Terry Burke: Russiagate, Syria, and the Left

dezaOnce again, years of experience and research have been poured into an article challenging entrenched narratives on the anglophone institutional left, and once again, fear of retaliation from the purveyors of these entrenched narratives has made this challenge unpalatable even to left and liberal publishers with an obvious interest in countering them.

So, once again, the Antidote Writers Collective is pleased to participate in a decentralized effort to bring this challenge out into the open.

The following was initially published on CounterVortex with the understanding that the website’s publisher would be backed up by cross-posts from sympathetic websites in order to reduce the authoritarian left’s ability to target one vulnerable person with their classic arsenal of trolling, threats, abuse, and lawsuits.

Comrade of the zine Terry Burke has been a dedicated peace activist her entire life and has already heard the worst of it even from former comrades who have unthinkingly taken on Putinist narratives and allowed themselves to be played against the emergence of effective opposition to rising fascism in the United States. We salute her years of persistence and are proud to have her back. Enjoy.
Antidote Zine

Russiagate, Syria, and the Left
Terry Burke
CounterVortex
June 27, 2019

The last major national protest in the US was “Families Belong Together” in June 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country demonstrated against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and families at the border. People who had never protested before brought their families. It’s now a year later and the situation for immigrant families has only gotten worse. Where is the outrage?

Plans for an ICE raid targeting millions of immigrants. Initiating a military strike on Iran and then canceling it. Environmental policies that disregard climate change. Pulling the US out of treaties. Rising alt-right and nationalism around the world. Ignoring congressional subpoenas. Corrupt, incompetent people heading every federal agency. The list of destructive Trump policies seems endless.

Trump’s recent visit to London brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets. Where are the protests in the US? Where are the coalitions in the US organizing against Trump’s anti-democratic, inhumane policies? Where is the left?

Part of the problem is the enormous amount of disinformation that has been specifically directed at the left, disinformation that most people don’t recognize. The disinfo uses anti-imperialist language and is posted on “left” and “progressive” sites that usually have nominally accurate stories on Palestine, Israel, climate change, corporate corruption, and other progressive issues. In addition to the disinfo media sites, respected left authors have confused their readers by dismissing Russiagate as a hoax, claiming that Russian interference in the US elections has been greatly exaggerated to provide the Democrats an excuse for Clinton’s loss.

Eight years of steady disinformation on Syria have created a split in the peace movement. The enormous amount of time and energy spent debating Syria could have gone to building the peace movement instead of dividing it. The doubts raised repeatedly about Russian interference and Mueller’s investigation have weakened the opposition to Trump. Some people don’t know which news sources they can trust. Others restrict themselves only to sources that support their ideological line.

Steve Bannon famously said, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” That is exactly what has happened. There are thousands of new and unaccountable media organizations on the internet.

As Syria solidarity activists, we have been struggling against extensive, sophisticated disinformation regarding Syria for years—and it’s largely not from the US mainstream media. Syria is not Iraq, where the New York Times helped Bush lead us into war with fake information about WMDs. Syria is not Kuwait, where there were false stories planted about babies in incubators.

The mainstream media articles “demonizing” Assad are fundamentally true: his regime is one of the world’s most repressive, with a police and prison torture system of historic proportions. Unlike Iraq and Iran, and contrary to the propaganda claims, the CIA did not instigate a serious covert regime change operation in Syria. The US efforts in Syria are well documented in Shane Bauer’s recent two-part article for Mother Jones. He writes, “American involvement in Syria has been as fragmented and volatile as the conflict itself.” In this groundbreaking article, he documents how the US has spent billions, initially aiding the Free Syrian Army, but ultimately focused on combating ISIS, forbidding US-backed groups from fighting Assad’s forces.

His article corroborates the stories of anti-Assad Syrians of a genuine uprising against a brutal dictator evolving into a proxy war; of Assad bombing and starving civilians. The Syrian people were caught up in the fervor of the Arab Spring and surprised themselves (and the CIA) by going to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, demonstrating for democracy, overcoming their deep fears of reprisal.

However, most of the peace movement still doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian people’s eight-year struggle against the Assad dictatorship. There have been so many articles in “progressive” media promoting Assad’s narrative of another US regime change effort that they have buried the voices of Syrians.

The voices of Syrian communists, anarchists, democracy activists, writers, artists, intellectuals, and nonviolence activists have rarely been represented in “progressive” media. The majority of these media’s articles on Syria have been written by non-Syrians and they usually promote Assad’s line that he is protecting his sovereign country from US-backed terrorists.

Research from the University of Washington has shown how dominant the pro-Assad political messaging is from an “echo system” of sites that follow Russian, Iranian, and Syrian government-funded media. Researchers examined Twitter conversations about the White Helmets (a Syrian volunteer rescue group) in the summer of 2017. There were four times as many tweets from the echo system as there were from other media sources. Articles from the echo system claimed the White Helmets were a “propaganda construct,” “crisis actors” who staged events, and “they worked with or were themselves terrorists.”

The UW study noted that this echo system of sites claiming to be “independent” and “alternative” shared the same stories and writers. A few of these sites are Global ResearchRTMint Press NewsSputnik NewsFree Thought ProjectThe Anti-Media21st Century WireVeterans TodayZero Hedge, and many others.

For Syria activists, the UW research wasn’t a surprise. It confirmed our experiences over the last six years, that our struggle to get the truth out was up against a substantial, coordinated disinformation effort. We were familiar with this “echo-system” well before the UW study. While they claim to be “independent,” their political line was almost always the same on Syria, Crimea, Putin, and Trump. They played a role in electing Trump by bashing Clinton, equating Clinton and Trump, going easy on Trump, and disparaging voting.

While the sites claim to be funded by their readers and ads, they actually have very few ads and do not disclose information on their funding sources. In 2013, a former writer at Mint Press News, Joey LeMay, told BuzzFeed News, “It was incredibly secretive.” The article goes on to say there were “barely any ads on the website, and whenever LeMay asked about where they got their money, ‘it was brushed off as a non-issue. I would go home feeling not squeaky clean,’ he said.”

