is] coming to an end.” What’s clear is that Putin’s future cooperation with Washington will depend on his understanding of Russia’s national interests and equally on Washington’s cooperation with Moscow, which, despite Obama’s heralded “reset,” has not yet involved any tangible American concessions.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly online column for The Post. Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.”

What they said.

March 21, 2011

and Peace.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary — poemless @ 3:32 PM

The following is from an e-mail I received from a college friend (one who as it happens studied Russian with me…) I am posting it here, with her permission, because there is too much negativity and suffering and ugliness in the world, and I feel partly responsible for propagating it. So I’d like to put something positive out there into the world to counter that. She is much better at being positive than I…

Dear loved ones,

Happy Holi!

Happy Equinox!

Feeling the connections between all of us, and the powerful planetary
pulls which direct our consciousness-

The largest full moon of the year, and the closest to the earth that
it has been since 1993, the orb of spring hangs balanced directly
between sun and earth in chaste Virgo Sun sitting in Pisces at the
point of the vernal equinox where day and night are elegantly poised
in tandem, gazing at one another in calm mutual adoration through the
eyes of sun and moon.

A rare alignment of the Sun with the planet Uranus at the Equinox
point (0 Aries) under which we dance and laugh and overstep the
boundaries of decorum to smear colors on one another.

“On this day,” says my elderly house-owner, as he and his wife and two
daughters waylay me on the staircase with handfuls of orange powder
and huge grins, “you cannot refuse anyone….”

Suddenly, kirtan, clapping…tambourine! Erupt from outside the window..”Ganapati om, Ganapati om!”

“Govinda Hare, Gopala Hare….”

On the porch next door, the family, with pink, purple and green faces,
sit reverently for puja.

A band of purple/pink striped mauraders carrying bags of color (some
respectable members of society I suspect) go door to door clanging
cymbals and demanding entry, the charged atmosphere is punctuated by the squeals of ecstatic children, I catch the sheepish grins of a few
grown men with squirt guns on rooftops and inside the confines of
their gated compounds given over completely to the mood, sporting
Jackson Pollak-designed tee-shirts in pink and green.

Here in my little rooftop room, Krishna is wearing a new fragrant
garland and there are rice-flour decorations on the floor.

Krishna, the Lord of sport, Lord of the lila, out of infinite
compassion for us in our delusion, delicately peels open the petals of
the lotus in the heart and releases the fragrance of divine love, he
is the lotus, the bee, the intoxicating nectar, and lest we become too
lost in the heady beauty of his mesmerizing attraction, he shakes the
earth with the shattering magnitude of his force, striking awe into
our very core at the enormous power of the divine being-

“with many hands, bellies, mouths and eyes, possessing infinite forms
on every side…blinding with the effulgence of the blazing fire and
sun, and immeasurable…with no beginning, middle or end, of infinite
prowess, with infinite arms, with the sun and moon for your eyes and
the blazing fire in your mouths, scorching this universe with your
radiance…hosts of gods are entering into you, some being frightened
are praising you with joined palms, while the bands of great sages and
perfected souls, uttering the word ‘peace’ are praising you with
numerous hymns.

O infinite being, o ruler of the gods, o abode of the world, you are
imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest, and that which is
beyond both. You are the primeval god, the ancient being. You are
the supreme repository of this universe. You are the knower and the
knowable, the highest abode. O you of infinite form, by you is the
universe pervaded.

Salutations, a thousandfold salutation to you; salutations again and
again to you. Salutations”

Om Namo Narayana.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t even know if I am a spiritual person. But it’s rather beautiful, isn’t it? Poetic, even. Salutations, dear readers!

October 1, 2010

Do We Really Need More Democracy? or, There’s no place like home.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:14 PM
Tags:

I know there are many differences in the mechanics of our respective political systems (Chicago, Russia), but in the Sept. 30 issuse of the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner concisely sums up the questions I have been asking about both -rhetorically, no one actually listens to me- for a very long time.

The Reader is a free weekly, and I am making no money, goodness knows, writing this blog. So I hope Miner doesn’t come after me for posting this in its entirety. (Actually, this is just the first part; the rest is about friending politicians on facebook…) Read this, click the link, click on a few ads, do whatever you need to to be a responsible consumer of decent journalism. But first, just read this.

Do We Really Need More Democracy? Or do we just need to use the democracy we have?
By Michael Miner

Any day you’re asked a good question is a pretty good day. The other day I was asked two.

The first one was from my daughter Laura in New York. Everyone is talking about bringing more democracy to Chicago, she said. What does that mean, more democracy? More of what exactly?

I had no idea. Mayor Daley said he’d decided not to run for reelection, and suddenly democracy was on all lips. “Perhaps you’ve heard of it, invented by my noble ancestors, the Greeks,” John Kass wrote in the Tribune, “it is a system of government by which free people debate ideas, sometimes vigorously, sometimes rudely. They elect leaders who are expected to give reasons for their actions. The leaders must form a consensus before they can spend the people’s money. Yes, it is indeed a weird system of governance, relatively unknown in these parts. It’s called democracy.”

Daley’s “unfinished business,” Greg Hinz wrote in Crain’s Chicago Business, is “making Chicago fit for democracy and making democracy fit in Chicago.” And back at the Trib, Dennis Byrne wrote, “Questions about whether Chicago can function as a democracy presume that the City Council will stir itself out of its slumber and break out of its special interest chains. Can aldermen govern, left on their own without a boss instructing them?”

I’d already quoted these quotes in something I’d posted online. Now I reviewed them. Kass was asking for a Little Golden Books version of democracy. Hinz wanted a Chicago where democracy works. Pretty to wish for, thought Byrne, but he seriously doubted Chicago could function as a democracy and the real question, he concluded, was whether Chicago could continue to be functional at all. A dark thought, that. Everyone agreed the democracy dipstick reads low. But there was less consensus on how, or even whether, to fill the tank; the real yearning, I could see, wasn’t for more democracy as much as it was for a nicer, more consumer-friendly democracy that elects leaders as honest as they are brilliant.

For if someone says we don’t have enough democracy in Chicago, the proper reply is, what exactly are we short of? Do we vote? Yes. Is any adult without a criminal record free to run? Yes. Do our elected representatives meet and discuss and write laws, and if we don’t like those laws can we throw them out? Yes. And what about the mayor, who’s ruled for almost 22 years and whose father ruled for 21? Is there something about the way our laws are written that encourages quasi-monarchical dynasties? Not that I can put my finger on.

So what democratic apps are lying around uinstalled? I guess there are the direct referendums that helped bankrupt California. And the recent experiment in Rogers Park—the one the Reader’s Deanna Isaacs just wrote about under the headline “Can Democracy Work in Chicago?”—about 49th Ward residents voting on how their alderman should spend his “menu money”—could be tried everywhere murals are painted on railroad viaducts.

But there’s not a lot of room for expansion.

If Chicago’s cursed with a corrupt, inefficient autocracy, it’s because the people of Chicago, in their wisdom and by their votes and actions, have repeatedly chosen it. Let’s blame the victim: we have the democracy we deserve. Just as Barack Obama’s greatest accomplishment as president could turn out to be getting elected president, the biggest contribution to democratic reform made possible by Richie Daley’s decision not to run for reelection may be the decision itself. Mayors don’t have to die in office or cling to it until their parties throw them out—as Daley just taught by example to Chicagoans who had never seen anything else.

