Squandering Its Way to Superpowerdom

“Squandering”: Did the US Secretary of State Grasp the Russian Approach to Budget Spending?
The Kremlin Accused the State Department of Tactlessness and Unprofessionalism, Yet Pompeo’s Remarks Were on the Mark
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 13, 2018

padrino.jpgVenezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino gives his thumb up as he sits on the cockpit of a Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic long-range heavy supersonic bomber after it landed at Maiquetia International Airport, north of Caracas, on December 10, 2018. Courtesy of Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Russian’s decision to send strategic bombers on a junket to an airport near Caracas elicited a curious reaction from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly expressed his pity for Russian taxpapers, whose money the Kremlin, habitually disregarding the costs, has been spending on its geopolitical moves.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” Pompeo wrote.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by calling Pompeo’s statement “utterly unprofessional” and even “villainous.” Pompeo’s remarks, which the Kremlin, in turn, dubbed “inappropriate” and “undiplomatic,” were apparently really lacking in nuance: the hardships of Russians, fortunately, cannot yet be compared with the suffering of Venezuelans. But, hand on heart, was Pompeo so wrong when he talked about the losses to the Russian federal budget and lack of oversight?

Russian society has an extremely vague notion about how much the Kremlin’s expansionism has ultimately cost the country. According to calculations made by IHS Jane’s at the outset of Russia’s operations in Syria in autumn 2015, Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day. Later, the Yabloko Democratic Party, which is not seated in the Russian parliament, estimated the Kremlin had spent a total of 108–140 billion rubles [between $1.6 and $2.1 billion] on Syria. A more accurate assessment would be difficult to make. Experts doubt that anyone, including the Finance Ministry, keeps tabs on such expenditures. Thus, nobody knows the real cost of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, argues the Gaidar Institute’s Military Economics Laboratory.

The budget’s fading transparency has been a trend in recent years. In 2016, secret and top-secret allocations accounted for 22% of total federal budget expenditures, a record for the entire post-Soviet period, and much higher than secret allocations in comparable countries, according to RANEPA’s March 2015 report on the Russian economy.

Quite naturally, this state of affairs has not improved the quality of the state’s financial decisions. In terms of effective state spending, Russia ranked nineteenth in a new rating of twenty-five countries, compiled by the Higher School of Economics using data from the World Bank and OECD. Since they are not priorities for the current regime, problems with child mortality and life expectancy were among the reasons Russia ranked so low in the survey: the government spends more on the army than on healthcare—4.3% of GDP versus 3.8% of GDP, respectively. In these circumstances, the chances the Kremlin’s strategic projects in the Middle East and Africa (e.g., the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique) will be decently funded are always much greater than the national healthcare project, which stipulated increased government spending on cancer treatment. The government nixed the plan over summer.

Since it remains largely Soviet in spirit, Russia’s foreign policy has been categorically blind to history’s lessons. The Soviet Union’s exorbitant geopolitical ambitions and support for fringe regimes around the world left the country with a legacy of mostly toxic multi-billion-dollar debts. The process of writing them off has been disguised as a form of international charity or, speaking diplomatically, official development assistance (ODA). According to RANEPA, writing off the debts of developing countries accounted for 35% of all such “international aid” last year or $425 million. It has been the Russian government’s usual way of doing business. Previously, the Russian government wrote off the debts of Nicaragua ($6.3 billion), Iraq ($21.5 billion), North Korea ($10.9 billion), Syria ($9.8 billion), Afghanistan ($11 billion), and Cuba ($29 billion), among other countries. Venezuela risks joining this sad list. Over the past twelve years, Russia has invested a total of $17 billion in the country.

Russia’s Expenditures on Official Development Assistance (Excluding Humanitarian Aid), 2005–2017, in Millions of Dollars. Sources: OECD, Russian Finance Ministry. Courtesy of Republic

Since it was paid for by the Russian federal budget, which has been running a deficit for the last seven years, Russian officials probably did not see the transatlantic flight of its strategic bombers as too expensive. On the contrary, they saw it as a flashy display of Russia’s military prowess and proof of its influence in the region. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro signed off on the stunt. Subject to growing pressure from creditors and an angry, desperate population, it lives day by day. In all likelihood, it will soon collapse, leaving behind a mountain of unpaid bills and unfulfilled obligations to its allies. If this is the case, can we evaluate the Russian government’s action better than the tactless Mike Pompeo did? Probably not.