The sites in this echo system have all also posted numerous Russiagate articles. It’s understandable that progressives would question how extensive and effective Russian propaganda was in the 2016 elections. The mainstream media hasn’t examined Russian propaganda that targets the left. The UW research has not been mentioned in mainstream or progressive media. But it’s not an either/or proposition: we can criticize Clinton’s campaign and still acknowledge that Russian interference helped Trump win in an election where Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin.

The claim that a few Facebook ads bought with Russian rubles could have influenced the 2016 election may have seemed preposterous back in 2016. However, since then, there have been numerous exposés of Russia’s sophisticated use of social media and information warfare—something we had thought was mainly the province of our CIA.

While Russian disinformation is a new concern for Americans, not so for Europeans. In June 2017 the Washington Post reported that “across the [European] continent, counterintelligence officials, legislators, researchers, and journalists have devoted years—in some cases, decades—to the development of ways to counter Russian disinformation, hacking and trolling.” There have been numerous articles on how Swedenthe Baltic statesFinlandGermany, France, Italy, and others are dealing with Russian cyber attempts to influence elections and sway popular opinion.

When well-known left writers like Glenn GreenwaldMatt TaibbiKatrina vanden HeuvelNorman Solomon, and Max Blumenthal immediately denounced the evidence of Russian interference back in 2016, it had a silencing effect. After that, few well-known left writers pursued the serious possibility of effective Russian involvement. In the two and a half years since Trump’s election, there have continued to be new articles and research on Russian bots, trolls, Twitter campaigns, fake accounts, and continued Russian interference in the EU, but the Russiagate authors have ignored this information. Dark Money author Jane Mayer has also written on how Russia helped elect Trump.

After the release of the highly biased Barr summary which seemed to vindicate them, Chris HedgesGlenn GreenwaldStephen CohenMatt TaibbiAaron MatePaul Street in Counterpunch, and Katie Halper from FAIR castigated the US press for its extensive coverage of the Russia/Trump allegations.

However, they wrote nothing revising their Russiagate-is-a-hoax position after the subsequent release of the redacted Mueller report in April and Mueller’s public statement in May. The Mueller report explicitly documents extensive Russian interference in the 2016 elections, but they have refused to acknowledge this.

Greenwald wrote on April 18 that “the actions in which Trump engaged were simply not enough for Mueller to conclude that he was guilty of criminal obstruction.” After Mueller clearly stated on May 29 that he would not exonerate the president for obstruction of justice, Greenwald wrote a series of articles on Brazil and wrote nothing to correct his earlier misstatements about obstruction.

It is critical to understand that the Russiagate narrative is Trump’s narrative. By insisting for over two years that Russian interference was overblown, these authors have been defending the worst president in US history.

The UW-identified echo system of “alternative” media sites has also had numerous articles promoting Russiagate skepticism and Barr’s disingenuous summary of the Mueller Report. Global ResearchMint Press NewsFree Thought ProjectThe Anti-MediaZero Hedge21st Century WireActivist Post, and others have also continued to argue for the Russiagate conspiracy thesis, despite Mueller’s statement and all the information on Russian cyberwarfare.

Even Fox News occasionally departs from supporting Trump’s position on Russian interference, as summed up in a May 2019 Newsweek headline: “Fox News Legal Analyst Says Mueller Evidence Against Trump ‘Remarkably Similar’ to Nixon, Clinton Impeachment Charges.” But the left’s Russiagate skeptics have not conceded anything. Stephen Cohen recently wrote that Russiagate “is the worst and […] the most fraudulent political scandal in American history.”

The echo system and the Russiagate authors have published very little criticism of Putin’s Russia. They have many articles criticizing the US mainstream media, the corporate ownership of US media, “censorship” by Facebook and YouTube, but nothing on the new law in Russia whereby people can be jailed for fifteen days for “disrespecting” the Russian government online. An open internet in the US means there are thousands of sites with articles criticizing the US, but even one site with critical articles in Russia could result in fines and jail time. The difference is dramatic, and there have been no articles from the Russiagate skeptics on this oppressive law.

It’s rarely mentioned that Hedges has had a weekly show on RT (formerly Russia Today) since June 2016, which is funded by the Russian government. He’s scathing in his criticism of the US, but it’s hard to find his criticisms of Russia. After the Barr summary, he chastised the US press for “one of the most shameful periods in modern American journalism” and somehow never mentions the Russian restrictions on “disrespecting” the Russian government online.

Rania Khalek is also paid by the Russian government. Her site In the Now is one of three that were recently exposed as being owned by RT. Facebook briefly took them down until a small mention of RT’s involvement was placed on the page – a mention most people will never notice.

It is difficult to determine the motivation of the Russiagate writers and the echo system. Kate Starbird at the University of Washington writes about the echo system that “[their] efforts […] consist of diverse individuals and organizations who are driven by a variety of different motivations (including political, financial, and ideological).”

There is a certain amount of hyperbole to the Russiagate articles. The investigation is blamed for “Manufacturing War with Russia,” for “Endangering American Security,” for “Media Malpractice,” for being “This Generation’s WMD,” for “Target[ing] Any Dissent in US,” and so forth. When examining these authors’ lists of articles, one would prefer they had spent as much analysis on the dangers of a Trump presidency as they have spent on promoting their Russiagate thesis.

Stephen Cohen talks about the origins of the allegation that Trump was an agent of the Kremlin. Was it “begun somewhere high up in America by people who didn’t want a pro-détente president?” He suggests that “this originated with Brennan and the CIA.” It is all speculation, with no corroborating evidence.

For a starkly different perspective, consult authoritarianism scholars Sarah Kendzior or Timothy Snyder’s interviews, writings, and videos for detailed documentation of Trump’s dealings with Russia. They have been warning for the last three years about the dangers of the US sliding into autocracy under Trump. They have researched Trump’s ties to Russia in the decades before the 2016 elections and have tried to warn us about what is coming.