Last week in the Reader I shared the lamentation of a tiny Tea Party group, the Johnson County Patriots of the Republic, in western Missouri. There’s a long list of grievances posted on their website, but in the end their beef comes down to this: “Some of our elected representatives treat us like children. Far too many of our politicians insult us in town hall meetings. They dismiss us by refusing to respond to our questions, through the rudeness of their office personnel, and by giving us meaningless responses that answer none of our concerns. All of these actions make it clear that they no longer take us, the people, seriously.”

Folks go to the polls in western Missouri, same as they do here. What aggrieves the Johnson County Patriots isn’t that there’s too little democracy but that democracy in their view doesn’t work for them the way it works for the big shots. They sound just like Kass—the difference being that an angry voice speaking for itself is more compelling than Kass’s sarcastic voice speaking for a disrespected multitude he doesn’t belong to. The Patriots look around at the democracy their forefathers left behind and feel it snickering at them. Here in Illinois, a lot of folks do too. Voters face humiliating choices in November’s most important races: Quinn versus Brady for governor; Giannoulias versus Kirk for the U.S. Senate. But who or what gave us these candidates? Who gave us Blagojevich? Who gave us George Ryan? Do we blame democracy for failing to gild the ballot with more competence and virtue?

I’m just asking—I’m as eager to live in a Hellenic paradise as the next guy is.

It’s all very Wizard of Oz, isn’t it? We’ve courageously exposed the man behind the curtain, only to learn we’ve had the power ourselves all along.

Except I don’t think anyone in Chicago, or Moscow, would actually rather live in Kansas. I mean, there are reasons we live here, few of which can be found in some quaint rural dustbowl town full of pigs and witches. And that’s the clencher, so far as I can tell. Are we, as demanding citizens, prepared to be as humble and accountable as we want our new leaders to be? Are we prepared to go full out Temperance-style hysterical with a war on Corruption? Are we ready to excersize our democratic power, knowing well the consequence that we will be to blame when things fall apart?

Can we oust the Wizard, but keep the dancing munchkins, flying monkeys, poppy fields and yellow brick roads? That’s what I want to know.

June 3, 2010

LQD: “Rethinking Russia” by Stephen Cohen.

By now most of you who will read anything I write will have read this. But I’m reposting for several reasons: 1) In the vain hope that my American friends, family, etc. who are not interested in Russia will read it, 2) Because it appears a few people in Russia -like, actual Russians and not smug expats- read this blog, and I want them to know that some Americans have sane takes in U.S.-Russia relations, and 3) I’m in love with Stephen Cohen. And his wife.

It’s not completely accurate to suggest he says anything terribly new in this interview. He’s not only re-thinking, but re-peating. But let us forgo the easy standards of blogland and learn to value wisdom over novelty. I do recommend you read the whole thing. But it is 11 pages long. Below are just the parts I really appreciated.

[Emph. mine.]

Rethinking Russia: U.S.-Russian Relations in an Age of American Triumphalism

From an Interview with Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. Journal of International Affairs. Spring/Summer 2010. Reprinted by, Russia Other Points fo View.

Journal: The world recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How has this event been received in Russia?

Cohen: [...] Under Gorbachev, modernization therefore meant both political and economic modernization. After the Soviet Union ended in 1991, Yeltsin continued Gorbachev’s democratization in some respects but his policies resulted in the beginning of Russia’s de-democratization, which in the United States is usually, and incorrectly, attributed to his successor, Putin. The way Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, like a thief in the night, was not constitutional or democratic. There was no referendum on it. If you want to create democracy, you do not abolish the only state and homeland most people had ever known with the stroke of a pen, without consulting them. Yeltsin could have done what Gorbachev had done in March 1991 hold a referendum on the Union. Yeltsin might have won it, ending the Soviet Union consensually and without the widespread bitterness that remains today, and the 15 republics would have gone their own ways. Then, in October 1993, Yeltsin used tanks to abolish a parliament popularly elected in 1990 when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. This too was a Russian tradition the destruction of a legislature in a nation with a long history of overwhelming executive power but without a tradition of strong, independent legislatures. Russia has a parliament today, the Duma, but it is neither.

Note: This is part of a larger discussion about modernization. If you are interested in that topic, read the interview. Me, I suspect “modernization” is code for something (isn’t the history of man the history of modernization? why is this issue such a 3rd rail when it comes to Russia?) but I’m not sure what yet. They continue:

Journal: What opportunities exist for re-democratization in Russia?

Cohen: The main obstacle to democratization in Russia is not contrary to American political and media opinion Vladimir Putin or the KGB, or any single leader or institution. It’s the way the nation’s most valuable state economic and financial assets were “privatized” between 1991 and 1996. The idea of state or commonly owned property was not just a communist idea; it was a Russian idea, with origins long before 1917. The Soviet state property fell into the hands of a relatively small group of insiders not just the billionaires we call oligarchs and created an extremely wealthy class very quickly.

Polls show that a majority of Russians still think that property was taken and is held illegitimately. The people who own that property and who are part of the ruling elite, will never permit free elections or a freely elected parliament, knowing that such elections and such a truly representative legislature would endanger their property, endangering them personally, as well as their families. For evidence, look no further than how they have moved their families and their assets abroad.

Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to both Putin and Medvedev, referred to the existing elite as an “offshore aristocracy.” It’s a remarkably evocative formulation. By moving their assets and families abroad, the very rich show that their first loyalty is not to Russia and its future. Surkov said Russia needs its own real national bourgeoisie, which links its own future to Russia’s future. There is much truth in what he said. After all, you can’t modernize Russia by buying English soccer teams or American NBA teams.[<--Oh, snap!]

The essence of democracy anywhere is a free representative parliament however badly it may work. You can’t have this without free elections, but the Russian elite that holds vast property and controls part of the political system will never permit free elections as long as it fears for its wealth. The United States, by supporting Yeltsin’s privatization policies, was deeply complicit in the way that property was acquired. The Clinton administration and outside advisers called it a transition to a market economy and cheered it, and Americans went to Russia to guide the process. They unknowingly created a kind of firewall against democracy. Thoughtful Russians understand this conflict between ill-gained property and the lack of democracy. Some have proposed solutions, such as a one time super tax on this property, which would go into pensions, healthcare, and education in order to create a new social contract. According to this proposal, the people would forgive the rich and acknowledge their property as legitimate, and then their resentments would diminish over time, making democratization again possible. Social justice is a profound Russian belief. Without it, there will be no Russian democracy.

Is this seriously being considered, does anyone know? This is the first I’ve heard of the one time rape and pillage your country tax…

Journal: Despite the failure of the 1990s, do proponents of western-style liberalism remain a formidable force in Russia?

Cohen: They barely exist at high levels. From 1991 to 1994, they were perhaps the strongest faction in the Russian government due to the carry-over of Gorbachev’s westernism and the belief of Yeltsin’s political team that the United States was its true political partner and would provide generous financial assistance. Then came the calamities of the 1990s associated with shock therapy, which Russians thought had “Made in America” written on it not an unreasonable belief since they saw legions of American economists and other advisers encamped in Russia. I published a book, Failed Crusade, about the consequences of this ill-conceived U.S. policy and behavior.