Translated by the Russian Reader

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

RUS-2016-Aerial-SPB-Field_of_Mars
The Field of Mars is in the center of Petersburg, but it is conveniently isolated from well-populated residential neighborhoods and high streets. Unless they are extremely well attended, most political rallies held on the famous former parade grounds and revolutioanry mass burial site go unnoticed by the vast majority of Petersburgers. Photo courtesy of Andrew Shiva and Wikipedia

Up the River: The Smolny Will Expand List of Venues for Political Rallies
Mikhail Shevchuk
Delovoi Peterburg
December 4, 2018

As soon as he took up his duties as acting governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov announced plans to amend the law on political rallies.

“We need to make changes and introduce order, so there were will be no violations on either side,” he said at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in October.

The Smolny has now drafted amendments to the law. The principle of “Hyde Parks,” that is, of specially designated places where Petersburgers can vent their indignation without prior notification of the authorites, remains in force. However, the Smolny has proposed establishing a minimum number of such places, eight in all.

The current law on political rallies does not specify the number of venues. City hall publishes the list of political rally sites in an ordinance. Originally, in 2012, the Field of Mars (or, rather, a small part of it) was designated the city’s “Hyde Park.” Two years later, four more venues were added: Udelny Park, Polyustrovsky Park, Yuzhno-Primorsky Park, and 30th Anniversary of October Gardens. The Field of Mars was struck from the list last year.

uppYuzhno-Primorsky Park is located in the far southwest of Petersburg. It is four kilometers from the nearest subway station, and three kilometers from the nearest suburban railroad station. Map courtesy of Yandex

Theoretically, it is possible to organize demonstrations in other places, but city hall usually refuses to sanction the rallies under various pretexts, suggesting to organizers they use one of the designated “Hyde Parks.” As a matter of principle, however, the opposition avoids the “Hyde Parks,” which are all situated in the city’s outskirts. Instead, they prefer to assemble at such traditional sites for political rallies as Lenin Square, Pioneer Square and, sometimes, even Palace Square, although they risk fines and forcible dispersal by police.

The maximum number of people who can attend a political rally held without prior notification of the authorities would range from 200 to 500 people under the amended law. As under the old law, State Duma MPs, members of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and members of the city’s municipal district councils would be able to hold meetings with constituents on the streets.

Officials would now calculate how many people can attend a political rally at a particular venue according to the norm of one person per square meter. Lenin Square and Pioneer Square would thus be able to accommodate rallies attended by as many as 10,000 people. Organizers would also be obliged to inform officials of canceled rallies under the threat of a fine of 5,000 rubles for individuals and 100,000 rubles for legal entities.

“It’s not the number of sites that matters,” said Andrei Pivovarov, leader of the local office of Open Russia. “And no one has ever been fined for going over the maximum number of attendees. One venue would be enough for us, but as long as it is in downtown Petersburg. If the venues are going to be in the outskirts, city hall could give us a dozen such places, but we would try to protest downtown anyway.”

However, Pivovarov said that if the new list included the Field of Mars, Lenin Square, and Pioneer Square, the opposition would be quite satisfied and make use of these venues.

St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Maxim Reznik also named the two squares. He said the number of people attending a rally and the convenience of Petersburgers were more important than a particular place. The opposition was always ready for dialogue, he said. However, if the regime made a point of tightening the screws, dissenters, Reznik said, would choose the paddy wagon, that is, they would choose to attend an unauthorized rally rather than cancel it.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Andrei Kolesnikov: Hooked on Militarism?

new hope“New Hope. All drug addicts quit using. Some manage to do it while alive.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Where Militaristic Infantilism Leads
Society’s Losing Its Fear of War Is More Dangerous Than What Happens in the Absence of an Anti-War Movement
Andrei Kolesnikov
Vedomosti
November 28, 2018

The “polite people” in the Russian military have taken to ramming ships, shedding their politesse. A military coming out has happened. Either so-called hybrid war has become more hybridized in terms of the variety of its methods or it has become more like good old-fashioned war, involving actual armed clashes. Politically, Russia has become not merely toxic but hypertoxic. A premonition of war prevails among more timid folks, although the footage of the ramming at sea, as painless and triumphal as a military parade on Red Square or a football match (“Crush him!”), still make military operations appear unscary and toylike. We will carry the day in any case, sans victims and blood (ours, that is), as in a cartoon by Putin.