Contrast Cohen’s speculation with Snyder’s detailed factual information. Snyder is a Yale historian who wrote The Road to Unfreedom about Russia’s return to an authoritarian government under Putin and the rise of nationalism in Europe and America. He has put together a series of videos to explain what is happening here and internationally. In a concise Twitter thread, he documents fifty very specific reasons (with citations) why Trump owes a debt to Putin. He discusses the people in Trump’s campaign and in the Trump administration: “It is astounding how many of them are more directly connected to the Russian Federation than to the US.”

Kendzior lived in Uzbekistan during its transition from democracy to autocratic rule. When she started covering the Trump campaign in 2016, it reminded her of what she’d seen from the regime in Uzbekistan. Her website and podcast Gaslit Nation, which she presents together with journalist Andrea Chalupa, is an unparalleled source of information about Trump and his Russian connections and crimes. Kendzior and Chalupa advocate impeachment hearings so that the rest of the country can learn about these crimes.

Snyder and Kendzior have no doubts about the Trump-Russia collusion. There are other independent authors and researchers who are documenting and exposing what’s happening. Even without the Mueller report, there is an enormous amount of public information about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin, Russian interference, and the loss of our democracy.

When Syria solidarity activists first read the November 2016 Washington Post article about Russian propaganda influencing the 2016 elections, we were relieved. Finally, the Russian propaganda we had struggled against for years was being exposed! We assumed the propaganda on Syria would also be exposed. We thought the propaganda sites on the internet would be discredited.

We didn’t anticipate that prominent left writers would immediately denounce the Russian propaganda story as the “new McCarthyism” and Russiagate and that they would still be defending this narrative two and a half years later, in the face of so much evidence.

We didn’t understand how difficult it would be for the techies at Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to discern propaganda from the truth and how clumsy they would be in taking down sites, usually with almost no explanation, and occasionally taking down legitimate sites at the same time.

From our viewpoint as Syria solidarity activists, we are still in the same position now as we were in November 2016. Disinformation still dominates the internet. Syrian and Russian planes have been bombing civilians in Idlib for the last month, initially bombing twenty-five hospitals. While Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International have condemned the strikes on hospitals, sounding the alarm, there is no international pressure on Russia and Syria to end them. The echo system of media sites is distracting the left with disinformation about Assad’s 2018 chemical attack on civilians in Douma being supposedly “staged” by the rebels.

The persistent Russiagate articles from prominent left writers have many progressives feeling unsure what to believe. It has put us in the strange position of claiming that a former FBI director is more trustworthy than Chris Hedges or Stephen Cohen. But there is much more information validating what Mueller has reported than there is for the Russiagate skeptics and Trump.

There is no easy solution to the problem of massive disinformation on the internet. Certainly, we should be listening to the voices of progressive Syrians, Venezuelans, Palestinians, Ukrainians, Sudanese, not media pages that follow Putin’s line. Information about who is funding web pages would be one step towards transparency. Independent university research labs could evaluate the accuracy of media sites.

Another voice we should be listening to now is the authoritarianism scholar based in St. Louis. Sarah Kendzior says the Trump administration is a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government and he should be impeached. It’s time for us to be in the streets.

Terry Burke is an activist with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) in Minneapolis. Thanks to Comrade Ed Sutton and Antidote Zine for the heads-up. The article has been edited slightly to meet this website’s unwritten standards. Photograph by the Russian Reader, December 15, 2018, Ligovsky Prospect, Petersburg. In Russian slang, the word deza means “disinformation.”

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Sparta F.C.

Russian football hooligans attacking an opponet in Marseille. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru
Russian football hooligans attacking an opponent in Marseille. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru

Come on I will show you how I will change
When you give me something to slaughter
Shepherd boy (Hey!)
Everybody sing (Hey!)
Better act quick (Hey!)

Be my toy
Come on have a bet
We live on blood
We are Sparta F.C.

The Russian National Football Hooligans Squad: The Russia They Represent in Marseille
Sergei Medvedev
Forbes.ru
June 14, 2016

Russia has fought yet another small victorious war. On the eve of the national squad’s first match in Euro 2015, a couple dozen Russian fans routed the numerically superior forces of the English fans in the Old Port of Marseille. A day later, right after the match, they went berserk in the English sector at the stadium, beating up everyone in their path, including spectators with families and elderly people. The results were distressing. At least thirty-five people were injured, and a fifty-year-old English fan who was crowbarred over the head is at death’s door. As punishment, UEFA has provisionally suspended the Russian team until the end of Euro 2016 (if the violations are repeated, we will be completely disqualified from the championship) and fined the Russian Football Union 150,000 euros, including for the racist behavior of the Russian sector during the match against England. On June 14, French police detained fifty people from the Russian Union of Supporters, led by the notorious Alexander Shprygin (aka Kamancha) and held them for twenty-four hours. Russian fans made the top world news headlines (isn’t it what they wanted?), and Russia’s chances of losing the right to host the 2018 World Cup have seriously increased.

This shameful episode perhaps should not deserve such attention. Football hooliganism has long ago turned into a sanctuary of violence and a near equivalent of world war. Fans of all countries fight and run rampant, and massacres happen too, like the tragedy at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, which left thirty-nine people dead and led to all English clubs being banned from UEFA competitions for five years. And Marseille well remembers the English fans during the 1998 World Cup, who staged a donnybrook with fans from Tunisia and smashed up half the town.

But the difference lies elsewhere. While in England, supporters are unanimously condemned by society and politicians in the wake of such scandals, over the last few days the football hooligans have figured almost as national heroes in Russia. Dmitry Yegorov, a reporter for Soviet Sport, live tweeted the carnage, commenting it like a football match and admiring the organization and physical training of the Russians. Social media have been buzzing with approval for the supporter, who smacked the spineless English upside the head and stood up for Russia like the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae. A blog by sports journalist Andrei Malosolov entitled “Why the Victory of Russian Supporters in the Port of Marseille Is Cool!” has been especially popular.