Thinking in Russia about its relationship with the West has become more diverse. I simplify a bit, but there are essentially three groups. One says, “We are Eurasian; our civilization, our security, and our future are not with the West.” These political forces advocate minimal relations with the West. They are not urging a new Iron Curtain, but are arguing that Russia cannot stake its national or economic security on the West. Russia, they say, tried that in the 1990s and the early 2000s and was exploited and cheated. Its territory was endangered, promises were broken, and the country was left in ruins. [This would be the scary nationalist types, I think.]

Then there are those who still argue that historically Russia has been backward mainly because its citizens have not been given western-style political and economic freedoms and that the country’s future lies in the West in western models, alliances, and economic integration. To attain this, they hope for partnership with the United States, which they think still exemplifies the West. By the way, this small and diminishing group is the only one that still welcomes U.S. “democracy promotion” in Russia its funds and crusaders. [This would be the liberal intellectuals, then?]

The most interesting group emerging in Russia today, I think, is the one that says, “We are a Eurasian country, but that means we are in Europe and in Asia, and the United States is not a European country.” Their perceived western ally is Germany. It is often forgotten that, though Russia and Germany fought two wars in the 20th century, between those wars they had close relationships, along with a cultural affinity dating back to Tsarist times. That relationship is re-emerging. Look at German Chancellor Merkel. She came to power as an anti-Russian she grew up in Communist East Berlin but has emerged as one of Putin’s strongest European partners. [This would be the people actually running the country. They're the sane and sober ones! Go figure!]

Germany does not want to be an American protégé. Germany is beholden to Moscow for reuniting it in 1990-91: It wasn’t the United States that made reunification possible, it was the Kremlin leader, Gorbachev. The economic relationship between Berlin and Moscow is strong and growing. Russia is providing some 40 percent of Germany’s energy. They are building new pipelines together, and neither liked Ukraine’s disruption of supplies through its existing pipelines. Indeed, it was Berlin that blocked Bush’s attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO. This emerging Moscow-Berlin relationship, verging on an alliance, is one of the most important new bilateral relationships in the world, and almost no one in this country is paying any attention to it. In fact, for Moscow, Berlin and Beijing its new Eurasian relationships are more important than Washington, though Washington seems not to have noticed.

Stephen takes it personally, but to be fair, this is but a drop in the bucket of matters Washington seems not to notice. Or notices and chooses to ignore because they don’t have a place in the standard narrative we use to justify our actions and inactions. Cohen goes on to discuss China. Then,

Journal: This leads us to foreign policy. What is behind the deterioration of Russian-U.S. relations in recent years, in your opinion?

Cohen: There have been, I think, four major conflicting issues since the end of the Soviet Union between the United States and Russia [...]

First, we assumed we could and should instruct Russia on how to create a market economy and democracy, which Washington and legions of American crusaders tried to do in the 1990s. The reality is that Russians themselves know how to do both. More eligible voters have voted in Russian presidential elections than vote in ours. When Gorbachev began democratization in the late 1980s, Russians responded in enormous numbers and positively to the opportunity to participate in democracy not only to vote, but to attend debates and rallies, and argue as citizens. Furthermore, Russians have been buying and selling on the black and gray markets for decades, so they understand market economies. It was arrogance on our part, and the advice we gave was bad. Yet the notion persists it’s now called democracy promotion that every American president must actively throw his support to who we think are democrats in Russia. This not only creates hostility between America and Russia’s elites and people, but it is self-defeating. No good has ever come of it.

The second conflict involves NATO expansion eastward, which was for Moscow a broken American promise. No matter what former U.S. officials now say, Gorbachev was told by Bush and Baker in 1990-91 that if he agreed to a reunified Germany in NATO, the alliance would not move, in Baker’s words, “one inch to the east.” When Clinton expanded NATO eastward, for Russia he had broken a solemn promise involving its national security. That was only the beginning. The triumphalist notion that, “we won the Cold War,” seemed to make Washington think it had the right to break any promise to Moscow.

Americans forget, for example, that after 11 September 2001 Putin did more to help the second President Bush defeat the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan than did any NATO country. Russia gave us intelligence, over-flight rights, and the Northern Alliance its fighting force in Afghanistan, which saved American lives. Putin assumed that in return, after ten years, a real partnership with Washington would result. And what did the second President Bush do? He expanded NATO a second time and withdrew unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which Moscow regarded as the bedrock of its nuclear security. The Kremlin had done all this for us on the assumption of finally attaining a partnership and equality, and therefore felt, as Putin and Medvedev have said, “deceived and betrayed.”

The third post-1991 conflict is stated like a mantra by American policymakers: Russia cannot have the sphere of influence it wants in the former Soviet territories. This issue, the fundamental, underlying conflict in U.S.-Russian relations, needs to be rethought and openly discussed. The United States had and has spheres of influence. We had the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and tacitly cling to it even today. More to the point, the expansion of NATO is, of course, an expansion of the American sphere of influence, which brings America’s military, political, and economic might to new member countries. Certainly, this has been the case since the 1990s, as NATO expanded across the former Soviet bloc, from Germany to the Baltic nations. All of these countries are now part of the U.S. sphere of influence, though Washington doesn’t openly use this expression. [...]

And that has created the fourth major conflict with Russia since 1991: Moscow’s perception that U.S. policy has been based on an unrelenting, triumphalist double standard, as it has been. Washington can break solemn promises, but Moscow cannot. The United States can have large and expanding spheres of influence, but Russia can have none. Moscow is told to make its vast energy reserves available to all countries at fair-market prices, except to those governments Washington has recruited or is currently recruiting into NATO, such as the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia, which Moscow should supply at sharply below-market prices. Moscow is asked to support Washington’s perceived national interests in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, but without considering that Moscow may have legitimately different security or economic interests in those places. And so it goes.[Actually #4 is just the result of 1-3...]

He then discusses the August 08 war and START. Which surely no one could actually have anymore to say about. Not here anyway.

Journal: How has the lack of political cooperation affected other areas of U.S.-Russian relations?

Cohen: The same is true regarding Iran and Afghanistan. If Washington wants Moscow’s cooperation toward Iran, it needs to understand Russia’s special problems. Iran has never caused Russia harm. It is not going to join NATO. It’s a large neighboring nation that is not part of America’s sphere of influence. Second, Russia has 20-25 million Islamic citizens of its own. Iran has done nothing to agitate them against Moscow’s secular authority. The Kremlin fought two wars in its Islamic republic of Chechnya. Iran did nothing to support the Chechens. So, Russia’s beholden to Iran in this regard, not to mention their important economic relationships. In other words, U.S. policymakers have to understand that Russia’s essential national interests in Iran, and elsewhere, may not be identical to Washington’s due to its different geopolitical realities.

Journal: Would Russia like to see a new regime in Iran?

Cohen: They don’t want a pro-American regime in Iran. But they’ve grown increasingly weary of the current Iranian government, which has not kept its word to Moscow on several occasions. Moscow is just as worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions as we are. Indeed, Russia no less than us doesn’t want Iran to develop a nuclear capability, if only because Iran is much closer to Russia and would not need an inter-continental missile to threaten its territory. Moscow therefore has compelling reasons for not wanting a nuclear-armed Iran but it needs the United States to understand its different geopolitical circumstances. In particular, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly stresses, Russia, unlike the United States, is located at the crossroads of civilizations that are in an increasingly antagonistic relationship. Great diplomats begin by understanding the other side’s problems. I don’t recall a recent American president or secretary of state demonstrating this kind of awareness of Russia’s circumstances. Instead, they’ve told Moscow: “We have a problem and if you don’t help us solve it, you are behaving like the Cold War is not over.” When Russia doesn’t agree, we say they are still thinking in zero-sum terms.