This militaristic infantilism—the loss of the fear of war, the loss of the idea that war is terrible—is the worst outcome of our country’s daily intoxication with the thought of its own greatness for several years running. The army is greatly respected nowadays. People need to trust someone, and the armed forces have bypassed another institution, the presidency, in trustworthiness ratings.

Does this mean Russians are ready for a real war? To put it more plainly, are Russian parents willing to let their eighteen-year-old boys be called up to fight Ukrainian boys just like them? Does anyone understand what they would be fighting for? Is it really all about cementing the nation, “Crimea is ours!” and the personal ambitions of several high-ranking figures in the Russian establishment?

Since 2012, Russia’s collective identity has been built on negative foundations, on awakened resentment, which had been dozing, but had no thought of waking up. The plan has worked quite well. This resentment, however, is verbal and fictitous. Public opinion supported “coal miners” and “tractor drivers” verbally. In Syria, the official army and private military companies fought, or so Russians imagined, at their own risk. The proxy war with the US has gone very far at times, but in the summer of 2018 it did not stop the majority of Russians from abruptly improving their attitude [sic] to the States and the west in general.

But suddenly there is the threat of a real war. On the other side of the border, in the country [i.e., Ukraine] that the Russian imperialist mind never really considered sovereign, a mobilization is underway and martial law has been declared. Is this reality capable of changing popular opinion and rousing Russian civil society, which has a lot going for it except an anti-war movement? No, because so far the war has not been regarded as real.

Identification with the military is the last bullet in the Russian regime’s gun, but it is a blank or, rather, a prop. Exploiting what Russians regard as sacred—i.e., privatization of the memory of the Great Patriotic War [WWII] by a particular group—is a tool that is still in play, but militarism as such has lost its power to mobilize and consolidate Russians. If “German POWs” are marched around Novgorod on January 20, 2019, in an absurd attempt to reenact the NKVD’s Operation Grand Waltz, and on January 29, a military parade is held in St. Petersburg to mark the latest anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, it will not raise Putin’s approval rating from 66% to 80%. Those days are gone. So, the props have been dropped in favor of direct action in the Kerch Strait, but its power to mobilize people is not at all obvious.

You can cynically throw the ashes of those who perished in the Siege of Leningrad to stoke the furnace of fading ratings as much as you want. You can march people dressed up as German POWs round Novgorod as much as you like. When, however, pollsters ask Russians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four what countries they regard as role models, they list Germany, China, and the US. This is not because young Russians are unpatriotic, but because not everything comes to down to the top brass feeding on the poisonous corpse of the Stalinist past. The present day, progress, and visions for the future matter, too.

Can we do it again? We cannot. Nor is there any reason to do it. Infantilized by the regime, Russian society’s maturation will be measured by the numbers of people who are convinced that we cannot and should not do it again.

Andrei Kolesnikov is program director at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Die in Battle and Go to Valhalla”

DSCN3949Russian public opinion? Photo by the Russian Reader

I don’t trust Russian public opinion polls, but the Putin regime, which rigs elections and otherwise tries to every manifestation of public life it does not astroturf itself, has increasingly relied on such wildly dubious methods to monitor the success of its propaganda machine, especially, television, in shaping hearts and minds. So, it must have noticed that a few of the elections it rigged did not go as planned this past autumn, and that Putin’s spurious approval ratings have dropped.

The regime’s response? Ram a few Ukrainian boats in the Kerch Strait to whip up patriotic fervor. It worked in 2014, so maybe it will work again in 2018.

Since there is pointedly no Russian anti-war movement to mobilize public opinion and actual people against any military aggression by the Kremlin, it is hard to say how the Kremlin will fare in the polls after the Kerch gambit. Maybe Putin’s wholly ersatz popularity will nominally shoot up a few dozen points as “Russians” “express” “their” “outrage” over Kyiv’s nonexistent military agression. Maybe, unaccountably, TV viewers will suddenly see through the nonstop war dance that has undoubtedly erupted on all Russian news channels and drop Putin’s rating another few points.

What definitely won’t happen is that millions of Russians will take to the streets to demand the resignation of a would-be president for life whose reign has been marked by military aggression and “patriotic” manipulation of public sentiment since day one.