What is even more curious, the Russian hooligans have enjoyed the backing of high-ranking officials. Russian Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin commented on the reaction of the Marseille authorities on Twitter, calling the Russian fans “well-trained fighters.”

“A normal man, as he should be, surprises them,” he wrote. “They’re used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades.”

LDPR State Duma deputy Igor Lebedev (whose aides include Shprygin aka Kamancha), a member of the Russian Football Union’s executive committee, wrote, “I don’t see anything terrible about fans fighting. On the contrary, our guys were great. Keep it up!”

“If [Russian sports minister Vitaly] Mutko had been with the fans in the stands, he would have fought too,” Lebedev suggested later, in an interview.

Here we have to acknowledge one unpleasant thing. The fans in Marseille supply a honest picture of official policy and conventional wisdom in post-Crimea Russia.

They are waging the same hybrid so popular in our propaganda, infiltrating well-trained fighters, skilled in hand-to-hand combat and disguised as “holidaymakers,” into France, using force selectively and purposefully, attacking in unexpected places. The web is now full of rumors the hooligans were really Russian military intelligence (GRU) special ops units, who had infiltrated the championship to intimidate Europeans, so pumped-up, organized, and sober did the Russian hooligans appear in the numerous videos, but we shall leave this hypothesis to fans of conspiracy theories. As I imagine it, a joint detachment of so-called ultras from different “firms” of fans, fighters experienced in street brawling, converged in Marseille, attacking beer-bellied English “Kuzmiches,” i.e., simple fans who had come not fight, but to cheer and show off, some accompanied by their families.

One Russian fan admitted as much in an interview that our guys had come to fight.

“It doesn’t matter what cities our fans are from and what teams they support. What matters is that we are from Russia and are going to fight against the English. They have always said they are the main football hooligans. We are here to show that English fans are girls.”

Russian football hooligans displaying captured English flags. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru
Russian football hooligans displaying captured English flags. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru

So even if the Russian assault was not really a planned military operation, such rumors do not come out of nowhere. First, Russia is not a novice at “hybrid” interventions in social movements in Europe. It has organized rallies and agitprop campaigns, worked skillfully through the media to fuel anti-immigrant sentiments, cooperated with right-wing radical and neofascist movements, and supported scandalous populists and European separatists. Just as in Soviet times the Comintern engaged in subversion in western countries, Russia has been worming its way into the cracks and fissures of European society. It has been trying to weaken the west from within, explaining it in terms of a total “information war.” Alarmed Europeans see the Russian ultras in this light.

Second, football supporters really are one of the combat units of the regime, which has an irresistible attraction to various groups of mummers who try and make a show of strength, such as Cossacks, bikers, and football supporters. Members of these stern fraternities are invited to drink tea with high officials. They are identified as exemplars of patriotism. They are awarded civil society development grants. And when push comes to shove, they are sent out on so-called Russian Marches and sicked on opposition rallies and individual dissidents. However, the football hooligans are as alien to the football tradition as the Surgeon’s latex bikers, with their Orthodox banners and Saint George’s ribbons, are to the rebellion and freedom of Easy Rider, and the paunchy “Cossacks,” with their glued-on topknots and cardboard medals, specialists in fighting gays and theater productions, are to the honor and glory of Russian Cossacks. They are all fakes in the era of Putin and Pelevin. When “the public” is a total simulation, protest countercultures turn into vehicles for dull officialdom and perfunctory patriotism, into tamed grant recipients.

Finally, the Russian fans (at least the ones who are photographed by reporters) are the readymade products of official propaganda, reproducing on their clothes and bodies all the typical corny kitsch of the era of Crimea and “getting up off our knees”: t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “polite people” and “we don’t abandon our own,” budyonovkas and earflap caps twinkling with red stars, banners displaying toothy bears and Slavic Siegfrieds, kids in Armata tank t-shirts and, as the apotheosis of all this patriotic trash, a gigantic tricolor, covering half the Russian sector at the stadium, inscribed with the message “YOU’RE FUCKED.” Apparently, these people see this as the new Russia’s national idea.

This mayhem, however, kicked off long before Crimea. Russian fans have usually reserved the most boorish displays of great-power chauvinism and racism for trips abroad. In the Czech Republic, Russian hockey fans unfurled banners emblazoned with tanks and the promise to reprise 1968. In downtown Warsaw in 2012, football supporters staged a march in honor of Russia Day, nearly provoking a battle royal with Polish ultras. Fueled by beer and egged on by propaganda, Russian resentment shows itself to the hilt in the stands at football and hockey matches, taking symbolic revenge for the Soviet empire. Yeah, we forfeited a great power and never have learned how to play football, but we can smash chairs and smack Europeans in the kisser, “kick the shit” (otbutskat) out of them, as Vladimir Putin once put it, invoking a football supporter coinage. Ultimately, wasn’t it Putin who shared a bit of popular wisdom drawn from a tough childhood in Petersburg’s courtyards, i.e., you have to hit first?

The fans in Marseille did just that, and in this sense they are worthy ambassadors of Putin’s Russia.

As MP Lebedev would have it, they should be greeted at the airport as heroes, just as the bikers have been greeted when they return from their patriotic motorcycle rallies. They should be secretly awarded state honors, as the “polite people” were in their time for bringing Crimea back into the fold. And they should be elected to seats in the Public Chamber and State Duma. Football hooliganism is a matter of national importance in hybrid Russia.

The term “football hooliganism” (okolofutbol) quite precisely reflects the essence of events. Despite the adult budgets of its premier league teams and national squad, despite the purchase of international stars (a typical strategy of superficial modernization), Russia has remained an average performer in the world rankings, both in terms of its own national championship and the performances of its national team. Before the start of the Euro 2016, our country was ranked twenty-ninth in FIFA’s world ratings. But, at the same time, a fan movement based on the British model has very quickly and naturally put down roots in Russia. Books by Dougie Brimson, who has written authoritatively on England’s football fan culture, have achieved cult status among Russian supporters. Without becoming a world football power, Russia has succeeded brilliantly in hybrid football hooliganism, spewing its entrenched and publicly recognized culture of violence onto the international arena.