Again, this is really more a reflection of Washington’s stubborn inability to care about anyone else’s problems than Russia’s perceived stubborn inability to be cooperative. At the risk of repeating Cohen’s “double standard” grief, one must admit it is true: It is not only understandable, but commendable, heroic even, for Washington to act in American interests. For Russia to act in her own interests, however, is not only perplexing, but downright threatening.

Journal: The February 2010 election in Ukraine saw Viktor Yanukovych elected President. In terms of the United States’ relations with Russia’s neighbors, does the election change anything?

Cohen: [...] The question is what the Obama administration and the strong pro-Ukraine lobby in Washington will do. Both Georgia, which will eventually restore relations with Moscow, and Ukraine are major defeats for long-standing U.S. policy. Will the proponents of the policy of expanding America’s sphere of influence now stand down or continue it, as they have in their words and deeds in connection with Georgia since the war? For the moment, their leading representatives, like Biden, Richard Holbrooke, and McCain are silent about Ukraine. Let’s hope they are re-thinking their follies. Ordinary Ukrainians and Georgians have only experienced more economic misery and political instability from these Washington projects in their countries. As for Kiev, I hope the Obama administration backs off and lets Yanukovych try to do what he can to help his people. My guess is that the Kremlin will see that its in its interest to help him in this respect with regard to energy prices, for example. Indeed, if Washington promises to never put military bases on Russia’s borders, and Russia in return promises to respect the political sovereignty of these former Soviet republics, the governments of Ukraine and Georgia could turn their attention and resources to the economic needs of their people instead of focusing on the military build-ups and political conflicts required to join NATO.

But what do we get out of that? Surely stability in Ukraine and Georgia cannot be profitable for arms dealers or Congressmen. Cohen speaks truth to power, I mean Obama:

Journal: Does … a shift in U.S. policy seem likely under the Obama Administration?

Cohen: I’m not optimistic. Look at President Obama’s foreign policy team. Virtually every one of them comes from the Clinton era or the Clinton administration, which began this disastrous policy. As a senator, Biden was deeply involved in NATO expansion, and in both the Georgian and Ukrainian projects. Obama’s national security adviser, General James Jones, was head of NATO when it expanded. Michael McFaul, who heads the Russian section of the National Security Council, was a leading pro-democracy crusader in the 1990s. There is not a single dissenter, not one person who was in opposition to the policy in the 1990s who has a high-level foreign policy job in the Obama administration. I don’t see anyone near Obama who will or can tell him, “Mr. President, we need a new policy toward Russia, the clock is ticking, and only you, the president, can bring it about.” But it isn’t fair to blame Obama alone. No other American leader has proposed a new policy.

Journal: Let’s focus on the idea that underlies this discussion: that there is an absence of debate about issues surrounding Russia and the United States.

Cohen: There is virtually no serious discourse about contemporary Russia underway in the United States today not in public policy circles, not in the media, very little in academic life. Certainly, there is no substantive debate. That is in sharp contrast to when I entered the public debate in the 1970s, writing about policy for newspapers and appearing on television and radio. At that time, as I said before, the debate was between advocates of détente, those who wanted to do something to diminish the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and the cold warriors. There were organized lobby groups on both sides. And the media would almost always solicit both points of view. [...]

When Reagan decided to become the greatest détente-ist of our time, a heretic in the eyes of many of his long time supporters, in 1985-88 he and Secretary of State Schultz were opposed by many members of his administration, party and much of the media. But for all Obama’s talk about having a “team of rivals,” he has surrounded himself with like-minded people. [...]

For some reason, it was easier to get public and political attention for alternative policies when Russia called itself communist. People who used to blame communism for what they didn’t like about Russia now blame Russian tradition but the accusations are the same: Russia is inherently imperialistic, aggressive, autocratic and anti-democratic. This is false, and is even a kind of ethnic slur toward Russians. Russia’s political elite has much to answer for, but so do Washington policymakers. Some will say that I am anti-American or pro-Russian, as they have in the past. I have learned to disregard these comments as remnants of the McCarthy years. People like me, who claim to be knowledgeable intellectuals not shouting heads on cable television should not be like cooks preparing recipes for popular tastes. Our mission is to try to learn, understand, and speak the truth as best we can. Others will say, more kindly, that I am naïve about what kind of U.S.-Russian relationship is possible. But who would have predicted what Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan accomplished in the 1980s, or that it would be so quickly lost?

You may say, he’s a dreamer…

And you may say I only read this for self-serving reasons of confirmation bias and romantic ideas about how it is cool to be a Russia expert. To be honest, I do find him to be a little gloom and doom. Who wants to listen to such a depressive? And the whole idea that “The greatest threats to our national security still reside in Russia.” Really? I think they reside in Washington – but that’s just me. But just when I’m about to accuse dear Stephen of hysteria mongering, I realize that it’s just that he’s so passionate about it all. Easy to get worked up like that, especially when it seems no one will listen to you. You end up coming off as the town loony. I do it all the time. At least in Russia we might have the dignity of being Holy Fools.

I also find his evolution as a Russia expert person a little surprising at first. I’m reading a collection of dissident samizdat he edited in the bad old days. He clearly felt an affinity, a passion then, for these Soviet dissidents, struggling for freedom of expression, democratization, etc. We’ve had a lot of discussion here about the modern dissidents in Russia, who also claim to be fighting these age-old wars with their leaders. But judging from the interview above, it would seem he’s left the camp. Instead of aligning himself with the victims of the current Russian government, he’s -whether he’d admit it or not- advocating on behalf of the Russian government itself. At least on behalf of their better angels.

Maybe it’s not our hero who has changed, but the bad guy? As someone recently said, there are lots of serious problems facing Russia today, and whether or not to hang a picture of Stalin is not one of them. I don’t entirely relate to the bad old days Cohen because, frankly, I can’t get so worked up about Stalin. I can, however, get pretty worked up about the United States of America though. Being American, and not Russian, and all.

Check it out: We’re the new dissidents. Apologies to Yulia.

February 22, 2010

LQD: “The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism” by Mark Adomanis.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 6:09 PM
Tags: ,

Adomanis is a contributor at True Slant. What is True Slant – besides where Taibbi is writing now which just makes me grieve uncontrollably for the eXile? I know nothing about True Slant or Adomanis, but he has been making a lot of the same observations as bloggers like Sublime Oblivion, A Good Treaty, SRB and … myself. Demographics doom debunking? Check. Masha Lipman having a point but being unjustifiably hysterical? Check. Criticism of Russian liberals based on their assumption that the 90’s were something worth returning to, their apparent disdain for the poor, their lack of strategy/interest in the hard work that is governance? Check, check, check…

Tolya thinks Mark must been reading his blog. A long time ago when I was young I jokingly suggested that someone who wrote an article entitled, “Russia will kick your ass,” contemporaneous with a post I’d written declaring the same thing, had plagiarized me. I said it in absolute jest – as if it were inconceivable two unique individuals could have this reaction upon seeing Russia throw her weight around the international stage for the first time in decades. (If anyone ever copyrights “Russia will kick your ass” they’ll probably make some cash.) Lo, I was issuing apologies left and right. I almost got some poor shmuck fired! That was no fun. No, I think Mark is telepathic. That’s because I subscribe to the theory that the most interesting explanation is the best explanation. I refuse to live in a boring world. However, if I thought the best explanation were the real explanation, I’d say we are simply witnessing a renaissance of common sense with a dash of Internet meme thrown in to taste.

