Marrying the Mob

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On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

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Umida Akhmedova: “I Cannot Abide Being Told What to Do”

Photographer Umida Akhmedova: “I Cannot Abide Being Told What to Do”
Geliya Pevzner
RFI
May 20, 2016

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Umida Akhmedova, Tashkent: Inner Courtyard of the Kukeldash Madras, early 2000s

On May 5, 2016, it was announced that photographer and filmmaker Umida Akhmedova had been awarded the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. In 2009, Akhmedova published the photo album Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk and shot the documentary film The Burden of Virginity. She was subsequently charged and convicted of defaming and insulting the Uzbek people. Akhmedova answered RFI’s questions before the awards ceremony on May 25 in Oslo. 

Umida Akhmedova: To be honest, [the prize] was quite a surprise to me. Such people have received it: Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, and Iranian artist Atena Farghadani. But the press release says that I teach young people a lesson with my documentary photographs. In part, I agree with this. I do not consider myself a hero, but I have never yielded to the state’s machinations. I shoot what I see. I do not reflect on who will like it and who won’t. No, I shoot what is there. I have never once thought it was heroism.

Nevertheless, you were criminally prosecuted.

Yes, of course, and I have not yet been exonerated. Some people still shy away from me as a convicted offender. Six years ago, we appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan, but since then we have not heard a peep from them. They have not responded to our appeal. I was charged with “defaming and insulting the Uzbek people” by publishing the photo album Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk and releasing the film The Burden of Virginity, which was produced as part of a program on gender sponsored by the Swiss Embassy.

How exactly did you slander the Uzbek people?

My lawyer also asked the question. No one responded, because only the president can decide what slander is. No one, in fact, has any intention of responding. Who personally filed a complaint against me? After all, the law says that if I have slandered you, you go and tell the court I have slandered you. But there was no such complaint. I don’t know how they cooked this up, but nor they did deign to prove anything.

Let’s return to the prize. Was it awarded to you for this album or for your whole body of work?

You know, it was not even for the album or that film. They said it was for my creative and civic stance. Because after everything that happened, I did not going into hiding. I have continued to do my art, and I have been active on the social networks. I was convicted yet again for the protest action “Uzbek Maidan,” as they exaggeratedly dubbed it. We did not expect it would be an Uzbek Maidan when we took a petition to the Ukrainian Embassy in January 2014. Yes, we were sympathetic to the Maidan, and our sympathy boiled down to the fact that the eight of us had our picture taken next to a monument to Taras Shevchenko. We were detained and tried a few days later. True, it was an administrative hearing. Maybe I got the prize for this as well, for having a civic stance. It is what it is. How can you not have a civic stance? How can you call yourself a photographer or documentary filmmaker if you don’t have a civic stance? I don’t understand this.

What are you working on now?

My husband Oleg Karpov and I continue to make films. Actually, the film Burden of Virginity was our film, because he is a director, and the ideas in the film belong to both of us. We recently made a film entitled Samarkand, and now I have a photo project called SNAP, which stands for “means of visual agitation and propaganda” (sredstva nagliadnoi agitatsii i propagandy), which was a subject in Soviet times when I was a student. It is written on every corner in our country that Uzbekistan is a country with a great future, that Uzbekistan is my pride: communist slogans like this, but updated for today’s needs. Meaning that the ideas for visual agitation and propaganda still have their source in the old life. I had myself photographed in front of these banners. You don’t have to look hard to find them. If you drive around Tashkent for half an hour you can take dozens of such photographs. “Shine bright, my native Uzbekistan,” “Independent Uzbekistan has a great future”: every year they come up with some slogan or other about our great country. It comes from the Soviet era. They haven’t invented anything new.

You will be awarded the prize on May 25. Are you working on a speech?

I will talk about the fact I am not a politician or a member of the opposition. I am not a member of a party, a sociologist or a political scientist. I am just a person who cannot abide being told what to do in her art. And I will also talk about fear. When it takes control of you, fear is a really nasty emotion.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) has also awarded the prize this year to Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky.

Translated by the Russian Reader

No Canaries in the Coal Mine: The Demise of RBC

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Vasily Gatov
Canary in a Coal Mine: RBC and the Public Interest in the Counterintelligence State
Carnegie Moscow Center
May 14, 2016

Authoritarian regimes have seemingly learned how not to stifle freedom of speech completely, using censorship or administrative strictures to send signals about the acceptability or unacceptability of criticism on specific topics. In the peculiar circumstances of the counterintelligence state, however, an interest in how the state functions can itself be regarded as dissent.  