But Russia has been engaged in the same hybrid “football hooliganism” in Ukraine, where it has not been waging an open war, but delegating well-trained groups of fighters, and in Syria, where it arrived with its own agenda and has been bombing targets for reasons known only to it, and in Europe, where it has banked on populism, separatism, and breaking up the European Union.

Football hooliganism substitutes fair play, real work, and the painstaking cultivation of institutions with violent action and demonstrative bullying. This is not the first year the entire Russian state has been playing at football hooliganism. The hooligans in Marseille are merely its away side.

Sergei Medvedev is a journalist, historian, and faculty member at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader

__________

General Bastrykin Teaches a Lesson in Democracy

This is the mouse, this is the cat.
This is the watch tower, this is the camp.
And this is Time that, on the sly,
Sentences Mom and Dad to die.

source

Participants of the national Miss Russia 2016 beauty pageant on the stage of the Barvikha Luxury Village concert hall. Courtesy of Sputnik/Iliya Pitalev
Participants of the national Miss Russia 2016 beauty pageant on the stage of the Barvikha Luxury Village concert hall. Courtesy of Sputnik/Iliya Pitalev

Greg Yudin
Facebook
April 18, 2018

I really like it when a big man in uniform speaks out with fanfare on perennial topics like the structure of society. You think it’s funny they all get Ph.D.s, but they really do consider themselves major theorists and are always willing to teach lessons in wisdom in their spare time. An entire genre has even emerged in Russian newspapers: lessons in political philosophy by generals.

For example, in today’s issue of Kommersant, General Bastrykin casually gives readers an unexpected lesson in democracy.

“For democracy or people power is nothing other than the power of the people itself, realized in its interests. It is possible to achieve these interests only by means of the common good, and not through the absolute freedom and arbitrary will of individual members of society,” he writes.

It must be admitted that this is the pure, unadulterated truth. We might rejoice that democracy in Russia has found a new supporter.

Then, however, Bastrykin the democrat’s argument takes an unexpected turn. He proposes setting things up so that he, Bastrykin, would decide himself what information should be considered extremist, and would limit Internet access without a court order! In addition, he would also decide in which cases providers are obliged to provide him with the personal information of their clients.

There are lots of other tasty tidbits in his article, including innovative tactics for fighting terrorism by confiscating property, but that does not concern us here.

So somebody comes and says, Now I am going to decide who is an extremist and who can read what. You will also be informing me everyone’s personal information. If this is not “absolute freedom and the arbitrary will of an individual member of society,” then what else would you call it?

I am going to have to upset Mr. Bastrykin. Democracy is, in fact, people power. Therefore, the main objective of democratic governance has been and will be preventing the usurpation of power, not defending the people from the machinations of external foes, not hunting down traitors, not surveilling unreliables, but combating usurpers. And so democracy’s main enemy is the guy who comes out and says he is going to decide who the extremists are round here.

The problem with these scholarly generals is that the only form of social organization they are capable of conceiving is the prison camp. And so whether they write about democracy, traditional values or economic progress, the same speech in defense of the prison camp always comes out.

* * * * *

“It’s time to erect an effective barrier against the information war”
Alexander Bastrykin, chair of the Russian Federal Investigative Committee, on methods of combating extremism in Russia 
Kommersant
April 18, 2016

Chair of the Russian Federal Investigative Committee, general of justice of the Russian Federation, doctor of juridical sciences, Professor Alexander Bastrykin, special to Vlast magazine, on the ways and methods of combating extremism in Russia 

In  2015, the Russian Federation witnessed negative trends in criminal extremism and terrorism.

1,329 extremist crimes were recorded, which was 28.5% higher than in 2014 (1,034 crimes). A growth in this type of crime was noted in fifty-six regions of the Russian Federation.

The numbers of such crimes as public calls to extremist activity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 280) and inciting hatred or hostility, and humiliation of human dignity has soared by nearly forty percent in comparison with 2014.

The crime of organizing an extremist organization was recorded 42 times (+2,4%).

A significant increase (+36.3%) in terrorist crimes committed in the Russian Federation has been noted. A total of 1,538 such crimes was recorded in 2015 (as opposed to 1,128 in 2014).

Seventy such crimes were prevented at the stage of planning or during the attempt. 133 terrorist crimes were committed with the help of the Internet network.

A particularly difficult situation has been observed in the North Caucasus Federal District, which accounts for the bulk of terrorist crimes: 1,168 crimes or 75.9% of all such crimes (leading to an increase of 32.3%). (In 2014, 883 such crimes were committed.)

Both external (geopolitical) and domestic political factors have contributed to the growth of this type of crime.

Over the past decade, Russia and a number of other countries have been living through a so-called hybrid war, unleashed by the US and its allies. The war has been conducted on various fronts, political, economic, informational, and legal. In recent years, it has moved into a new phase of open confrontation.

Professor Bastrykin
Professor Bastrykin

The main elements of economic pressure have been commercial and financial sanctions, dumping wars on the hydrocarbons market, and currency wars. Skillfully manipulating the huge number of dollars in circulation, the States have brought down the national currencies of developing countries. Russian organizations have had their access to channels of external long-term financing blocked, channels that formed the basis of investment for developing the real (productive) sectors of the economy. It is noteworthy that restrictions on the movement of financing have not affected short-term financing, which currently has been widedly employed to exert speculative pressure on our national currency. In many respects, the outcome of these measures has been the deep devaluation of the ruble, falling real incomes, a decline in industrial production, and economic recession. There has been a budget deficit and ensuing consequences in the form of cuts in expenditures, as well as an increasing fiscal burden to raise revenues.

Unfortunately, international law and the justice based on it have increasingly become tools of this war.

Obvious examples are the decisions in the Yukos cases, the decision in the murder case of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, the report of the Security Council of Netherlands on the investigation into the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the FBI’s investigation of the legitimacy of awarding the right to hold the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, and the extradition of our citizens Victor Bout and Konstanin Yaroshenko to the US and their sentencing to long terms of imprisonment.