The bad news is this makes me feel less special. I want my niche back! The good news is the, “Hold on now, let’s think about this,” bloggeratti may actually be gaining ground against the hysterical Russia fear-mongering media noise machine foaming at the mouth with Schadenfreude. The other good news is I don’t have to write as much; I can just re-post other people’s hard work here. So here goes, a dandy of an article:

The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism.

Reprinted in full with author’s permission.

In a self-parodic article, noted Russian liberal Georgy Satarov does quite a lot to show why Russian liberals and Russian liberalism remain so utterly inconsequential and unpopular. I make an effort to remain as emotionally detached as possible from discussions of politics, but I can almost make an exception when talking about Russian liberals – a group characterized by such overpowering mediocrity, stupidity, and petty self-centeredness that they are virtually impossible to not loathe.

Satarov’s target is Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov’s recent interview with Vedemosti, an exercise in the sort of banal defense of government power that exist completely independently of time or place: if he was an American, Surkov would undoubtedly have a high-profile chair at the Brookings Institutions or AEI from which he would sagely spout all sorts of justifications for cutting taxes, invading Iraq, occupying Afghanistan, and torturing “terrorists.” Surkov’s words, which Satarov tries to imbue with some magic and profound significance, are almost entirely without meaning since they are the words of the government apologist and (by design) are so vacuous that they can be use to defend any course of action be it republican, democratic, authoritarian, monarchical, totalitarian, or some combination of all of these.

What interests me is the shocking and barely believable degree of tone deafness that Satarov displays when discussing the 1990’s. To put it mildly, the 1990’s were a catostrophic and near fatal disaster for Russian society. Historian Stephen Kotkin has persuasively argued that the best way to understand Soviet/Russian history from the late 1970’s until the early 2000’s is not as a period of “transition” or “transformation” but as one of utter collapse: the extended death throes of the bankrupt and broken communist system. It should go without saying that societal collapses are not particularly pleasant experiences and are not typically remembered fondly by those who lived through them.

As can be expected in an environment of complete societal collapse most Russians suffered horrifically during the 1990’s, and it is virtually impossible to overstate how blood-curdlingly awful they were for the average citizen. To take just a small sample of what happened: personal savings, which in many cases had been built up over decades, were completely wiped out by hyperinflation, the price of all but the most basic goods exploded (the always-stoic Russians made light of this absurd situation by noting “Under communism we had money but the stores had no goods. Under capitalism it is much better: now the stores have goods but we have no money!”), unemployment went from being illegal to being commonplace, real wages plummeted and, if they were paid at all, were often payed 5-6 months late and in-kind (i.e. if you worked in a mine every few months you’d be given a big bag full of coal, which you would then have to barter, laboriously working out how many lumps of coal would buy a chicken breast, a bottle of aspirin, a jacket etc.), healthcare and educational spending fell by 30-35% from already manifestly inadequate levels, and, to sum things up, the economy, measured in constant dollar prices, contracted by over 60%. That’s right, the Russian economy shrank by over 60%. Russia’s macroeconomic performance during the 1990’s was thus significantly worse than America’s during the Great Depression. Things got so bad that reasonable people predicted that Russia would turn into Yugoslavia, only on a far grander scale and with thousands of nuclear weapons thrown in for good measure.

So when Satarov say the following, you can understand why I can barely repress my sense of revulsion:

During the 1990s, independent universities and independently educated people began to emerge. There is a reason why those universities have been suppressed. Independent courts began to appear and people began to use them independently. There is a reason why this independence has been destroyed over the last 10 years. And independent and (which is more important) effective business began to emerge. From furniture factories that were able to export their products to Italy to Yukos, which was looted and destroyed by the authoritarian modernizers. After the August 1998 crisis it was precisely independent business that lifted the country off its rear end in record time. And all it took was not getting in its way. There is no longer any free business in Russia. And all that was the very energy that we so sorely lack now.

So, in Satarov’s telling, despite the unfortunate fact that Russians were dying on the streets en-masse, because a few factories shipped furniture to Italy(did this actually happen? has anyone ever seen Russian furniture on sale anywhere in the West?) and because Yukos waged a good PR campaign, shock therapy was a success! Neoliberal economics triumphed! Рынок победил!

This is equal parts laughable and contemptible. Laughable because every social and macroeconomic indicator, literally every single one of them, declined rapidly during the 1990’s and has gotten significantly better since Putin came to power. Satarov’s pablum is contemptible, and deeply so, because the 1990’s in Russia were a humanitarian tragedy on a grand scale. Millions upon millions (somewhere between 5-6 million) of Russians died earlier than expected, and while such “excess deaths” are not directly comparable to genocide or murder they should, at the absolute least, give great pause to someone who is extolling the manifest virtues of the time period during which they took place. Yet Satarov couldn’t care less that heaps of his countrymen were dying like flies, in his telling it was all worthwhile because “independently educated people began to emerge.” One can see why people like Satarov and his ilk may accurately be called “market Bolsheviks,” as their “break some eggs to make an omelet” philosophy is thoroughly Soviet. Indeed the only change from such a worldview’s rotten Leninist predecessor is the metamorphosis of “the market” from the source of all evil in the world to the source of all good.

I can understand, and even conjure some sympathy for, an argument of the sort proffered by Anders Aslund: that Yeltsin and his advisers did all of the unpopular heavy lifting and structural reorganization and Putin, through no particular effort of his own, inherited an economy that had bottomed out and was ready to blossom. But that is not what Satarov is claiming. Satarov is not claiming that Russian liberals laid the groundwork for the economic success of the 2000’s (which has the virtue of being at least partially true), but is instead making the patently false and truly insane claim that the 1990’s in Russia were better than the 2000’s. To understand how preposterous and absurd this is, imagine the public response if candidate Michael Dukakis solemnly pledged to do everything in his power to “weaken the dollar and bring back stagflation” or, perhaps as an even better illustration, imagine if Thomas E. Dewey’s campaign had not accommodated itself to the New Deal but instead openly promised to “eliminate social security, encourage deflation, and spark mass unemployment!” What would happen to politicians with strategies so totally removed from reality? Well, probably, they would extremely unpopular. Shockingly, when Russian liberals defend and embrace a period during which Russia collapsed it does nothing to help their popularity

As I’ve said before, democracy is not a panacea: democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, “get out of the way” and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding “freedom.” Russian liberals have rarely had any interest in the difficult and boring business of running a large and complicated country and, when they have actually seized the reigns of the state, the results have been so disastrous as to discredit them for a generation. What Russian liberals need to do seems quite obvious: first, they need to apologize for ruining the country the last time they were in power (recognizing that Yeltsin is one of the least popular figures of the past several decades would also be a good start). Next, they need to show that they have some sort of connection (even if a tenuous and insincere one) to the real-world problems experienced by average Russians, the great majority of whom are positively disposed towards the current regime. Finally, Russian liberals should develop some vaguely plausible plan for addressing the concerns of average citizens. As of now, their thinking seems to mirror that of South Park’s famous underpants gnomes:

Russian liberalism’s strategic plan:

1. Get rid of Vladimir Putin
2. ?????????????????????
3. Freedom and prosperity!

Indeed after reading Satarov’s article it was immediately clear that nothing the Kremlin does or says could possibly stigmatize Russian liberals more effectively than their own rhetoric. All of the politicians associated with the 1990’s are toxic figures, the targets of vicious scorn, ridicule, and even outright hatred. And yet, rather than distancing themselves from the manifest and epic failures of those years, Russian liberals still draw ever-closer to totally discredited policies and shout themselves horse defending Yeltsin. No one has apparently told them how utterly foolish this makes them look.