There were one or two largish protests in Moscow against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the very start of that glorious campaign, and that was that. There has never been even a middling protest against Putin’s decisive use of military force against innocent Syrians opposed to the butcher Assad. And on an issue that should have been a cakewalk for the opposition, the so-called pension reform (i.e., raising the retirement age precipitously to save money for military spending), the vast majority of Russians decided to get upset, if they did get upset, in the comfort of their homes, watching the FIFA World Cup on TV, rather than bravinngthe balmy weather that prevailed all over Russia this past summer and showing the government how angry they were.

But popular demonstrations are never just a matter of public sentiment. They are also a matter of political organization. And while nearly all opposition forces in Russia did at least make the attempt to get people into the streets this past summer to oppose the pension reform, they would never risk whatever political capital they had to call for anti-war marches and protest rallies.

Maybe they would be surprised by the turnout if they did call for such protests and put their hearts and souls into organizing them, but that is not going to happen for the simple reason that the unacknowledged, apparently invisible bull in the china shop—Russian imperialism—informs the Russian liberal and leftist “anti-Putinist” views of the world as much it does Putin’s view of the world. {TRR}

Blood on the Tracks

nachinkin-3.jpgPetersburg activist Dmitry Nachinkin after he was assaulted by thugs. Photo courtesy of Activatica.org

Activist Who Sought Audit of Budget Beaten in Petersburg Suburb
Activatica.org
November 19, 2018

Persons unknown have assaulted and severely beaten activist Dmitry Nachinkin in the village of Pesochny in Petersburg’s Resort District.

Nachinkin closely monitored public procurements by the local council, often questioning their legality. In particular, his interest was provoked by the question of why most contracts were awarded to the same company.

The day before the assault, Nachinkin had been collecting signatures on a petition calling for mandatory public hearings on Pesochny’s budget.

The assault took place at six in the evening on November 18 in the activist’s yard. The assailants beat Nachinkin over the head with rebars, and then punctured the tires on his car. Despite his serious injuries, Nachinkin managed to get to a police station, where he was given first aid before being sent to hospital.

Nachinkin sent his own photos of the aftermath, writing, “Thanks, friends! It’s not as bad as it looks. My eyes and teeth were unharmed. Only my maxillary arch was fractured.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for the heads-up.

Crimea and Gays Be Damned (For the Record)

DSCN3271

This morning, I came across a flat-out lie (or an honest mistake), penned by a professor at one of the most august universities in the United States. But you would only know it was a lie or a mistake if you had been here in Petersburg to see what actually happened at Manifesta 10, and had some basic street smarts when it comes to the art scene and real grassroots politics here.

This partly explains why, for example, there is virtually no anti-war movement in Russia: because too many people whose avowed politics should make them natural leaders and organizers of a Russian anti-war movement (i.e., a movement against Russian imperialist military aggression, not a choir of angels hovering above all frays everywhere and quietly chiding “all parties to the conflict” on social media) have been more concerned to make the right impression on the right people in the big white world.

This is not to mention that virtually no one in the so-called Russian leftist art/activist community, especially in Petersburg, made even so much as a peep when the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and, later, the State Duma passed the infamous homophobic laws , which are still safely and shamefully on the books in Russia.

I really don’t understand how, thirty or forty years from now, scholars and merely curious people will be able to get to the bottom of anything that happened in our time with so much abject propaganda camouflaged as journalism and “research” lying around everywhere.

“After the annexation of Crimea and the passing of a number of restrictive laws in Russia (not least the banning of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda’), it seemed macabre to many that the avowedly progressive European Biennale should take place in the State Hermitage museum as planned. The collective Chto Delat?, who were slated to participate in the biennale, wrote an open letter to star curator Kasper König, demanding that Manifesta 10 issue a public statement against the recent action of the Russian government. When their calls went unmet (aside from prompting critique of direct politicization in contemporary art) Chto Delat? and a number of Russian and Polish artists withdrew from the show.”

No Russian artists withdrew from the show whatsoever. That is a fact. Some local artists loudly withdrew from one part of Manifesta only to pop up quite prominently in another part of Manifesta. These same people mocked any “Polish artists” (?) who might have actually withdrawn from the show. They definitely attacked anyone outside Russia who called for an international boycott of the show. For literally all the Petersburg artists and curators involved, the show absolutely had to go on, Crimea and gays be damned. {TRR}

Photo by the Russian Reader