However, the information war has caused the most devastating effects. By supporting radical Islamists and other radical ideological tendencies, the US has completely destabilized the situation in the Middle East. The effects of artificially initiated coups, revolutions, and crises in this region are still being experienced by Europe, overrun by mobs of refugees who profess qualitatively alien sociocultural traditions and have displaced the local population. Islamic State, the Al-Nusra Front, Al Qaida, and other terrorist organizations involved in the armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic have also been an effect of this policy. Manpower for replenishing these organizations are recruited all over the world, including in Russia.

More than a thousand Russian citizens have gone to the Syrian Arab Republic to participate in the armed conflict. 469 criminal cases have been filed against these persons. 135 of them have been killed in armed clashes with Syrian government troops.

The main channels of entry for Russian citizens into areas of heightened terrorist activity have been Turkey and Egypt, where they travel both directly and through third countries (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova) under the pretext of holidaymaking, receiving theological education, doing business, etc.

The main technique of the information war is the manipulation of an ideology that a particular social group finds congenial by radicalizing it. It is clear that the system of religious, ethnocultural, and confessional values is the segment of social existence that defines the most significant feature of any nation (ethnic group) and other such social groups as self-identification. Many of these values were shaped,  preserved, and passed from generation to generation for centuries. Therefore, no nation is willing to give up its identity. Perhaps it is the only universal value it is willing to defend with arms and, as they say, until the last drop of blood is spilled.

Aware of the devastating effect of conflicts based on ethnic hatred, the US has bet on this informational element. At the current level of understanding of the issue, it is clear that the subversion of the Soviet Union’s ideological foundations, which were based on the principle of the brotherhood of nations, was also initiated from the outside and based on methods of ethnic strife. It was no accident that in the early 1990s numerous ethnic conflicts (Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia-Abkhazia, Ossetia-Ingushetia, Transnistria) broke almost simultaneously. At this time, the first mass rallies of nationalist-minded citizens took place in Kiev. In addition, the subversion of state power was carried out by means of anti-Soviet agitation and financing of the political opposition in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, and other countries.

Of course, in the minds of the local populace, those events were then regarded as local conflicts. However, it is now completely obvious that all these clashes were elements of the initial, as-yet-hidden phase of the information war.

Undoubtedly, the informational-ideological “weapon” will be deployed in the future. This is evidenced by the increase in US government spending on programs for the so-called development of democratic institutions in countries bordering on Russia and in the Central Asian states. The true meaning of these assets becomes clear from the name of this budget item, “Countering Russian aggression through public diplomacy and foreign aid programs, and the creation of stable government in Europe.”

About 4.3 billion dollars have been allocated under his item in 2017, and around a billion dollars will go to programs for the so-called fight against corruption and supporting democracy in countries neighboring Russia.

Funds already received under this program have been spent by by various non-governmental organizations under the guise of promoting education, developing civil society, and other seemingly useful purposes. The outcome has been the incitement of anti-Russian moods in neighboring countries, the shaping of the pro-American and pro-western so-called non-systemic opposition in Russia, and the spread of inter-confessional and political extremism within our country.

Recent events in Nagorno-Karabakh witness to the repeated attempts of forces opposed to Russia to undermine the peace between the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples and establish yet another hotbed of war on Russian’s borders.

It seems it is time to erect an effective barrier against this information war. We need a tough, appropriate, and balanced response. This is especially relevant in light of the upcoming elections and the possible risks presented by the stepping up of efforts by destabilizing political forces. Enough of playing at pseudo-democracy and following pseudo-liberal values. For democracy or people power is nothing other than the power of the people itself, realized in its interests. It is possible to achieve these interests only by means of the common good, and not through the absolute freedom and arbitrary will of individual members of society.

The following measures can be proposed to counter extremism.

It is extremely important to establish a concept of state ideological policy. Its basic element could be a national idea that would genuinely unite Russia’s unified multinational people. The concept could stipulate specific long-term and medium-term measures, aimed at the ideological education of our younger generation. Conscious resistance to radical religious and other ideologies could knock out the foundations on which current extremist ideologies are constructed. With this protection in place, even the most generous outside financing of destabilizing the situation in Russia will prove useless.

It is also important that youth are regarded by terrorist groups as a natural reserve. From this it follows that everything must be done to seize the initiative, to include young people at risk in the development and implementation of programs for countering armed extremism.

It seems appropriate for the supervisory and regulatory authorities to organize a wide-ranging and detailed verification of the compliance with federal legislation of all religious, ethnocultural, and youth organizations, suspected of engaging in banned extremist activity.

Using the know-how of the Northern Caucasus, we should organize specific and narrowly targeted preventive work with members of informal youth associations in order to adopt measures aimed at procuring information about negative processes underway in the youth milieu and identifying the ideologues and leaders of radical organizations who involved young people in extremist activity.

The positive know-how of the Republic of Ingushetia is also worthy of support. They have established a military-patriotic club that unites the children of law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty and children of neutralized members of the bandit underground, which facilitates their rapprochement and shapes an atmosphere of mutual understanding among them.

The proposed concept sees it as expedient to define the limits of censoring the global Internet network in Russia, since at present this problem is causing a heated debate in the light of the stepping up of efforts by advocates of the right to the free receipt and dissemination of information. Interesting in this sense is the know-how of foreign states, opposing the US and its allies. Due to unprecedented pressure from information, they have taken steps to restrict foreign media in order to protect the national information space. Thus, for example, on March 10, 2016, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology  introduced a ban on electronic media fully or partly owned by foreign residents. These media will no longer be able to disseminate information through the Internet and, in the best case, by means of print publications. Chinese media will cooperate with foreign online media only with the permission of the ministry. Only Chinese nationals will be able to work in the management of national media. Online media servers can be located only in the People’s Republic of China.

It seems this know-how could be employed in Russia to a reasonable extent.