Towards the end of his piece, Satarov snidely remarks:

Russia has been undergoing “authoritarian modernization” for 10 years now. We see the results.

Yes we see the results, and so do Russian citizens. Since 2000 real wages have more than doubled and the economy grew by 7% a year. Social spending has exploded and is now substantially more generous than it ever was in the Soviet period. Russian business, while still technologically backward and inefficient compared to leading Western countries, is gradually, is slowly, converging with world standards. More than at any point in their history Russians are free to travel abroad, and Russia has never been more open to foreigners. The ruble’s buying power has increased substantially, and foreign goods are more available than at any time in Russia’s often-painful economic history. This is an incipient catastrophe? In such a situation, why would anyone expect that the peasants would be storming the Bastille? If Russians didn’t revolt when they were being robbed blind by the oligarchs and forced to watch their parents sell their old war medals in order to avoid starving, why would they revolt now? One can very easily exaggerate the success of Putin’s regime, and underestimate the size of the problems still confronting Russia, but it takes a deeply sick and unbalanced psyche to see the past 10 years of Russian history as nothing but an uninterrupted series of catastrophes.

Unless and until Russian liberals take responsibility for the 1990’s and develop a platform that is able to explain not only the difficulties and problems of everyday life but practical methods for redressing them, they will be nothing more than a totally marginal force in society and a crude parody of an effective political opposition. And deservedly so. Any political grouping which views 1990’s Russia as model to be emulated should be kept as far away from the levers of power as humanly possible.

Applause!!!

I don’t expect anyone else to share my perverse affinity for Surkov. In fact, it might be best he doesn’t get too much encouragement. Or my visceral disgust for the policies of the 90’s. I have horrific images burned into my psyche for life, but that’s not your problem. But Adomanis is able to rebut liberal rhetoric without glorifying the current regime or even questioning Yeltsin’s legacy as well-meaning reformer. Criticism of contemporary Russian liberals is not, then, implicitly an endorsement of Putin or anti-capitalist. I think that’s the strawman. Much easier to present oneself as the preferable alternative to Putin by invoking the bad old days of the Soviet Union than to recreate one’s own tarnished image and win back the people with responsible policy that benefits the common good.

Adomanis makes an astute remark that “democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, ‘get out of the way’ and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding ‘freedom.'” I am thinking that this choice between authoritarianism and freedom is just as much of a strawman. I hope we can eventually overcome our dependence on catchphrases and scare-tactics, on sounds bites that make us feel and labels so overused they’ve lost all meaning. Freedom is not a form of government, and any effective government must have some degree of authority. I’ll take Adomanis’s advice for the liberals one step further: actually identify problems facing your country (there’s lots to choose from, and not just your own personal ones!) and come up with possible long term solutions.

Like, for example, Medvedev and Putin are attempting to do…

January 29, 2010

The Month in U.S.-Russia Relations and Russia(Male)Watching.

All kinds of things going on in the world of U.S.-Russia relations: meetings, agreements, meetings without agreements, agreements to meet again, Lavrov and Clinton making out in a London elevator… Ok I just made that last part up. But not this:

1) The Son of START may or may not be in the final stages of negotiation, almost 2 months after our decades long arms reduction treaty was allowed to expire un-renewed.

2) NATO and Russia are officially on speaking terms (which makes me feel like I’m writing about middle school students) for the first time since their falling out over Georgia.

3) Re-set Button brainchild, the Russian-US council on civil society, which up until now I assumed was mythological, is apparently holding its first official meeting in D.C. this week.

What does it all mean? It means, “We intend to make an effort to create a situation sometime in the future where we can try to work together, but we reserve the right to not get along if you insist on being so stubborn; we both know I’m better than you anyway.” Which is considered enough of a diplomatic coup in the Obama administration to earn mention in the State of the Union address. The President’s definition of accomplishment seems to be “we kinda sorta maybe (not really) tried to make something better and it hasn’t happened yet but it will eventually, so long as everyone just ignores our actions and only listens to our words or otherwise the magical spell we’re counting on to make this all work will be cursed and fail and it will be all YOUR fault. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you!” [<--Shorter SOTU.]

Anyway, I picked the wrong week not to visit friends in D.C.

I. Mr. Surkov Goes to Washington.

He’s making a list and checking it twice; He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Vladislav is coming to town… Vladislav is coming to town…

I can be naughty, or nice, whatever you prefer. I’m flexible…

(OMG: I image googled “Surkov McFaul” and a picture of my dead cat came up. It’s a haunting!)

Here is RT’s transcript of an Izvestia interview with the fine Mr. Surkov (what? no video, RT? you know looking at him is half the fun!): V.Surkov: “We do not intend to lecture one another.”

(No wonder there has been such stunning silence from the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Civil Society working group. Aside from the fact that just saying “the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Civil Society working group” is enough to make your mouth want to take a two week vacation and hardly lends itself to acronymn. The U.S. has illustrated that it only knows how to communicate with other countries through lecture or military force. These meetings must be epic awkward silences. Still, agreeing not to lecture one another is a remarkable step in right direction. Now let’s agree not bomb each other. Or save the children. Or something. Anything. Please.)

A Russian-US council on civil society that was created due to the initiative of the presidents of both countries will meet in the United States on January 27.

It will tackle issues left over from the Cold War, such as corruption, children’s rights, and stereotypes about Russia on the other side of the Atlantic.

The council will be co-chaired by Russian Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, who was interviewed by the Izvestia daily, ahead of his trip.

Q. Lately, the Russian-US presidential commission council, which you are co-chairing, is being talked about quite a lot. Could you outline the plans of the working group for the nearest future?

Vladislav Surkov: The working group will meet for the first time in Washington, DC, on January 27. A substantial amount of preparation has been done ahead of it, with both sides coordinating the objectives and directives of our sphere of action.

The United States proposed to include only state officials into the council. We did not object to the idea. On top of that, we proposed the inclusion of Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin; chair of the Civil Society Institution and Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation Ella Pamfilova; Presidential Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Pavel Astakhov; and several other persons who are not quite state officials. But since no equivalent posts exist in the US government, they were included in the delegation.

Q.Did you agree on the council’s agenda?

VS: The Russian side initiated the following topics: fighting corruption, migration – the issue of illegal immigration first of all – prisoners’ rights, and a crackdown on crimes against children.

The US side has offered to discuss negative myths and stereotypes, which still exist in relations between our countries. We tried to avoid, where possible, issues which we will most likely not be able to reach an agreement on. We will approach them gradually, as our mutual understanding deepens.

Q. And all of these five issues will be discussed during the visit to the United States?

VS: In Washington we will cover the issues fighting corruption, crimes against children and negative stereotypes only.