Over the past few years, it has become popular among political scientists, analysts, and the military to dub any complicated and complex process “hybrid.” Complex military operations are now “hybrid wars,” electoral authoritarian countries, “hybrid regimes,” and mass media distributed on multiple platforms, “hybrid media organizations.”

The news for Friday, May 13, fully reflected the clash between different hybrids in the Russian public space. The dismissal of the top editors at RBC, a hybrid mass media organization that had become the main public affairs outlet under a hybrid regime engaged in a hybrid war with the western world, was a practical manifestation of the strange realm that has taken shape in our country and a continuation of its logical evolution or degradation.

Common Sense as a Measurement
RBC’s top editors, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Roman Badanin, and Maxim Solyus, who left the company “by mutual agreement,” had done the impossible in the space of two years. Along with the team they assembled, they turned an important, major media outlet with serious image problems into an exemplar of high-quality, ethically motivated, high-impact journalism.

Moreover, writers and editors with different views peacefully coexisted at RBC. I never once heard the term “liberal terrorism,” which conservatives and patriots love to mention, applied to RBC. High-quality editorial work means just this: maintaining high standards in news production while fulfilling one’s mission to the community by supporting investigative reporting and representing a spectrum of opinions through individualized public affairs, op-ed journalism and personalized, presenter-driven TV programs.

It is difficult to maintain academic objectivity when the latest round of “personnel changes” has put an end to yet another media outlet that was faithful to its professional mission. It is difficult but necessary: the emotional or partisan mode of reacting inevitably exaggerates the weight of momentary, politically motivated explanations of events. Yes, the easiest way of interpreting the firing of RBC’s editors (and, apparently, the exodus of its editorial staff) is as the consequence of their having published articles and investigative reports that directly violated Putin’s strictures on the privacy of his family life. However, this explanation, even if the editors themselves proudly accept it, is neither exhaustive nor sufficient for understanding the full complexity of hybridity.

Over the past sixteen years, journalists and their workplaces, media outlets, have been the key enemy of the system of political power emerging in Russia: not only “opposition” and “liberal” journalists but basically all journalists who approached their work with at least a minimum of regard for professional and ethical standards. Media organizations are the only segment of business (and politics) towards which the Putin administration has applied, with varying intensity, a scorched earth policy from day one to the present day.

Since the days when Walter Lippman wrote his treatise Public Opinion, the bible of ethical journalism, we know that the basis of the journalist’s profession is serving the public interest through the opportunities provided to journalists by the specific status accorded to them by law. In all societies, except totalitarian dictatorships, the public interest is always diverse and multifaceted. Some people need confirmation that the course set by their leaders is the right one. Others find it vital to take a critical, analytical approach to current policy. Still others want the salacious details and shabbiness that enables them to affirm their overall contempt for the authorities. And this is not the full range of interests. The public interest and the work of media to satisfy it are, in a way, a means of measuring reality against common sense. It is this simple principle that explains the presence of freedom of speech and self-expression among the basic civil and political rights.

The greater the discrepancies between political and economic reality and common sense, the more critically and meticulously journalists and the media should treat such aberrations. This is a means of subjecting societies (true, only democratic societies) to self-reflection and self-cleansing. (I have in mind the term “self-questioning,” which is hard to translate into Russian). Although, in recent decades, even authoritarian regimes have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors not to stifle free speech entirely. The growing criticality of the media has become a signal to them that they need to correct, mitigate or change policy; it has been a kind of canary in a coal mine. In turn, as Haifeng Huang, a professor at University of California, Merced, has argued in his paper “Propaganda as Signaling,” authoritarian regimes make vigorous use of censorship or administrative strictures (such as firing editors) as a tool to signal society about the acceptability or unacceptability of criticism on certain topics.

It is now utterly clear the Russian regime that took shape between 1999 and 2015 has no need of any “canaries.” Vladimir Putin, who, ironically, was speaking at the anniversary of VGTRK (All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company) literally when the news of the firing of RBC’s editors was reported, expressed his basic expectations for the media. He spoke of the media’s role of “communicating our […] work” several times. Moreover, the current Russian state has nothing to signal anymore. It really is tired of the fact that journalists have the desire to explore and investigate something other than the alleged treason of opposition figures.