Internet providers must be furnished with a integrated set of rules for storing the personal information of their clients and users in the right amount in the event that such information is required when investigating cyber security violations.

In public places (libraries, schools, and other educational institutions) with access to the World Wide Web, filters restricting access to sites containing extremist content should be established.

In addition, it seems appropriate to stipulate an extrajudicial (administrative) procedure for including information in the federal list of extremist content and blocking the domain names of sites that disseminate extremist and radical nationalist information. However, if the proprietors of this information do not consider it extremist, they can appeal the relevant actions of the authorized government agencies in court and prove their innocence there. This procedure will enable a faster and more effective response to the promotion of extremism on the Internet. It is necessary to step up work on introducing modern technology for the effective monitoring of the radio waves and the Internet.

It is necessary to expand the range of criminal law measures to stop the illegal actions of terrorist organizations committed on the Internet network involving recruiting. To this end, we should consider the criminalization of possessing such materials, collecting them or uploading them from a computer. Modern evidence technologies make it possible to present to the court and confirm technical elements of intercourse on social networks that testify to the connections between the accused and the relevant electronic messages.

To expose the real aims and intentions of Islamic extremists and establish the insolvency of their theoretical approaches, which contradict the realities of the modern world and the fundamental interests of Islamic countries, it would seem useful for the State Duma to regularly hold special hearings involving experts from the Federal Security Service (FSB), eminent Islamic scholars and authorities, and scholars of Islam. The hearings should be widely covered in the press.

Particular attention should be paid to the migration process. Migrants are often targets of espionage recruiting and radicalization. Many of them have overstayed their limit in Russia, dropping out of the sight of law enforcement. We must analyze the regulatory acts governing the presence of foreign nationals and persons without citizenship in the Russian Federation. Based on our analysis, we should take additional measures for improving the legislation.

It is necessary to improve the work of precinct police with foreign nationals in the realm of monitoring compliance with the established rules of residence in Russia (monitoring of persons letting and renting residential premises in the precinct, and obtaining information about the nature of these persons’ employment). The internal affairs departments of agencies should exclude possible corruption here. Full use of the public’s assistance should be made.

Certain features of extremist activity have taken shape in the Crimea Federal District, where attempts have been made to mold anti-Russian moods, by means of falsifying historical facts and distorting the interpretation of modern events, and call into question the outcome of the referendum on Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation. This act of the legal expression of the Crimean population’s popular will has become an integral part of Russian constitutionalism. Considering the place of this act in the hierarchal system of values of Russian state and society, it is certainly in need of special legal protection, including by means of criminal legal coercion.

It should be noted that criminalizing the denial or falsification of historical events of particular importance to a state and society is a widespread practice. For example, in many countries, including Russia, criminal punishment is stipulated for promoting fascism. France and a number of other countries have introduced criminal liability for denying the Armenian genocide. The State Duma of the Russian Federal Assembly is considering a similar law bill, No. 938567-6 (“On Criminalization of Public Denial of the Genocide of the Armenian People in Western Armenia and Ottoman Turkey in 1915-1922”). In Israel, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust.

In view of the above, it seems necessary to supplement the notion of extremist activity (extremism) contained in the federal law “On Countering Extremist Activity” with such a manifestation as denial of the outcome of a national referendum. It is necessary to decisively counteract the deliberate falsification of the history of our state. In this connection, we might also propose that Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 280 (public calls for extremist activity) include an additional stipulation, which would qualify the falsification of historical facts and events as a call for extremist activity.

In addition to countering the ideological component of the information war being waged against Russia, it is important to step up efforts to combat financial support for this activity, including tightening control over cross-border capital flows. As experience has shown, terrorism is often financed by virtual cryptocurrency, which has no central issuer, no single point of transactional control, and features anonymous payments. In addition, as a result of their wide dissemination, these currencies can displace legal money from the market, which threatens the state’s financial stability. It is therefore suggested that criminal liability be introduced for the illegal issuance and circulation of cryptocurrency and other money substitutes.

We should also review social security legislation concerning the close relatives of persons involved in terrorism, entitlement to survivor’s pensions, and other benefits. A person who is going to commit such crimes should know that in the event of death not only will he be buried in an unmarked grave but he will also deprive his loved ones of support from the state.

Another measure that would contribute to the effective fight against extremism, terrorism, and other dangerous criminal manifestations is confiscation of property as a form of criminal punishment. As we know, the relevant legislative proposals have been prepared and are in need of speedy legislative implementation. Unfortunately, this process has been unduly delayed.

No less important is improvement of the legal mechanism of international cooperation among law enforcement and other state bodies empowered to counter terrorism and extremism.

Russian law regulates only the procedure for submitting an international request for legal assistance, whereas international acts in this field stipulate the possibility of closer integration, including the establishment of international investigative teams. Such cooperation would help in cases where Russian investigative authorities need to perform a number of investigative procedures or even perform a preliminary investigation in a foreign country and that country has agreed to provide such assistance. This gap became apparent during investigation of the armed conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008 and the terrorist act committed on board the Russian Airbus 321 over the Sinai Peninsula.

Translated by the Island of Misfit Toys. Thanks to Greg Yudin for his courage.

This Is Your Brain on Russia

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“I had always thought better of you.” Graffiti on Vasilyevsky Island, Petersburg, July 24, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

More people need to listen to Peter Pomerantsev:

The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. Take Novorossiya, the name Vladimir Putin has given to the huge wedge of southeastern Ukraine he might, or might not, consider annexing. The term is plucked from tsarist history, when it represented a different geographical space. Nobody who lives in that part of the world today ever thought of themselves as living in Novorossiya and bearing allegiance to it—at least until several months ago. Now, Novorossiya is being imagined into being: Russian media are showing maps of its ‘geography,’ while Kremlin-backed politicians are writing its ‘history’ into school textbooks. There’s a flag and even a news agency (in English and Russian). There are several Twitterfeeds. It’s like something out of a Borges story—except for the very real casualties of the war conducted in its name.