Q.What motivated the Russian side to choose its priorities for the discussion?

VS: All the issues approved are supported by explicit statistics, assessment criterions and, most importantly, all are significant for both Russia and the US We have plenty to talk about.

The problem of corruption, for example. Of course, in our respective countries, the problem has different roots. Nevertheless, major corruption scandals happen both in Russia and in the United States.

Another issue is immigration. Russia and the US are world leaders when it comes to the numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Thus, the issue of migration is vital to both countries. The same could be said about the third matter of concern – the issue of prisoner conditions. Again, our countries continue to head the grim list of the countries with the largest number of the incarcerated.

Finally – a highly important problem – crimes against children. During the past several years the number of crimes committed against underage children in Russia has increased tenfold. The United States has extensive experience in combating this evil. That experience will be highly valuable for us, since Russia has a lot to accomplish in that respect.

Q: Will the Russian side pose any questions regarding the deaths of Russian children adopted by American parents?

VS: I would like to emphasize that we will not lecture each other on the issues covered during the meeting. This is not the point of the working group. We know that the United States is concerned over that issue and is working on solving the problem. As far as problems with adopted children are concerned – we, ourselves, have plenty of those in Russia.

Q: Some Russian human rights activists and several US congressmen have subjected you to criticism. Do you have anything to say on that matter?

VS: We hit some bumps during the preparations for the council. We are trading information with our American colleagues on those issues. Overall the process is flowing smoothly, and we have reached certain success already.

As far as my being scrutinized by some Russian human rights groups, as well as American congressmen, I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I think it is a small part of a larger mass of misconceptions, and those very negative stereotypes we will be discussing. I hope we will be able to dispel them during the course of our cooperation.

Q: Will there be a need to refine the activity of the council in the future?

VS: We would really like it if meetings of the working group took place not only in Russian and US capitals, but in other places, as well. We are going to hold meetings in various states and Russian regions. We must not turn into a commission which sits in their cabinets in Moscow and Washington discussing something in abstract terms.

Q: Various mass media report that the US will pose a question on equal cooperation of Russian and US civil organizations. Is there some sort of inequality between these organizations right now, any limitations in their cooperation?

VS: We do not see any inequality between Russian and American organizations, and we think there are no hurdles for a dialogue between them at the moment. Especially considering the fact that many Russian non-commercial organizations subside on grants they receive from the American government.

As far as your question goes, I will strictly stick to the agenda we agreed on, since I’m entitled to holding talks only within its framework. I would like to emphasize once again – these issues will be discussed only within the context of institutions of civil society.

The American side has demonstrated a very civil and good-natured approach to our cooperation. On our part, we will do everything in our power to make the working group a success.

I rather they be working together to tackle the issue of child trafficking than the issue of Lilia Shevtsova’s persecution complex. Hmm. Do you think it is a coincidence that she wrote that FP article on eve of this meeting? Pretty sneaky, sis. BTW, why does Misha have an op ed in the NYT this week? (For non-Russia watcher types who read this blog: Misha is Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is in prison in Siberia on charges of … tax evasion I think. A long time ago he was a Komsomol, then after the fall of Communism, he snatched up a bunch of stuff and became a powerful wealthy oligarch. Then Putin stole his assets and threw him in jail. The peasants rejoiced. The human rights camp flipped out. Surkov worked for Misha before getting a gig in the Kremlin and throwing his former boss in the gulag. Drama! Ok, let’s continue.) His article isn’t terribly interesting. But it is an excuse to post a gratuitous photo of our caged bird who sings for the New York Times.

Hi, Misha!

It seems our leaders are not as enamoured of dear Slava as they are of jailed Russian businessmen. Why doesn’t Surkov have an op-ed piece in the NYT? Get with the program! Seriously, someone in that Moscow fortress should hire me…

This is from Peter Lavelle who got it from JRL who printed it from Nezavisimaya Gazeta. It must be true.

From the JRL today

(Surkov is facing somekind of boycott in the US since being appointed
Russia’s civil soceity point man with the US) [<--I don't know if this is commentary from Peter, JRL or Nezavisimaya Gazeta...]

Nezavisimaya Gazeta
January 19, 2010
BETWEEN THE LINES
Russian and American delegations will meet to discuss matters of civil
society next week
Author: Alisa Vedenskaya

…..”Surkov and McFaul first met on October 12 when Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton was visiting Russia. McFaul told Surkov that
the reaction in the United States to his promotion to Civil Society
coordinator was somewhat equivocal. Surkov parred it by saying that
McFaul’s promotion had gone entirely unnoticed in
Russia because nobody knew him in this country.”

Oh, snap! I’m sure their meeting today went swimmingly… And it is not just Peter Lavelle and JRL and Nezavisimaya Gazeta spreading word of Surkov’s PR problem in D.C.

II. Party of No Hides Obama’s Re-Set Button.

From Moscow News Weekly: “Obama critics slam Kremlin aide.”

Whatever happened to “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Do the math, kids. And can someone explain to me how meeting with your foreign counterpart constitutes an endorsement of that person or their country? What is this, diplomacy for 3rd graders? Do they write these letters when we meet with the Chinese? Russia might have issues, but it’s hardly on par with Pakistan or North Korea or Sudan.

A key Russian-US working group co-led by Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov is under fire over human rights, as US Republicans call for President Barack Obama’s administration to boycott its first meeting in Washington this week.

Though the group aims to focus on issues like fighting corruption and child trafficking, 71 Republican members of Congress signed a letter to Obama expressing concern over Russia’s human rights record and urging that the US government “not participate in any such Working Group unless and until the Russian government has taken concrete, verifiable steps to address… shortcomings in its treatment of political and media freedoms.”

The letter, dated Dec. 11, also called for Surkov, President Dmitry Medvedev’s deputy chief of staff, to be replaced with “someone who has not been involved in establishing oppressive and undemocratic policies”, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Moscow News.

The group, created by Obama and Medvedev last July, is one of 16 tackling issues from trade to nuclear non-proliferation, but it is drawing additional attention because it is headed by Surkov. Dubbed the “grey cardinal” during Vladimir Putin’s administration, Surkov was largely responsible for formulating the “sovereign democracy” concept.

Russian human rights groups have criticised the appointment of Surkov to co-chair the commission, and now US Republicans are using that criticism as a way of attacking Obama.

Interruption: I don’t think Obama’s team chose Surkov to represent Russia. Idiots.

Surkov dismissed the Republicans’ criticisms in an interview with Izvestia, published on Jan. 22. “We do not plan to lecture each other,” Surkov said of the group’s members. “As for criticism against me from some human rights organisations and [members of the US Congress], everyone has a right to [their] opinion. This is a small part of a whole complex of prejudices and negative stereotypes.”
The letter came amid mounting Republican criticism of Obama, while last week the Democratic Party lost its 60-member filibuster-proof Senate majority after Massachusetts elected a Republican senator for the first time since 1972.

Republicans are using the letter simply as a way of putting domestic political pressure on Obama and don’t really have a worked-out Russia policy, said Nikolai Zlobin, an analyst at the Washington-based World Security Institute.

Zlobin said the letter would serve to rally members of Congress against Obama, adding that they were trying to use human rights ill as a bludgeon to get their way on issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and trade. “Whatever is said about Russia is not about their policy towards Russia per se, but towards their internal political interests,” Zlobin said.