Independence Is Worse than Opposition
The fate of RBC (as well as all the other onshore Russian media that have attempted to have an editorial policy independent of the need to “communicate our work”) was preordained not in 2011, when Vladimir Putin, concerned about the weakness of his handpicked successor, decided to return to the presidency, nor even in 2002, when the Law on Media, which until then had been preserved in its original 1991 redaction, was opened up for amendments on direct orders from the president.

The expulsion of dissent in any shape and size from the public mind was preordained when Vladimir Putin was appointed head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) [in 1998] and the restoration of Andropov’s counterintelligence state was launched. The difference is that dissent, in this concept of the state, does not consist in criticizing the regime’s political practices, as Soviet dissidents did. Dissent now consists in the selfsame public interest in why and how the state functions, as described above. Dissent now consists in shaping an interest in the personal lives and personal businesses of state officials, including those of the head of state.

Robert Pringle, a professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the CIA’s principal specialists on the late Soviet Union, described this model in two significant articles (Robert W. Pringle, “Andropov’s Counterintelligence State,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 13.2 (2000): 193–203; Robert W. Pringle, “Putin: The New Andropov?” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 14.4 (2001): 545–558). Andropov was himself an ascetic and an opponent of corruption, but he consistently and quite harshly took on anyone who had the courage to focus on the late Soviet regime’s corruption and moral decay.

Yuri Andropov’s construction of the counterintelligence state between 1967 and 1984 was dictated by the need for total control over all “mass information processes.” The KGB’s Fifth Directorate saw no difference between a single copy of a seditious text and an attempt to mimeograph a dubious work. Both were regarded as unambiguous challenges to the CPSU’s monopoly on power. Perhaps what lay at the heart of the counterintelligence state was the animal fear experienced by Andropov in Budapest in 1956, when the future KGB chief and Soviet leader watched from the Soviet Embassy as the Rákosi regime collapsed.

Reinforced by the Arab Spring, “orange revolutions” took the place of Budapest 1956 in Putin’s worldview, while dissidents were replaced by journalists, who did not swear allegiance to the regime and did not take its money. (The Fifth Directorate saw the former as voluntary assistants, and the latter as paid agents, who could always be blackmailed by producing signed receipts for their “fees.”). Even the political opposition, whose size and and impact, except for the brief period from 2011 to 2012, the Kremlin has always understood and monitored, has not been such an unambiguous, despised target as independent, mission-driven journalism.

The mystical “Revision Number Six” (2000) describes journalists and the media as equal, if not greater, enemies of a regime that would turn Putin into the permanent and irremovable “leader of the country, thus enabling a long-term policy for consolidating and strengthening the state.” Among the possible secret areas of operations to be pursued by the Russian Presidential Administration, “Revision Number Six” lists not only gathering information on all journalists who cover Russian domestic and foreign policy but also subjecting them and the media to direct and indirect pressure, including forcing bankruptcies, generating organizational difficulties, and issuing threats to owners unable to control the editorial process.

Step by step, consistently and steadily, the Putin administration has squashed all more or less large-circulation, mass-audience media, not even because they were in opposition to it, but because they were independent of the Kremlin’s direct and indirect guidance on what could and could not be brought up for public discussion. Alternatives remain, of course, from Vedomosti to Slon, from TV Rain to Meduza. But looking back at yesterday, literally and figuratively, we can say with certainty that journalism, as an organized process based on editorial independence and a sense of public mission, is politically doomed in today’s Russia.

The regime’s hybridity is rapidly short-circuiting, a process described by Hannah Arendt.

“Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices—and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.”*

Until yesterday, RBC’s editorials boldly and recklessly challenged (at least, outwardly) this circle of silence and emptiness around common sense. RBC’s investigative reports, analytical articles, and expert publications were the quintessence of common sense, not acts of information warfare or the intrusion of a “flu-stricken nose” into healthy public space. They manifested the quixotic desire to be the agent of public, civic interest in how the state is organized, and why and where it must change.

It is really pointless for the counterintelligence state to fight suspicion and thievery, official lawlessness and the use of power for personal gain, not because it does not want to improve, but because when someone points out where things must be improved, the counterintelligence state regards it as an act of aggression, as something more dangerous than current shortcomings.

Vasily Gatov is a Visiting Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of TænketankenThanks to Comrade MT for the heads-up

* Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland & New York: Meridian Books, 1962), page 352