[…]

“If previous authoritarian regimes were three parts violence and one part propaganda,” argues Igor Yakovenko, a professor of journalism at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, “this one is virtually all propaganda and relatively little violence. Putin only needs to make a few arrests—and then amplify the message through his total control of television.”

[…]

Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies. But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible. We are left with the sense that we don’t know what Putin will do next—that he’s unpredictable and thus dangerous. We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.

Peter Pomerantsev, “Russia and the Menace of Unreality: How Vladimir Putin is Revolutionizing Information Warfare,” The Atlantic, September 9, 2014

__________

Here is a tiny illustration of how reality really is up for grabs in the Kremlin’s increasingly hot “cold civil war” against Russian society and, now, the rest of the world:

As I stand in the courtyard of a Moscow arts and craft center, a dark-haired, 20-something woman turns to me and asks: “Is this the venue for the ‘Is Vladimir Putin God?’ lecture?”

She smiles nervously, seemingly worried that I’ll think she’s crazy.

She’s not. The title of the lecture is actually “Will Putin Become God by Divine Grace?” but I decide not to correct her. Instead, I nod and show her the way to one of the oddest events in the Russian capital this year.

The lecture took place on Sunday and was first advertised by well-known radical Russian Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. In the post, Enteo promised to reveal the answers to the following questions:

“Is it possible to bow down to Vladimir Putin as God on earth?

“Will Vladimir Putin’s will fuse with the will of God?”

“Will Vladimir Putin receive endless pleasure through the completeness of the knowledge gifted to him by God?”

Not surprisingly, the lecture stirred up controversy online, as some Internet users accused Enteo of blasphemy, while others suggested he’d lost his mind.

“Let’s get this straight, Dmitry,” one VK user wrote. “Do you believe Putin will sit at the right-hand side of God’s throne when he dies?”

“Possibly,” replied Enteo.

The lecture kicks off with a hip-hop track by an African rap duo now based in Russia. The title: “I Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin.” When the song ends, Enteo fiddles with his laptop until Putin’s face appears on the screen behind him.

The Orthodox activist then addresses the audience of roughly 80 or so Muscovites, an apparent mixture of curious hipsters and true believers. (There’s also a middle-aged man in a suit that a fellow journalist immediately suspects of being an agent of the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency.)

“I’ll keep it brief, in the style of the subject of today’s lecture,” Enteo says.

At times his voice is barely audible, but when he quotes Putin, he makes sure to speak louder.

The hipsters behind me erupt in ironic applause. Enteo presses a button on his laptop, and the photo of Putin is replaced by swirling psychedelic images and low-volume break-beats. He proceeds to read a poem by Vladislav Surkov, the mysterious Kremlin ideologue. The overall effect is an atmosphere reminiscent of a secret cult meeting held at a nightclub.

Enteo then takes us through the history of Putin’s apparent transformation from hard-nosed KGB officer to Orthodox Christian believer. “Putin realized that his goal in life was God, and the Almighty entered into the body of Vladimir Putin,” Enteo says. “Then Vladimir Putin began to do good deeds, like break up opposition meetings.”

At one point, the activist curiously declares: “We disappoint Vladimir Putin. While he tearfully prays for us at night, we smoke hashish.”

The lecture lasts about an hour, before Enteo builds on a final riff in which he determines that, yes, Putin will transform into a godlike being, and like all good Orthodox believers, eventually grow a beard.

After a brief Q&A, the crowd files out. “That was creepy,” says one attendee.

Others seem puzzled by the whole affair.

“It’s a response, in many ways an ironic one, to Putin’s de facto domination of everything from the economy to the media,” says Anna Arutunyan, author of The Putin Mystique, who attended the lecture.

“Most of it, of course, is just Enteo publicizing himself, but some of it is also taking what we see around us to its grotesque logical conclusion.”

Russians have a long history of venerating their leaders, from the reverence of the czars to the terrifying cult of personality that developed around Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. While Enteo didn’t directly say that Putin was God, he felt comfortable posing the question, which shows just how powerful the Russian president has become.

Not everyone, of course, sees the hand of God in Putin’s politics. In Ukraine, where a Kremlin-backed separatist movement is slowly tearing the ex-Soviet state apart, the country’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Filaret, recently suggested the Russian leader was possessed by the devil.

“Like Judas, Satan has entered into him,” Filaret declared, as he accused Putin of turning the two Slavic countries against each other. “Like the first brother-killer, Cain, he has fallen under a demonic influence.”

Regardless of which side you take in the “Putin: God or Satan?” debate, it’s a remarkable development in the life of this former, low-ranking KGB operative. From serving the officially atheist Soviet state in Cold War-era East Germany to being compared to God and the devil, it’s been a long, strange road for Vladimir Putin. And it’s not over yet.

—Marc Bennet, “Do Some Russians Think Vladimir Putin Is God?” Vocativ, September 8, 2014

__________

Dmitry Enteo, a Russian Orthodox activist known for his controversial and sometimes violent public stunts, will hold a lecture and roundtable Sunday in Moscow about President Vladimir Putin and his connection to God.

“You will understand the secret of secrets, after which your life will never be the same. You will receive direct answers to questions that face Russia today,” reads an advertisement for the event posted on the VKontakte social networking website.

One of the questions due to be addressed in the lecture is whether Putin will become God “by grace.”

As of Tuesday evening, 1,429 people had signed up for the event, according to the website.

Enteo is head of the God’s Will movement, which has earned notoriety for its public campaigns targeting what it sees as blasphemy against the Russian Orthodox Church.

In November, Enteo and a female accomplice disrupted a performance of a contemporary play based on Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” at the prestigious Chekhov Moscow Art Theater. In an outburst that many audience members believed was part of the performance, they shouted that the play “mocks our faith” and admonished the audience for not protesting.

Enteo’s group has also previously assaulted LGBT activists and Pussy Riot supporters. They have never been charged by law enforcement agencies.

—”Radical Russian Activist to Lecture on Whether Vladimir Putin Will Become God,” The Moscow Times, September 2, 2014