Stop. Re-read that last part about trying to use human rights as a bludgeon to get their way on their own internal political interests.

Other NGO representatives invited to take part in the group said the Republicans’ call for a boycott was counterproductive.

Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, said it played into a “hysterical” policy towards Russia, and this “hysteria” was convenient for hawkish elements in Russia’s security services.

“To close opportunities for [dialogue] may benefit those parts of the Russian bureaucracy that don’t want any contact at all …because that would expose those who use international mechanisms of money laundering,” said Kabanov, a former Federal Security Service official.

“Corruption is an international problem because money is laundered abroad, and this [affects] American banks.”

Kabanov added: “We have things to say, and if they don’t give us this opportunity then we will find ourselves marginalised again.”

This is why I don’t entirely understand it when Russian intellectuals boycott meetings they are invited to by the Kremlin. Creeps me out.

But wait! There’s more! The Party of No wont stop there!

From the Moscow Times: “Reset in Danger of Being Set Back.”

Because ruining any chance for a healthcare reform bill were not enough to be proud of. (OMG how weird is it that the rhetoric surrounding healthcare reform now includes the phrase, “Bolshevik plot?” What century is this? What universe is this? Does this make the GOP Mensheviks?)

A year ago, when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama initiated its “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, two things were clear: First, the U.S. Congress, particularly the Senate, would have an outsized role to play in the process; and, second, the Democrats would likely have a fillibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, making the advancement of Obama’s major Russia policy overtures a bit easier than might otherwise be the case. A year later, the first proposition remains true, but Republican Scott Brown’s recent upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race complicates the second since Democrats no longer have 60 seats in the Senate— the threshold that allows a party to pass legislation on a “fast track” by depriving the opposing party of its ability to filibuster. All of this means that there could be some turbulence in U.S.-Russian relations in 2010. [...]

Congress is a major factor on other Russia policy issues as well. Russian accession to the World Trade Organization is a case in point. Congressional action would be required to upgrade Russia, the largest economy not yet represented in the WTO, from the Cold War-era lows of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to establish normal trade relations, which are required to secure U.S. agreement to Russia’s accession to the WTO. Russian WTO accession seems to be on the Obama administration’s congressional to-do list in 2010, but in the current cold trade climate — Russia just banned U.S. poultry imports, valued at $800 million a year — the issue is going to be as contentious as ever. That may be why Russian officials have sent mixed signals as to whether Russia itself will pursue WTO accession aggressively.

Congressional approval would also be required for the United States to enter into a “123” agreement with Russia on civil nuclear cooperation. This important area that had progressed nicely during George W. Bush’s last year in office was put on ice after the eruption of the Russia-Georgia war.

As far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned, 2010 is truly the “Year of Congress.” It appears less likely, however, that it is going to be the “Year of Results.”

If Scott Brown ends up responsible for obliterating any hope of improving our relationship with Russia, I better at least get a consolation prize of a Surkov Cosmo centerfold out of the deal.

III. Putin: Party Crasher, Porn Basher.

Speaking of buff. And porn.

Jesse a.k.a The Russia Monitor has posted this little gem of a news story: “The Putin One-Liner Strikes Again.”

I wasn’t even going to mention this but couldn’t resist. Last week, PM Putin showed up to the the Annual Meeting of the State Council to give a speech. Now, by “showed up,” I mean he literally showed up out of nowhere to make an unexpected appearance and an unscheduled speech. The guys over at Power Vertical dissected this move yesterday. Putin made his minutes in front of the mic count, however, by dropping another one of his hilarious, debate-ending one-liners (“Putinisms”). Putin’s grammatical knockout came in a response to rumors on the internets that the recent regional Duma elections were rigged. The PM, visibly angry, hunched his shoulders in disgust and said, “Well half of what’s on the internet is porno! Why quote the internet? If you have evidence take it to court.”

One possible explanation of Putin’s indiscriminate targeting of porno? In the past, online interest in Putin has been found to be negatively correlated with online interest in pornography.

Poor Vova, walking into meeting he wasn’t invited to to complain about more people watching porn than paying attention to him on the internet. Hey, what am I? Chopped liver? I would think you’d want an intelligent poltical activist type ally – like ME -paying attention to you instead of child molesters and depressed husbands. But if he’s really miffed about it, I know of a pretty easy solution to the problem of people who watch porn not watching Vova. Hello! Althletic body? Check. Ham in front of a camera? Check. Bendy girlfriend? Check. FSB who lkes to make sex tapes? Check. BFF Oscar-winning filmmaker? Check. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

He could totally pull it off:

And lastly, I present to you the prize for Best Headline for this week’s coveage of U.S.-Russia relations:

“How Many Polish Patriots Does It Take to Screw Up US – Russia Relations?”

Stay classy, Discovery Institute!

Ok, thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend!

September 16, 2009

lqd: Putin will become president again in 2012 – maybe.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 4:35 PM
Tags: , ,

A must read article deconstructing the deconstruction of Putin’s Valdai Club remarks.

So apparently every year the Valdai Discussion Club, which is some … well, discussion club, comprised of experts and journalists and the usual suspects, gathers for a little Q&A with Russia’s leaders. Some refer to this as a PR stunt, but I think it’s quite lovely in the same way I think the annual live Q&A with Putin taking questions from random people is lovely. Unlike those more vernacular Q&A’s, I can’t say if the Valdai Club have asked him about the Cthulhu or his sex life. But they did ask him about running for President in 2012. And Oh Boy! has the press had a field day. Of course, if he’d said, “I’d like some more tea, please,” there would be Kremlinologists and Putinologists and simple morons reading, “Yes, I will run in 2012,” into those tea leaves. It’s all very tiresome, IMO. I’m not into forecasting and crystal balls. If you call it correctly, do you get a prize? I mean, no one has contacted me to say, “You were right! He did not change the Constitution to run in 2008! Here’s your all expenses paid trip to Tahiti! Enjoy!” I suppose as a game it is fun. It is. But boy does it piss me off when people treat politics as a spectator sport, from high atop their moral horses. Do they remove the lobe that detects irony before awarding a journalism degree these days? (more…)

September 1, 2009

lqd: The Western View of Russia

I’m publishing the whole damn article because 1) This is a fresh and compelling explanation of the current impasse in U.S.-Russian relations, 2) they said I could and 3) I’m a bit too busy to think up my own theories and write about them.

The article is perhaps simplistic, or let’s say narrow in its view. It is one explanation of many and probably accounts for some but not all of the problem, since it doesn’t address the most basic motivations for all politics: money, power, greed and sheer stupidity. But I really do like the proposition! It jibes with reality as it is perceived by me (always a plus) and is neither chauvinist nor dismissive. How refreshing!

N.B. I was born in America in the 70’s and came of age in the 80’s, yet I don’t fit either stereotype of the Cold War or post-Cold War generations. I am soooooo ahead of my time! Ah, the rewards of trauma.

[Update] Some folks have wondered if I think this article actually gets it right. Well, I think it passes the Cato sniff test, referring to that most convincing benchmark of proof and funniest quote ever produced by a think tank:

“The sociological generalization we have stated is intuitively compelling; something like it must be true.”

Ok, pull up a chair, here’s the article, care of Stratfor.com:

“The Western View of Russia”, by George Friedman. (more…)

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